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: Day Two of the Summer Conversational Series – Louisa as a practicing Transcendentalist

Day Two of the Summer Conversational Series featured a fine array of speakers.

Kristi Lynn Martin and Duty’s Faithful Child

kristi1 560Starting off the morning was Kristi Lynn Martin, a doctoral candidate at Boston University. Martin’s many years of experience as a tour guide at Concord’s finest historical homes (The Old Manse, “Bush” (aka the Emerson homestead) and Orchard House) served her well, giving her a unique insight into lives of the distinguished Transcendentalists that lived there.

The golden circle

Martin’s presentation, called “Duty’s Faithful Child:” Louisa May Alcott and the Transcendance of Transcendentalism covered the many famous thinkers in Louisa’s circle. These people included Ralph Waldo Emerson who sought to gather radical intellectuals like himself into a community, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, the Rev. Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley and of course, Louisa’s father Bronson Alcott.

Louisa’s brand of Transcendentalism

Dubbed “The Newness,” Transcendentalists sought a new spiritual vision beyond traditional religion. Growing discontent with empty ritual and spiritual hollowness, they sought to stretch their minds and hearts, seeking a more invigorating spiritual experience. While Louisa was ambivalent about Transcendentalism, mainly because of her father’s inability to provide for his family, she could not get away from its influence and it shows in her writing, especially her juvenile stories. She transcended the impracticality of Transcendentalism as taught by her father through her writing and reform efforts.

Heartfelt conversion

Louisa experienced a spiritual awakening at a young age while spending time outdoors. Nature had touched her soul, giving her an experience of God that she would never forget. Louisa, however, was like her mother, a pragmatic reformer at heart just like the Mays and Sewells before her (which presenter Eve LaPlante spoke about in the afternoon session – more on that in a bit) and therefore practiced a more practical Transcendentalism. She embraced the self-reliance of Emerson, the principled pragmatism of Thoreau, the moral theology of the Rev. Parker, the dynamic feminism of Fuller and the educational reform of Peabody and her own father.

Important women in the golden circle

Martin went on to demonstrate how Transcendentalism influenced Louisa’s writing through a careful study of Moods, Work and Hospital Sketches. She highlighted the important women in Louisa’s life including her mother Abigail, Margaret Fuller and Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley (whom Louisa regarded as a feminine ideal, one who exercised her mind and followed her heart while taking care of her husband and seven children).

Stefanie Jochman: Jo’s Transcendental marriage

stefanie1 560Stefanie Jochman was a new presenter to the Summer Conversational Series. She teaches high school at the Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Wisconsin and is currently pursuing her master’s degree. Her talk, “Professor Bhaer and Mr. Emerson: Jo March’s Transcendent Marriage” provided unique insight into Jo’s relationship with Frederick, and with her mentor and muse in real life, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

How was Professor Bhaer modeled after Emerson?

With the thoroughness of a lawyer, Jochman presented her case with numerous examples of why Professor Bhaer more resembled Emerson even though the popular view has been that Bronson Alcott was the model. There are too many examples to include in this blog post but here are a few:

Bhaer, to Jo, is the hero of her life. His guidance, love and desire to help Jo be the best she can be was much like the kindness Emerson showed to a young Louisa when he allowed her to browse through her library, suggesting appropriate books to stimulate her mind. Bhaer influenced Jo’s writing by frowning on her potboilers and encouraging her to write at a higher level which eventually paid off for her with a successful career as an authoress. Emerson too provided much encouragement to Louisa, suggesting books, giving advice and simply being someone she would wish to emulate.

Lifting the burden

Jochman pointed out a simple example in Little Women demonstrating how Professor Bhaer was introduced to the story by physically lifting the burden of the maid in the boarding house. Jochman compared that act to Emerson’s consistent efforts in lifting the financial burdens of the Alcott family. In one such instance, he supplied the rest of the money needed for the family to purchase Hillside (now known as The Wayside), the home where the family would live for three and one half years. It provided the setting for Little Women and the first truly stable environment for the Alcott children.

Transcendental utopia

Jo and Frederick’s work with boys at Plumfield created a Transcendental utopia. Jochman cited Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay in which he sings the praises of boys and the need to celebrate their childhood through their exposure to nature. Both Alcott and Emerson strongly believed in Nature’s ability to illuminate the mind and this was especially demonstrated in the story of Dan, the boy who struggled the most at Plumfield, and in life. As a small example, in Little Men, Jo set aside a drawer for Dan for his collection of things from nature; during the discussion that followed Jochman’s presentation, previous presenter Kristi Martin shared that Emerson had a similar drawer for his collection of artifacts from nature. This was something she picked up from her years as a tour guide.

Jochman had much more to share and I am hoping to entice her to write some guest posts for this blog so that you can find out more from her presentation.

Eve LaPlante: Family history of personal and social reform

eve1 560Eve LaPlante, author of Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother and My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother, gave an intriguing presentation of the family history of reform which was passed down from generation to generation, right down to Louisa. Using her service as a Civil War nurse as documented in Hospital Sketches, LaPlante, a direct descendent of Abigail May Alcott’s family, told stories of relatives from her past who followed a similar pattern to Louisa’s of self-discovery, spiritual introspection and commitment to reform.

In the beginning

Beginning with Judge Samuel Sewell, LaPlante told the story of his heartfelt repentance after the Salem Witch Trials. Judge Sewell, then in his forties, examined his heart through prayer and realized the wrong he had committed in condemning men and women as witches without hard evidence. He devoted himself to reform as a result, writing the first tract (which cited the Bible) condemning the practice of slavery. LaPlante also mentioned another document written years later which unfortunately no longer exists where Judge Sewell defended the idea that women as well as men went to heaven, their physical bodies being resurrected like their male counterparts. This amazingly went against the theology of the day which insisted only men went to heaven.

Forsaking wealth for a healthy soul

Joseph May, father to Abigail, married Dorothy Sewell, great-granddaughter of Judge Sewell. In his thirties, Joseph May, then a successful entrepreneur, lost his business and his money in a bad land deal. After a protracted depression, May turned away from the pursuit of money, calling it unhealthy for the soul. He was not a social reformer like Judge Sewell but believed in personal interior conversion.

Pioneering abolitionist

His son Samuel Joseph May was an influential reformer. Ordained as a Unitarian minister, Samuel Joseph went through a dramatic overnight conversion in his thirties regarding his views on slavery. He became the first to preach from the pulpit against slavery, something which caused his father much consternation. Joseph May endured much ridicule from his neighbors for his son’s views. Samuel Joseph May was also the first to preach on women’s suffrage.

Like brother, like sister

Samuel’s sister, Abigail emulated her brother and took reformation to heart as well. Marrying Bronson Alcott (whom Samuel introduced to Abigail) against the wishes of her father, Abigail admired Bronson’s principles and similar heart for reform. She envisioned a life in equal partnership with Bronson, promoting educational reform. Although their life together didn’t turn out as she had hoped, she was able to pass the idea of social reform down to her daughter Louisa who then struck out on her own as a reformer for the first time in her service as a Civil War nurse.

What we can see in Hospital Sketches

A collection of Louisa’s letters to her family about her war experience was serialized and eventually created her most successful book to date, Hospital Sketches. Critics agree that it was Hospital Sketches that revealed Louisa’s writing voice, relaying with humor and poignancy her real life experiences getting to and then serving in Washington at the Union Hotel Hospital following one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. LaPlante’s analysis of the writing of Hospital Sketches as a vehicle by which Louisa’s true self emerges spawned a lively discussion of the text (including a remembrance of Gabrielle Donnelly’s spirited reading of a portion of the first chapter). The mixture of humor with moving descriptions of suffering and death (including one John Suhre whom Louisa loved) demonstrated the many wonderful facets of Louisa’s writing and personality.

It was another full day of thought-provoking talks, conversation and fellowship with fellow Louisa lovers. Does it get any better than this?

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Day One of the Summer Conversational Series – Health, Nature and Reform

Monday’s session of the Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House was lively, funny and thought-provoking. A fellowship of sisters (and some brothers) gathered to enjoy talks from Gabrielle Donnelly, Kathleen Harsy and Kyoko Amano.

Gabrielle Donnelly on Louisa’s health

gabrielle donnelly2 560Donnelly, the author of the popular The Little Women Letters, presented “Louisa May Alcott, Courageous Heroine: Never ill before this time and never well afterward.” She traced Louisa’s health history, beginning with her tomboy days when she would fall out of trees and run like a horse. Bringing in Hospital Sketches, Donnelly spoke of Louisa’s service as a Civil War nurse and the price she paid with her health after she suffered from typhoid pneumonia. Suffering for twenty-five years until her death at 55, Louisa experienced a multitude of ills (see previous post). Unable to regain her own vigor, she poured that same vigor into memorable characters such as Jo March, her sister Amy and Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl.

A new look at Amy March

Donnelly focused for a time on Amy March and the physical abilities she demonstrated in Little Women such as rowing and horseback riding. Her alter ego May Alcott was a physically active woman who was an accomplished horsewoman. In her letters from Europe, May recounted rowing across the Thames. Donnelly remarked on how unremarkable Amy was in the second half of Little Women until suddenly she burst forth as a passionate, dynamic woman. May was such a woman whose sheer force of personality attracted many admirers. A successful artist in Europe, May’s abilities were toned down in the character of Amy but Louisa did honor the work of her sister, demonstrating how a sketch Amy did of Laurie prompted him to search his heart and change his slovenly ways.

A taste of Louisa’s humor

The highlight of the presentation was Donnelly’s exhilarating read of a section of Hospital Sketches when Tribulation Periwinkle finds herself in Boston desperately trying to get her ticket for the train to take her to Washington. Donnelly had us all in stitches as she playacted Nurse Periwinkle and the different people she met along the way. The reading brought out Louisa’s humor in a fresh new way.

Kathleen Harsy and environmental education

kathleen1 560The second presentation was made by Kathleen Harsy, a high school teacher from the Chicago area. Her presentation was titled “Forgetting and Finding Our Place: Environmental Education’s Role in Ending Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Speaking on a timely (and yet age old) topic, Harsy presented a passionate argument for the need to reacquaint students with the outdoors. Citing the example of the vegetable garden she and fellow teachers developed at the Riverside-Brookfield High School, Harsy spoke of the educational benefits of getting children back out into the natural world. She focused in particular on ADHD children and how getting back to nature improved their condition.

Push and pull

A surprising aspect of Harsy’s talk was the amazing resistance environmental education receives from parents and administrators who are too focused on test scores. A lively discussion ensued among us about the need for a more holistic approach to education; we expressed fears for children today being able to think for themselves and to think creatively. We all agreed that the Transcendentalists were on to something with their insistence that each of us get back in touch with the natural world.

Eric Sawyer: Music and Transcendentalism

eric sawyerAfter lunch we were privileged to hear from Eric Sawyer, a composer who was commissioned to write a concerto based on the Transcendentalist thinkers. He discussed his process for composing the piece which will be presented in Concord on October 18 and 19 by Triple Helix, three women who play piano, cello and violin. Sawyer focused on three Transcendentalists, assigning them to instruments: Emerson to the piano, Bronson Alcott to the cello and Margaret Fuller to the violin.

Kyoko Amano and the birth of social reform

kyokoThe afternoon presentation was given by Kyodo Amano and it focused on “Women’s Place in Social Reform: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott.” Her fascinating talk traced the history of social reform, rising up out of the Unitarian faith tradition with reformers Joseph Tuckerman and Samuel Joseph May, both relatives of Abba Alcott. Citing Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and Alcott’s Little Men, Amano described the creation of reform schools for orphaned boys, mostly from immigrant families. Thinkers such as Lydia Maria Child (a best friend of Abba Alcott’s) believed that the focus on crime needed to shift from punishment to prevention with the best way being taking in young boys from the street before they had a chance to commit crimes, often out of necessity because of their family’s abject poverty.

Women, family and reform

Amano spoke of women’s roles in reform citing Jo Bhaer from Little Men. Plumfield School was an extended family where Jo and Professor Bhaer were mother and father to the boys they took in. Amano cited Nat and Dan in particular, both street boys. Dan was a troubled boy who created problems at Plumfield and had to be sent away; he eventually comes back into the fold, changed by the parental love and guidance shown to him by Jo and Professor Bhaer.

Generic religion

Even though the reform movement was born from a religious tradition, Amano made the point that both Hawthorne and Alcott presented a more generic Christianity in their novels. Neither spoke of any necessity to convert characters to a particular religion (such as converting Catholics to Protestantism). Amano also suggested that Nat and Dan were in fact immigrants judging from certain descriptions and details in Little Men but that Alcott played down that aspect, making that too generic.

Fellowship

After the talks we all gathered together for impromptu conversation. There is nothing sweeter than a true meeting of the minds and hearts which this get-together delivers.

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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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Little Men: The Good Man (chapter 3, “Sunday”)

coverAs mentioned in a previous post about the art of domesticity, I have been reading Little Men, or Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys. The audio book version from Librivox.org has actually been my companion while doing yard work and gardening these past few Saturdays. Keeps my mind off of my aching joints and bones! Listening to Little Men as opposed to reading it has given me a chance to take a step backward and see the story as a stand-alone work.

Different from Little Women

I’ve had problems reading Little Men in the past because I had assumed it would be an extension of Little Women. Instead, it concentrates more on the boys and girls of Plumfield rather than Jo and Professor Bhaer (and after twelve chapters, I’ve seen little or no reference to the other main characters of Little Women with exception of Laurie). It reminds me of the experience of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkein. The magic of the story was lost for me after the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, because the Fellowship split up and went in different directions. It was the chemistry of the Fellowship that made the story special for me, just as the sisterhood of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy made Little Women special.

A direction not taken

Some distance from Little Women has helped me to better appreciate the charm of Little Men although it did leave me wondering why Louisa chose to go this way with her sequel. Obviously the sisters are grown women now with their own lives but I would have thought she would have placated her fans with more about the sisters. Louisa was indeed a professional writer with a keen understanding of what sells, but she was independent too.

Why the book was written

John Pratt, husband to Anna, father to Fred and John

John Pratt, husband to Anna, father to Fred and John

Little Men was written as the result of the sudden death of Anna’s husband John Pratt. Louisa and May were in Europe at the time, taking the Grand Tour. When Louisa heard the news she immediately sat down to write Little Men so as to support her nephews, Freddy and Johnny, with its sales. It would follow then that the book would be written more with them in mind.

Much taken from real life

Like Little Women, Little Men is full of real life anecdotes, and in some ways, they are more obvious. For those of you with a thorough knowledge of Louisa’s life, these anecdotes jump right off the page. Yesterday while listening to chapters 6-12, I picked up on several which I’ll share in upcoming posts.

Bronson’s presence

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402

Amos Bronson Alcott

Her father Bronson is very much present in the good and kind Professor Bhaer as well as in Grandpa March. In Chapter 3, “Sunday,” I could hear Bronson speaking clearly through the voice of Demi, Meg’s son.

Consolation for Nat

Nat is the new boy, having only been at Plumfield a day or two when  chapter 3, “Sunday,” opens. At bedtime he notices a picture on the wall at the foot of his bed which he found  “peculiar … for it had a graceful frame of moss and cones about it, and on a little bracket underneath stood a vase of wild flowers freshly gathered from the spring woods. It was the most beautiful picture of them all …” Nat found himself longing to know more about the picture and Demi noticed. He began then to tell the story of Christ, The Good Man, as told to him by Grandpa March.

Demi shares Grandpa’s story

jesus_with_children300In the picture, Christ is blessing the children and Nat, who knows little about Him (except for His name being taken in vain), remarks how kind Christ looks. Grandpa March had given the picture to Demi after telling him the story of The Good Man many times. Demi related to Nat that Christ loved 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.”

Help for Nat

chp. 3 Christ the Good ManHe continued to tell Nat about the life of Christ and how the “bad men killed Him.” Nat, only at the school for few days, took great comfort in the story; Jo, so grateful to her nephew for offering such comfort to Nat, thought to herself, “Demi is unconsciously helping the poor boy better than I can …”

Real life counterparts

There are references in Anna’s childhood diaries of conversations with her father on biblical stories: On Wednesday, September 2, 1839 she wrote, “I had a very interesting talk with father about Jesus. He explained to me some things that I wanted to know about what he did: about his feeding of the five thousand people, and about raising the dead to life, and stilling the tempest. I like conversations with father.” (from Houghton Library, Amos B Alcott Family Letters 1837 TO 1852 Vol. 1 to Vol. V 1852-1855).

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Anna Bronson Alcott Pratt

In another passage, Anna shows her preferences for her father’s way of teaching religion: Sunday, December 22, 1839 “I went to Mr. Barnard[‘s church] this morning. I wish he would preach about something that I could understand as father does when he talks with me about being good. After I came home, father read about God’s making the World, about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, eating the forbidden fruit, and being sent out of the garden, and about Cain’s slaying his brother Abel. Father explained it to me so that I might understand it. He wishes me to understand all I read. He talked with us about loving one another.” (Ibid)

For all of Bronson’s faults, his way of making religion a living faith for his children is to be commended.

It’s obvious through Demi’s story of the Good Man and its impact on Nat, that Louisa was greatly impacted too. The voice of her father through Demi was tender way that he told it to Nat, who needed that kind of consolation.

It’s these kinds of stories that makes Little Men special to me.

Click to Tweet & ShareLittle Men: The Good Man (chapter 3, “Sunday”) – Bronson Alcott in the voice of Demi http://wp.me/p125Rp-1u6

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Eight Cousins and Little Men: The art of domesticity

I am finally getting around to finishing Eight Cousins. I admit this book has not held my interest like I hoped it would but now that I’m getting closer to the end, I’m enjoying it more. Perhaps I know too much back story (such as the fact that Louisa didn’t really enjoy writing this type of book). Perhaps I needed to read it when I was a kid. The book has a “formula” feel about it but it has its charming moments.

One of those moments occurred in the reading of Chapter 16, “Bread and Buttonholes.”

Giving value to domesticity

As much as Louisa held to feminist ideals, she never dismissed the importance of the family, the home and its care. In this chapter (as she also did in Little Men, Chapter 4, “Patty Pans”), she raises domesticity to a higher level.

A surprising choice . . .

eight cousins bread and buttonholesAs Chapter 16 opens, Rose approaches Uncle Alec with regards to finding a trade to learn. She has no special talent in the arts so she is seeking guidance as to what to learn. When Uncle Alec recommends “housekeeping,” Rose is surprised, asking “Is that an accomplishment?” I appreciated Uncle Alec’s response:

 “Yes; it is one of the most beautiful as well as useful of all the arts a woman can learn. Not so romantic, perhaps, as singing, painting, writing, or teaching, even; but one that makes many happy and comfortable, and home the sweetest place in the world. Yes, you may open your big eyes; but it is a fact that I had rather see you a good housekeeper than the greatest belle in the city. It need not interfere with any talent you may possess, but it is a necessary part of your training, and I hope that you will set about it at once, now that you are well and strong.”

. . . and an unexpected teacher

When Uncle Alec announces that Aunt Plenty will be her teacher, Rose offers the common perception of housewives:

“Is she accomplished?” began Rose in a wondering tone, for this great-aunt of hers had seemed the least cultivated of them all.

It is here that Louisa, ironically through Uncle Alec, lifts domesticity to a higher plane:

“In the good old-fashioned way she is very accomplished, and has made this house a happy home to us all, ever since we can remember. She is not elegant, but genuinely good, and so beloved and respected that there will be universal mourning for her when her place is empty. No one can fill it, for the solid, homely virtues of the dear soul have gone out of fashion, as I say, and nothing new can be half so satisfactory, to me at least.”

Rose’s achievement

Rose goes on to learn how to cook from Aunt Plenty with her crowning achievement being a perfect loaf of homemade bread for her uncle, made with great care and presented with love.

Appreciating the art of domesticity

chapter 16Having no natural talent in all things domestic, I envy those who have that talent. Matters of the home are often dismissed today (as it was beginning to be back in Louisa’s time) as lowly, commonplace, even demeaning: definitely not a worthy pursuit for today’s liberated woman.

Louisa, however, brings out the intrinsic value of housekeeping, that of creating a welcoming environment where all family members feel loved and cared for. She equates good housekeeping with love.

Family example

I only began to understand that very recently with my sister-in-law. Cynthia is an accomplished gourmet cook (in the school of Julia Child, her idle; she has a recipe card with Julia’s autograph, framed on her stove) and is also talented in knitting and crocheting. She always creates a theme for the meal, complete with music, and at a birthday get-together back in March we were treated to an authentic French dinner. After stuffing ourselves with nine pounds of mussels smothered in butter and crème sauce and other goodies, we sat back, allowing the inevitable food coma to engulf us. I leaned back in my chair, too sleepy to talk, and began to observe, for the first time, how much love Cynthia put into the preparations and presentation. When dessert of delicious chocolate-coffee mousse was served, she declined eating hers, declaring that she’d rather watch everyone else enjoy theirs. It was at that moment that I had my epiphany, understanding my sister-in-law for the first time. She lavished her love generously through her cooking. In that moment, domesticity became art to me.

Eight Cousins shows this too. Rose is proud of her loaf, made with such love for her dear uncle after much trial and error. Uncle Alec receives the loaf with true appreciation of the care that went into its making.

Make homemaking fun

little men patty pansIn Little Men, Louisa shows a different side to domesticity, making it fun for the one little girl at Plumfield. Daisy was feeling left out because the boys would not allow her to join in their football game even though she and Demi would play on occasion. She begged Aunty Jo for a new game (or “play,” as she called it) and Jo, inspired by Daisy’s interest in making gingersnaps with Asia, the cook, outfitted her with a complete toy kitchen!

Playing cook

kenner easy-bake ovenReading the description of the child-sized stove and dishes, I thought back wistfully to the fun so many girls my age had with the Kenner Easy-Bake Oven. What a thrill it was to bake our own cupcakes, tiny as they were, in our own ovens. And then there were the Girl Scout cooking badges you could earn by learning how to prepare meals for your family. Never being good at cooking, I didn’t learn much but it was a lot of fun.

A balance of ideas

Eight Cousins in particular offers many different ideas about raising a girl to be a good woman that were considered peculiar or even radical in Louisa’s day. Rose, after all, was taught never to wear a corset as it was better for her health, was encouraged to run, jump and be active outdoors, and was shown how her body worked as seen in Chapters 18 and 19, “Fashion and Physiology” and “Brother Bones.” Her great aunts often grumbled about Uncle Alec’s strange ideas of raising a girl.

Yet Louisa, career woman and spinster, never turned her back on the value of the family and home life. Kitchen duty may not have been her favorite thing to do, but she understood how all the pieces of domesticity worked together for the whole – a happy, well-loved and well cared-for family. In later years she would welcome her sister’s child, Lulu, into her home as her own.

Louisa presented a balanced view of a woman’s life, understanding that the many pieces could work together in harmony so long as the men in her life allowed it. Uncle Alec was one of those men.

P.S. I have just started Little Men and will write more about it over the coming weeks and months. I realize that the posts I do about Louisa’s books don’t always come in a consistent manner. I have however, gathered up and organized all the posts I’ve done so far on the books covered in this blog so that you can find them. Visit the menu at the top of the page, select “Her Writing,” and from the drop-down menu, choose the book you’re interested in to see all the posts.

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