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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Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.

Moods: Sylvia’s Choice

I enjoy how Louisa describes Geoffrey Moor and Adam Warwick, the two love interests of heroine Sylvia Yule through comparing and contrasting how they respond to similar situations.

Here’s one scenario: Sylvia lost her mother at an early age and she has grieved throughout her young life over that loss. She first meets Adam Warwick (the Thoreau character) while expressing some of that grief; the scene finds her wading in the ocean when thoughts of her mother and that lost relationship come to mind (this scene is not in the earlier 1865 version):

“Tears dropped fast, and hiding her head, she sobbed like a broken-hearted child driving for its mother. She never let Prue know the want she felt, never told her father how powerless his indulgent affection was to feed this natural craving, not found elsewhere the fostering care she pined for. Only in hours like these the longing vented itself in bitter tears, that left the eyes dim, the heart heavy for days afterward.

A voice called her from the cliff above, a step sounded on the rocky path behind, but Sylvia did not hear them, nor see a figure hurrying through the deepending water toward her, till a great wave rolled up and broke over her feet, startling her with its chill.

Then she sprung up and looked about her with a sudden thrill of fear, for the green billows tumbled everywhere, the path was gone, and the treacherous tide was in.

A moment she stood dismayed, then flung away her cloak, and was about to plunge into the sea when a commanding voice called, “Stop, I am coming!” And before she could turn a strong arm caught her up, flung the cloak around her, and she felt herself carried high above the hungry waves that leaped up as if disappointed of their prey.” (Chapter 2 – Warwick)

This scene, appearing early in the book, very much characterizes the kind of feeling Sylvia had for Adam: feelings of passion, strength, power, turmoil. Feelings that thrilled her to the bone. She goes on to describe Warwick as the “manliest of men.”

Geoffrey Moor comes across very differently, as cerebral, peaceful, not at all physical. Note how he handles Sylvia’s grief in a discussion that they have in a later chapter (she has just described to him her sorrow at never knowing her mother, and how she needed to have her mother take her in her arms and show her God:

” ‘Dear Sylvia, I understand your trouble and long to cure it as wisely and tenderly as I ought, I can only tell you where I have found a cure for doubt, despondency, and grief. God and Nature are the true helper and comforter for all of us. Do not tire yourself with books, creeds, and speculations; let them wait, and believe that simply wishing and trying to be good is piety, for faith and endeavor are the wings that carry souls to her already; you will find her always just and genial, patient and wise. With the harmonious laws that rule her, imitate her industry, her sweet sanity; and soon I think you will find that benignant mother will take you into her arms and show you God.’

Without another word, Moor rose, laid his hand an instant on the girl’s bent head in the first caress he had ever dared to give her, and went away leaving her to the soothing ministrations of the comforter he had suggested.” (Chapter 8 Sermons)

It’s as if Moor was a minister and Warwick a savior. It lays out an interesting diachotomy for Sylvia which, to me, reveals the same for Louisa – embracing the thrilling, and frightening, physical life (Warwick) or living the transcendental, peaceful life that was preached to her by her father and his friends since childhood (Moor). This, of course, is so plainly evidenced in Louisa’s body of work, from Little Women‘s glorification of wholesome (nearly spiritual) domestic life to such “blood and thunder tales” as “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment.” Sarah Elbert, in her introduction to Moods, writes, “Consequently modern scholars have identified a correspondence between Louisa May Alcott’s canny separation of her literary markets and the nineteenth-century concept of “separate spheres” which divided home from workplace, sharpened the social boundaries separating genteel ladies from working women, and gradually turned childhood and youth in all classes into a protected stage of life.” A 21st century word for that might be “compartmentalization,” usually a more male trait. Louisa certainly displayed that in her life, and illustrated it in an interesting way with Moor and Warwick.

Now the question is, which life did Sylvia wish to choose and which one did she ultimately choose?

The Conundrum that is “Moods”

I’m about a third of the way through both versions of Moods and have concluded that this book is a total mess! Now don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying it, but considering the capital Louisa May Alcott had as a famous author, you have to wonder why she didn’t just release the book the way she had originally written it. Did her publisher stop her? If anyone has information on that, let me know, I’d love to find out.

Here’s a perfect example of why this book is such a mess. The 1865 version published by A.K. Loring had fewer chapters but included a subplot left out of the 1882 version. That subplot involved Adam Warwick and a Cuban fiance, Ottila. The first chapter details their argument and his deciding to “take a break”, you might say, from the relationship, but as a man of honor, he would return to decide if he would marry her. He felt she had deceived him though it wasn’t clear to me exactly what the deception was. She probably played some games with him as lovers will do, but Warwick being such a black and white (and intolerant) character, probably was offended by that. Just my guess.

At first I didn’t think eliminating this subplot would present a problem but it does for later in the story, Warwick suddenly departs just as it appears he and Sylvia are recognizing their feelings for each other. Knowing the subplot, this departure makes sense – he’s a man of honor and he wants to either be true to Ottila or break it off with her so that he can pursue a relationship with Sylvia.

In the later version, there is no subplot. There is only some vague reference made to something Warwick must take care of, and he mysteriously takes off. I happened to know why from reading the earlier version, but the reader must scratch his or her head and say, “Huh?”

So Louisa keeps the subplot in the earlier version but cuts out so much more. There’s very little development in the relationship between Warwick and Sylvia so that when he does leaves, the reader may not even care. I found myself scratching my head over it. Two extra pages are added to the later version which seem incredibly important in moving along the relationship. I can’t imagine why she cut those pages out because they truly made it clear that Adam was falling in love with Sylvia. Without those additional pages, the reader can only guess.

The later version includes a chapter each on Moor and Warwick so that you can become acquainted with the character, and then includes a chapter called “Dull But Necessary”  which acquaints the reader with Sylvia (this chapter is included in a very queer place in the older version). It strikes me as quite funny the way that Louisa will suddenly take the reader aside, as in a confidence and say, “okay, you need to be filled in with the back story before we can continue.” I noticed she did that a little bit in Little Women too.

The answer? You have to read both versions to get the full story. Google Books has the 1865 version.

Oh, and here’s something else that confuses the issue: Even though the 1882 version includes a chapter called “Holly” (which was also included in the earlier version) it is not included in The Portable Louisa May Alcott where I am reading the later version! Glad I have the book on Nook. Geez!

Louisa May Alcott’s spirituality, and her better self in Sylvia Yule

Finishing up chapter V in the 1864 version of  Moods (“The Golden Wedding”), I walked away with two thoughts, regarding Louisa’s spirituality and her romanticized self in Sylvia Yule.

Louisa May Alcott’s Spirituality

I want more than ever to write a longer treatise on the spirituality of Louisa May Alcott. Although she did not belong to any particular church or religion, her spirituality in many senses is similar to mine and I am a devout Roman Catholic. I would need to do a LOT more research on how Christianity was practiced and perceived in the 19th century (a daunting task!) because my sense is her way of looking at God was radically different from the way  every other Christian practiced. Obviously this is true because of Transcendentalism and my gut tells me that fear of God’s retribution was the major motivator rather than love of God. Because I have never studied Transcendentalism, I don’t believe I was directly influenced by it although it may be that  because this is New England, I may have been influenced by it in an indirect way. All I know is when I read Little Women, I was very taken by the spirituality of the mundane that Louisa preached (see my post on Amy) – that spirituality being that it was all in the details: how a smile, a gesture, a small sacrifice can be the key to true spirituality.

I see that same ‘preaching,’ so to speak, in Moods with Sylvia. I know that family was central to salvation for Bronson and for Louisa and this explains the beautiful descriptions of a caring family holding a 50th golden wedding anniversary celebration for their matriarch and patriarch. But this was the passage that particularly struck me (page 98, chapter V):

That passage caused me to recall Louisa’s own discovery of God in her teens after an early morning excursion in the meadow over Hillside.

I just did a little bit of reading about Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits and found a kindred friend. From what I could gather, his spirituality was often about finding God in the world. He also believed in developing the mind. I feel that Louisa did this also. Her practice of virtue often paralleled the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Blessed Mother Teresa – doing small things with great love.

I hope I can find the time to do the research, and the guts to tackle this subject. It’s yet the latest thing that draws me to Louisa.

Louisa Romanticized in Sylvia Yule

In defending Moods in letters to readers (see previous post) it strikes me as a little odd how Louisa speaks of Sylvia as being a slave to her moods, almost speaking of her in a disparaging way. When I see how she describes her, I see a breath of fresh air – a young woman full of life and vigor, curious about everything, willing to step out and take changes, impulsive for sure, and creative in her thinking. I’m wondering if this is how Louisa would have liked to have been seen – decidedly different and accepted as such. It is easy to see why Moor and Warwick both fall in love with her, being different sorts themselves. Chapter V in particular has lovely descriptions of Sylvia: a dream version of a very complex and rather tormented woman. I have no proof of this at all but I’d like to think that Louisa, lost in her vortex, lived through Sylvia and found a temporary peace in that character (at least while the going was good!).

I am hoping, however, that the story line is going to begin to move on. I was surprised that 3 chapters were devoted to this camping excursion with Mark (Max), Moor and Warwick. It makes me think it was probably a good thing the book was edited! We shall see. 🙂

A brief lesson (for me) in editing

I admit it’s a bit confusing reading both versions of Moods at the same time but it’s sure been an eye-opener with regards to editing. As I sheepishly admitted in a reply to a comment from a recent post, I thought once a book was published that it was set in stone. Reading  Little Women certainly changed that notion, recalling all the changes made in later versions as cited in the Norton Critical edition.

Louisa cashed in on her clout as a world famous author to revise Moods in 1882 by restoring several chapters and changing the ending. I’m wondering if readers felt the way Star War purists feel about the first 3 movies being updated with new special effects (I know my son wishes fervently that George Lucas would just leave it alone!).

It didn’t take long to see the differences. As mentioned before, the 1882 version begins the book with the original chapter two (and changes the title from “Whims” to “Sylvia,” effectively introducing the main character), and eliminates the subplot involving Warwick with a Cuban lover, Ottila. When Louisa originally shortened the book, she cut out chapters introducing Geoffrey Moor and Adam Warwick, and a chapter that provided a more  in-depth look at Sylvia. Chapter 5, “Afloat”, includes an extra scene with Sylvia entertaining her brother, Moor and Warwick with her dramatic playacting skills. The 1864 version doesn’t include these chapters but incorporates them pretty nicely and logically into the “Afloat” chapter, with Sylvia asking her brother, Mark (Max in the later version – I’ll be interested to see if there is something about that name change in Louisa’s journal entries as I am curious why she changed it) about each man during the camping trip.

Editing a large manuscript must have been such a daunting task, especially the first time when Louisa had to lay her first-born on the table and “chop it up” as described in a previous post. I only wish we had access to the original manuscript and could read the book as she had intended it originally.

Perhaps Louisa loved Moods too well, preventing her from having that all-important objective eye. Her original publisher felt she needed to eliminate much of the conversation and move the story along faster.

At any rate, it’s an interesting study for a new student like myself.

How “Moods” is helping me to get to know Louisa May Alcott, and myself, better

Progressing through Moods, I can see that even though I love it, it may not be a book to suit everyone’s tastes. Of all the current biographies (meaning in the last 30 years) that I’ve read or are reading on Louisa (Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography by Martha Saxton, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen and Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever), only Saxton seems to have really liked Moods on its own merits. I was going to read and comment on her chapter on Moods but decided to wait until I’ve read the book because I don’t want to read all the spoilers. But I will comment on her take once I’m done.

At any rate, I know my interest in Moods may be rather unique. If you’ll pardon the expression, it’s personal. What I’m discovering is how much Louisa and I could have shared in common regarding our interests and temperaments, and I believe that is what drew me to her in the first place. Saxton’s biography, heavy-handed as it is, pointed that out to me. I never did suffer from the extremes of moods that Louisa suffered from (and lately my emotional landscape has evened out nicely) but I can very much relate to her turbulence, anger and depression: how such things can make life miserable and yet feed creativity.

Having just finished chapters 3 and 4 of Moods (the earlier incarnation), Sylvia-as-Louisa is showing me some of the interests I could have shared with Louisa. Chapters 3 and 4 laid out the story of a 3-day camping trip including Sylvia, her brother Mark (or Max), Warwick and Moor. I imagine most people might have been bored with Louisa’s seemingly endless descriptions of what it was like out in the boat, how serene it was, what the world looked like from the water, etc., etc. As an avid kayaker and naturalist, I reveled in the descriptions (especially since we’ve been buried in snow and cold here in the Northeast!). I was transported into our tandem kayak on a beautiful and hot day, lazily drifting down river, drinking in the scents and sounds, spying on people’s houses and dreaming of a summer place of our own, and mostly, loving the silence and the peace. The descriptions were so authentic that I knew she must have spent time rowing and perhaps enjoyed it as much as I do. After several minutes adrift on the water, Louisa writes:

“Slowly they drifted onto the current, slowly Warwick cleft the water with reluctant stroke, and slowly Sylvia’s mind woke from its trance of dreamy delight, as with a gesture of asset she said, ‘Yes,  I am reading now. That was a happy little moment, and I am glad to have lived it, for such times return to refresh me when a many a more stirring one is quite forgotten.”

Exactly how I feel. It’s like when you’ve just finished a delicious meal and then eat it all over again in your mind, just to relish the feeling.

Immediately after, Sylvia sees a fire off in the distance and wants to explore it, oblivious to the possibility that it might be dangerous (and of course it turns out to be!):

“A moment after she added, eagerly, as a new object of interest appeared: ‘Mr. Warwick, I see smoke. I know there is a wood on fire; I want to see it; please land again . . . I love fire, and that must be a grand one, if we could only see it well.’ “

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that; you might call me a fire chaser! I could do that with tornadoes too (yes, I’ve seen the movie Twister a million times and love it every time). The point is, I really connected with Sylvia’s desire to chase that fire.

Finally, there was the moment shared between Warwick and Sylvia which I’m figuring must have happened between Louisa and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa describes a scene where Warwick is feeding wild birds bread crumbs out of his hand, and my ‘love’ for Warwick grows as does Sylvia’s:

“The appearance of a thirsty sparrow gave her thoughts a pleasant turn, for, sitting motionless, she watched the little creature trip down at the pool, drink and bathe, then flying to a willow spray, dress its features, dry its wings, and sit chirping softly as if it sang its evening hymn. Warwick saw her interest, and searching, in his pocket, found the relics of a biscuit, strewed a few bits upon the ground before him, and began a low, sweet whistle, which rose gradually to a varied strain, alluring, spirited, and clear as any bird voice of the wood. Little sparrow ceased his twitter, listened with outstretched neck and eager eye, hopping restlessly from twig to twig, until he hung just over the musician’s head, agitated with a small flutter of surprise, delight, and doubt. Gathering a crumb or two into his hand, Warwick held it toward the bird, while softer, sweeter, and more urgent rose the invitation, and nearer and nearer drew the winged guest, fascinated by the spell . . . His last fear conquered, and he flew confidently to Warwick’s palm, pecking the crumbs with grateful chirps and friendly glances from its quick, bright eye. It was a pretty picture for the girl to see; the man, an image of power, in his hand the featured atom that, with unerring instinct, divined and trusted the superior nature which had not yet lost its passport to the world of innocent delights that Nature gives to those who love her best.”

All my life I have been a passionate (albeit it amateur) bird watcher and I’ve had the privilege of having wild birds feed out of my hand. It happened at a bird sanctuary in the Hamptons on Long Island, known for the birds being so tame that they will literally feed out of your hand. Louisa, being so keen an observer, must have witnessed that wonder for herself and I believe I know just how she must have felt.

These various experiences, of course, advance the love story and Warwick and Sylvia grow closer, walking hand in hand through the woods and back to the camp. I very much enjoy how they try to read each other and then describe each other to their colleagues. People watching is also something I’m passionate about and I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it.

I apologize since this post has really been all about me and not much about Moods! Pretty self-indulgent. 🙂 I’m just really surprised at how much I’ve learned about why I am passionate about Louisa May Alcott from reading this lesser known work of hers. I’ve often pondered why I have this obsession – Moods is helping to shed some light on that.

That being said, I can hardly offer an unbiased, intelligent review of this book. I can only offer how it speaks to me. Hopefully it will speak to you too.