Christmas greetings to you in the spirit of Louisa May Alcott

Remembering the Spirit of Christmas from Little Men:

chp. 3 Christ the Good Man“Were they poor children?” asked Nat, wistfully.

“Yes, I think so; you see some haven’t got hardly any clothes on, and the mothers don’t look like rich ladies. He liked poor people, and was very good to them. He made them well, and helped them, and told rich people they must not be cross to them, and they loved Him dearly, dearly,” cried Demi, with enthusiasm.

“Was He rich?”

“Oh no! He was born in a barn, and was so poor He hadn’t any house to live in when He grew up, and nothing to eat sometimes, but what people gave Him, and He went round preaching to everybody, and trying to make them good, till the bad men killed Him.”

“What for?” and Nat sat up in his bed to look and listen, so interested was he in this man who cared for the poor so much.

“I’ll tell you all about it; Aunt Jo won’t mind;” and Demi settled himself on the opposite bed, glad to tell his favorite story to so good a listener.

Little Men, Chapter 3, Sunday

GIVING YOURSELVES TO THE DOWN-AND-OUT

If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,

Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places —
firm muscles, strong bones.

You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.

You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.

Isaiah 58:10-12

from pages 78-79, Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message

Thank you to all my dear readers for another great year!

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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: “The Naughty Kitty-mouse:” Goodness Gracious!

 “Daisy and Demi were full of these whims, and lived in a world of their own, peopled with lovely or grotesque creatures, to whom they gave the queerest names, and with whom they played the queerest games. One of these nursery inventions was an invisible sprite called “The Naughty Kitty-mouse,” whom the children had believed in, feared, and served for a long time. They seldom spoke of it to any one else, kept their rites as private as possible; and, as they never tried to describe it even to themselves, this being had a vague mysterious charm very agreeable to Demi, who delighted in elves and goblins. A most whimsical and tyrannical imp was the Naughty Kitty-mouse, and Daisy found a fearful pleasure in its service, blindly obeying its most absurd demands, which were usually proclaimed from the lips of Demi, whose powers of invention were great. Rob and Teddy sometimes joined in these ceremonies, and considered them excellent fun, although they did not understand half that went on.”

Children’s rituals

Me and my clubhouse

Me and my clubhouse

This has to be the most bizarre game I have ever heard of! Children do love rituals and secret societies (and so do many adults). As a kid I stole the idea of a secret password for my clubhouse (actually a log cabin) from a favorite book, Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary It began, “Fadada fadada fadada, beeboom baboom bah!” So I get it about rituals.

But my goodness, this was one sadistic game!

Enter Kitty-mouse

kitty-mouse with fireIn Chapter 8, “Pranks and Plays,” Demi solemnly proposes to the other children that Kitty-mouse is demanding a “sackerryfice” of something near and dear to each child. Each one would bring their favorite toy to the meeting, held secretly on the Plumfield grounds, to throw into a bonfire as a sacrifice.

A tough idea to swallow

I winced at the thought of Daisy sacrificing her precious paper dolls, hand painted by her Aunt Amy. This was no mere toy; it was a gift that was a labor of love. Yet she couldn’t even imagine denying Kitty-mouse anything he desired.

And yikes: Demi was going to sacrifice his boat, his best scrapbook and all his soldiers?

I have to admit, I really couldn’t understand what drove the children to do these things.

A peculiar power

SacrificeBull-lKitty-mouse (such an odd name as if to signify the master and the victim) allows Demi to lord over the other children with power he would not normally have. Having heard stories about the Greeks with their altars and sacrifices, he was intrigued and wanted to emulate them. Watching Daisy clutch her paper dollies especially the favorite blue one, before succumbing to the orders of Kitty-mouse, was a bit disturbing.

Blood and thunder

Louisa seemed to take a special delight in describing the demise of little Teddy’s favorite toys:

“The superb success of this last offering excited Teddy to such a degree, that he first threw his lamb into the conflagration, and before it had time even to roast, he planted poor Annabella on the funeral pyre. Of course she did not like it, and expressed her anguish and resentment in a way that terrified her infant destroyer. Being covered with kid, she did not blaze, but did what was worse, she squirmed. First one leg curled up, then the other, in a very awful and lifelike manner; next she flung her arms over her head as if in great agony; her head itself turned on her shoulders, her glass eyes fell out, and with one final writhe of her whole body, she sank down a blackened mass on the ruins of the town. This unexpected demonstration startled every one and frightened Teddy half out of his little wits. He looked, then screamed and fled toward the house, roaring “Marmar” at the top of his voice.”

ep.gho.intro.05It seems that her “blood and thunder” storytelling talents were on full display here. I remember reading somewhere that Louisa’s ghost stories were in great demand by her sisters and other children, especially baby sister baby sister Abby May, who although frightened out of her wits, knew they would make make her golden hair curl all the more.

Jo never forgets her childhood

When Jo found out about the sacrifices to Kitty-mouse, she found the whole affair quite amusing. It’s no wonder the children loved her so as she still possessed a child’s heart within her.

Ouch!

She then relayed a story from her childhood of putting pebbles in her nose after hearing a story about other children who had done it (this is an actual story from Louisa’s childhood). It was quite painful and required a visit from the doctor to extract the pebbles. Jo certainly understood where a child’s imagination combined with daring do could lead. It just makes her all the more endearing.

What did you think of Kitty-mouse and the children’s “sackerryfices?” What rituals and games did you play as a child and could they rival this one?

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