Recollections of Louisa May Alcott by Maria S. Porter, longtime friend in later life

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

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

Louisa May Alcott had numerous friends and admirers. Being writers themselves (or children of famous writers such as Julian Hawthorne, see previous post), these friends and admirers provide us with what I think are the most colorful biographical sketches of Louisa. No scholar can truly capture what a contemporary (especially a friend) can reveal through their personal anecdotes. The “facts” they present are likely colored by the person’s great esteem for Louisa but if one reads between the lines, a lot of great information can be gleamed.

Girlfriends

Maria S. Porter, fellow abolitionist and feminist, was a close friend of Louisa’s in the last twenty years of her life (see Daniel Shealy’s excellent book, Alcott in Her Own Time). While she goes over Louisa’s history, citing in particular Louisa’s experience going out to service at eighteen (which inspired “How I Went Out to Service”, see previous post), Fruitlands and Louisa’s feelings about her parents, I found the most interesting parts to be specific recollections from Porter about Louisa.

Shades of Jo March

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

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

This story, told by Louisa as the two “floated down the Concord River” on a moonlit summer evening sets the stage for a classic Jo moment in Little Women:

“ ‘When I was a girl of eighteen or thereabouts,” she said, ‘I had very fine dark brown hair, thick and long, almost touching the floor as I stood. At a time when the family needs were great, and discouragement weighed heavily upon us, I went to a barber, let down my hair, and asked him how much money he would give me for it. When he told me the sum, it seemed so large to me that I then and there determined I would part with my most precious possession if during the next week the clouds did not lift.’” (“Recollections of Louisa May Alcott,” pg. 9; from Recollections of Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier and Robert Browning by Maria S. Porter)

The clouds did indeed lift with financial help coming from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

A time of service

Louisa’s eighteenth year was an eventful one. It was the year she went out to service.  Louisa’s family (especially the well-to-do members) was up in arms over her taking this position. She recalled to Porter,

“ ‘I don’t care. Every kind of work that is paid for is service. It is rather a downfall to give up trying to be a Siddons or a Fanny Kemble, and become a servant at the beck and call of people; but what of it?” “All my highly respectable relatives,’ said Louisa, ‘held up their hands in holy horror when I left the paternal roof to go to my place of servitude, as they called it, and said, ‘Louisa Alcott will disgrace her name by what she is doing.’ But despite the lamentations and laughter of my sisters, I got my small wardrobe ready, and after embracing the family, with firmness started for my new home.’” (Ibid, pg. 12)

Porter commented that the experience was so painful that Louisa rarely discussed it and when she did, “it was with heightened color and tearful eyes.”

Aided by humor

Another painful family experience, Fruitlands, was taken more in stride. Here Louisa’s wonderful sense of humor prevailed with the writing of Transcendental Wild Oats. Porter wrote how “Louisa’s eyes would twinkle as she described the strange methods at Fruitlands!” Humor would provide Louisa with a port in the storm through her often tumultuous life.

Love of acting

Porter went on at length about Louisa’s love for Dickens, citing a particular character favorite, Mrs. Jarley whom Louisa often impersonated.  Porter, aware of Louisa’s lifelong love of the theater writes,

“I was so fortunate as to persuade her to take the part of Mrs. Jarley in the waxwork show. It was a famous show, never to be forgotten. People came from all parts of New England to see Louisa Alcott’s Mrs. Jarley, for she had for years been famous in the part whenever a deserving charity was to be helped in that way. Shouts of delight and peals of laughter greeted her original and witty descriptions of the ‘figgers’ at each performance, and it was repeated every evening for a week.” (Ibid, pg. 20)

Gossip!

Porter admired Louisa’s keen insight into character, commenting that was “almost ruthless in her denunciation of society.” I love imagining Louisa making this comment:

“Society in New York and in Boston, as we have seen it to-night, is corrupt. Such immodest dressing, such flirtations of some of these married women with young men whose mothers they might be, so far as age is concerned, such drinking of champagne – I loathe it all! If I can only live long enough I mean to write a book whose characters will be drawn from life. Mrs. — [naming a person present] shall be prominent as the society leader, and the fidelity of the picture shall leave no one in doubt as to the original.” (Ibid, pg. 22)

Those of you better versed in Louisa’s canon than I: did this scene make it into a story? Which one? And if so, I wonder if Mrs. – recognized herself?

Advice for the newest member of the school committee

Louisa was delighted when Porter was elected to the Melrose school committee in 1874. She of course, made a suggestion,

“I rejoice greatly thereat, and hope that the first thing that you and Mrs. Sewall  propose in your first meeting will be to reduce the salary of the head master of the High School, and increase the salary of the first woman assistant, whose work is quite as good as his, and even harder; to make the pay equal. I believe in the same pay for the same good work.” (Ibid, pg. 22)

I bet that went over well!

A last impression …

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

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

The last time that Porter would see Louisa was when her father was dying. Bronson, Anna and her family were living in the Louisburg Square home in a fashionable part of Boston but Louisa was living in Dunreath Place, a rest home run by good friend Dr. Rhoda Lawrence. Porter’s impression of Louisa’s appearance is telling,

“On Thursday morning, March 2, I chanced to be at the house, where I had gone to inquire for Mr. Alcott and Louisa. While talking with Mrs. Pratt, her sister, the door opened, and Louisa, who had come in from the Highlands to see her father, entered. I had not seen her for months, and the sight of her thin, wan face and sad look shocked me, and I felt for the first time that she was hopelessly ill. After a few affectionate words of greeting she passed through the open doors of the next room.” (Ibid, pgs. 27-28)

… and the last words

Porter was the recipient of the last letter ever written by Louisa. It was in response to a photograph of May that Porter had sent her. It was written likely on March 3:

“DEAR MRS. PORTER, Thanks for the picture. I am very glad to have it. No philosophy is needed for the impending event. I shall be very glad when the dear old man falls asleep after his long and innocent life. Sorrow has no place at such times, and death is never terrible when it comes as now in the likeness of a friend.

Yours truly,

L. M. A.

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

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

P. S. I have another year to stay in my ‘Saint’s Rest,’ [her name for Dunreath Place] and then I am promised twenty years of health. I don’t want so many, and I have no idea I shall see them. But as I don’t live for myself, I hold on for others, and shall find time to die some day, I hope.” (Ibid, pg. 28)

She got her wish sooner than she thought.

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Happy birthday! Bronson Alcott at 216, Louisa at 183

Louisa May Alcott had remarked in her journal that memories of her November 29th birthday were not always happy ones.

The gift of self-denial

The Temple School

The Temple School

There’s the famous story of birthday number 3, celebrated at her father’s Temple School where, in the end, she had to deny herself her own birthday treat and give it to a student because there were not enough. Her “gift” was praise and a kiss from her mother for her self-denial. Bitter sweet.

Letter from her father

Then there is this story which I recently discovered in my re-read of Madelon Bedell’s The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. On her tenth birthday, she received this letter from her father:

“The good Spirit comes into the Breasts of the meek and loveful to abide long; anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill-speakings, idelnesses, heedlessness, rude behavior, and all such as these drive it away, o grieve it so that it leaves the poor misguided soul to live in its own obstainate, perverse, proud, discomfort; which is the very Pain of Sin and is in the Bible called the worm that never dies, the gnawing worm, the sting of Conscience.” (The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 244)

Good grief!

bronson to louisa on her 7th birthday

from Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian DeForest

Favortism

Bedell maintains that Bronson and Louisa may have been uncomfortable with the implied intimacy of sharing the same birthday, given their tempestuous relationship. In an effort to downplay the meaning, Bronson made sure every member of the family got a gift on their respective 43rd and 10th birthdays: Abba received a new rocking chair, Anna a silver pencil case and gold pen and inkstand, Lizzie two books. The birthday girl received the same gift as her baby sister Abbie: “little stories,” hers being titled “Flora’s Dial.” (Ibid) So only did every family get a gift on their birthdays, but some members got better gifts. How it must have stung Louisa’s heart to see the obvious favoritism Bronson showed towards her older sister (and where the money came from for such extravagance is a mystery).

Gradual reconciliation

512 louisa says goodbye to bronson

illustration by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Yet, over the years, Louisa and Bronson came to appreciate one another as one matured and the other mellowed out. Her sacrifice of health during her Civil War nursing stint showed Bronson that his daughter was of extraordinary character. He was proud of her, and that pride continued through her literary success. It is said that he lived off of Louisa’s success in his subsequent conversation tours but could he have not also just been a proud father?

In the end they would share the closest of intimacies, dying within three days of each other, he inviting her to come “up” with him, pointing heavenward.

Happy birthday Bronson and Louisa!

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A visit to Fruitlands where Louisa took up the family cross

at the bottom of a steep hill

at the bottom of a steep hill

Back in October I took a trip to Fruitlands in Harvard, MA, only about 40 minutes from my home. That visit sparked a long period of binge reading on the subject which is why, in the dead of winter, I’m only getting around to writing about that visit now.

A paradox

Having immersed myself in Louisa’s life over the past two and one half years, Fruitlands is pregnant with meaning. It’s a paradox – beautiful and open yet oppressive as I reflect on past events. In the summer of 1843, a new kind of family representing the hope of Utopia moved into the then red, ramshackle farmhouse nestled in a valley, at the end of a primitive and steep drive, deliberately isolated from the outside world.

The players

Accompanying Bronson Alcott and wife Abba were their daughters: Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth and May. Charles Lane came with his young son William. Other members of this “consociate” family were Joseph Palmer, Isaac Hecker, Samuel Larned, Abraham Everett (aka Abraham Woods or Wood Abraham) and Samuel Bower. The only other woman to join, Ann Page, came later.

23-joseph-and-nancy-palmer.jpg

22-charles lane and isaac hecker

The books

Clara Endicott Sears is the foundress of the now Fruitlands Musuem, having bought up the land in the early 1900s and written a book about the experiment, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands. Her book is one of the few (if not the only one) that includes the journal writings of different members of the group beyond Alcott and Lane.

bronson-alcotts-fruitlands-cover-and-inside-with-copyright

It also includes Louisa’s take on the experiment, the satirical Transcendental Wild Oats, plus diary entries from Anna and Louisa during their time there.

atkins-francisThese books led to a young adult novel, Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands by Jeannine Atkins (see previous post) and finally Richard Francis’ tour de force, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. This last book is densely packed with information and as a result, riddled with sticky notes which I still have to sort through.  Eventually I will share what I learned from this marvelous book (see previous posts).

Revealing writings

Louisa’s diary entries reveal a ten year-old girl who was already reform-minded, introspective and conscious of her faults. There are numerous references to her quick temper and deep regret as in this passage from September 1, 1843:

“I felt sad because I have been cross to-day and did not mind Mother. I cried, and then I felt better …” (pg. 107, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott Sears).

And yet in the same passage, she shows her astuteness:

“Father asked us what was God’s noblest work. Anna said men, but I said babies. Men are often bad; babies never are.” (Ibid, pg. 106)

Louisa was not afraid to speak her mind and possibly earn the disfavor of her father; Anna however always wanted to please him.

The same passage also demonstrates how reform-minded she was becoming in her reaction to a story read to her by Bronson which demonstrated why the rich need to be kind to the poor. Louisa wrote, “I liked it very much, and I shall be kind to poor people.” (Ibid)

She finds a moment at bedtime up in her cramped attic room to appreciate the natural world: “As I went to bed the moon came up very brightly and looked at me.” (Ibid, pgs. 106-7)

Playtime

The girls would often pretend they were fairies or go berry picking.

The girls would often pretend they were fairies or go berry picking.

Other journal entries describe hours of play spent running up and down hills, gathering nuts and berries and pretending:

“I ran in the wind and pretended to be a horse, and had a lovely time in the woods with Anna and Lizzie. We were fairies, and made gowns and paper wings. I “flied” the highest of all.” (Ibid, pg. 107)

Change of weather

views of Mounts Monadnock and Wachusett

views of Mounts Monadnock and Wachusett

When the climate was agreeable, Fruitlands was a paradise (except perhaps for Abba who had to do the lion’s share of the work). Beautiful mountain vistas, rich forests, sparkling streams and long walks in the fields complemented the sense of warmth and community that Bronson and Charles Lane wanted to cultivate. Despite the rigors of living at Fruitlands (among other things a totally Vegan diet without the benefit of coffee, tea, sugar and butter; scratchy, lightweight linen for clothing so as not to rob the sheep of their wool or use cotton created by slave labor; sparse usage of animals for farming; strict rules and an over-abundance of “high-minded talk” along with an under-abundance of hand to the plow) and the difficult personalities involved, the community appeared to be thriving.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, after visiting during the summer wrote, “They look well in July; we will see them in December.” (Ibid, pg. 69) He had provided financial help though later commented that “Their whole doctrine is spiritual but they always end with saying, Give us much land and money.” (Wikipedia, Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Emerson was prophetic in his assessment of Fruitlands; when the temperature cooled and the snows came, life grew unbearably austere due to a lack of food, heat and warm clothing (although there was still an abundance of “high-minded talk”). One by one, the residents of Fruitlands abandoned the community leaving behind the destitute Alcotts, Charles Lane and his son. Eventually the property would be sold, Bronson and Charles Lane would part company, and the surviving family unit of Alcotts would be sorely tested.

Impressionable child

There is no doubt among Alcott biographers that Fruitlands was a very formative time in Louisa’s life. Nothing escaped the sensibilities of this ten year-old, most especially the burden of Fruitlands on her mother and the mounting tension between her parents which threatened separation.

She saw the amount of work Abba took of, caring for all the residents plus any visitors who dropped in, often unannounced. Bronson and Charles Lane frequently left the farm on trips to promote their utopian community (which provided no monetary income). One time they left when the grain was ready to be harvested. Louisa writes in Transcendental Wild Oats:

512 fruitlands - gathering the grain

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

“About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away. An easterly storm was coming up and the yellow stacks were sure to be ruined. Then Sister Hope [Abba] gathered her forces. Three little girls, one boy (Timon’s son) [William, Charles Lane’s son], and herself, harnessed to clothes-baskets and Russia-linen sheets, were the only teams she could command; but with these poor appliances the indomitable woman got in the grain and saved food for her young, with the instinct and energy of a mother-bird with a brood of hungry nestlings to feed.” (Ibid, pgs. 166-167).

Soul mates

Louisa and her mother understood each other and leaned on each other. The daughter internalized the anxiety and frustration of the mother and watched as her father failed to provide, leading the family to the brink of starvation. Louisa witnessed the strength of her mother who eventually led the family away from Fruitlands to safety while the father collapsed emotionally (although Richard Francis in Fruitlands The Alcott Family and their Search for Utopia disputes this, claiming that Louisa invented or exaggerated her father’s response to the failure of the experiment to enhance the storyline of Transcendental Wild Oats  – see page 259).

Assuming the family cross

An exchange between Louisa (in 1843, then eleven) and Abba in Louisa’s journal signals the unspoken promise Louisa made to take care of her mother for the rest of her life:

Dear Louy,
I enclose a picture for you which I always liked very much, for I have imagined that you might be just such an industrious daughter & I such a feeble but loving mother, looking to your labor for my daily bread. Keep it for my sake, & your own, for you and I always like to be grouped together.
Mother

Louisa responds with a poem:

To Mother

I hope that soon dear mother, you & I may be
In the quiet room my fancy has so often made for thee,
The pleasant sunny chamber, the cushioned easy chair,
The books laid for your reading, the vase of flowers fair.
The desk beside the window where the sun shines warm and bright,
And there in ease and quiet, the promised book you write,
While I sit close beside you, content at least to see,
That you can rest dear mother, & I can cherish thee.

(pgs. 107-108, Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott, edited by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian DeForest)

It was a promise that would set Louisa on a course that not only achieved its goal but surpassed it beyond her wildest dreams.

Come and visit Fruitlands with me:

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In the next post, I will share the impressions of some of the Fruitlands residents as detailed by Clara Endicott Sears.

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From Alcott Memoirs: Bronson from the point of view of a grateful student

In his book, Alcott Memoirs, Dr. Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis spends much time describing the special relationship he shared with Bronson Alcott, and the profound effect Bronson had on Dr. Willis’ life. As a teenage boy, Willis spent many hours in conversation with Bronson and recorded some of these in his journal. Thus we have a recorded conversation with Bronson from the point of view of one of his students.

In a previous post, I had written about John Matteson’s description of Bronson’s conversations (found in Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father). His delightful depiction made me long for some written account that captured the essence of these conversations. I have found such in Alcott Memoirs.

This is just a short example.

Socrates

Even in my youth Mr. Alcott seemed to me always strangely out of place in the midst of the practical utilitarianism of the 19th century, and out of place, too, clad in modern broadcloth. He should have been of the days of Socrates or Seneca and worn the flowing robes of classic Greece or the toga of ancient Rome. He was possessed of a captivating yet almost childlike simplicity of manner and bore about with him an air of serene repose, contrasting sharply with the bustling, business-like manner of most of the literary men of those days.

In person he was tall and spare, his fine head crowned with silvery locks, his complexion remarkable for its clearness and purity, the flesh tints being as clearly white and red as those of an infant …

As a remarkable evidence of the sympathy between the poet and the philosopher another of the latter’s Orphic Sayings seems to me most appropriate, not only for similarity’s sake as an interesting example of a prose and poetical treatment of the same thought, but because the prose outlines the fundamental principles of Mrs. Eddy s Christian Science almost uncannily, despite its predating this doctrine very many years. “Evil has no positive existence. It has usurped a positive place and being in the popular imagination and by the imagination must be made to flee away into negative life. How shall this be done? By shadowing forth in vivid colors the absolute beauty and phenomena of good; by assuming evil not as positive but as negative; the dark back ground and blot in the picture by contrast. God alone is eternal good, eternal truth. Evil, like its prototype darkness, is not a thing at all but the absence of a thing.”

Mr. Alcott lived his philosophy. He believed in it so thoroughly that to his intimates his daily life exemplified this point far more than his teachings or writings. I have read everything his able pen has uttered. My most lasting impressions, however, are the memories of his simple Sunday afternoon talks. Upon these occasions he laid aside the language of his public utterances, substituting simple concise English expressed with such charm and direction that we elder children had no difficulty in fully comprehending him. I recall the general tenor and much of the phraseology of some of these delightful conversations; of one instance my journal records: “There are no limitations to ideas but there are certain principles from which must spring all true ideas and on the basis of which all principles must rest. A departure from these is an emergence at once into difficulties and doubts, into uncertainties and mischances.”

“But,” I asked, “how can one know these principles?”

“They are the light that lighteth every man that cometh in the world,” he replied; “they appeal to every consciousness. It is not because men mistake them that they build upon them errors of philosophy or religion, but because they seek to bend these simple truths to suit conditions that do not accord with them. That is, they endeavor to take these foundation stones out of the Temple of Truth and fit them into a structure of their own. I will give you two or three principles that will be sufficient for your guidance through life, but will be of no avail unless you strive to fit them to your life and make them the foundation stones upon which to build your character.

First: The Infinite Supreme, the creator of all life. God, our Father, and His inseparable co-relative man, our brother.

Second: The divine in the human. This is the undying force within every human soul and its means of growth. It is the destiny of this divine spark to glow and finally shine forth in splendor. There is no power nor circumstance here or here after, that can control the development of this force.

Third: The spirit and all its attributes in man are eternal.”

Mr. Alcott believed it was upon these principles, true in themselves, that false structures, false theological conceptions, among them total depravity, an endless hell of physical torture, immediate sanctification that permitted a murderer from a scaffold to enter the highest heaven, had been built. The result of all these he believed to be the shaping of the future into unnatural condition ; a dead future separated from a living present. As he spoke, he became wonderfully radiant, I well remember. He defined the soul as an entity that, after the body was dead, lived on subject to a higher strata of the same moral, social, and intellectual laws as governed the body ere dissolution. For Jesus the man, Mr. Alcott manifested a loving admiration and a tender regard. It was not worship.

One day I asked him if he thought Jesus held any vital relation to the living present. I cannot recall the details of his reply and my journal does not record it; but I remember that he believed Jesus held as real and significant a relation to humanity as He did when He died centuries before; and unfaltering faith in all the attributes, faculties, and power of the spirit of man compelled him to believe in the interpenetration of two spheres of being; that the law of sympathy alone was sufficiently possible to bring a man under the individual guidance and influence of Jesus Himself.

I remember this was to me an intensely interesting conversation. I was startled by his declaring any living man might truthfully assert, as did Jesus in substance, “I am the cause and producer of all things, for you can place no man outside of infinity.” I think more than any other one thing Mr. Alcott s philosophy influenced my life course. I look back over the hills and valleys of memory and, seeing this, I gratefully acknowledge. As I write the vividness of imprint he made upon my boy mind in many conversations comes back to me as fresh and green as the first leaves in an April wood. (pages 26-27, 53, 57-60, Alcott Memoirs Posthumously Compiled from Papers, Journals and Memoranda of the late Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis by E. W. L. & H. B.)

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What was Louisa May Alcott really like? The memories of her “adopted” brother

Of all the memoirs written by people who knew the Alcotts well, none provided more detailed descriptions of family members than Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis’ book, Alcott Memoirs. In a series of posts, I will share with you his impressions of each member of this illustrious family.

Willis’ daughter Ellen who compiled the memoir described her father as a “Unitarian clergyman, a doctor of medicine, a lecturer of some renown, a nature lover, and a writer of power and charm.” (page 11, Alcott Memoirs Posthumously Compiled from Papers, Journals and Memoranda of the late Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis by E. W. L. & H. B.)

Orphaned in his childhood, Willis was taken in by Abba and Bronson at the age of fourteen and spent many subsequent summers with the family. He was considered a son and brother,  regarded with deep affection by the family. He enjoyed an unusual level of intimacy with them and recorded his thoughts generously.

I begin with his description of Louisa, who regarded him as the brother she had always longed for:

[Louisa] had a clear olive-brown complexion with brown hair and eyes. She answered perfectly an ideal of the “Nut Brown Maid”; she was full of spirit and life; … impulsive and moody, and at times irritable and nervous. She could run like a gazelle. She was the most beautiful girl runner I ever saw. She could leap a fence or climb a tree as well as any boy and dearly loved a good romp. We have many times clambered together into the topmost branches of the tall trees at Hillside. She was passionately fond of Nature, loved the fields and the forests and was in special harmony with animal life. Her brief and racy description of herself in the opening chapter of “Little Women” is most accurately true: “Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin and brown and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp gray eyes which appeared to see everything and were by turn fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long thick hair was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net out of the way. Round shoulders had Joe, big hands and feet, a fly-away look to her clothes and the un comfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman, and didn’t like it.”

Louisa May Alcott at around age 25 (Wikipedia)

Louisa had great love of personal beauty and wide open eyes were her especial admiration. Her own were rather small and, as mine were also, we heartily sympathized with each other on this point. One day after the family had moved to Boston she was walking upon Washington Street. The thought came to her: “Now if I keep my eyes open people will think that I have beautiful large eyes” so she fixed her eyes in the manner she thought would impart the most captivating expression to her face and continued her promenade. She began to notice that many looked at her intently, and thought as a child might, they were admiring her beautiful eyes, mentally congratulating herself upon the success of her efforts. I had called during her absence and upon her return sat chatting with Anna and her mother. As she entered the room I exclaimed, “Why, Louisa, what on earth ails you?” She made no reply, but walked directly to the mirror, giving, the instant she looked into it, a shriek of horror. She had retained the expression upon her face that she had imagined so enhanced its beauty until she could get to a mirror and ob serve for herself its effect, discovering, to her dismay, that she had been parading Washington Street with an insane stare upon her face. Her effort to keep her eyelids open to their widest possible extent had contracted the skin of her forehead into wrinkles and the effect produced was as of an insane person. As she explained to us we burst into shouts of laughter and for a long time afterwards we chaffed her unmercifully upon the “well open eyes.”

Louisa always lamented she was not born a boy. With the exception of rope skipping, at which she excelled all of us in power of endurance, she preferred boys games to those of her sex. But nothing gave her more pleasure than plays arid tableaux. She would conceive
an idea and write a little drama about it, cast all of us in well-chosen parts and direct, with her sister Anna, a fairly creditable children’s performance …

… If I were asked to designate two words best describing Louisa I should say wit and tenderness. Her witticisms were sparkling as a brook and as continuous as its flow. (Ibid, pages 35-38, 41)

Next time, meet Bronson and participate on one of his famed “conversations.”

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“A Memorable Evening at the Alcotts’ House” as recalled by Edward W. Emerson

I recently picked up a lovely volume from the library entitled Louisa May Alcott An Intimate Anthology, put together the by New York Public Library using materials from their archives.

What’s inside

The book contains stories and essays Louisa wrote about herself, excerpts from her journals, intimate poetry, short stories and recollections from friends.

Resistance
is futile … 🙂

Although I already have much of what is in here, the book is so aesthetically pleasing with its squarish size, typography and illustrations that I know I’ll be visiting Amazon soon!

Who says print books are dead? Much as I love ebooks, there is still something very charming about a book like this.

Impressions from a neighbor

That being said, an essay by Edward W. Emerson, son of Ralph Waldo, caught my eye. What would be his impressions of his extraordinary neighbors, the Alcotts?

The home

Rare photo with the elm tree, from The Louisa May Alcott Collection at Brigham Young University http://net.lib.byu.edu/scm/alcott/adaptations.html

He obviously admired Orchard House and the simple elegance the Alcotts brought to it. Describing it as “extremely picturesque” with a “superb elm” which served as a “great parasol in summer,” he went on to describe the orchard of apple trees, “pink and white in May, and red and yellow in September” which gave the house its name.

The interior of the home was distinguished with plain and unpretentious décor. As an example, he described the windows as uncluttered with the usual array of curtains, shades and blinds which blocked the sun. Instead they were adorned simply with “pretty muslin curtains, made out of old party dresses:; the trees outside “temper[ed] the light.”

The sisters

An interesting side note is Edward’s description of Louisa for he obviously thought her to be the most physically attractive despite her boyish manner:

Louisa at the gate, drawn by May Alcott, from Louisa May Alcott An Intimate Anthology

“Louisa was very fine looking, had the most regular features of the family, and very handsome, wavy brown hair like her mother’s. She had always a rather masculine air, and a twinkle woke constantly in her eye at the comic side of things, a characteristic that carries many persons through hard experiences that crush or sour others. Her talk was always full of little catches from her favorite Dickens.”

He described Anna as “plain” with a sweet disposition and a quick sense of humor “without the ingredient of tartness that Louisa’s sometimes had.” May, “the darling of the family” was a “tall, well-made blond, the lower part of her face irregular, but she had beautiful blue eyes and brilliant yellow hair.”

“A memorable evening at the Alcotts’ house”

Edward elaborated on something I’ve longed wanted to know about: what was it like to spend an evening with the Alcotts? Biographies mention how the family would entertain neighbors on a weekly basis. What was it like to go over to Orchard House for a visit?

A typical visit to Orchard House began with a hearty greeting from Abba. Edward lauded the fact that everyone remained together calling it “bad taste” the way that young girls often slipped off to other rooms with their callers.

Parlor and dining room where gatherings took place. Courtesy of http:www.louisamayalcott.org

Enter Louisa

Louisa displayed her wicked wit and theatrical flair, appearing in costume as colorful characters from plays she had written. May, in high spirits, would play the piano encouraging raucous singing and dancing. As the evening wore down, “short stories on the porch might follow as twilight deepened into dark, and they were sufficiently ‘creepy.’”

Fun and games

The Alcotts loved their games such as pin-running and bean bag tossing. Edward remarked that to “play for a prize was unheard of. We played for fun, the best of prizes, and thus there was no unwholesome excitement …”

Young Edward with his mother Lidian

Warm memories, useful lessons

Reminiscing on those days, Edward celebrates the simple way that the Alcotts lived, noting that “Great pleasure may be had very simply and cheaply.” He continues,

“The family whose beautiful life I celebrate first made themselves happy in adversity by their methods, and later hundreds of others. One trait remains which I have hardly emphasized enough. I have never known a family who equaled the Alcotts in generosity, even in their poverty.”

Amusements

Is it possible to imagine a time without TV, video games, computers and mobile devices? Edward thought life in his time was becoming increasingly complicated even in household life and amusements. Imagine what he would have thought with the ways we entertain ourselves today!

Next time the power goes out, think about Orchard House, a warm gathering of neighbors, and simple games, songs, dance and stories that passed the time so pleasantly.

Click to Tweet & Share:“A Memorable Evening at the Alcotts’ House” as recalled by Edward W. Emerson http://wp.me/p125Rp-12U

Louisa May Alcott’s summer retreat

A trip to a warehouse bookstore in the middle of nowhere produced a great find! I had just about given up the hope of finding something interesting until this book caught my eye:  Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985, edited by Anne M. Lyell.

What is so significant about Nonquitt? This is where Louisa May Alcott spent her summers in the last years of her life. This book was such a great find because of new pictures of Louisa, her nephews, the cottage she rented and the summer home she eventually purchased.

The book devoted a short chapter (chapter 9, pages 94-97 – all references come from these pages unless otherwise noted.) to Louisa with anecdotal stories of her summers in the southeastern Massachusetts seacoast town near New Bedford.

What brought Louisa May Alcott to Nonquitt?

Recollections from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian suggest that Louisa came to visit the family and fell in love with Nonquitt. He writes:

“I was spending a summer at Nonquitt and she came to visit a friend. I walked over to the cottage and sat an hour with her on the veranda. She was tall, rather rustic looking, dressed in black silk, her shoulders a little bent, her checks somewhat thin, her big, black eyes sparkling now and then with humor or irony.”

Louisa was in her late forties at the time, obviously showing the ravages of her constant battle with her health. Remembering how vibrant she once was, it is sad to read how much her poor health had aged her.

Renting the first cottage

Louisa rented a house in 1881, sharing it with her niece, then 2-year-old Lulu (daughter of younger sister May who had passed away soon after childbirth). Her older sister Anna also summered at the cottage with her two teenage sons, Fred and John.

Anna’s memories

Anna writes, “I went to Nonquit[t] where Louisa had a cottage, a lovely green paradise which offers everything one can wish. Here I rested, and for fun got up theatricals (as usual), charades, etc., and grew quite young and festive, and enjoyed my lark so much I didn’t not want to come home . . . we [Louisa and Anna] take turns and so keep our boys there eight or ten weeks.” (pg. 141, The Alcotts As I Knew Them by Clara Gowing, e-book version).

Still in love with the theatre

Louisa, Anna and sons Fred and John took active part in the summer theatricals (Fred and John are shown in the above picture). Having never outgrown her love of the theatre, Louisa wrote and rewrote scripts and took on the jobs of coach, scenery designer and stage manager.

Summer paradise

Louisa rarely did any serious writing while summering in Nonquit. Mostly she took great pleasure in watching her little niece, Lulu:

“My poppet is a picture of health, vigor and delightful naughtiness. She runs wild in this fine place with some twenty other children to play with – nice babies, well-bred, and with pleasant mammas for me to gossip with.” (from a letter to a friend, 1882)

The Pied Piper of Nonquitt

An anecdote from the New Bedford newspaper speaks of Louisa often out walking with her red parasol in hand, followed by a group of children (she was, of course the famous “Miss Alcott” by this time). The newspaper goes on to say:

“There seemed to be a certain magnetism about her that drew the little ones to her, and it was a familiar sight to see the famous writer seated on her porch, or on a rock on the beach, a dozen or more children grouped around her, while she told children’s stories to them . . . Then when a demand would be made for the retelling of some one particular story, she would purposely change some character or some situation in it. The children would immediately correct her, and tell to her in their own way, the stories she had previously related to them.”

Always writing . . .

Even though Louisa came to vacation in Nonquitt, she could never stop writing. She contributed several short stories to the local paper, the Nonquitt Breeze.

Buying her piece of paradise

In 1883, Louisa purchased her own property,a cottage at the northeast corner of Narragansett and Central Avenue (presently called Old Wharf Road). She recorded in her journal on June 24:

“To Nonquitt with Lulu and K. and John (Pratt), Fixed my house, and enjoyed the rest and quiet immensely. Lulu wild with joy at the freedom . . .” In July she wrote, “Restful days in my little house, which is cool and quiet, and without the curse of a kitchen to spoil it . . .”

Louisa took her meals at the local hotel.

Failing health

By the end of 1885, Louisa was troubled by vertigo and rheumatism. It was then that she began to destroy letters and journals that she didn’t want prying eyes to see.

June of 1886 was her last visit to Nonquitt before poor health settled in. In a letter to Mary Mapes Dodge (friend, and editor of St. Nichoas Magazine where many of her books had been serialized), Louisa writes:

“Lu and I go to Nonquitt next week; and after a few days rest, I will fire up the old engine and see if it will run a short distance without a break-down.”

She fought against her ill health and finished her last book, Jo’s Boys.

The fate of Louisa’s cottage

In 1888, Louisa died and the nephew she adopted, John Pratt Alcott, inherited the Nonquitt house. In 1907 it was sold to John’s brother Fred who added on to the house.

In 1945 it was moved one block and is owned as of 1987 by Daniel Strohmeier.

The store where I found the book

So where did I find this book?

The store is known as the Book Bear in West Brookfield, MA. They are decidedly old-fashioned, not accepting credit cards and not doing email! They do have a website (click on the name) so you can get an idea of what they have.

I definitely will be visiting again soon!

Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985 is available online through Amazon and other outlets (the link leads to Amazon). I look forward to reading the rest of this fascinating book.


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