Three-part series on Bronson Alcott at Fruitlands Museum: genius or crackpot?

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

from Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

Genius, deadbeat, visionary or crackpot?

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Happy Birthday Bronson and Louisa! Not a day over 217 and 184 ;-)

louisa coverNOTE: I just found out my publisher, ACTA, is giving away 15 free copies of Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by The Message in honor of our favorite author’s birthday. Go here http://actapublications.com/louisa-may-alcott-illuminated-by-the-message/ and type in code HAPPYBIRTHDAY at checkout. Even if you have your own copy, order one as a gift for friend!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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.

eden's outcasts big 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

A blunt, controversial psychological study of Miss Alcott — Katharine Anthony’s 1937 biography

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

alcotts bedellAnthony’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.”

martha saxton 190That, 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.

Controversies

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

Charles-Lane

Charles Lane

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

abbaFor 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)

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)

Valuable analysis

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.

Health issues

louisa readingMuch 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.

Possible cause

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.

from alcott.net

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Warmth and wisdom here for everyone who opens it”–Review of River of Grace by Gabrielle Donnelly

00 cover drop shadow 150 pixelsGabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters, was kind enough to review an advance copy of my River of Grace:

You don’t have to be Catholic to love this book.  There is warmth and wisdom here for everyone who opens it, whether they are questioning their spiritual faith, struggling with personal loss,  attempting to channel their creativity, or simply trying to make sense of a world that too often threatens to drive us all crazy.

bending-and-breakingThrough the pages of River Of Grace, Susan Bailey provides compassionate understanding of the day to day struggles of all of us, along with some gentle advice, a healthy dollop of encouragement for the future, and a series of practical exercises for spiritual fulfillment  – these last outlined, in the tradition of the author’s native New England, in down-to-earth tones, and pragmatically incorporating the uses of everyday household items to help us along the path to inner peace.

But there is more to River Of Grace than just a self-help manual.   Along the way, Bailey also makes us her personal friend by confiding, with a frankness and generosity that is at times extraordinary, the course of her own life – as a daughter, a mother, a wife, an artist, a religious believer – and, not least, as an enthusiastic kayacker along the rivers of New England, whose waters she loves with a passion, and whose natural grandeurs she instinctively loops – just as did her spiritual mentor Louisa May Alcott – full circle back to the spiritual world.

chapter 4 cropped

Buy this book.  Buy another copy and give it to a friend.  Trust me, she’ll thank you.

Come out for a book signing Saturday, November 21 from 11-1 at  Boucher’s Good Books, 254 Lake Ave, Worcester, MA; call (508) 755-4516 for more information. Live music from the River of Grace CD – hope to see you there!

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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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