Last Wednesday I attended the first of three lectures on Bronson Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA, presented by Helen Batchelder, a local scholar.
Fruitlands in the dark
I have never been to Fruitlands before in the dark and it was disconcerting to see the lights over the mountains, reminding me it was 2017 and not 1843. Gazing down the road however, I could not make out the red farmhouse in the dark and for a moment, I could feel the intense loneliness and isolation of living there. The Fruitlands experiment was, if anything, high drama for two families and it was to impact them for the rest of their lives. To get a sense of the tragedy of Fruitlands, I highly suggest reading John Matteson’s account in Eden’s Outcasts.
from Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott
The deal was brokered by Marsha Malinowski Fine Books & Manuscripts of New York City.
Some of the 500+ pages of material includes chapters from Eight Cousins and Under the Lilacs.
Malinowski stressed that this is the largest and most important body of manuscript material in the hand of Alcott that has been offered for sale. They are working manuscripts with edits from which the type was set and the books printed. Continue reading →
As the birthdays of two of my favorite people dawns today, I can’t help but think how deliciously ironic it is that I am finally finishing Eden’s Outcasts, the Pulitzer prize-winning book on the life of Louisa May Alcott and her father Amos Bronson Alcott by John Matteson.
and yet I never finished the book until now. I just couldn’t. I loved the book so much I didn’t want it to end. I find that reading this compelling story of two such talented, creative, intelligent, and difficult people orders my mind and fills my heart. It is told with such elegance along with touches of humor and irony. Among other things, it explores the spiritual aspect of the Alcotts which was so important to them. Continue reading →
By the 1870s, Louisa May Alcott and her baby sister May had become close companions. Although quite different in temperament, both shared that burning ambition to become the artists they were meant to be – Louisa as a best-selling author, and May as an acclaimed painter, exhibiting at the Paris Salon.
Unearthing a treasure
In the 1970s Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert discovered an untitled manuscript of 138 pages at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Titling it Diana and Persis, the book was published in 1978. There are a couple of cryptic mentions, first in Louisa’s journal, dated December of 1878:
“ … begin work on an art novel, with May’s romance for its thread.” (pg. 211, The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy; Madeleine B. Stern, associate editor).
And in May’s journal, dated January 28, 1879:
“Louisa is at the Bellevue writing her Art story in which some of my adventures will appear.” (pg. 7, Diana and Persis, edited by Sarah Elbert).
The 1930s was an interesting time in Alcott scholarship. The year 1932 marked the one hundredth year of Louisa’s birth. 1938 not only marked the 50th anniversary of Louisa and Bronson’s death but also the 70th anniversary of the publication of Little Women. Thus in 1937, two important biographies were released – Odell Shepherd’s Pedlar’s Progress on Bronson Alcott (see previous post) and Katharine Anthony’s Louisa May Alcott.
Reception of the biography
Anthony’s book was not well received. Although deemed substantive and scholarly by reviewer Frederic L. Carpenter (writing for the New England Quarterly in December of 1938), he roundly criticized her need to psychoanalyze Alcott, calling the results “unfortunate” and “ridiculous.”
That, however, was 1938. More modern biographies by Martha Saxton in 1977 and Madelon Bedell in 1980 conduct their own psychoanalysis which makes for fascinating and often, uncomfortable, reading. This was true as well with Anthony’s book.
And yet, Anthony’s book reads like a novel. It was one of the first adult books I read on Louisa (after Martha Saxton and Madeleine Stern). Knowing so much more now after years of research, Anthony’s take on Louisa affirmed much of what I had suspected and raised new controversies. I will focus on two of those controversies for this post.
A threesome at Fruitlands
The first involves the relationship between Abba, Bronson and Charles Lane. Those of us knowledgeable of Fruitlands are aware of the complexity of the relationship between these three. Madelon Bedell has suggested a possible homosexual relationship between Bronson and Charles Lane. Other biographers think perhaps Lane was attracted to Abba despite the fact that he urged Bronson to be celibate. There is no doubt that Abba had many issues with Lane during the utopian experiment. In noting Charles Lane’s curious return to the Alcott family two years after Fruitlands, Anthony describes the difficulties Louisa experienced from this odd arrangement:
“For Louisa, who wished to see everything through her mother’s eyes, this reinstatement of the dragon was devastating. Her letters and diaries of that summer show how piteously distracted was her state of mind. If her mother, having once demolished the beast, had turned the sword in his body, all would’ve been plain sailing. But she saw now that the relation between the three grown-ups was a more complicated situation than she had any idea of and it gave her the feeling of a nerve-racking dilemma. She wrestled precociously with her mother’s contradictory character, and the struggle made her sometimes despondent and sometimes reckless. The departure of Mr. Lane brought her providential relief.” (Louisa May Alcott, pg. 54)
Carpenter in his review called this section of the book “unpleasantly ambiguous,” wondering if Anthony was suggesting some kind of secret liaison between Lane and Abba since Bronson left for New York during his stay.
Going after Abba Alcott
For me, it was the beginning of a quiet vendetta against Abba Alcott by Katharine Anthony. With regards to the family’s need to move to Boston due to financial need, Anthony writes,
“A perverse vision had come to Mrs. Alcott while still in Concord. Both of her older daughters were earning wages. Anna was teaching away from home, and Louisa had begun to teach also, having opened a school in the barn. By a reversal of the usual process between parents and children, the girls set an example for their middle-aged mother. Mrs. Alcott, having steadily refused to see the necessity for working prior to her marriage when the necessity for it had been most apparent, now at once saw it very clearly. Just when her family needed her attention most, she decided to go forth and become a wage earner. Their finances had not become any worse, because Anna and Louisa had begun to bring a little money into the home. But Mrs. Alcott’s heroism drove her just at that point to take her spectacular plunge into a life of wage earning.” (Ibid, pg. 74)
Very different take
Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)
Was Anthony’s criticism of Abba influenced by the time the author lived in? Women’s roles were still pretty much confined to the home in the 1930’s. Despite the fact that Anthony was a professor at Wellesley College along with being an accomplished author and scholar, she appeared to judge Abba by rather conventional standards. I am not aware of any other biographer taking the point of view that Abba did not need to go to work in Boston. Anthony insinuates on the next page that Abba’s efforts were not all that successful, citing no records of the reports she wrote on her work that were said to be excellent (such records now exist at the Houghton Library). She discounts the value of Abba’s intelligence office, writing that “The only domestic service job that Mrs. Alcott secured, as afar as we know, is the one she turned over to her daughter Louisa …” (Ibid, pg. 75)
Anthony’s various insights throughout Louisa May Alcott are interesting to say the least and they don’t just apply to Louisa. Anthony provides meaningful sketches of each member of the family (and in my opinion, she is one of the few to give Lizzie her due). Her analysis of Louisa is not oppressive or overbearing such as is the case with Martha Saxton (although I believe Saxton’s book has value) because she does not dwell on the amount of detail that Saxton reveals. The point, however, still gets across.
Much has been made of Louisa’s health after her service as a nurse in the Civil War. After surviving both typhoid pneumonia and the mercury poisoning from being dosed with calomel, Alcott suffered from a wide variety of physical disorders including pains in her legs, headaches, digestive disorders, vertigo, the loss of her voice, etc. Historians and medical doctors Bert Hirschhorn and Ian Greaves suggested Lupus, an immune disorder, possibly triggered by the mercury poisoning (see Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)..
Louisa kept careful track in her journals of her health problems and often blamed “nerves” and overwork for her difficulties. Considering the heavy load that she carried in being head of the family and the breadwinner, it is not surprising. In the waning years of her life, she became obsessed with her health as she could find no relief.
Katharine Anthony offers her suggestion for Louisa’s health problems: shell-shock. Citing the Great War and the mental and nervous disorders in the veterans, she surmises that Civil War veterans would have also suffered similar trauma. “It was some form of shock to which Louisa May Alcott succumbed as a hospital nurse in 1862,” she writes (Ibid, pg. 252). Such an injury to the nervous system could afflict the victim for the rest of her life. Anthony also believes Alcott was predisposed to such a condition given her high strung nature.
Lulu Nieriker, from alcott.net
There is no doubt that Louisa lamented repeatedly in her journal regarding the onslaught of her life and writing (aka, overwork) on her nerves. Between sudden fame for a woman who did not feel worthy, the untimely deaths of John Pratt and May Alcott, the care of May’s daughter and their aging father, and the self-inflicted pressure to continue writing (and earning), it is no wonder Louisa May Alcott had health issues.
Louisa’s last days were painful, difficult and sad as despair overtook her. The final pages of Louisa May Alcott describe those days with a haunting eloquence as Anthony marvels at Alcott’s ability to continue churning out cheerful and meaningful stories for the young even to her dying day.
“It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if one only knows how to look at them.” (from “Marjorie’s Three Gifts,” 1877)
Welcome to the second episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
During the next thirty six minutes I will give you an overview of the recent Summer Conversational Series, “‘Finding Beauty in the Humblest Things’ — Louisa May Alcott’s Literary Vision” which took place July 10-14 at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. You’ll get to hear from many of the speakers and hear a summary of their presentations. Here on the show notes I have links to my notes so that you can get all the details
And now, on with the show!
Cathlin Davis, PhD
“Bringing Beauty to the World: Youthful Reformers in Louisa May Alcott’s Juvenile Fiction”
Dr. Cathlin Davis
Dr. Davis, Full Professor in the College of Education at California State University-Stanislaus, has been presenting for over ten years at the Summer Conversational Series. She likely has the largest collection of books by Louisa May Alcott (many first editions) and is the go-to person for information and analysis of Alcott’s juvenile works.
On Monday she demonstrated how Alcott brought beauty to the world through her children’s stories. She covered three commonly used themes through a series of stories:
Kindness to animals (“Nelly’s Hospital,” “Old Major,” “Baa! Baa!,”)
Kindness to each other, rich and poor (“May Flowers,” “Roses and Forget-Me-Nots,”)
Sharing Christmas joy (“How It All Happened,” “The Little Red Purse” and “Kate’s Choice.”)
Dr. Davis introduced her session by reading portions of a children’s picture book by another author, Barbara Cooney called Miss Rumphius which demonstrates the theme beautifully. You can watch it here on YouTube:
All stories are available through Google Books or Project Gutenberg.
“Extraordinary Beauty in an Ordinary World: May Alcott and Women’s Painting during the 19th Century”
Elise Hooper is a teacher of history and the author of The Other Alcott, a novel about May Alcott Nieriker, due for publication in the Fall of 2017.
Hooper traced the life of May Alcott Nieriker, citing the influence of her parents. Although May lacked a thorough formal education, her home encouraged creativity, enthusiasm and beauty, all of which drove her in her ambition to become a professional artist.
Hooper explained the need for May to seek her training in Europe as America was in its infancy with regards to art. With the exception of a few prominent teachers (among them Dr. William Rimmer and Stephen Salisbury Tuckerman, both of whom instructed May), there was no support for a professional career in art for women. Because of strong Victorian norms, it was impossible for women to receive the necessary anatomical training as that necessitated the use of nude models, male and female.
Still, Boston was more progressive in the arts than most cities and May was able to take full advantage. Once she reached Europe through the help of her famous sister Louisa, May threw herself into studies. Hooper discussed May’s success as a Turner copyist and two-time exhibitor at the Paris Salon.
Anne-Laure François “A Lesson in the True Necessities and Means of Life: Louisa’s Children as Wise Seers of the Sublime in Everyday Life”
Dr. François is an assistant professor at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense working in both the English and Law Departments. Her doctoral dissertation offered the first detailed study in French of Louisa May Alcott’s fiction, examining Alcott’s strategy of re-writing Transcendentalism and adapting its philosophical principles to the demands of the fast-growing American literary market in the second half of the 19th Century. As an educator, she helped create an alternative high school in the South of France — a project notably based on Alcott’s “Plumfield,” the school utopia that paid homage to her father’s groundbreaking educational ideas and work.
Dr. François chose to examine a little-known short story written by Alcott in 1857 called “The Cross on the Old Church Tower.” She believes that this story foretold the type of writing that would propel Alcott to great success. It is also important to note that “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” was written during Lizzie’s last illness.
Faustian themes, a favorite of Alcott, is featured in this story and found in later works such as A Modern Mephistopheles. One of the main characters, Walter, represents Faust while the other, Jamie, is his savior through his simple and virtuous life. Walter eventually becomes a writer of love stories through Jamie’s influence. There are many parallels between “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” and the story of Beth’s death and her influence on Jo in Little Women.
Dr. François described how this story shows the depth of Alcott’s reading. She believes the story is prophetic regarding Alcott’s future as a successful writer.
Kristi Lynn Martin
“The Sacred Domestic, Memorialization, and Literary Imagination in the Alcott Sisters’ Sphere”
Kristi Lynn Martin
Kristi Martin is a registered tour guide for all the historic homes in Concord including Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. She is currently doing her dissertation for her PhD on literary tourism in Concord (“Creating ‘Concord: How Preservation and Tourism Transformed a New England Village into a Tourist Mecca, 1824 – 1965”).
Kristi’s specialty is the Alcott sisters and in her presentation told true stories of each sister that line up with the fictional tales of the March sisters. The Alcott sisters were known as The Golden Band by their father Bronson and he wrote beautiful sonnets for each sister. In Little Women, he is the wise and quiet leader of a bustling household of women.
Beginning with the eldest, Anna, Kristi described Anna’s love of beauty (her favorite word was “beautiful”) and used her wedding as the perfect example of Anna’s virtuous beauty. Meg March’s wedding was very similar to Anna’s right down to the grey silk dress and Lily of the Valley flowers. The simplicity of that wedding underscored the beauty that be the marriage between Anna and her John (aka Meg and John Brooke).
She highlighted Louisa’s sacrifice of her nursing service which resulted in a near fatal illness and the loss of her “one true beauty” – her long chestnut tresses. In Little Women Mr. March serves in the war and Jo sacrifices “her one beauty” impetuously to help send Marmee to his side during his recovery.
Beth’s gentle goodness and gracious death proved to be perhaps the major moral force of the novel as shown by the change in Jo after Beth dies. Kristi shared quotes from Lizzie demonstrating that the shy shadow sister in fact very much enjoyed the company of others and could have a saucy sense of humor not unlike Louisa herself!
Finally she contrasted May with Amy demonstrating that although like Amy, May grew into a gracious woman, she also took her art far beyond where Amy was able to take it.
From left to right, Lis Adams, Education Director, and Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott
We had a surprise visit from Louisa herself! (artfully portrayed by Orchard House Executive Director Jan Turnquist) She first talked about Father and Mother and their dear friends, Emerson and Thoreau. She spoke with affection about Emerson’s daughter Ellen and how she dogged Louisa for more fairy stories. That of course, ended up with the publication of Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables.
She was “surprised” that we all knew and loved Little Women and remarked how unexpected its success was to her as both she and her publisher, Thomas Niles, thought the book “dull.”
Louisa lovingly shared the familiar story of Bronson coming home after a trip out West, covered with snow and with only one dollar in his pocket.
She shared stories about her days as a Civil War nurse and even “reunited” with a soldier she had nursed in Washington! (Bravo John Matteson for your campy performance)
She then revealed her deep dark secret: she wrote pot boilers just like Jo! She then acted out one of her most notorious women characters, devious Jean Muir of Behind a Mask.
Continuing to enact favorite characters, she showed us Sairy Gamp from a Charles Dickens story, the character she used to cheer up her dear Lizzie as well as the soldiers in the Union hospital.
Calling us friends, she confided in us how she put off annoying fans by pretending to be the Irish maid.
It was a wonderful visit!
“Castles in the Air Versus Two Inches of Ivory: A Comparison of Louisa May Alcott’s Sisters with Jane Austen’s Bennets.”
Two classics: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Gabrielle Donnelly is a devotee of both authors.
Having written a modern day interpretation of Alcott’s book with The Little Women Letters, Donnelly is intimately familiar with the March sisters; as a member of the Jane Austen Society, she has similar affinity for the Bennet sisters.
Listening to any presentation by Donnelly is truly an unforgettable experience with her classic London accent and dry British wit; she is a perennial favorite at the Summer Conversational Series. She traced both stories and showed great differences between the March and the Bennet families. Of course, Pride and Prejudice was written in an earlier era and Alcott’s upbringing was unusual and progressive. Comparing and contrasting these two families revealed much about Austen and Alcott as women and writers.
The crowning moment was a piece of fan fiction crafted by Donnelly where she has Elizabeth Bennet meeting Jo March (Mrs. Frederick Bhaer)!
“Five at Fredericksburg: Revising What We Know about The Battle that Transformed American Culture.”
Dr. John Matteson
Dr. Matteson, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts (about Louisa and her father), also author of The Lives of Margaret Fuller, presented a double session highlighting his latest book about the Battle of Fredericksburg and its effect on American culture through five prominent people (including Louisa).
Dr. Matteson’s presentation was part book description and part writing process. As several of us are working on book projects, this part of his presentation (and the ensuing Q & A) was especially helpful.
Dr. Matteson began by sharing how his new book project (with the working title of A Worse Place than Hell, a quote taken from Abraham Lincoln) was born through a discussion with one of his editors who pushed him to think “big.” Dr. Matteson shared some of his techniques for staying on track and not becoming overwhelmed by the mountain of research he has acquired.
He then got into the meat of the book, describing first the Battle of Fredericksburg and why it was such a bloody disaster. He then introduced the five persons transformed by the war:
Walt Whitman – his brother’s injury in a battle caused Walt to become a volunteer nurse.
The Rev. Arthur Buckminster Fuller (Margaret’s brother)
Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. (future Supreme Court Justice — how his view of the law evolved)
John Pelham (“the blond idol of soldier-loving girls”) – John especially captivated by his photo (that’s how I felt about Lizzie when I first saw her). He was the youngest soldier to lie in state.
With heart and brain both filled to overflowing, our week together ended. The community that has developed as a result of the Summer Conversational Series is supportive, loving and generous.
Although not equal in achievements perhaps, we are equals in our love for the Alcotts and love nothing better than to share that love with each other and the world. Kristi Martin said it perfectly:
“My Alcott community is precious to me. It makes the Summer Conversation series a special occasion. I’m blessed to be a member of the extended Orchard House family; for the friendships, the countless ways that the individual and collective members carry on the spirit of the Alcotts, and bring kindness, joy, learning, inspiration, and beauty into my life.”
I invite you to visit Jeannine Atkins’ blog to meet members of this special community — she captured it to perfection.
On Saturday, April 2 many of us had the distinct pleasure of hearing Pulitzer-prize-winning author John Matteson speak at the Colonial Inn in Concord for the Friends of Sleepy Hollow’s annual breakfast. His talk was titled “How Nurse Alcott Earned Her Star: The Author of Little Women and the Civil War.”
He was referring to the marker on Alcott’s grave which indicates her war veteran status due to her service as a nurse in the Civil War.
A story of transformation
It was a wonderful entry point into a compelling story of a writer’s transformation after a scant six weeks of service and the soldier that played a major role in that transformation. From his paper Matteson writes,
“Alcott would not have written Little Women or any of the other books for which she is chiefly remembered, were it not for the metamorphosis that she underwent as an army nurse. It was this time, Alcott later wrote, that enabled her discover her true writing style – an observation that I think means something more than just the way she put words together.”