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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My writing room dedicated to Louisa May Alcott

Since I recently did a post on being inspired by Louisa’s need for a room of her own, I thought I’d share my room with you.

I claimed my son’s large basement bedroom and furnished it with a love seat, lounge chair and prints made of collages that I created from “The Most Beloved American Writer” series in the Woman’s Home Companion magazine from 1938 which I bought from Ebay (see previous post). The series was written by Katharine Anthony (featuring excerpts from her biography on Louisa May Alcott) with paintings and drawings of scenes from Little Women by Norman Rockwell.

Here’s where I write (I have a little picture of Louisa’s desk on the table):

room of my own

And here’s what I see on the opposite wall:

woman's home companion the most beloved american writer katharine anthony norman rockwell-2

Here are closeups of the prints:

woman's home companion the most beloved american writer katharine anthony norman rockwell-3

woman's home companion the most beloved american writer katharine anthony norman rockwell-1

That room puts me in the zone instantly! I call it my “lair.” I get a lot of work done down there. 🙂

What’s your special space like?

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Revealing the real Abigail Alcott to the world must include Bronson

Slowly but surely I am getting through Abba’s letters in relation to my research on Lizzie Alcott. These letters cover a period from 1853 to 1858. Abba’s handwriting is difficult; it appears she often wrote in haste. Her eyesight was poor so it’s amazing she could write letters at all considering she was writing either by daylight or candlelight. The funny thing is, the more time you spend reading someone’s handwriting, the easier it is to read. I started by only being able to make out less than half of the words and the task seemed overwhelming. Now, depending on the nature of her scrawl, I can make out eighty to ninety percent as I have figured out her patterns and the quirks of the era with regards to handwriting (such as in the case of words ending in “ss” – the first “s” looks more like an “f.” Figuring that out opened up a lot of words!).

Creating a two-way conversation

bronson letters and journalOne of the things I plan on doing once I complete these transcriptions is to group the letters together in such a way as to create a two-way conversation; in other words, match up the correspondences. All of Bronson’s letters have been gathered into Richard L. Herrnstadt’s fine volume The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott so it’s just a matter of matching up the dates so that you get the reply back to the letter. I believe this conversation is essential to understanding Abigail Alcott fully.

Just the beginning

marmee and louisaEve LaPlante’s ground-breaking Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother was excellent but there appeared to me to be a bias against Bronson (understandable). I don’t believe LaPlante is necessarily hostile towards Bronson (she was actually asked that question at a forum at Fruitlands when the book first came out and she denied she was hostile towards him but rather felt sorry for him). But Bronson is nearly left out of the correspondences in My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother; after going through each page of the book I found only two letters from him. Considering the number of letters they exchanged, this is a real gap.

Bringing a private life to the forefront

my heart is boundlessDon’t get me wrong, I am not faulting Eve LaPlante. One must have a certain focus when writing a book of this nature; there is just no way to include everything. LaPlante desired and succeeded in showing the world the brilliant fire of Abigail Alcott and the suffering that women of her ilk endured in a male-dominated world. What I am saying is that more needs to be done.

Setting forth the challenge

If I could clone myself or if I was twenty years younger, I would take on the task of gathering together all of Abba’s letters to Bronson, coupling them with his replies and releasing them to the world. But my work on Lizzie must come first (and I have another book on a different subject I am also writing).

I will throw out this challenge however. If someone did desire to put together such a book, I would happily share all the letters I will have transcribed by the time my Lizzie book is done. Consider it and don’t be shy about asking.

A letter from Abba to Bronson

I transcribed a letter today from Abba to Bronson dated December 22, 1857. I’d like to share some of it with you:

“I am pinching all I can to meet up the demands on the 1st – Mr. Davis asks me constantly what you are going to do with his note – I told him you would do the best thing you were able to do what I could do nothing but take care of my family this winter – you would be here early in the spring – and if successful would pay him – Now go and doing the best you can – Money is needed in a heap to get all things …”

“Should this prove dear Lizzy’s last winter with us – they will be glad they did not leave her – I try to believe all will go well with the dear child and that father will return to greater joy than we have yet known.”

“Your letters are a great comfort to us – at times I feel too sad to live – then I think of you and how with Spartan intensity you have stood by your life-test – and that my girls are hopefully striving with circumstances – And their mother ought to be a staff of protection – if she cannot be a vehicle of progress for them so I cheer up and say from my heart “Lead thou me on”

“God help you friend – be careful of cold.”

All from Houghton Library, letter dated December 22, 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

A glimpse into a heroine

abbaWhat do these fragments tell us? They tell me that first of all, Abba was under tremendous pressure keeping the home front together while her husband was out on the road. She not only had to take care of a dying daughter but she also had to take care of the financials while at the same time, trying to keep a brave face for her other daughters so as to be a good example. Certainly a heroic effort and one that ultimately succeeded. But what I am constantly struck by, both in this letter and the many others, is her loyalty and devotion to Bronson. It almost never wavers. As much as we look back and shake our heads wondering how she could have stayed with him, put up with him, loved him, she did. She loved him. She encouraged him to do what he was doing because she felt it was right for him to do so. And she admired his adherence to his principles.

Bronson’s awareness of his wife’s worth

amos bronson alcottThese letters are an important part of Abigail’s history and legacy. Bronson obviously thought so as he chose to read through them and her journals after he died. We know that many were destroyed, perhaps at her request, perhaps to protect his reputation, it likely was both. But LaPlante writes on page 264 of Marmee and Louisa that “Bronson found the experience unexpectedly painful. Abigail’s accounts of him and their marriage filled him with shame.”

Troubled marriage, great love

Abigail and Bronson’s marriage was troubled but despite that trouble she was devoted to him. He may have had an eye for younger women when he was older (such as Ednah Dow Cheney to whom he wrote intimate letters and took long walks) but he did love Abba as much as he was capable. The problem of course was that she was far more capable of selfless love than he was. Likely they were a product of their time: women were trained to be self-sacrificing and live in a private sphere whereas men were trained to go out and conquer the world.

bronson-abba

Completing her legacy

I hope that a by-product of my research on Lizzie will be a book someday by someone that will include a two-way conversation between Abigail and her husband. Her legacy is not complete without him.

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Susan Cheever discusses her biography on Louisa May Alcott

Here is a video I found of Susan Cheever discussing her book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography:

Click to Tweet & Share: Watch Susan Cheever discuss her book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography http://wp.me/p125Rp-1eY

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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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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?

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Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge Update

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comHow are you doing on the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge? I’ve been pecking away at the Little Women re-read along with a re-read of Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine Stern. I’ve been keeping a casual reading journal for the latter and I’ll share some from that.

Still the best biography

Louisa May Alcott A Biography still stands for me as the definitive biography on Louisa. It was originally published in 1950 and updated in 1996.

Stern doesn’t waste a line – each one is pregnant with information! Yet, as dense as this book is, it doesn’t read as dry or scholarly, but more like a novel, and from the point of view of Louisa.

Reading from different perspectives

The first time I read this book I felt like I got into Louisa’s head and heart, living her life with her. I felt very sad when the book was done because the visit was too. But it was immensely satisfying.

This time I see it a new way. Stern’s thrust for the biography is Louisa the writer.  Every single event in her life revolves around how she can write about it. As an apprentice writer, I find this book to be an amazing teaching tool .

Here’s some examples of how Stern interpreted events as fodder for writing:

Life at Hillside

Stern describes the family’s life at Hillside as the culmination of so many of the things that fed Louisa’s happier writing. Little Women, which was based on part on that life, is a shining example.

Hillside had given Louisa a foundation of  stability to lean on for comfort during the leaner times, and fodder to draw upon for future stories.

Reading leads to doubt

Stern describes a crisis of confidence on young Louisa’s part as she read more and more of Emerson’s books from his library. She saw her limitations and stopped writing in her journal. Abba steps in to encourage her with a note in her journal:

“I’m sure your life has many fine passages well worth revealing and to me they are always precious … Do write a little each day, dear, but if a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won.”

Turning the common into the extraordinary

Stern maps out Louisa’s influences, from Thoreau for Flower Fables to the Music Hall and divas Madame Sontag and Jenny Lind for The Rival Prima Donnas, written for The Saturday Evening Gazette. She writes, “surely no experience was too unimportant to serve as grist for the author’s mill …”

In her twenties, Louisa was leading a fairly uneventful life of hard work, mostly doing things she didn’t want to do. Such a grind could snuff out the inner life but not so with Louisa. Sterns writes of Louisa’s life fueling her ambition all the more: she meant to earn her living as a writer and therefore never missed an opportunity to develop life into a story.

It shows that you can lead a common life and still pull out the uncommon insights that turn these things into the extraordinary. You just need to have the eyes to see. Louisa excelled at that skill.

That’s my update for now. Are you participating in the challenge and if so, what are you reading?

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