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Louisa May Alcott as grief counselor (on the fifth anniversary of this blog)

My obsession with Louisa played out in a rather odd way. Never a big reader until a few years ago, I’d find myself reading a biographical account of Louisa’s life (rather than read her own words) every few years. This began after reading Martha Saxton’s biography. After the reading (usually done during the autumn months) I would make a pilgrimage to Orchard House. That would satisfy my urge for a year or two, and then I’d repeat the process.

No longer a casual interest

lost summer 190My review of the latest biography on Louisa May AlcottAfter my mother’s passing in 2010, that passion for Louisa was ramped up in a big way. My dear husband had given me copies of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees and Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen months before my mother died but it was impossible to read them while she was ill. A couple of weeks after she was gone, I was ready for something new  and started reading. Coincidentally the PBS documentary of the same title by Reisen and Nancy Porter came out at the same time.

Getting to Louisa’s writing

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches" historicaldigression.com

From an 1897 edition of Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”
historicaldigression.com

Reisen’s love of Louisa’s canon finally got me to read Louisa’s books for the first time. In River of Grace I write,

It began not with Little Women, but with Hospital Sketches, a thinly veiled memoir of [Louisa’s] experience as a Civil War nurse. Her moving description of the death of a virtuous soldier named John Suhre and how she had nursed him acted as a soothing balm on my grief. She described death as noble, and her belief in the afterlife was unmistakable. Where once I had felt a kinship with Louisa because of our mutually shared mood swings, deep tempers, and passions for our art; now I identified with the woman who found sacredness and hope in death just as I had. While Louisa wrote mainly to support her family, it seemed that the act of creating helped her to work through her own grief after the tragic passing of her younger sister Elizabeth whom she called her “conscience” and “spiritual guide.” (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

This time I determined that my little reading binge would end with reading books and visiting Louisa’s home. I had to find other people as obsessed as I was with Louisa. It was just too much fun discussing my passion (which I did for an hour on the phone with Harriet Reisen; God bless her for indulging a total stranger!).

The seed was planted and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion was born on this day, August 18, in 2010.

Little did I know as I plunged deeper in to my passion that Louisa was acting as my guide through my grief. I had not been able cry over my mother because I was numb inside. I could not even remember anything about her except as she had been during the last few months: sick, ravaged, terrified and demented. I had been in battle mode for the last two years and that feeling continued for another year after she died.

Remembering Mommy

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

Louisa helped to draw me close to my mother again especially as I thumbed through her own copies of Little Women and Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag (Vol. 5) with her signed name plate. Slowly I recalled the vibrant, intelligent woman with “pizzaz” (as my brother-in-law called it). Mommy was curious and loved to learn. She poured over books and audited classes at her alma mater, Wellesley College. She was funny, animated (with a voice like a parrot), thoughtful and kind, and always interesting.

Beyond consolation

But more was happening as I read about and then wrote about Louisa: this passion was resurrecting my then-dormant creative life. Louisa’s own grief journey, beginning with the death of Lizzie, the marriage of Anna, and then continuing with the soldiers she had nursed (especially John Suhre), and how it had transformed her life and writing, helped me to understand what was happening:

I believe that the caring for and losing her sister acted as a catalyst to Louisa May Alcott’s transformation as an artist and a woman. The creative gifts of storytelling, play acting, and humor that she had used to minister to Lizzie were subsequently shared with countless soldiers, helping them to while away their lonely hours of pain. Letters sent home to family told the stories of the wounded. These stories, laced with humor and told with urgent realism and heart, compiled Hospital Sketches, a book which resonated with thousands of readers anxious for those first-hand accounts. Louisa’s creative gifts were honed and perfected through her painful journey. This nineteenth century author now was helping me to understand my own grief. She, like me, seemed to find an energy in grief and took action to work through it. We shared a common spirituality even though our religious backgrounds were quite different (I being Catholic, she influenced by her father’s Transcendentalism). To her, God was a loving Father and faithful Friend who revealed himself in nature and in everyday life. I too related to God in this fashion, seeing him in the natural world and in people around me, feeling him through the love of family and friends, tasting and being nourished by him in the sacred bread and the wine, and discerning him through prayer, the scriptures and reflection. (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

One thing leads to another

Before I knew it, I was feeling the urge to learn more about writing. This led to dreams of crafting a book … and the rest, as they say, is history.

Has Louisa acted as a grief counselor for you? What do you think of her writing on death? Does it strike a chord with you?

To all of you

THANK YOU for your readership and especially for your friendship over these past 5 years. I have had to pleasure of meeting many of you in person and yes, we gabbed about Louisa and will continue to do so. 🙂 This passion never grows old but only grows deeper, thanks to all of you!

Seems appropriate on this, the fifth anniversary of this blog, to share this video one more time with you where I express in music and images my love of the Alcott family and my gratitude to Louisa for being my grief counselor and writing guide:

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An audio interview with Harriet Reisen, author of Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women

The Wordy Birds site has a 28 minute interview with Harriet Reisen, author of Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women that I found quite interesting.

Their description reads:

In a fresh, modern take on the remarkable Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Reisen’s vivid biography explores the author’s life in the context of her works, many of which are to some extent autobiographical. Although Alcott secretly wrote pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and served as a Civil War nurse, her novels went on to sell more copies than those of Herman Melville and Henry James. Stories and details culled from Alcott’s journals, together with revealing letters to family, friends, and publishers, plus recollections of her famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author’s classic rags-to-riches tale. In Louisa May Alcott, the extraordinary woman behind the beloved American classic Little Women is revealed as never before.

You can find the audio interview here.

Click to Tweet & ShareListen to Harriet Reisen discuss Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women in this engaging interview http://wp.me/p125Rp-182

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My 3 days with Louisa (part 5): Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal

My last of three days with Louisa was spent in the most intimate fashion, buried in papers written by the hands of her sisters and father at the Houghton Library at Harvard Square in Cambridge.

What is Houghton like?

Unlike Harvard’s main library, the Grand Dame known as Widener, Houghton is the little sister tucked away behind the Dame. It is formal, yet cozy.

All are welcome

Registering for a pass was simple and quick; Houghton truly welcomes anyone with a sincere desire to learn. After receiving my card, I was ushered into the reading room which was filled with students and scholars lost in research.

Seeing Lizzie’s diary

At last I would get to see what I had been longing for: Elizabeth Sewall Alcott’s diary at Hillside. Except for a few short letters, this diary is the only record of length from the “shadow sister.” She began writing it at age eleven.

Difficulty getting beneath the surface

Biographers have had a hard time cracking the nut that is Lizzie. Harriet Reisen in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women writes:

“The third Alcott daughter is impossible to pin down. She appears never to have asked anything of anybody or of life itself.” (pg. 140, ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)

Commenting directly on the Hillside dairy, Madelon Bedell in The Alcotts Biography of a Family writes:

“One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling and never find it.

So it is too with the girl herself. It was all hidden behind the serene countenance, the robust rosy features and the evasive blue eyes …” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Perhaps they were looking for the wrong thing.

What I saw

I haven’t yet poured over all of Lizzie’s diary but the reading so far has told me this much:

  • Lizzie liked order in her life.
    Anna wrote in her diary, “”I think I love order and so does my sister Elizabeth.” (from Scituate July 1839, Monday the 25th, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library).
  • Her small, precise and consistently neat handwriting portrays a little girl who was self-contained and conscientious; it suggests a very even temperament (just my opinion, I’m no handwriting expert!)
  • Math was one of her favorite subjects.
    Although I’ve only read a few pages so far, she mentions several times doing “sums in Division.” She writes, “I came into studies and did a few sums in Division. I like to do them very much. It does me some good to do them.” (Hillside, Concord, June 24, 1845, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library)
    Lizzie was said to be good at playing the piano; often musicians are good mathematicians. The understanding of music theory comes a lot more easily to a mathematical mind. This is why I call my math genius husband the “official” musician in our house because of his thorough knowledge of music theory. Math baffles me, and so does music theory which is why I play music strictly by ear.
  • Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

    She loved flowers and dolls.
    Lizzie writes of picking flowers and playing with her “dollies” on numerous occasions in her diary. I disagree with Bedell that she showed no “reaction” in her writings; her reactions were subtle. It was plain to this reader anyway that Lizzie appreciated beauty and derived pleasure from picking and studying flowers (recall the Botony report she wrote for Louisa’s family newspaper, The Olive Leaf).

  • She enjoyed observing the world around her and wrote precise notes.
    For a girl who supposedly didn’t have a lot to say, Lizzie wrote detailed entries in her diary.
  • She was very happy at Hillside.
    Lizzie doesn’t have to say that she was happy – it is obvious in the day-to-day rhythm of activities that she describes. Again the even temperament is very evident.
  • She looked upon keeping a journal as a daily homework assignment rather than as a way to express herself; I wonder if she would have done it were it not required of her.
    Several times she mentions writing in her journal because her father asked it of her. Her diary ends with “I now have finished my journal and am going to give it to Mother.” She had fulfilled her obligation.

Intensely private

The open sharing of journals and diaries between family members was commonplace yet Lizzie was uncomfortable with the idea, often refusing. Bedell writes,

“She was too shy to read her earnest, noncommittal little record, even to her parents and sisters.” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Is there a possibility that the more ordinary Lizzie was intimated by the genius that surrounded her? I know how I am around my older sister whom I revere for her take-charge attitude and capableness – I become like mush and always defer. Lizzie, I get you!

A developing theory

These are certainly not earth-shattering (nor original) revelations. It does however, fuel a theory I’ve been simmering in my head: Lizzie was a normal girl of average ability surrounded by, buried by, intense genius. Biographers are looking for that same spark that flickered in Anna, bloomed in May and roared like a bonfire in Louisa. Surely since Lizzie came from the same stock, she’d have that spark of brilliance too.

Not necessarily.

In my household of four, we have three members who are somewhat eccentric and artistic, obsessing over our passions. We live in our own worlds.

The fourth member is the opposite. She has her finger on the pulse of this world and keeps us grounded in it.

Perhaps Lizzie played that role too. I look forward to finding out more as I continue to read her diary.

In the next post I want to share things I found in Anna’s diary. It makes me want to go back for a lot more in my next visit to the “Holy Grail” that is Houghton Library. 🙂

Click to Tweet & Share: Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal http://wp.me/p125Rp-17p

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Happy Birthday Bronson and Louisa!

From Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father , pages 48-49 by John Matteson

On N0vember 29, 1832, a half hour past midnight, Abba gave birth fo a second daughter, whom Bronson described as “a very fine healthful child . . . a very find, bat, little creature . . . with a firm constitution for building up a fine character.” . . . Bronson, a man not indifferent to signs and portents, found it “a most interesting event” that Louisa May shared her father’s birthday, entering the world on the day he turned thirty-three . . . Was there to be, perhaps, a supernatural bond between that, from the first, transcended that of father and daughter?

From Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women
(Chapter 18 “More Courage and Patience”) by Harriet Reisen

Kneeling by his bedside, she [Louisa] took his hand, kissed it, and placed in it pansies she had brought, saying “It is “Weedy”(her pet name). Then after a moment of silence she asked: “What are you thinking of, dear?” He replied, looking upward, “Up there; you come too!” Then with a kiss she said, “I wish I could go” . . . [Two days later, Louisa joined him.]

Indeed, quite a bond! Happy birthday, Bronson and Louisa. Your lives made a difference to me and so many others. Thank you.

Listen to an interview with Roberta Trites regarding Louisa’s “blood and thunder” tales

Recently the Milner Library at Illinois State University hosted a series of programs as part of the ALA’s “Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women”; they were one of many libraries around the country that received grant money from the NEH and the ALA. The series is based upon the best-selling biography of the same name by Harriet Reisen, and the film by Nancy Porter and Reisen.

On October 11, scholar Roberta Trites presented “”Behind Louisa’s Mask: Discovering the Real Louisa May Alcott.” Thanks to WGLT.org, we are privy to excerpts from an interview with Trites by host Charlie Schlenker. This 4 minute and 37 second interview is well worth the listen with some tantalizing tidbits.


Here is some biographical information on Roberta Trites from the official press release of the Milner Library and Illinois State University:
Trites teaches children’s and adolescent literature and is the author of Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel. Her research interests include Louisa May Alcott’s role in various social reform movements and her literary influence on literature for youth in the United States. Trites received her Ph.D. in English at Baylor University.

A highly successful author best known for her novel Little Women, Alcott secretly wrote sensational thrillers, lived at the center of the Transcendentalist and Abolitionist movements, campaigned for women’s rights and served as a Civil War army nurse.


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Continuing with Marmee, the Mother of Little Women: tantalizing look into Lizzie Alcott

Quite a while ago I promised to write more on Marmee, the Mother of Little Womenby Sandford Meddick Salyer and as usual, I got sidetracked (have to stop going to the library! :-)). As I mentioned before in my first post, this book was a very pleasurable read chock full of information. Salyer did his homework. It read more like a memoir but nevertheless, I learned a great deal about how Abba, and family life, shaped the two most successful Alcotts, Louisa and May.

Windows into Lizzie

I also got some tantalizing new tidbits about third sister Lizzie (Beth in Little Women), known as the “shadow sister” because she was so meek and mild. Lizzie is a total mystery to me. All the other sisters candidly spoke of themselves and were sufficiently introspective in their journals and letters while Lizzie showed no introspection, her journal entries being very plain and factual. Here’s a sample:

From Lizzie’s journal

Sunday, 19 April [1846] … Father walked in the woods with us.  We saw some pretty trees to set out in the yard at home.  I read in the “White Rose” and cleared out my trunk..  We went on the hill to see the rainbow, it was very beautiful.  Abba [May]and I went to the brook.  I sewed a little in Louisa’s room.

Monday 20…I picked blue violets and dandelions.  At ten I came into school and wrote my journal for Sunday and this morning.  I did some sums in long Division and read a piece of poetry with father.

Tuesday 21 …It was a beautiful evening. I made my bed and cleared mother’s room…I sewed some before I came into school and drew this little map of our place, but could not do it very well so father helped me about it.

From Madelon Bedell’s footnotes, p 247-8. Full text in Houghton Library, Harvard University, Alcott Pratt collection (my thanks to Harriet Reisen for sending this to me).

Did Lizzie hide something behind a sly smile?

Who was Lizzie?

Was she the odd one out, not having that quality of introspection? Or was she so very painfully private that she never dared show her inner self? When she died, she did not go peacefully into the night as Louisa described in Little Women. In death as she never did in life, Lizzie showed anger and frustration, lashing out at family members (described vividly in Martha Saxton’s biography Louisa May: A Modern Biography and also in Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography). Did she feel her painful, lingering death was unjust given that she had been so good in life? We will never know. Death has a way, however, of unmasking the truth and it leads me to believe there was more to Lizzie than met the eye (Madelon Bedell in her biography The Alcotts: Biography of a Family apparently felt that way too with her caption under Lizzie’s one known picture mentioning a “sly smile.”).

Lizzie did, however, come by her peaceful and serene manner honestly and not just through Bronson. Salyer notes on page 23 that Abba’s sister Eliza was very much like Lizzie (in fact, Colonel May thought that Abba and Bronson had named Lizzie after Eliza even though she was really named after Elizabeth Peabody).  Bronson called Lizzie his “psyche”, his soul mate (or better yet, a perfect reflection of himself.)

A description

Dr. Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis in his book, Alcott Memoirs, described each of the Alcotts. As a young man going through school, Willis boarded often with the Alcotts; in fact Marmee practically adopted the orphaned Lew.  Salyer quotes Lew on page 120:

“So also was that of Elizabeth as far as the beauty of that spiritual nature could be captured in words. Willis’ picture agrees with all the others that we have of her: ‘She was possessed of an even, lovable disposition, a temperament akin to Mr. Alcott’s – indeed, more than akin, since it was a very counterpart. Under any and all conditions she was a sunny and serene as a morning in June. Her appearance was that of a typical Puritan maid. She loved music, played the piano with more ease than any of her sisters and with something of real appreciation.’ “

Was music her expression?

There are two kinds of musicians – the technicians (like my husband) who read and write down music easily and can comprehend musical theory. They usually have mathematical minds. Then there are the ear people (like myself) – we can’t read as well because our ears pick up the music faster than our minds can comprehend the theory. We are not mathematicians. I had read somewhere that Lizzie showed possible mathematical ability (note the mention of long division in her journal entry) so that would lead me to believe she was more like my husband. One thing is for sure though: music is an emotional experience, to the player as well as the listener. My husband and I, although we approach music very differently (and have very different tastes) both feel music intensely. Can I assume also that Lizzie nurtured an inner life through her music? Was that her way of expressing her inner life, all the while keeping it a secret? Again, we will never know (though I plan on exploring this further).

This is why I found Marmee, the Mother of Little Women so enjoyable, because it contained such rich (and to me), new information about all the Alcotts. It was way more than a pleasant memoir about Abba.

In future posts, I will dig deeper into the heart of this book.


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