Origin of the P.C. and the P.O. from Little Women — it started earlier than you think.


katherine-anthonyResearch has a way of taking you places you never thought to go. I recently rereaded a 1937 biography of Louisa May Alcott by Katherine Anthony (of which I will write about in a future post) and started to wonder why so much came out about the Alcott family that year.

An era of the Alcotts

Odell Shepherd’s book on Bronson Alcott was also published in 1937. It then occurred to me that both books came out just before the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Louisa and Bronson, who died only a few days apart from each other after Bronson mysteriously invited Louisa to follow him “up” during their last visit together.

Happy Birthday

That led me to look again at the various artifacts I saw at The Wayside in Concord (specifically the North Bridge Center) where there were several newspaper accounts dating from the same period. The centenary of Louisa May Alcott’s birth was celebrated in Concord in 1932:

from the The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

from the The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

A very special guest

And in 1935 when the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association gathered for its annual meeting, they announced the visit during that year of a particular VIP:

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

The Concord Journal, December 5, 1935, from The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

Louisa as micro-journalist

And, in the midst of these newspaper clippings, I discover a small article which sheds light on the origins of the Pickwick Portfolio from Little Women (aka, The Olive Leaf in real life):

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)



To my delight and surprise, the book referenced, Lilliputian Newspapers by James D. Henderson, was available for download from archive.org. Thus I was able to read firsthand about the origins of “The P.C. and the P.O.”

Creating a diversion

Those who have familiarized themselves with Louisa’s life recall the time in Boston when the sisters were in their teens and twenties when the family lived in acute poverty. To keep her family in good cheer, Louisa created a newspaper in 1849 (when she was seventeen) called The Olive Leaf, in honor of a favorite periodical, The Olive Branch. There were several issues, all available at the Houghton Library at Harvard University — the first issue is replicated in its entirety in Chapter 10 of Little Women.  Each sister took the role of a Dickensian character from The Pickwick Papers:

  • Anna/Meg as Samuel Pickwick
  • Louisa/Jo as Augustus Snodgrass
  • Lizzie/Beth as Tracey Tubman
  • May/Amy as Nathaniel Winkle.

Earlier origin

In Lilliputian Newspapers, James D. Henderson reveals that in fact, Louisa created the newspaper when she was twelve in 1844. Henderson writes, “The Pickwick was a manuscript newspaper, in size 10 and 8 inches, and comprised four pages, two columns to a page, entirely written by hand.” (pg. 60, Lilliputian Newspapers). Two issues were published between 1844 and 1845 when the family lived at Still River and Concord. Louisa wrote the early issues but when it changed to The Olive Leaf, all four sisters contributed.

Henderson noted the Weekly Report of their behavior (from “very good” to “good” to “middling” to “bad”) and this invitation:

“THE DUSTPAN SOCIETY will meet on Wednesday next, and parade in the upper story of the Club House. All members to appear in uniform, and shoulder their brooms at nine precisely.” (Ibid, pgs. 62-63)

Ode to Marmee

If you are lucky enough to see or obtain a copy of Lilliputian Newspapers, you will see a reproduction of the original copy of The Pickwick, found in the pocket of the inside of the back cover. The reproduction was made possible by Miss Beatrice Gunn, formerly of the Youth’s Companion, a magazine to which Louisa often contributed. The Concord Journal reprinted the poem featured in the “Poet’s Corner:”

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

James Henderson’s book was published in 1936. Lots of good stuff during the 1930’s. I look forward to sharing with you soon about Katherine Anthony’s biography which is surprisingly frank and objective.






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A dream book launch–Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message makes its debut at The Barrow Bookstore in Concord

1-outside the barrow-640For an author obsessed with all things Alcott,
does it get any better than this?

Launching a book about the most famous Alcott, Louisa, in The Barrow, a bookstore housed in a building owned by descendants of Anna Alcott Pratt in the heart of Concord, Massachusetts … it’s a dream come true.

A book store that is a treasure trove of books past and present, especially of the beloved authors of Concord.

An intimate setting at dusk with hosts who outdid themselves with their hospitality and with an audience of eager Alcott enthusiasts – what more could you want?

I want to publicly thank Aladdine, Jamie and Nancy for hosting me at their store. Although my presentation lasted just a half hour, the conversation afterward lasted well over an hour. Strangers brought together by their passion, all becoming friends. Even my husband had a good time!😉

both sizes-640I read from Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message, sharing passages from Work A Story of Experience, Hospital Sketches and Little Women and their matching bible passages.

I shared how Louisa May Alcott is My Passion came into being and the role my late mother played in the creation of that blog.

It became a wonderful conversation on how the Alcott family has impacted our lives in quite personal ways.

It was my favorite kind of book event–organic.

large_audio-e1280245494342-316x300Here is my presentation:

Thank you to my extended Alcott family!

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Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message comes in two different sizes – click here to order the smaller volume that fits in your purse; click here to order the large type edition.

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Louisa May Alcott, the Pope and me

I write articles and a monthly column for our local Catholic newspaper. This is my October column.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

17-houseAutumn in New England turns my heart towards Concord where an antique brown colonial stands. In that house a woman wrote a story that has resonated with readers around the world for nearly one hundred and fifty years. Many women cite this book as a game-changer, inspiring them to do great things whether it be running for political office, heading a large corporation, fighting for a righteous cause or simply making their homes a sacred space for their families.

That book is Little Women and the author, Louisa May Alcott.

I have been passionate about Alcott since childhood, finding a soul mate in “tomboy Louy.” Together we struggled with bad tempers and depressive episodes, wrote stories in apple trees, staged plays in the family barn (or in my case, the basement) and searched for a way to fit in.

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

I didn’t read Little Women until shortly after my mother’s death. Reading her copy dated 1911, complete with her personal nameplate, helped me feel close to her again. We turned the pages together, horrified over Amy’s dastardly deed of burning Jo’s manuscript; laughing over the escapades of the sisters with Laurie, the boy next door; incensed over the injustice of Amy winning the trip to Europe with Aunt March when it had been promised to Jo; shocked and saddened by Jo’s rejection of Laurie, and crying copious tears over the passing of sweet Beth.

little women combined

My mother’s copy of Little Women, dated 1911

I discovered something else as I read this book: beautiful spiritual lessons tucked inside of everyday life experiences. While Alcott called her children’s books “moral pap for the young,” I found analogies of God’s tender love for us.

One episode in particular struck me as I watched Pope Francis give his impromptu homily at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia on September 26:

“There were six dolls to be taken up and dressed every morning, for Beth was a child still and loved her pets as well as ever; not one whole or handsome one among them; all were outcasts till Beth took them in; for when her sisters outgrew these idols, they passed to her because Amy would have nothing old or ugly. Beth cherished them all the more tenderly for that very reason, and set up a hospital for infirm dolls. No pins were ever stuck into their cotton vitals; no harsh words or blows were ever given them; no neglect ever saddened the heart of the most repulsive, but all were fed and clothed, nursed and caressed with an affection which never failed.”

Little Women, chapter 4

A scripture came to mind as a result:

“The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed,
A stronghold in times of trouble;
And those who know Your name will put their trust in You,
For You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You.”

Psalm 9:9-10 (NASB)

Suddenly the Pope’s message became concrete to me. In Little Women, Beth March did not just take care of broken dolls; she would later risk her life to cradle a baby from a poor family dying of scarlet fever.

Pope Francis has shown through his own actions how he cares for the marginalized in our world. How many times have we seen him step out into the crowd, putting himself at risk, to kiss babies and the handicapped? We’ve witnessed him washing the feet of inmates in a Rome prison on Holy Thursday. How often has he, like Jesus, deliberately sought out those whom society considers “different” or “outcasts?”

And how have we reacted to his actions?

Seems to me Louisa May Alcott was on to something. A reformer at heart, championing the causes of women and children, I believe she would have heartily approved of the pontiff’s words and actions. Now it’s time for me to act on those words too.

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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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Thoughts on Little Women the second time around–seeing Jo in a new light

I have just finished my second reading of Little Women. Both times I have listened to the free audio book on Librivox.com. The first time around wasn’t too bad until I got into the crux of Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer in chapter 46. The reader unfortunately had such a loud and grating voice that it totally ruined that chapter for me.

A dramatic reading

This time around I found a dramatic reading of the book which was done almost to perfection. The narrator (who also took on the role of Jo) was superior in every way. All the main parts were done well although it took awhile to accept Laurie’s voice.

Never fails to please

It is amazing how much this book yields in multiple readings! It’s a different book each time. But then you long-time fans know that already, don’t you? For some of you, it’s a yearly habit. I can certainly see why.

Changing view of Jo—her rite of passage

WinonaJoMarchThe first time I read Little Women I was put off by Jo and favored Amy. Jo was frankly rude, obnoxious and self-absorbed at times (part of being a teenager) and because I had spent so much time with her real life counterpart, Jo seemed a shadow of Louisa.

From this second reading I have a much better sense of Jo. Her rite of passage from the awkward teenager who never wanted to grow up to the mature and more sober woman of twenty-five moved me. Louisa did an outstanding job of tracing Jo’s journey to maturity and revealing some of herself in the process. Her grief over the loss of Beth and how she carried on in the aftermath transformed her heart, making it ready to love someone beyond her immediate family.

A perfect match

jo marchMany readers see her capitulating to marriage but I don’t see it that way. I still maintain that Professor Bhaer was the perfect match for her (and I’ve often entertained the idea that he was Louisa’s ideal for a husband who for her, did not exist in real life). Jo grew to be a better writer for having grown within herself, writing from that true place in her heart. (Oh, and by the way, Jo mentioned a few times that Laurie disapproved of her writing).

A quiet revolution

jo and professor bhaerShe and Fritz lived the companionate marriage that Louisa dreamed of and wrote about in Work A Story of Experience. Jo and Fritz shared everything, from meaningful work to family life. This in and of itself was a quiet revolution, illustrating a marriage between equals. I had missed the fact in my first reading that Jo actually was the one to plant the first kiss! Loved that. How like our Jo!

Ever present spiritual guide

jo and bethLittle Women began to shed light on a burning question I have entertained since I got interested in Elizabeth Alcott. Louisa often mentioned that her late sister Lizzie was her “spiritual guide” but she never detailed any of that in her journals or letters. I wondered then how that idea manifested itself in her life. Of course her books provide the answer. From chapter 40 on when Beth dies, I began see how real life Lizzie influenced her older sister. And I intend to go over those chapters carefully (especially 40 and 42) to find out more.

A treasure trove

little women in the garretThere is so much treasure to unearth between the lines of this book. And many universal themes, themes that do apply to today if you work at it a little bit. Thank goodness for places like Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House where the spirit of Little Women is kept alive for generations to come.

Speaking to you and me

little women 190I am late to Little Women, very late. Most of you are probably saying, “Of course! Duh!” This book has spoken to you throughout your lives. In my late fifties, it is now speaking to me.

That’s the mark of a true classic. Little Women is no mere “children’s” book. It’s a book for every age.

Your thoughts?

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Remember this painting of The Wayside where the Little Women actually grew up? Artist Joyce Pyka sends us an update

You may recall an artist’s rendition of The Wayside, originally named Hillside by Bronson Alcott after the home was purchased with Abba Alcott’s inheritance.

Although Orchard House is the physical setting for Little Women, artist Joyce Pyka, like many of us Alcott fans, knows that many of the childhood stories of the girls took place at Hillside.

Pyka has been revealing her envisioning of The Wayside with Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Laurie in various stages:

Little Women 10 26 2014 fixed by Joyce Pyka


detail laurie

Here’s the latest version:

640-wayside clearer 3 31 2015

Pyka reports that the painting should be done by summer and yes, prints will be available for sale. Sign me up!

Here are previous blog posts on the painting.

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