Jo’s evolution as a creative, and as a woman

jo writing (norman rockwell)What did Jo March  mean when she said she wanted to create something “spendid?”

Perhaps gaining recognition for her writing. Maybe even being hailed as a great writer. Writing a book of artistic merit and universality that would stand the test of time.

Yet we find in Little Women that Jo’s goals would evolve from that solitary act of writing into a communal creation: a school for boys, founded in partnership with her new husband, Professor Bhaer. In the end, I believe she satisfied her desire to create something “splendid.”

Why caused her goals to change?

I’d like to offer my opinion and then I’d love to hear from you!

Here’s my theory.

A necessary act

joWriting was a legitimate and necessary creative activity for Jo. It helped her to release the tremendous energy inside of her that otherwise might have expressed itself in negative ways.  She had talent and much to share.

A practical way to help

Never happy to sit on the sidelines, Jo used her writing to help her family in practical ways as they coped with Mr. March’s absence along with poverty. Besides providing money, her stories entertained the others.

A means of retreat

Writing was a means of escape. Holed up in the garret, Jo could avoid dealing with growing up, something with which she was in open rebellion.

Meg and John get married; Father presides.

Meg and John get married; Father presides.

She fought vehemently against the idea of the family unit being changed with the addition of boyfriends/husbands (recalling her reaction to Meg and John, and her rejection of Laurie as a husband). As long as the immediate family remained intact, she could continue as she was. Womanhood was a frightening prospect as Jo feared it would restrain her spirit. She was like a wild colt refusing to be broken.

A means of verification

burning fireplaceWriting verified Jo as a person when nothing else would. When Amy destroyed Jo’s manuscript it was like Jo herself was burnt to a crisp in the fireplace. I believe Jo perceived Amy’s deed as an act of violence against her very self; therefore the depth of her rage was justified in her own mind, until it put Amy’s own life in peril. It was at this point that Jo’s creative energy (anger being a great force) posed a danger to herself and others.

A way to avoid the truth

Writing was an act that drew Jo into herself, far away from the real world into that safe place of fantasy which gave her consolation. Sometimes that withdrawal could be beneficial, particularly when her emotions were getting the better of her. But often that withdrawal was an escape from a reality she had to face–she could not remain a child forever.

The turning point

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Coming to terms with the inevitable

I believe the watershed moment for Jo was in her grief after she lost Beth.

Anyone who has grieved over someone knows that such a time can transform one’s life. Whether that transformation takes you forward in growth or leaves you behind, mired in the mud, is a singular choice.

A new idea of “splendid”

At first, willing to do anything to please the sister she so loved and admired, Jo agreed to Beth’s terms: to leave behind her old ambitions of doing something “splendid” to take on the more noble (and needed) task of caring for her parents. She soon found her promise hard to keep when faced with the prospect of living it out without the physical presence of her sister nearby as example:

“… something like despair came over her when she thought of spending all her life in that quiet house, devoted to humdrum cares, a few small pleasures, and the duty that never seemed to grow any easier. ‘I can’t do i. I wasn’t meant for a life like this, and I know I shall break away and do something desperate if somebody doesn’t come and help me.’ she said to herself, when her first efforts failed and she fell into the moody, miserable state of mind which often comes when strong will have to yield to the inevitable.” (from Chapter 42 of Little Women)

A desire to be good

As Jo had lost herself in her writing, she had also been consumed with nursing Beth. Louisa May Alcott herself believed she had a call to nursing that was nearly as strong as her call to be a writer. It was what gave her the courage to become a Civil War nurse. I believe that in nursing Beth (or in Louisa’s case, Lizzie), Jo found a way to be truly virtuous–acting out of sacrificial love for her sister. As much as she desired to live out her creative life, Jo wished also to be good. It was Louisa’s wish too, ingrained in her from her earliest days.

Finding consolation outside of writing

Where once writing provided the consolation, now the counsel of mother and father provided the comfort. Jo was learning to reach out to others rather than retreat into her fantasy world. While she had certainly confided in her parents before, it was more as a child looking for direction. Now she could confide in her parents as an equal, woman to woman, and woman to man:

“Then, sitting in Beth’s little chair close beside him, Jo told her troubles … she gave him entire confidence, he gave her the help she needed, and both found consolation in the act. For the time had come when could talk together not only as father and daughter, but as man and woman, able and glad to serve each other with mutual sympathy as well as  mutual love.” (Ibid)

Moving forward

Jo agreed to the process of the grief journey,  moving ahead rather than staying behind. She soon grew to find meaning in the mundane household tasks:

“Brooms and dish cloths never could be as distasteful as they once had been, for Beth had presided over both, and something of her housewifely spirit seemed to linger around the little mop and the old bush, never thrown away.” (Ibid)

The beginning of adulthood

In the process, a change took place within Jo, a capacity to long for love outside of her immediate family unit. It was the beginning of her maturing into an adult. Meg saw the potential, urging Jo to consider love:

“It’s just what you need to bring out the tender womanly half of your nature, Jo. You are like a chestnut burr, prickly outside, but silky-soft within, and a sweet kernal, if one can only get at hit. Love will make you show your heart one day, and the rough burr will fall off.” (Ibid)

And indeed, grief would prove to be the tool that would pave the way for “Grief is the best opener” as Louisa writes in chapter 42.

Learning to be herself

Little Women October 12, 2004 Credit Photo ©Paul Kolnik NYCJo tried to justify that living for her parents and not for herself was the “something splendid” that she had desired, but in fact that “something” was missing. In denying herself and living as Beth would, Jo was not living the life to which she was called. The suppression of her creative energy depleted that which fueled her joy, which made life exciting and delicious. It took her mother urging her to write again, even if just to entertain the family, for Jo to find that energy again and bring it back to life. It eventually lead to real success for her as a writer.

Issuing an invitation

And in the end it would be a poem she had written about the four chests in the garret that would issue an invitation (unbeknown to her) to a certain professor to seek out the woman he loved. This time she was ready, having recognized the loneliness in her life:

“I’d like to try all kinds. It’s very curious, but the more I try to satisfy myself with all sorts of natural affections, the more I seem to want. I’d no idea hearts could take in so many. Mine is so elastic, it never seems full now, and I used to be quite contented with my family. I don’t understand it.” (Ibid)

In this admission, Jo embraced adulthood, seeing beyond her tight family unit for the first time.

Lost or found?

jo and professor bhaerSome would argue that Jo in fact lost herself becoming a woman as she did not, in the end, become a writer. Instead, she marries her professor and founds a school for boys with him, using a gift from a most unexpected source–Aunt March’s Plumfield.

Was Jo’s evolution a sell-out by the author?

While it is well known that Louisa would have preferred keeping Jo single and writing, I do not get the sense that Jo was at all unhappy or feeling compromised with her decision to marry or to found the school. It is true that Louisa was compelled by her publisher and her fans to give Little Women a more conventional ending but the evolution of her fictional self from “wild colt” to mature woman felt natural to me. The creative energy Jo had once poured into writing could now be poured into making life better for unfortunate boys. Anyone who has been a teacher knows the creative fire burns bright within, expressing itself in so many ways.

Creativity and community

the boys at plumfieldJo had evolved from a solitary, strong-willed child who sought escape in her creativity (and who sometimes was controlled by its darker side), to a woman comfortable within a community, using her creativity to make life better for others. It is my belief that the giving away of what we have (and having it accepted gratefully by others) makes makes the creative act worthwhile and satisfying.

Jo March succeeded in her desire to create something “splendid.”

That’s my theory; what’s yours? Go for it!

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What would May’s life as a wife, mother and artist have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

Jo’s Boys is tinged with sadness. And wistfulness. Louisa worked on Jo’s Boys for seven years beginning in 1879, the year her youngest sister May died six weeks after bearing her daughter Lulu. Abba, known as “Marmee” had died in 1877.

Laurie and Amy’s idyllic life

Chapter Two, “Parnassus” has us visiting the palatial home of Laurie, Amy and Bess, built on the grounds of Plumfield. Louisa goes to great pains to remind the reader that although wealthy, Laurie and Amy put their money to good use. They were “earnest, useful and rich in the beautiful benevolence which can do so much when wealth and wisdom go hand in hand with charity.” (Jo’s Boys, page 26).

Tributes to the family

The home was “full of unostentatious beauty and comfort” which included busts of John Pratt and Beth (lovingly created by Amy) and portraits of Mr. Laurence and Aunt March. A memorial to Marmee consisting of a portrait surrounded by green garland was in the place of honor. Undoubtedly Louisa was writing about Abba with these lines:

little women with marmee“The three sisters stood a moment looking up at the beloved picture with eyes full of tender reverence and the longing that never left them; for this noble mother had been so much to them that no one could ever fill her place. Only two years since she had gone away to live and love anew, leaving such a sweet memory behind her that was both an inspiration and a comforter to all the household.” (Ibid, page 33)

The March sisters versus the Alcott sisters

anna and meg, louisa and joThe March sisters are shadows of the real women upon which they were based. Meg is Anna without Anna’s angst and secret creative urges. Beth is Lizzie without the profound suffering she endured in her death. Jo is Louisa, tamed. Amy is May without the physical energy, ambition, independence and high spirits.

May and Amy

lizzie and beth, may and amyAmy started out like May but like Jo, was tamed. She became a wife and mother, laying aside her ambitions as a professional artist. Like May she was tall and gracious, giving off the impression of beauty even if her features were a bit irregular (remember the nose). Amy however returned from Europe with Laurie while May remained in Europe, pursuing her art with committed passion, eventually knowing success with two paintings put on display in the Paris Salon.

What if …

May married a much younger man and they had a child, Lulu. Tragically, May died six weeks later. We were never to know how this modern, independent, career-minded woman would have blended her work with marriage and mothering.

Louisa gives us a clue of her wish for May in Jo’s Boys.

Louisa’s dream

Amy lived out her dream as an artist by mentoring younger artists. Her own Bess was a committed to art and mother and daughter were devoted to each other and their art. Bess at fifteen resembled Amy with her “Diana-like figure, blue eyes, fair skin, and golden hair, tied up in the same classic knot of curls. Also,–ah! Never-ending source of joy to Amy,–she had her father’s handsome nose and mouth, cast in a feminine mould.” (Ibid, page 28)

Would mother and daughter have gotten along?

may and luluAmy and Bess were much alike: gracious, feminine yet fiercely devoted to their passion. There was a peaceful harmony between them. In real life May and Lulu were also alike both in appearance and personality. Their similarities, however, might not have produced the harmony that Louisa dreamed up for Amy and Bess. Lulu was described by Louisa as willful, physical and spoiled, much like the Amy (and May) of childhood.

May as a mother and artist

All this bring about tantalizing thoughts: how would May have dealt with a younger version of herself? I’m guessing the battles could have been epic and the love fierce and loyal. Nothing was said about Lulu having the artistic ability of her mother so we will never know if they would have shared that passion as Amy and Bess did. It would have been a lot of fun to witness their relationship.

May’s legacy

It’s hard to know whether May died before or after chapter two was written. The poignancy of Louisa’s loss, however, is there in any case. She gives May her happily ever after with her daughter in the guise of Amy with Bess.

How do you think May and Lulu would have gotten along? Could May have juggled career with motherhood?

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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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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: 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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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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