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!

00 xmas card 2015-640

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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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Thanksgiving memories from one of Abba Alcott’s best friends, and an interesting parallel with Little Men

Lydia_Maria_Child

Lydia Maria Child

One of Abigail Alcott’s best friends was author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. A successful children’s author in the mid 1800s, Child is best known for a poem about Thanksgiving, part of which is set to music:

Here is an image from her three volume book called Flowers for Children, of the first few stanzas:

lydia marie child thanksgiving 1844

You can read the entire poem here.

Didactic tales for children by Lydia Maria Child

juvenile miscellanyUndoubtedly the Alcott children had to have read Child’s works since the families were so friendly with each other. Flowers for Children, a collection of Child’s favorite stories and best known articles from her successful juvenile magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany, contain moralistic stories for children. Didactic tales for youngsters were the norm for the day and Louisa was influenced by them in her own writing for children.

Could this story have influenced Little Men?

christ child and the poor childrenIn reading the first story, “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children,” I was struck by the many similarities between this story and Little Men. “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” is the story of a group of very poor and disadvantaged children, some of whom are turning to crime. Heinrich and his little sister Gertrude come from a dysfunctional family where the father is a mean drunk and the mother taken to fits of insanity. Wolfgang is the neighborhood bully. We encounter the Christ-Child at Christmastime when Heinrich and Gertrude receive a rare gift of money; they purchase apples, nuts and green boughs to create a Christmas tree. Gertrude offers thanks to the Christ-Child for providing the means. Unfortunately, Wolfgang spoils everything by stealing the apples and nuts from the children.

The gift of money had been provided by an older man who runs a home for orphans with his wife. Eventually the three children become a part of that home, working at trades to earn their keep and contributing to the family home. Heinrich and Gertrude’s parents eventually join them. Wolfgang struggles with trying to resist his formerly evil ways and falls from grace on numerous occasions, only to be forgiven and taken back by the community. Eventually he reforms his life.

Interesting parallels

littlemen03I’m sure already you can see the similarities between this story and Little Men. For me,

  • Heinrich reminded me of Nat. Both are sensitive boys.
  • Gertrude resembled Bess in appearance but reminded me more of Daisy because of her eternal optimism and innocence.
  • I instantly thought of both Dan and Jack when introduced to Wolfgang: Dan because of Wolfgang’s physical build and willfulness and Jack because of what he did (he stole Tommy’s money and let Dan lie about it to protect Nat) and because of his contrition.
  • “Father” and “Mother” in the story instantly brought to mind Professor Bhaer and Mrs. Jo. The god-like quality of “Father” made me think of Bronson. Plumfield was not unlike this home for orphans.
  • The camaraderie of the poor children smacked of all the boys at Plumfield along with Daisy and Nan.

Undoubtedly, stories like “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” were a common part of the reading diet of the Alcott children. It just struck me as amusing that the very first story I pick up mirrors Little Men in so many ways.

Many of you are far more knowledgeable than I am about the
didactic literature of Louisa’s time, and the influences on and origins
of Little Men –
What other stories might have influenced Louisa May Alcott in her writing of juvenile tales (besides her own)?

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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).

anna large

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.

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