Jo’s Boys – reading the first edition knowing Louisa was alive

Look at what I got at The Barrows in Concord!

jo's boys 1886 aunt jo's scrap bag shawl straps 1872 combined

New meaning

This is the first time that I’ve acquired first editions of Louisa May Alcott’s books. Knowing she was alive when these books were published adds another layer of meaning to the reading. I feel myself transported back to 1886, catching up on the adventures at Plumfield.

jo's boys 1886 edition frontpiece

A poignant reminder

The book begins with a touching preface:

“… To account for the seeming neglect of Amy, let me add, that, since the original of that character died, it has been impossible for me to write of her as when she was here to suggest, criticise, and laugh over her namesake. The same excuse applies to Marmee. But the folded leaves are not blank to those who knew and loved them, and can find memorials of them in whatever is cheerful, true, or helpful in these pages.”

The waning years

jo's boys 1886 edition louisaJo’s Boys was written over a seven year period as Louisa’s health was poor. By the time the book was published, she had moved out of her Boston address at Louisburg Square and was residing at Dr. Rhoda Lawrence’s rest home in Roxbury. Plagued with exhaustion from overwork, stomach trouble and difficulty swallowing among other ailments, Louisa had shrunk to a shadow of herself. A woman of 54, she looked much older in her pictures.

Remembering when

With this in mind, I was struck by the description of Nan in Chapter One, “Ten Years Later.” Nan was the character most resembling Louisa in her girlhood. She was even referred to as “giddy gaddy.” There was a wistful longing in the writing as Louisa recalled her own vigorous youth. It became clear to me that Louisa was describing the antithesis of her own sad situation (italics are mine to illustrate):

“Nan was a handsome girl, with a fresh color, clear eye, quick smile, and the self-poised look young women with a purpose always have. She was simply and sensibly dressed, walked easily, and seemed full of vigor with her broad shoulder well back, arms swinging freely, and the elasticity of youth and health in every motion. The few people she met turned to look at her, as if it was a pleasant sight to see a hearty, happy girl walking country ward that lovely day …”

Reliving her youth

Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters, spoke last summer at the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House (see previous post) on the subject of Louisa’s health and its influence on her writing, maintaining that Louisa lived out her fantasy of restored vigor in her later books. The above paragraph is a fine example.

Role reversal

Nan has no time for romance; her focus is on her career. This does not stop Tom from pursing her, but in a most unusual way. In a classic case of role reversal, Tom is the self-sacrificing one, studying medicine so that he can be near to her when he would prefer to study something else. In the opening scene, Nan was “walking briskly” ahead while Tom was “pegging on behind.” He hopes for more (so do I!) but for now they are just good friends.

Past and present

Little Men was full of references to Louisa’s past and I imagine Jo’s Boys will be too. But it will be interesting to see just how of her present is included. So far, in just the first few pages, there is much, including the fact that Jo now has “money, fame, and plenty of the work I love.”

Have you read Jo’s Boys? What did you think of it?

Do you own any first editions of Louisa’s works? How do you feel when you read them?

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Wrapping up Little Men: Jo creates her own utopia

coverThe final chapter of Little Men, “Thanksgiving,” states the true nature of Plumfield in plain language. But the book, more a series of short stories under a common theme rather than a novel, already lays out the vision through the stories. Still, it is quite satisfying to hear Jo lay out her vision of a perfect world to her dearest friend Laurie. It is the one time in the book where we see them again as of old, devoted to each other as sister and brother with a tender filial love. It made me wish there had been more interaction between the original characters of Little Women but the little men were at the heart of the story.

Fruits of her labors

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Jo and Laurie from the 1880 version of Little Women from Roberts BrothersJo is able to show Laurie just how her vision works, pointing to “the happy group of lads and lassies dancing, singing, and chattering together with every sign of kindly good fellowship.” It is a prelude to a world where grown-up men and women will be equals, benefiting from the differences of each sex. She puts Laurie’s doubts to rest about mixing boys and girls together in school by demonstrating how they have influenced each other:

Womanly influences

little men patty pans“Daisy is the domestic element, and they all feel the charm of her quiet, womanly ways. Nan is the restless, energetic, strong-minded one; they admire her courage, and give her a fair chance to work out her will, seeing that she has sympathy as well as strength, and the power to do much in their small world. Your Bess is the lady, full of natural refinement, grace, and beauty. She polishes them unconsciously, and fills her place as any lovely woman may, using her gentle influence to lift and hold them above the coarse, rough things of life, and keep them gentlemen in the best sense of the fine old word.”

Gentlemen in the making

The boys have done their fair share as well:

littlemen03“Nat does much for Daisy with his music; Dan can manage Nan better than any of us; and Demi teaches your Goldilocks so easily and well that Fritz calls them Roger Ascham and Lady Jane Grey. Dear me! if men and women would only trust, understand, and help one another as my children do, what a capital place the world would be!” and Mrs. Jo’s eyes grew absent, as if she was looking at a new and charming state of society in which people lived as happily and innocently as her flock at Plumfield.”

Progress made?

What would Jo/Louisa think of men and women today?  Would she be pleased at the progress made over the last one hundred and fifty years? I believe she would say it was a good start but there was still much work to be done.

The power behind the vision

The guiding factor of Jo’s and Fritz’ success was love – unconditional and generous love. There were many trials for the boys in the story and at times it looked as if some might be lost. The love of the Bhaers saw these boys through their adversity with patience, kindness, forgiveness and wisdom. The sweet waif Nat grew in six short months into a confident boy able to hold his own and excel at his gift of music. Troubled Dan grew into manhood, learning to trust, finding his own niche in life, and making good use of his boundless energy. Jack was accepted back into the fold despite his sins aware of the work ahead needed for his redemption.

Pleasing to her father

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord's production of Little Women.

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord’s production of Little Women.

Jo’s perfect world is simple, naïve and sweet and could easily be dismissed were it not for the endless power of love. It was all her father could hope for: “ ‘You are doing your best to help on the good time, my dear. Continue to believe in it, to work for it, and to prove its possibility by the success of her small experiment,’ said Mr. March, pausing as he passed to say an encouraging word, for the good man never lost his faith in humanity, and still hoped to see peace, good-will, and happiness reign upon the earth.”

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Last Day of the Summer Conversational Series – Being and Doing: Louisa explores herself and her beliefs through her writing (Part Two)

Cathlin Davis on Louisa’s philosophy of life

cathlin 560Continuing with Day 4 of the series, Professor Cathlin Davis from California State University presented on “Practice Philosophy: ‘I want something to do.’” Through passages from Hospital Sketches, Work, Little Men and some of the rarer short stories (“May Flowers” from A Garland for Girls and “What Becomes of the Pins” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, volume 5), Davis presented a thorough analysis of Louisa’s philosophy for life: work as salvation.

Christie’s personal search for salvation

Davis presented one of my favorite passages from Work where Christie is searching for religion. Work is seen by most as an autobiographical feminist manifesto but often the important spiritual element of the book is overlooked. Davis did a masterful job of tracing the story of Christie showing how she “got religion” by finding meaningful work in her life. Christie has led a hard life and is in need of healing; the protection of the home (and her baby, “Little Hearts-Ease”), something to do (purpose), her tasks in taking care of the greenhouse which generates the income (and surrounds her with nature) and good friends bring that healing.

Purpose and acceptance

Davis continues with Little Men, demonstrating through Demi, Dan and Nan how each found their salvation through their purpose. Demi, the contemplative, surprisingly takes on a practical occupation as a journalist to support his family but still maintains that harmony of body and soul. Dan, a troubled street boy, finds acceptance at Plumfield after traveling a rocky, winding road. Demi’s acceptance of him was most important:

“No honor that [Dan] might earn hereafter would ever by half so precious as the right to teach his few virtues and his small store of learning to the child whom he most respected; and no more powerful restraint could have been imposed upon him than the innocent companion confided to his care …” (Little Men, from Davis’ handout)

Teaching the children

Louisa used her rich imagination in short stories “May Flowers” and “What Becomes of the Pins” to drive home the same point – that purposeful work is the means to salvation. In essence, Louisa was an active contemplative, one who blended being and doing into perfect harmony.

John Matteson on Louisa and Emerson

DAY 4 john 560The series ended with Orchard House favorite John Matteson from John Jay College in New York; he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts. His presentation was titled “Innocence and Experience: Alcott, Moods, and the Emersonian Prism.” Using what Louisa considered to be her most personal book, Matteson demonstrated how Louisa sough to live out the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson in her own life.

How does Emerson deal with artistic genius?

Matteson raised several important questions centered on artistic genius:

  • Can Emerson’s masculine philosophy be applied to feminine thinking?
  • Can the philosophy apply to minds in distress?
  • What about self-denial versus self-expression, and self-governance/service to others versus self-exploration of artistic genius?

Fear of genius

Suggesting that Louisa might have battled privately with a bipolar disorder, Matteson traced the life of Sylvia Yule and her mercurial nature as evidenced by her moods. He asserted that Louisa was fearful of the power and mania of her vortexes; Sylvia’s fear of the intensity of Adam Warwick plays out this concern. She sought to “tame” Sylvia as a means of achieving more of a balance as seen in the conventional ending of the 1882 revised edition of Moods where Sylvia resolves to remain with Geoffrey Moore, her husband (in the 1864 version, a younger Louisa felt she had no choice but to kill Sylvia off to consumption). Matteson believes Moods lost its power as Sylvia drew closer to that balance and maturity.

Contradictions

Emerson’s contradicting thinking on the nature of the mind had to have caused confusion for Louisa. Because Emerson did not believe in neat and tidy endings (since everything to him was fluid and open-ended), he could simultaneously hold the belief that all men were part of one universal mind and yet each man is a unique individual. The universal mind connotes community (something Louisa experienced much of in her early life due to Bronson’s views on consociate families); Louisa challenges Emerson as to whether genius can live in community since it does not lead to commonality. Sylvia is an early depiction of Louisa: full of contractions, longing for harmony due to the inner turmoil of her genius.

On the outside looking in

It is sad to consider how rigid Victorian society was at the time of Louisa’s life, it was vital it was to “fit in” to narrow expectations (which were even more narrow for women) and yet Louisa by nature was far outside of convention. Sylvia was a frustrated intellect who suffered from an overactive and overwrought mind and a heart that never rested.

Violent nature

Mattteson brought up the fascinating point about nature. Emerson promotes nature as healing and stimulating but what happens when nature becomes turbulent and dangerous? Matteson noted three occasions in Moods where Sylvia encounters this part of nature: the thunderstorm that threatened her company’s boat journey, the brush fire that nearly consumed her and the high tide that nearly swept her out to sea. She is challenging Emerson: what happens when the inner life becomes turbulent and dangerous?

Cleaning it up

In the end, Louisa gives Moods the tidy ending, perhaps not having the courage to explore the more open-ended thinking of Emerson.

Final thoughts

The Summer Conversational Series is a wonderful experience of intellectual stimulation and discussion with like-minded people. It’s not just that we discuss Louisa but more on how we discuss life. I have increasingly found it difficult to think like the rest of the world as I read more and more. I was surprised at how much of a Transcendentalist I actually am. Like Louisa, I don’t understand all the thinking of people such as Emerson and Bronson Alcott, but intuitively, I know what they were promoting. To me it is a joy to overlay the Transcendentalist way of thinking onto my Roman Catholic faith; it is helping me to embrace the mystic in me, something I once feared.

I made several new friends this week, friends that I will get together with outside of the Conversational series. To be in the company of such thoughtful and caring people, to find that kind of fellowship gave me the kind of vacation I truly enjoy.

DAY 4 audience laughing 560

DAY 4 jan3 560My heartfelt thanks to Jan Turnquist, Lis Adams, all the presenters and all the Orchard House volunteers for a week I will never forget.

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Little Men: Autobiographical elements

Louisa May Alcott often drew from the deep well of memories to craft her stories. Little Men is full of such detail and it’s fun to pick out these autobiographical elements.

Highlighting her father

For example, Louisa gives us a revealing portrait of her father’s unique ideas about disciplining children in Chapter Four, “Stepping-Stones,” where the new boy, Nat is struggling with telling the truth. On one occasion when he was caught in a lie, Professor Bhaer punished him in a most unique way, using the exact technique Bronson Alcott used at the Temple School as documented in Elizabeth Peabody’s Record of a School.

Tables turned!

chp. 4 Bronson form of punishmentProfessor Bhaer had warned Nat, “See now, when you tell a lie, I will not punish you, but you shall punish me.” Nat was horrified at the prospect, seeing that he would have to strike the Professor on his hand with a long ruler. He began with feeble blows but Professor Bhaer urged him to strike with all his might. Nat complied and suffered great penitence as a result:

Nat took the rule, for when Mr. Bhaer spoke in that tone everyone obeyed him, and, looking as scared and guilty as if about to stab his master, he gave two feeble blows on the broad hand held out to him. Then he stopped and looked up half-blind with tears, but Mr. Bhaer said steadily:

“Go on, and strike harder.”

As if seeing that it must be done, and eager to have the hard task soon over, Nat drew his sleeve across his eyes and gave two more quick hard strokes that reddened the hand, yet hurt the giver more.

“Isn’t that enough?” he asked in a breathless sort of tone.

“Two more,” was all the answer, and he gave them, hardly seeing where they fell, then threw the rule all across the room, and hugging the kind hand in both his own, laid his face down on it sobbing out in a passion of love, and shame, and penitence:

“I will remember! Oh! I will!”

Then Mr. Bhaer put an arm about him, and said in a tone as compassionate as it had just now been firm:

“I think you will. Ask the dear God to help you, and try to spare us both another scene like this.”

Louisa’s alter ego

In Chapter Seven, “Naughty Nan,” we meet Annie Harding, also known as Nan, a rambunctious tomboy just like the author in her youth. Louisa makes use of the nickname of her sister Anna for the girl’s nickname. Chapter Eleven, “Uncle Teddy,” features a scene straight out of Louisa’s memoir, “Recollections of My Childhood:”

Here Mrs. Jo’s remarks were cut short by the appearance of Nan tearing round the corner at a break-neck pace, driving a mettlesome team of four boys, and followed by Daisy trundling Bess in a wheelbarrow. Hat off, hair flying, whip cracking, and barrow bumping, up they came in a cloud of dust, looking as wild a set of little hoydens as one would wish to see.

“So, these are the model children, are they? It’s lucky I didn’t bring Mrs. Curtis out to see your school for the cultivation of morals and manners; she would never have recovered from the shock of this spectacle,” said Mr. Laurie, laughing at Mrs. Jo’s premature rejoicing over Nan’s improvement.

512 louisa playing with her sisters

In real life, Louisa had been Nan, pretending to be a horse, racing around with a wheelbarrow carrying her sisters. One of Bronson’s distinguished friends, Margaret Fuller, had stopped by to see his “model children.”

Reigning in the tomboy

chp 12 nan and rob get lostIn Chapter Twelve, “Huckleberries,” Nan and Jo’s little son Rob become lost while picking huckleberries. Nan had boldly taken off from the group without telling the grownups where she and Rob were going. After a long search into the night they are finally found by Jo and Professor Bhaer. As punishment for running off, Jo ties Nan to a chair for the day. Louisa herself had run off in Boston, eager to show off her new green shoes. She was four at the time. In “Recollections of My Childhood,” she mentions how she was found:

On one occasion the town-crier found me fast asleep at nine o`clock at night, on a doorstop in Bedford Street, with my head pillowed on the curly breast of a big Newfoundland, who was with difficulty persuaded to release the weary little wanderer who had sobbed herself to sleep there.

Curing the wanderlust

Like Jo, her mother tied her to a chair to teach her not to run off again (Rob, upon seeing this, asked to be tied there with her). Louisa draws on memories to describe Nan’s reaction to that punishment:

For an hour they were very good, then they grew tired of one room, and longed to get out. Never had the hall seemed so inviting; even the little bedroom acquired a sudden interest, and they would gladly have gone in and played tent with the curtains of the best bed. The open windows drove them wild because they could not reach them; and the outer world seemed so beautiful, they wondered how they ever found the heart to say it was dull. Nan pined for a race round the lawn, and Rob remembered with dismay that he had not fed his dog that morning, and wondered what poor Pollux would do. They watched the clock, and Nan did some nice calculations in minutes and seconds, while Rob learned to tell all the hours between eight and one so well that he never forgot them. It was maddening to smell the dinner, to know that there was to be succotash and huckleberry pudding, and to feel that they would not be on the spot to secure good helps of both. When Mary Ann began to set the table, they nearly cut themselves in two trying to see what meat there was to be; and Nan offered to help her make the beds, if she would only see that she had “lots of sauce on her pudding.”

Jo had told Nan that such a punishment had “cured” her so undoubtedly it cured Louisa too.

Or did it? 🙂

Have you seen elements of Louisa’s life in Little Men? Tell us about it!

Part of the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge

2013 Summer Reading Challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.com

This challenge is sponsored by Tarissa of the In the Bookcase blog.

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