Louisa the rabid fan

Louisa May Alcott hated being famous. Or so she said. Stories abounded of how she often masqueraded as a maid before answering the door at Orchard House to discourage would-be fans. She knew that readers imagined her looking like the dashing young Jo with her two tails of chestnut hair flying behind her when in fact, she was old, frail and sickly.

Benefits and pitfalls

Louisa guarded her privacy jealously and didn’t appreciate the attention of her fans. Still, the fame she had acquired had its benefits, allowing her to meet many of the most prominent writers and reformers of her day.

The object of Louisa’s hero worship

She may have abhorred hero worship but that didn’t stop her from indulging in it herself with her favorite author, Charles Dickens.

Having gratified myself in hero worship through this blog (and having acted on it with numerous visits to Orchard House), I had to smile when I read of “A Dickens Day,” a piece Louisa wrote which became a part of Shawl-Straps, a memoir of her time in Europe.

Touring Dickens’ London

Here Louisa details her sight-seeing trips around London to places immortalized in the books of Charles Dickens.

Sairey Gamp in front of her house

Madeleine Stern in Louisa May Alcott A Biography writes of Louisa seeing the street where Sairey Gamp had lived. Sairey Gamp was one of Louisa’s favorite characters and she often assumed the role to bring humor into difficult situations. Sairey Gamp was in constant demand at the Union Hotel Hospital where Louisa served as a Civil War nurse.

Stern writes,

“The genial Mr. Tyler [Louisa’s guide in the city] was delighted to find that to Louisa St. Paul’s was the place where Ralph Nickleby set his watch, and Westminster Abbey the home of the maid of honor in Mrs. Jarley’s waxworks.” (pg. 158, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Louisa filled her notebooks with such references to Dickens which she later turned into “A Dickens Day.”

Louisa the pilgrim

I have to admit I know little of Dickens so I didn’t recognize most the references Stern made to Dickens characters and sites. But as a fellow hero worshipper, I can surely empathize with the feelings Louisa must have had visiting those places. She went on her pilgrimage just as we have.

Watch what you wish for!

Charles Dickens

Louisa had the one privilege I and other Alcott enthusiasts will never have – meeting the author in person. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky! Louisa was less than enthusiastic seeing Dickens in person. Stern writes,

“… the magic was gone, and in its place was only the foppishness of a red-faced man with false teeth and the voice of a worn-out  actor … there was nothing genuine about him.” (pg. 157, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Louisa was deeply disappointed and, as much as she still loved his books, she would never be able to shake the image of the man.

Respect for her fans?

Perhaps that’s why she herself was so sensitive about the perception her fans had of her. Why dash the image of Jo March, replacing it with a curmudgeon, sick and frail? Let the fans have their dream.

Louisa was probably too hard on herself but as much as she claimed to dislike her fans, she apparently respected them. And she knew who paid the bills!

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comReading Louisa May Alcott A Biography by Madeleine Stern is part of my Louisa May Alcott Summer Challengeare you a part of this challenge and if so, how are you doing?

Click to Tweet & Share: LMA the rabid fan? See who she hero-worshipped and how she got more than she bargained for! http://wp.me/p125Rp-Um

Advertisements

Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.

The American Library Association Louisa May Alcott Project: A DVD and Book Start a Movement

In May of 1868, a publisher asked an author to write a book specifically targeted “for girls.” His plan was twofold: to capitalize on this up-and-coming author’s growing popularity, and to capture a corner of a brand new genre of children’s literature. The author begrudgingly obliged, and ended up producing one of the best selling, and best loved novels of all time. The novel was Little Women and its author, Louisa May Alcott. Little Women made Alcott famous, but pigeon-holed her into the juvenile market when in fact, she had so much more to offer.

Now in 2011, The American Library Association (ALA) in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is launching a bold initiative. With the goal of exposing to the public the multi-faceted and still relevant writings of Alcott, grants have been awarded to 30 libraries around the country for a five-part series of educational programs featuring the 2009 documentary and companion biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, produced and directed by Nancy Porter, and produced and written by Harriet Reisen. (see complete list of libraries in previous post)

On March 4, a national workshop was held at the Omni Parker House in Boston with these librarians and their scholars to kick off this initiative.

Speakers included Porter and Reisen, and preeminent Alcott scholar Professor Daniel Shealy from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Professor Shealy has edited several books on Alcott including her journals and selected letters (along with Joel Myerson and Madeleine Stern), correspondences from Alcott and her sister May from their grand tour of Europe, and commentary from Alcott’s own peers. (see list in My Growing Library).

Jan Turnquist, director of Orchard House (the Alcott home in Concord, MA) spoke briefly about the historic homestead.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Situated in the Louisa May Alcott room of the Parker House, the participants were introduced to events of the day by Susan Brandehoff of the ALA Public Programs Office. Along with talks by the scheduled speakers, librarians and scholars would have a chance to share program ideas and concerns in breakout sessions. David Weinsten, Senior Program Officer, Division of Public Programs, NEH, also made some opening statements.

The Women Behind Louisa May Alcott
The Woman Behind Little Women

Porter and Reisen then made their presentation, showing clips from the documentary and reading excerpts from the book. Porter gave a brief history of the origins of the documentary, explaining why she and Reisen chose Alcott, saying, “It was the project closest to our hearts.” After 5 years of fundraising and many years of research, the documentary was completed. Screening was delayed so that the book could be completed and in 2009, the film debuted on PBS stations across the country.

Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women showed many sides of Alcott which the public was not so familiar with, such as her service as a Civil War nurse, her success as a pulp fiction writer (“blood and thunder tales” as she dubbed them) under an assumed name (A.M. Barnard), her love life with a Polish lad, and the real story behind the writing of Little Women. Reisen shared stirring excerpts from her book about Alcott’s days as a nurse in the war and how journal entries eventually became Hospital Sketches, the book that would define her realistic writing style, and establish her as a successful author.

The Scope of Alcott’s Writing

Professor Daniel Shealy gave a fascinating talk on the depth and scope of Alcott’s writing. Stating that “Alcott knew her audience well,” he described how easily she adapted to different genres so that she could earn a living as a writer to support her family. Pointing out that “timing is everything,” he described the blossoming of the publishing industry in the mid 19 century, the plethora of new magazines, and the introduction and growth of children’s literature, all of which made it possible for Alcott to succeed in her profession.

Shealy gave a brief outline of several lesser known works to illustrate his point: “The Rival Prima Donnas,” “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” “V.V. or Plots and Counterplots,” and “Behind a Mask”.

In describing her first book, Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales written for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s young daughter, Ellen, Shealy maintained that Alcott’s tales redefined fantasy even though the tales are still largely ignored today. Alcott’s fantasies, set in nature, contained a strong moral fiber that was missing from the more famous European fairy tales of authors such as Grimm. She continued to write fantasy right up until her death in 1888.

Shealy pointed out another side of Alcott that makes her so relevant today – her dedication to social reform and women’s rights. She did not believe in a separate “women’s sphere,” so popular in the 19th century, but believed that women needed to be financially independent. Decidedly a spinster, she wrote at length about marriage and its affect on women and men (since in the 19th century, marriage made women the property of their husbands). She was a passionate abolitionist, holding radical views about the true equality of all races.

Brainstorming at Breakout Sessions

After an hour for lunch, the librarians and scholars attended breakout sessions to discuss ideas for programs. Programs needed to fit into a five-part criterion: (see ALA website for detailed list)

  • Louisa May Alcott: Through Her Eyes – A community-wide library event focusing on the life, work, and times of Louisa May Alcott
  • Louisa May Alcott Wrote That? Reading and scholar-led discussion of Alcott’s lesser-known works
  • Louisa May Alcott: Literary Phenomenon and Social Reformer
  • Film screening – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
  • Reading and discussion of the biography – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

Some of these ideas included day-long festivals (“Alcott Extravaganza” and “LouisaFest”) featuring costumes, food and music of the period, children’s activities, tours, story-telling and dramatic presentations. There was a thematic trend to the programming including a focus on the Civil War, health and fitness (Alcott was a runner and a vegetarian), the impact of 19th century clothing (most especially corsets) on women and what Alcott revealed in her writing about that topic, women in the military, women’s rights and the vote, the abolition of slavery, and writing in the 19th century including Transcendentalist writings and pulp fiction.

Issues regarding the logistics of some of the criterion were discussed and ironed out both in the breakout sessions, and in the general group discussion at the end of the day.

Beyond the workshop . . .

By the end of the workshop, participants were fired up to begin their programs in their home libraries. A camaraderie fueled by everyone’s enthusiasm and love of Alcott was palpable. A Google list, established before the workshop, will work to keep everyone informed of the progress of the programs, and the reaction from the public. Ultimately is it hoped that a richer understanding of the scope and depth of both Louisa May Alcott’s writings and her extraordinary life will be conveyed to the public, sparking greater interest in this pioneer woman author and her lesser known works.

ALA Alcott Programs to feature Daniel Shealy, Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter, and Jan Turnquist

And I have been invited to attend! I will be able to take pictures and will take extensive notes so that you can ‘virtually’ go there too.

Harriet Reisen was kind enough to invite me to participate and I am very much looking forward to hearing from Daniel Shealy who helped to edit Louisa May Alcott’s journals and letters along with Joel Myerson and the late Madeleine Stern (The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott). He has also compiled and edited Louisa’s and May Alcott Nieriker’s correspondences during their grand tour of Europe (Little Women Abroad) and published Alcott in Her Own Time as well.

Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter will make a presentation regarding their documentary and biography on Louisa (see links below).

Jan Turnquist, the director of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association (aka Orchard House) will also be speaking.

Here is what appears on Harriet’s website:

Daniel Shealy, noted Alcott scholar, to Guide ALA Library Programmers

Professor Daniel Shealy of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte will lead the thirty scholars advising librarians in the ALA Alcott programs in a discussion of the project themes, topics, and related reading at the national workshop in Boston on March 4.  Dr. Shealy’s areas of expertise include 19th-century American literature, the American Transcendentalists and the Concord Authors, and children’s literature. An advisor to the Alcott documentary, he can be seen in extended interviews on this website at Extended Scholar Interviews.

This forum was put together for the different libraries which were extended grants by the ALA to present programs on Louisa May Alcott featuring Porter and Reisen’s DVD (Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women (DVD)), plus Reisen’s book (Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women).

All this takes place this Friday. I will be posting soon after. Should be very exciting!

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”

I’m currently reading chapter 6 in Susan Cheever’s book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography which focuses on the years of 1863-65 when Louisa would serve as a nurse in the Civil War, and taste her first literary successes. Louisa had been writing her “blood and thunder” tales to earn money for “the pathetic family” and many believe these stories provided escape and pleasure for her as well, even as she referred to them as “rubbish.” I just read my first one, “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” winner of the $1oo prize in 1863 from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a pulp weekly similar to the National Enquirer today (minus the TV and movie celebrities).

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” is pretty mild stuff if you read it from the perspective of a 21st century reader. It helps to have some idea of what life was like and what was expected of men and women in the 1860s to truly appreciate this story. I know some but found myself wishing (as I did while reading Little Women) that I knew so much more so that I could feel the full impact.

However, I still found it to be a satisfying psychological thriller and marveled yet again at how carefully Louisa lays out the story so that it achieves the maximum effect. It requires some preliminary details which I found a bit boring, but I knew they were necessary for the “good stuff” later on. What I liked was that I never was really sure how this story would end up (and I had to avoid reading the ending in Cheever’s book and in Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask, where this story is found.) As I read on, I became more and more interested and found the very last page of the story to be very satisfying. In one sense the ending was surprising but in another, very typical for Louisa. I’ll leave it for you to find out. 🙂

You can find “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” in Behind a Mask and you can also download it online for free.

As a side note: reading Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask reminded me again of why I love her treatment of Louisa.  It’s so balanced. It maintains that Louisa did have many good moments in her life and was not continually miserable despite her burdens (some self imposed). Martha Saxton’s biography was so depressing, making me feel like Louisa never had a happy day in her life. Cheever’s biography leans that way and often Reisen’s does too. I find it hard to believe that Louisa never found consolation in doing what she was meant to do. Sure, she had a martyr complex from time to time and yes, she suffered from many physical ailments that had no cure, but she also had a spirit bigger than life, a spirit that lived in her writing even if she couldn’t always express that spirit in her daily living. It could be that because Louisa was an actress at heart, she might have been melodramatic sometimes in her perception of things (and she poured a lot of that into her “rubbish”). I also find it hard to believe that there was never a moment of pleasure in writing Little Women. Perhaps there wasn’t, but the story flows so well that it’s hard to believe it was all drudgery. There are so many parts of that book that to me seem truly inspired.

Pardon my indulgence as a fan, having the audacity to hang out my shingle and analyze when likely, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Wouldn’t Louisa be horrified! I can’t help it, she is just so very interesting to me.

Incidentally, one last thing: I posted some links on the corresponding Facebook page to this blog that I think you would be interested in. One of our readers posted on her blog about a book based loosely on Little Women, and there’s a fascinating article about Hannah Ropes, the matron in charge of the hospital where Louisa served as a nurse.

 


Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Subscribe to our email list
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

Save