Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! Episode Two: Wrap-up of the 2016 Summer Conversational Series

“It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if one only knows how to look at them.” (from “Marjorie’s Three Gifts,” 1877)

itunes graphic3Welcome to the second episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
The Podcast!

Click on the image to listen:

player graphicDuring 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.

 

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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. 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:

Download my notes

All stories are available through Google Books or Project Gutenberg.

Elise Hooper:
“Extraordinary Beauty in an Ordinary World: May Alcott and Women’s Painting during the 19th Century”

Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper

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.

Download my notes

You can find out more about The Other Alcott here.

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”

Anne-Laure François

Anne-Laure François

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.

You can read “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” here http://www.online-literature.com/alcott/1976/

Download my notes

Kristi Lynn Martin
“The Sacred Domestic, Memorialization, and Literary Imagination in the Alcott Sisters’ Sphere”

Kristi Lynn Martin

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.

Download my notes

A visit from Louisa May Alcott!

From left to right, Lis Adams, Education Director, and Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott

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!

Gabrielle Donnelly
“Castles in the Air Versus Two Inches of Ivory: A Comparison of Louisa May Alcott’s Sisters with Jane Austen’s Bennets.”

Gabrielle Donnelly, photo by Jeannine Atkins

Gabrielle Donnelly, photo by Jeannine Atkins

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)!

Download my notes

Download Donnelly’s fan fiction

John Matteson
“Five at Fredericksburg: Revising What We Know about The Battle that Transformed American Culture.”

Dr. John Matteson

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.
  • Louisa May Alcott

Download my notes

Part two of Dr. Matteson’s presentation was an encore of the presentation he made last May at the Concord Inn which you can read about in my blog post, “Finding the ‘prince of patients’—John Matteson discovers the whereabouts of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches”

Closing thoughts

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.

AUDIENCE-560

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.”

Amen.

I invite you to visit Jeannine Atkins’ blog to meet members of this special community — she captured it to perfection.

And my thoughts

I wrote some personal thoughts too which you can check out here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding the “prince of patients”—John Matteson discovers the whereabouts of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches

friends of sleepy hollow how nurse alcott earned her starOn 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.”

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Don’t miss the special exhibit of rare artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

On Thursday I toured Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. I was anxious to see the artifacts pictured in The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson and took a vacation day to see them as November can get swallowed up in holiday preparations.

If you live anywhere near Concord and can get to this exhibit, do so. The artifacts are on display only through the month of November.

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

I made a complete list of the artifacts on display. I wish I could show you pictures but taking photos is prohibited at Orchard House; you will need to get a copy of The Annotated Little Women.

Here goes:

In the kitchen:

  • First editions of Hospital Sketches and Little Women
  • Original photos of the Hosmer cottage known as Dove Cote and Orchard House (the one with the unique fence built by Bronson).

In the dining room:

  • A quote from Louisa, handwritten, circa 1869
  • An autographed dance fan including the autographs of Louisa, May and Ellen Emerson.

In the parlor:

  • Three Pickwick Club badges
  • A display dedicated to Anna and John including the original marriage certificate and photographs

In Louisa’s room:

  • Louisa’s homeopathic medicine kit (including a list of ailments treated by the medicines)
  • A lock of Louisa’s hair
  • Sketches of Louisa by May, one familiar (“The Golden Goose”), one not (she has a cat at her feet)
  • A photo of Alf Whitman sitting on the half moon desk
  • Original versions of publicity photos of Louisa circa 1870, 1875, 1880, and two from 1887.
  • An ad for Little Men
  • A sculpture by Daniel Chester French of two owls cuddling–this artifact was acquired just three weeks ago.

In May’s room:

  • Tracings May did of drawings by John Flaxman circa 1857; she then copied the tracings around the moldings of the windows
  • Original watercolor of Ernest Nieriker by May in their Meuden salon – the color was especially brilliant.
  • Original photograph of Alice Bartlett and May.

In the hallway under Lulu’s portrait:

  • An original copy of Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply by May Alcott Nieriker

In Bronson and Abba’s room:

  • Lizzie’s sewing kit, given to her by her father on her twenty-first birthday in 1856, It was surprisingly compact and featured a lovely inscription by Bronson.
  • A little book of Abba’s “Recipes and Simple Remedies” plus two original photos, one I had not seen before taken in 1850 but it is so small that it would be impossible to reproduce. The other was familiar, circa 1858.
  • Sketches of Frederick Pratt by May, one on a rocking horse and the other, playing Lizzie’s melodeon.
  • Small photos of John Pratt as a baby and toddler
  • Original photo of Lulu in the carriage

The best was saved for last–in Bronson’s study:

  • May’s original sketch of Bronson
  • Various original photos of Bronson
  • Original lithograph of the Temple School in Boston
  • And a display containing:
  • A lock of Lizzie’s hair with a tiny inscribed note in her perfect penmanship
  • Another lock of Lizzie’s combined with a lock of Bronson’s
  • Lizzie’s New Testament, an exquisite tiny book which originally belonged to Bronson–he gave it to Lizzie and then it was bequeathed to May.
  • Bronson’s copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, also a tiny book (though a little bigger than the New Testament and a lot thicker) with beautiful engraving

I was grateful for being in a small group so that I could examine each artifact freely. My only wish is for the lighting to have been better as it was a cloudy day and I wanted to see every detail (how I wish I had had my super duper reading glasses!).

I must say that all the different artifacts belonging to Lizzie that were given to her by her father (and especially the two locks of hair entwined) told me much about the special relationship between Bronson and his Psyche.

Don’t miss this great exhibit!

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Fun, surprises and inspiration at John Matteson’s book signing of The Annotated Little Women

This past Sunday, November 8, a group of Alcott enthusiasts had the distinct pleasure of attending a book signing and reading with John Matteson, the editor of The Annotated Little Women at The Concord Bookstore.

Surprise!

louisa may alcott played by Jan TurnquistAs he was about to speak, we were greeted with a surprise guest, “Louisa” (aka Jan Turnquist) herself! She seemed flummoxed at first by our presence and then astonished as she learned we were about to hear about a gorgeous and rich version of her classic novel. We all smiled knowingly. She saw the book and was pleased at the beauty of the volume and then caught sight of Matteson who introduced himself and kissed her hand.

kissing the hand of louisa may alcott

It was a sweet and humorous moment, a great way to begin this reading.

The connection of family

john matteson talksMatteson went on to speak of his personal connection to Little Women, and how the importance of family brought him to know and write about the Alcotts. He shared of his years as a struggling grad student, married and with a daughter. He became a stay-at-home dad all the while wondering how he would advance in his career as he saw colleagues publishing papers and making names for themselves. This season of waiting would end up becoming a rich time of formation.

Approached for a book project

Publishing his first essay in 2001 in the New England Quarterly (an essay which had nothing to do with the Alcotts), Matteson was approached by a literary agent who wanted to discuss a book project. Matteson had no particular book in mind but the agent in his wisdom, continued to work with him. A book on nineteenth century Utopian communities was decided upon and Matteson began his research by visiting Fruitlands where he first encountered Bronson Alcott. As they say, the rest is history.

Family parallels

eden's outcasts bigMatteson was fascinated by Bronson and decided to write the book about him. As he researched the family, he came to know Louisa and saw some amazing parallels between his life and that of Bronson, both teachers and “quixotic” fathers intimately involved in the raising of strong, “verbal” daughters; for one thing, the age difference between father and daughter were nearly the same (off by just seventeen days).

And thus, the idea of Eden’s Outcasts, a biography of Bronson and daughter Louisa, was born. It would go on to win the Pulitzer prize. Quite a feat for a first book!

How The Annotated Little Women came to be

Annotated-LITTLE-WOMEN_978-0-393-07219-8The love affair between Matteson and the Alcotts continued with his work on The Annotated Little Women. Published by Norton, Matteson was approached by the company to produce this book which is part of their ongoing series of annotated classics. Originally thinking the book would be a simple project, it ended up being an intense and amazing discovery of endless and fascinating connections between the fictional world of the March family and the reality of the Alcotts.

Intimate connections

No other book, not The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland nor any other classic can boast the intimate connections that Little Women can. There are no silver slippers from Oz but there are real artifacts from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. The coffers were opened to Matteson revealing astonishing links: Meg’s (Anna’s) wedding dress, Louisa (Jo) and Lizzie’s (Beth) sewing kits, May’s (Amy’s) foot cast, Abba’s (Marmee) chess set … the list goes on and on; Matteson connected such artifacts to actual passages in Little Women. These artifacts, not normally available for public viewing, are on display at Orchard House during the month of November. Photographs of these mementos appear throughout The Annotated Little Women.

Stories and more stories

reacting to miss alcott

photo by Kristi Martin

Matteson told fascinating stories about some of the other 220 illustrations in the book. He cited a passage where Amy, writing from Europe, described a purple dress (which she thought horrid) worn by the Empress of France. Matteson then gave the background: how a chemist discovered the color of magenta, how the Emperor Napoleon III had won a military victory in the town of Magenta, and how the Empress wore magenta dresses in honor of husband whenever she could to honor him in public.

He spoke about the seemingly random inclusion of a photograph of a queen from Hawaii whom Louisa happened to spot during her trip to Europe–Amy writes of this in her letters home to her family.

Personal story that resonates

By far the most interesting connection was the inclusion of a precious artifact belonging to Matteson, a simple autograph of Bronson with the phrase, “Follow the Highest!” (found on page 347). Earlier in his talk Matteson spoke of an unfavorable review of Eden’s Outcasts by Publisher’s Weekly, leaving him feeling dejected. It took the wisdom of his then thirteen-year-old daughter to remind him of his reason for writing the book: because he had something unique to say and people needed to hear it.

Looking out intently at his audience, he urged us all to do the same: “Follow the Highest!” Many of us left that book signing with far more than an autograph inscribed in our books.

a cherished signed copy

photo by Kristi Martin

Thank you John Matteson for retaining that true teacher’s heart so present in the spirit of Amos Bronson Alcott.

p.s. Don’t miss the special exhibit of artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House only through the month of November. See locks of hair from Louisa and Lizzie, Abba’s chess set, Lizzie’s sewing box and New Testament, and more!

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The Louisa May Alcott Society celebrates their tenth anniversary with a visit from “Louisa!”

On a cool and cloudy day a group of dedicated teachers, writers, academics and hard-core fans gathered together at ground zero to celebrate the love of an author who had, in one way or another, transformed their lives.

Thus was the gathering of the Louisa May Alcott Society as we celebrated ten years as an official organization.

columbine-640Greeted at the door of Orchard House by sweet lilacs and lovely columbines, the society entered the home where they encountered “Louisa May Alcott,” eager to take the group of 20+ on a special tour of her home.

In the parlor

We sat on the floor of the parlor as “Louisa” lovingly described her home and family, sharing delicious details of the wedding of Anna and John Pratt in that very parlor, the theatrics put on in the adjoining dining room (complete with mad dashes upstairs for quick costume changes) and her impressions of the George Healy portrait hanging there (“I looked like a relic from the Boston fire!” she bemoaned).

Leaning Orchard House

louisa and friends3-640“Louisa” described her father’s rather unique renovations and expansion of Orchard House (“which caused it to lean”) with the addition of the tenant house creating the dining room, kitchen and addition bed chamber above which housed May.

Moods

I enjoyed her description of the famous mood pillow, empathizing fully with “Louisa’s” desire not to be disturbed when lost in the vortex of creativity.

We gazed at May’s paintings in each of the rooms, sighed over Lizzie’s piano and appreciated Abba’s fine china before heading upstairs to the room where Little Women had been written.

Where Little Women was written

One can never enter that room without pausing over the small desk where the inkstand (a lovely glass holder with quill pen positioned over it) and pages from Little Women lay. Draped over the bed was Anna’s lovely gray wedding dress. Artifacts and tools of Louisa’s needlework were displayed on a table nearby.

May’s training

louisa and friends2-640May’s bed chamber produces the same level of awe. As we gazed at her drawings on the wall, “Louisa” described how her sister’s artistic training in Europe caused her to improve by leaps and bounds. Apparently in Europe May was exposed to training that would have been denied her in America, including the study of cadavers (which greatly improved her ability at portraiture). It was this level of training that transformed May into a serious artist. “Louisa” went on to brag how her sister was commissioned to copy the Turners which secured her position in the professional art world.

Special family heirlooms

Entering the master chamber, we were treated to a close-up view of the nursery where Johnny and Freddy Pratt had stayed after their father passed away. Here I found myself with a lump in my throat as I gazed at the dolly that Lizzie had made with the face painted by May. It took all of my strength not to touch that doll.

“Louisa” pointed out the quilt on the master bed made by her mother; that evoked a collective gasp of appreciation.

The magic never ends

We ended the tour in Bronson’s study and May’s art studio where “Louisa” noted with confusion the “chairs all set up” and the “strange device” (TV and DVD player) that filled the studio. What was May up to now?

Orchard House never fails to produce its magic and we all fell under the spell.

Happy anniversary!

The get-together culminated with champagne toasts, sweets, cheese and crackers and fresh fruit, stimulating conversation and vows to continue growing the society.

Judging from the attendance and the enthusiasm, I would say the Society is strong, growing and healthy. It is an honor to be a part of such a wonderful group.

LMA society2-640

Membership

Anyone serious about Louisa can join; dues are only $10 per year. We communicate by email on a regular basis and the website www.louisamayalcottsociety.org, provides resources.

To members of the society: you have helped me to better understand why I am so passionate about Louisa May Alcott. Even yesterday I discovered new reasons to continue my study and build my appreciation of this fascinating woman.

Come and join us!

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Available for pre-order: The Annotated Little Women edited by John Matteson

Author John MattesonI am pleased to announce The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts and The Lives of Margaret Fuller.

This volume will contain over 200 illustrations. It is being published by W. W, Norton and Company, the same group which published the popular Norton edition of Little Women.

You can pre-order your copy now from Norton or from Amazon. It contains an amazing 668 pages! The book is expected out in the Fall of 2015.

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Little Women in a changing world: Chapter Two of The Afterlife of Little Women– “Waxing Nostalgic 1900-1930,” part one

In the early twentieth century the world was changing at a breathtaking rate. As a country we moved onto the global stage with the Great War. Dazzling technological innovations created time- and work-saving devices along with new entertainment venues. Medical breakthroughs promised longer and healthier lives. Now that day-to-day survival was no longer the all-consuming task, people had time for leisure, to think and to create.

How did Little Women fare in this changing world?

Beverly Lyon Clark, in her book, The Afterlife of Little Women, indicates that people were already waxing nostalgic about Little Women even though the book was only thirty-two years old by 1900. Adults generally found the book to be “old-fashioned” while children continued to love it. (pg. 42).

Do you consider Little Women to be timely despite its age? What about the book transcends time?

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenDespite the book’s enduring popularity, Little Women was not held in high esteem by scholars mostly because children’s literature had not yet attained any status. (pg. 43). Yet G. K. Chesterton notes that there are “few women in England, from the most revolutionary Suffragette to the most carefully preserved Early Victorian, who will not confess to having passed a happy childhood with the Little Women of Miss Alcott.” (pg. 48). The universal appeal of Little Women speaks to Louisa’s genius, a genius nurtured by an upbringing combining progressive ideas with traditional values.

What are the universal themes of Little Women? Why does it still speak to you today?

gamaliel bradfordIn his essay, “Portrait of Louisa May Alcott,” Gamaliel Bradford was one of the few who praised Louisa’s artistry: “The worshippers of art for art’s sake may sneer at her but the great poets don’t necessarily deserve much more of our gratitude than those who make our souls forget by telling charming stories.” (pg. 53-54). Clark notes that Bradford observed that Louisa may have been motivated more out of a sense of duty rather than love to help her family out of poverty.

Do you consider Little Women to be a work of art? Why or why not?

Yet it is the safer traditional values of home and family that maintained the book’s popularity, generating the spinoffs of a Broadway play, two silent films and several novel series. With World War I jading the population, Little Women was likely seen as a return to “the good old days” despite being considered “too sweet” by many in the tumultuous twenties (pg. 49).

The adaptations began with children’s books. Clark writes, “If ‘publishers complain of the scarcity of good books for girls, and their readers say that no successor to Louisa Alcott has yet to come to view,’ then one approach was to reframe Little Women.” (pg. 58). She lists Seven Little Australians (1894) by Ethel Turner, Sisters Three (1900) by Jessie Mansergh, The Little Women Club by Ames Taggart, Four Little Women of Roxby, or The Queer Old Lady Who Lost Her Way (1926) by May Hollis Barton, and the four books in Gabrielle Jackson’s Three Little Women series (1908-14).

three little womenOf these books Clark found the Three Little Women series to be the “most interesting in how it addresses the cultural moment even as it attests the continuing significance of Little Women … For it harbors inconsistencies that speak to cultural contradictions at the beginning of the century, especially those associated with the occupational opportunities available to the New woman and the continuing expectations of domesticity, at a time when Alcott might be called ‘one of the finest of pioneer American business girls.'” (pg. 62)

A detailed analysis of this series, along with other adaptations and spinoffs (including the Broadway play as we shall see, and the silent films) begs the conclusion that while Louisa was lauded, she was not to be imitated.

What I found most interesting in Clark’s analysis was the differing interpretation of “littleness” in Alcott’s book and Jackson’s. Frances Armstrong has noted that for Alcott littleness at times entailed diminishment but at other time was a means to greatness. In Jackson’s novels–with their “little girls,” “little mothers,” “pretty little rooms,” “trembling little fingers”–diminishment is the rule.” (pg. 67)

Did Jackson miss the deeper spiritual dimension of littleness as described by Alcott? Beth was indeed “little” but she demonstrates largeness in her example of courage with the Hummels, literally risking her life to comfort the dying baby. Her tending to headless doll Joanna provides a metaphor for a more public caring of the disabled, aka, the “least of these.” In exploring the spiritual dimension of littleness, Alcott uncovers its greatness. Judging from Armstrong’s remarks, Jackson appears to have missed that point entirely, reflecting a more secular approach to the story.

How do you think Louisa viewed “littleness?” How do you feel about the character of Beth?

In part two of this post, I will discuss the Broadway play (which, by the way, is available for free through Google Play Books; it’s called “Little Women: A Comedy in Four Acts” by Marion de Forest) and silent films, and the creation of the Orchard House museum home.

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