What would you like to know about the woman behind Beth March?

I need your help.

I am writing my book proposal for the biography on Elizabeth Alcott and I need more input from you as a fan of Little Women. Here are a few short questions — if you could comment below with your answers, that would really help. And thank you!

  1. What would you most like to know about Elizabeth and why?
  2. What do you know already about her?
  3. Who is your favorite March sister is and why? If Beth is not your favorite, why?
  4. Do you think Beth is a relevant character for modern readers and why or why not? What would make her more “real” to you?

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Fruitlands through the years in sight and sound

Recently a reader (thank you Michelle!) sent me a wonderful interview with Richard Francis, author of Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. Francis does an excellent job of clarifying a complex situation (anyone who has studied the Fruitlands experiment in depth knows what I mean!). It was presented on The Woman’s Hour on BBC, hosted by Jenni Murray.

Richard  Francis Interview

Fruitlands then and now

I thought too that you might enjoy a tour of Fruitlands through the ages. I combined photos from Clara Endicott Sears’ book, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands with photos I took on my last visit there:

Upper photo courtesy of Harriet Lothrop Papers, Minuteman National Park

Front of the house

Foyer

Kitchen

Dining room

Dining room

The study

Alcott’s bedroom

Charles Lane’s bedroom

The heart of the story

And here are pictures of the attic. I think these pictures bring home the human drama of Fruitlands more than anything. When you actually see it, you just want to sit there and ponder what went on in that dark, cramped and cold room:

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Gossip from overseas: stories from “Little Women Abroad” by those mapcap Alcott sisters

I am pleased to present this guest post by Elizabeth Hilprecht, a regular reader whose insightful comments you have most likely read. We have been having a wonderful email chat back and forth about Daniel Shealy’s Little Women Abroad and I asked her if she would share some of the wonderful stories taken from letters to home written by Louisa May Alcott and her sister May describing their European exploits. She graciously accepted.

Little Women Abroad is a valuable book including a lengthy introduction, seventy one letters from Louisa and May (with fifty eight published for the first time) and many pages of drawings by May Alcott. Daniel Shealy’s scholarship is impeccable. Besides the colorful stories are letters about the death of John Pratt and the grief experienced by the sisters and business correspondences between “Jo” and “Tom” (Louisa and Thomas Niles, her publisher).

Little Women Abroad also provides a valuable look into the world of two independent and successful sisters (one already established and the other on the cusp) providing a bird’s eye view of Europe in the nineteenth century. We are indeed fortunate that the Alcott family so valued letter writing; Bronson in particular felt that letters should be saved and savored — he ended up transcribing all the letters sent to him and Abba during the daughters’ first year in Europe.

Here are some of Elizabeth’s initial thoughts. Continue reading

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)

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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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Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! Episode Three: Louisa the runner, the real Beth’s piano, and more

“I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run.”
Louisa May Alcott, “Sketch of Childhood, by herself.”

itunes graphic3Welcome to the third episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
The Podcast!

Welcome to the third episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast!  While we may not yet feel the chill in the air here in New England, September is just around the corner and with it, Orchard House’s annual benefit, the 5K Run/Walk featuring three-time Boston Marathon winner, two-time Olympian and Louisa devotee Uta Pippig. Today I will talk with Jan Turnquist, executive director at Orchard House about this run/walk, now in its 11th year. This particular year features some exciting guests and a special presentation along with the run and walk. Click on the link to see all the details.

I’ll share a reading from Little Women that fits nicely with the episode’s theme, catch you up on the latest news and at the end of the podcast, we’ll hear from Louisa herself.

Click on the image to record your feedback:

feedback graphic3or send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com.

And now, on with the show!

Here’s a reading from Little Women, and a reflection from Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by the Message:

Start Running — and never quit.

Little Women--2“But when nothing remained of all her three months’ work, except a heap of ashes, and the money in her lap, Jo looked sober, as she sat on the floor, wondering what she ought to do about her wages.

“I think I haven’t done much harm yet, and may keep this to pay for my time,” she said, after a long meditation, adding impatiently, “I almost wish I hadn’t any conscience, it’s so inconvenient. If I didn’t care about doing right, and didn’t feel uncomfortable when doing wrong, I should get on capitally. I can’t help wishing, sometimes, that mother and father hadn’t been so dreadfully particular about such things.”

Little Women, Chapter 34, “Friend”

“Do you see what this means — all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running — and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed — that exhilarating finish in and with God — he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”

Hebrews 12:1-3

Alcott news

louisa in walpoleContinuing this fall is the special Alcott exhibit in Walpole, NH run by the historical society. The Alcotts lived in Walpole between 1855 and 1857. Among the items on display are posters advertising the plays Louisa and Anna took part in, and the piano loaned to the family by Dr. Henry Bellows which is immortalized in Little Women, “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful;” I recently found Bronson’s journal entry about this episode:

From Bronson’s Journal, Monday, September 17, 1855
(Lizzie had been stricken with scarlet fever in July)

“Dr. Bellows lends his piano this morning for Elizabeth to use during the absence of himself and his family in New York. This is a kindness to E. and all of us, and will make our house here in the lane the more melodious till May next.

Elizabeth plays quite sweetly. Abby’s touch is bold  … it is fortunate for the recluse, these gifts of theirs …”

lizzie piano

Houghton Library: Amos Bronson Alcott papers, 1799-1888. MS Am 1130.12, pgs. 395, 396 September 17, 1855

31-waysideThe Wayside (part of the Minuteman National Park) continues to be open to the public from now through October 30, Sunday, Monday and Friday, 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Sundays, 11:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. The Wayside, known as Hillside when the Alcotts lived there, is where part one of Little Women took place. You can imagine scenes such as the girls acting out Pilgrim’s Progress on the stairs. The Wayside also housed Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family for several years, and Margaret Sidney, author of The Five Little Peppers series. It’s a fascinating tour — I recently did a blog post with pictures.

I recently visited Minuteman National Park’s North Bridge Visitor’s Center where I had the pleasure of going through Margaret Lothrop’s research for her book, The Wayside Home of Authors. She has transcribed several years of Bronson’s journals covering the Hillside period and beyond, passages that are not featured in Odell Shepherd’s book. Shepherd left out most of the family-related passages; thanks to Lothrop, these passages are now easily accessible, providing a window into Alcott family life and in particular, Bronson’s creativity which I think influenced May in her art. The museum technician, Steven Nevin, is very helpful and friendly, a joy to work with. The organization of the materials is clear and easy to follow. You can find a link to the summary of what is available on the show notes.

Walden Woods Project Library

Walden Woods Project Library

Speaking of libraries, Walden Woods also has fascinating archives to explore. Their librarian Jeff Cramer is also very accommodating – he recently scanned and sent me an article on Junius Alcott, Bronson’s younger brother. You can find a link in the show notes for a summary of their holdings.

If you have an event you’d like me to share on this podcast, simply send me feedback using the SpeakPipe app, It will record your voice and send your message via email to me. It’s quick, easy and free to send your feedback—just click on the SpeakPipe app on the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page. You can also click on the green “Start Recording” link in the show notes.  I welcome all kinds of feedback: Ask questions, make comments, quote a passage, tell a joke, anything Alcott-related. I look forward to hearing from you.

Orchard House Annual 5K Run/Walk Sunday, September 11 at 11 am —
interview with Jan Turnquist

utarickdick combined

Jan shares some wonderful stories about this wonderful event and exciting news about a special presentation associated with the run. You can sign up for the run and find out more at www.louisamayalcott.org – the link will be on the show notes. If you run the race send me your pictures at louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com and I’ll post on the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page.

I’d love to hear from you – right on the home page is a link to SpeakPipe App where you can leave audio feedback. Just click on the green “Start Recording” button. SpeakPipe App is also available on the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page, in the left hand column under Apps. Just click on the icon and leave your message.

You can also send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com. I will share feedback on the next episode.

NOTE: “Louisa May Alcott: The Podcast!” is no longer available on iTunes but you can listen here on the blog. For all the episodes, visit the Podcast Page.

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Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! Episode Two: Wrap-up of the 2016 Summer Conversational Series

“It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if one only knows how to look at them.” (from “Marjorie’s Three Gifts,” 1877)

itunes graphic3Welcome to the second episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
The Podcast!

During the next thirty six minutes I will give you an overview of the recent Summer Conversational Series, “‘Finding Beauty in the Humblest Things’ — Louisa May Alcott’s Literary Vision” which took place July 10-14 at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. You’ll get to hear from many of the speakers and hear a summary of their presentations. Here on the show notes I have links to my notes so that you can get all the details

And now, on with the show!

Cathlin Davis, PhD
“Bringing Beauty to the World: Youthful Reformers in Louisa May Alcott’s Juvenile Fiction”

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Dr. Davis, Full Professor in the College of Education at California State University-Stanislaus, has been presenting for over ten years at the Summer Conversational Series. She likely has the largest collection of books by Louisa May Alcott (many first editions) and is the go-to person for information and analysis of Alcott’s juvenile works.

On Monday she demonstrated how Alcott brought beauty to the world through her children’s stories. She covered three commonly used themes through a series of stories:

  • Kindness to animals (“Nelly’s Hospital,” “Old Major,” “Baa! Baa!,”)
  • Kindness to each other, rich and poor (“May Flowers,” “Roses and Forget-Me-Nots,”)
  • Sharing Christmas joy (“How It All Happened,” “The Little Red Purse” and “Kate’s Choice.”)

Dr. Davis introduced her session by reading portions of a children’s picture book by another author, Barbara Cooney called Miss Rumphius which demonstrates the theme beautifully. You can watch it here on YouTube:

Download my notes

All stories are available through Google Books or Project Gutenberg.

Elise Hooper:
“Extraordinary Beauty in an Ordinary World: May Alcott and Women’s Painting during the 19th Century”

Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper is a teacher of history and the author of The Other Alcott, a novel about May Alcott Nieriker, due for publication in the Fall of 2017.

Hooper traced the life of May Alcott Nieriker, citing the influence of her parents. Although May lacked a thorough formal education, her home encouraged creativity, enthusiasm and beauty, all of which drove her in her ambition to become a professional artist.

Hooper explained the need for May to seek her training in Europe as America was in its infancy with regards to art. With the exception of a few prominent teachers (among them Dr. William Rimmer and Stephen Salisbury Tuckerman, both of whom instructed May), there was no support for a professional career in art for women. Because of strong Victorian norms, it was impossible for women to receive the necessary anatomical training as that necessitated the use of nude models, male and female.

Still, Boston was more progressive in the arts than most cities and May was able to take full advantage. Once she reached Europe through the help of her famous sister Louisa, May threw herself into studies. Hooper discussed May’s success as a Turner copyist and two-time exhibitor at the Paris Salon.

Download my notes

You can find out more about The Other Alcott here.

Anne-Laure François
“A Lesson in the True Necessities and Means of Life: Louisa’s Children as Wise Seers of the Sublime in Everyday Life”

Anne-Laure François

Anne-Laure François

Dr. François is an assistant professor at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense working in both the English and Law Departments. Her doctoral dissertation offered the first detailed study in French of Louisa May Alcott’s fiction, examining Alcott’s strategy of re-writing Transcendentalism and adapting its philosophical principles to the demands of the fast-growing American literary market in the second half of the 19th Century. As an educator, she helped create an alternative high school in the South of France — a project notably based on Alcott’s “Plumfield,” the school utopia that paid homage to her father’s groundbreaking educational ideas and work.

Dr. François chose to examine a little-known short story written by Alcott in 1857 called “The Cross on the Old Church Tower.” She believes that this story foretold the type of writing that would propel Alcott to great success. It is also important to note that “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” was written during Lizzie’s last illness.

Faustian themes, a favorite of Alcott, is featured in this story and found in later works such as A Modern Mephistopheles. One of the main characters, Walter, represents Faust while the other, Jamie, is his savior through his simple and virtuous life. Walter eventually becomes a writer of love stories through Jamie’s influence. There are many parallels between “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” and the story of Beth’s death and her influence on Jo in Little Women.

Dr. François described how this story shows the depth of Alcott’s reading. She believes the story is prophetic regarding Alcott’s future as a successful writer.

You can read “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” here http://www.online-literature.com/alcott/1976/

Download my notes

Kristi Lynn Martin
“The Sacred Domestic, Memorialization, and Literary Imagination in the Alcott Sisters’ Sphere”

Kristi Lynn Martin

Kristi Lynn Martin

Kristi Martin is a registered tour guide for all the historic homes in Concord including Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. She is currently doing her dissertation for her PhD on literary tourism in Concord (“Creating ‘Concord: How Preservation and Tourism Transformed a New England Village into a Tourist Mecca, 1824 – 1965”).

Kristi’s specialty is the Alcott sisters and in her presentation told true stories of each sister that line up with the fictional tales of the March sisters. The Alcott sisters were known as The Golden Band by their father Bronson and he wrote beautiful sonnets for each sister. In Little Women, he is the wise and quiet leader of a bustling household of women.

Beginning with the eldest, Anna, Kristi described Anna’s love of beauty (her favorite word was “beautiful”) and used her wedding as the perfect example of Anna’s virtuous beauty. Meg March’s wedding was very similar to Anna’s right down to the grey silk dress and Lily of the Valley flowers. The simplicity of that wedding underscored the beauty that be the marriage between Anna and her John (aka Meg and John Brooke).

She highlighted Louisa’s sacrifice of her nursing service which resulted in a near fatal illness and the loss of her “one true beauty” – her long chestnut tresses. In Little Women Mr. March serves in the war and Jo sacrifices “her one beauty” impetuously to help send Marmee to his side during his recovery.

Beth’s gentle goodness and gracious death proved to be perhaps the major moral force of the novel as shown by the change in Jo after Beth dies. Kristi shared quotes from Lizzie demonstrating that the shy shadow sister in fact very much enjoyed the company of others and could have a saucy sense of humor not unlike Louisa herself!

Finally she contrasted May with Amy demonstrating that although like Amy, May grew into a gracious woman, she also took her art far beyond where Amy was able to take it.

Download my notes

A visit from Louisa May Alcott!

From left to right, Lis Adams, Education Director, and Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott

From left to right, Lis Adams, Education Director, and Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott

We had a surprise visit from Louisa herself! (artfully portrayed by Orchard House Executive Director Jan Turnquist) She first talked about Father and Mother and their dear friends, Emerson and Thoreau. She spoke with affection about Emerson’s daughter Ellen and how she dogged Louisa for more fairy stories. That of course, ended up with the publication of Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables.

She was “surprised” that we all knew and loved Little Women and remarked how unexpected its success was to her as both she and her publisher, Thomas Niles, thought the book “dull.”

Louisa lovingly shared the familiar story of Bronson coming home after a trip out West, covered with snow and with only one dollar in his pocket.

She shared stories about her days as a Civil War nurse and even “reunited” with a soldier she had nursed in Washington! (Bravo John Matteson for your campy performance)

She then revealed her deep dark secret: she wrote pot boilers just like Jo! She then acted out one of her most notorious women characters, devious Jean Muir of Behind a Mask.

Continuing to enact favorite characters, she showed us Sairy Gamp from a Charles Dickens story, the character she used to cheer up her dear Lizzie as well as the soldiers in the Union hospital.

Calling us friends, she confided in us how she put off annoying fans by pretending to be the Irish maid.

It was a wonderful visit!

Gabrielle Donnelly
“Castles in the Air Versus Two Inches of Ivory: A Comparison of Louisa May Alcott’s Sisters with Jane Austen’s Bennets.”

Gabrielle Donnelly, photo by Jeannine Atkins

Gabrielle Donnelly, photo by Jeannine Atkins

Two classics: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Gabrielle Donnelly is a devotee of both authors.

Having written a modern day interpretation of Alcott’s book with The Little Women Letters, Donnelly is intimately familiar with the March sisters; as a member of the Jane Austen Society, she has similar affinity for the Bennet sisters.

Listening to any presentation by Donnelly is truly an unforgettable experience with her classic London accent and dry British wit; she is a perennial favorite at the Summer Conversational Series. She traced both stories and showed great differences between the March and the Bennet families. Of course, Pride and Prejudice was written in an earlier era and Alcott’s upbringing was unusual and progressive. Comparing and contrasting these two families revealed much about Austen and Alcott as women and writers.

The crowning moment was a piece of fan fiction crafted by Donnelly where she has Elizabeth Bennet meeting Jo March (Mrs. Frederick Bhaer)!

Download my notes

Download Donnelly’s fan fiction

John Matteson
“Five at Fredericksburg: Revising What We Know about The Battle that Transformed American Culture.”

Dr. John Matteson

Dr. John Matteson

Dr. Matteson, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts (about Louisa and her father), also author of The Lives of Margaret Fuller, presented a double session highlighting his latest book about the Battle of Fredericksburg and its effect on American culture through five prominent people (including Louisa).

Dr. Matteson’s presentation was part book description and part writing process. As several of us are working on book projects, this part of his presentation (and the ensuing Q & A) was especially helpful.

Dr. Matteson began by sharing how his new book project (with the working title of A Worse Place than Hell, a quote taken from Abraham Lincoln) was born through a discussion with one of his editors who pushed him to think “big.” Dr. Matteson shared some of his techniques for staying on track and not becoming overwhelmed by the mountain of research he has acquired.

He then got into the meat of the book, describing first the Battle of Fredericksburg and why it was such a bloody disaster. He then introduced the five persons transformed by the war:

  • Walt Whitman – his brother’s injury in a battle caused Walt to become a volunteer nurse.
  • The Rev. Arthur Buckminster Fuller (Margaret’s brother)
  • Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. (future Supreme Court Justice — how his view of the law evolved)
  • John Pelham (“the blond idol of soldier-loving girls”) – John especially captivated by his photo (that’s how I felt about Lizzie when I first saw her). He was the youngest soldier to lie in state.
  • Louisa May Alcott

Download my notes

Part two of Dr. Matteson’s presentation was an encore of the presentation he made last May at the Concord Inn which you can read about in my blog post, “Finding the ‘prince of patients’—John Matteson discovers the whereabouts of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches”

Closing thoughts

With heart and brain both filled to overflowing, our week together ended. The community that has developed as a result of the Summer Conversational Series is supportive, loving and generous.

AUDIENCE-560

Although not equal in achievements perhaps, we are equals in our love for the Alcotts and love nothing better than to share that love with each other and the world. Kristi Martin said it perfectly:

“My Alcott community is precious to me. It makes the Summer Conversation series a special occasion. I’m blessed to be a member of the extended Orchard House family; for the friendships, the countless ways that the individual and collective members carry on the spirit of the Alcotts, and bring kindness, joy, learning, inspiration, and beauty into my life.”

Amen.

I invite you to visit Jeannine Atkins’ blog to meet members of this special community — she captured it to perfection.

And my thoughts

I wrote some personal thoughts too which you can check out here.

NOTE: “Louisa May Alcott: The Podcast!” is no longer available on iTunes but you can listen here on the blog. For all the episodes, visit the Podcast Page.

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Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge: Pedlar’s Progress by Odell Shepherd–uncovering the essence of Bronson

I never thought I’d be saying this, especially when it comes to Bronson Alcott but Pedlar’s Progress, a biography on the life of Alcott by Odell Shepherd, is turning out to be an epic read. It may rank among the top ten books on my lifetime list.

pedlar's progress

A satisfying tactile experience

Could it be because I have an antique copy, dating back to 1937? Could it be the gorgeous cover, carefully repaired and kept on the book as I read so I can enjoy it? Maybe it’s because the pages are browning and the paper soft to the touch. I love that the type is easy to read and the margins wide so I can write in them. The fact that the spine of the book causes it to stay open by itself is definitely a factor.

Getting into Bronson Alcott

bronsonalcott1A satisfying tactile experience certainly adds to the pleasure but what does it for me is the beautiful writing. Odell Shepherd gets into the mind and essence of Bronson Alcott like no other (he actually read all of Bronson’s journals, an amazing feat, and compiled excerpts into The Journals of Bronson Alcott, published in 1938.). He uncovers the brilliance and beauty, the hunger for knowledge, the heart and the spiritual insight that in particular, shaped Alcott’s extraordinary gifts as a teacher and conversationalist. Shepherd also exposes the inconsistencies, sloppy scholarship and the poor writing skills. He admits to the lack of care of practical matters, and a singular obsession bordering on arrogance and narcissism which oftentimes placed his family in abject poverty despite his deep love for them.

First impressions

When I first started writing for Louisa May Alcott is My Passion, I found Bronson to be difficult at best. It was hard to forgive the plight he forced upon his wife Abba. He certainly left permanent scars on daughter Louisa due to an insistence on shaping her into his own image. She grew up becoming a workaholic, slavishly providing for the family long after it was necessary. While she achieved great success as a writer, she lamented her ability to grow artistically as a writer.

A change of heart

eden's outcasts bigAfter reading Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson, I began to change my mind as I saw a new side to Bronson as a mystic. Shepherd’s book completes the story for me. Current biographers comment on his style being old-fashioned (while being totally authentic) but to me, that’s the charm of the book. It was written less than fifty years after Bronson’s death in an era where the values of Bronson’s time could still be understood and appreciated.

Where I’m at in the book

conversations with children on the gospelsI am halfway through my read, where Conversations with Children on the Gospels has been published (can’t wait to read that one!) and the Temple School is coming apart at the seams. Shepherd cites a letter from Elizabeth Peabody begging to be taken out of Conversations because she senses it will ruin her reputation. Before reading this book, I sympathized totally with Peabody and blamed Bronson for poor judgment. Now I am not so sympathetic. I certainly understand how a woman in her position as an older spinster living in proper Boston had to protect her reputation but the fact is that she had pledge her loyalty to Bronson, offering no objection as she took careful notes of the conversations between him and the children. It was only after she heard whispers from “the parlors of the ‘best families’” that she became afraid for her reputation and backed out.

Not an objective take

It’s obvious that Shepherd is sympathetic with Bronson and does not reproach him for his lack of judgment in that debacle. But Shepherd certainly shows a different side to Peabody’s response demonstrating that there are always two sides to every story.

A different view of Emerson

ralph waldo emersonOne other note of interest is Shepherd’s view of Emerson as he discusses the budding friendship that saved Bronson from total despair after the Temple School collapsed. He describes the spirit of Emerson as “shy as a faun of the woods. It was cold as a snow-maiden. Emerson must never know that where he had given only his admiration, his strong and faithful help, his wise counsel, and the partnership of his deep poetic mind, Bronson Alcott had given no less than his whole heart.”

He goes on to accuse Emerson of loving a “fine phrase better than a brave deed.” He then compares the experiences of Alcott to Emerson and it becomes obvious whom he prefers:

“And yet Emerson did make too much of books, of writing, of mere paper and ink. If had gone to school on Spindle Hill instead of attending Harvard College, if he had loaded several tons of Connecticut boulders upon a stoneboat every day for months, or if he had walked ten thousand miles carrying tin trunks from house to house in the Carolinas and Virginia, he might have seen such matters somewhat differently. –But these were things that one said with the head. They had nothing to do with love.”

To take on the revered Emerson in that manner is bold indeed! Yet again, another side to the story.

I can hardly wait to see what Shepherd has to say about Fruitlands!

louisa-may-alcott-2016-reading-challenge-bannerWhat are you reading for the challenge? Visit In the Bookcase to see what everyone else is reading.

NOTE: I wrote a separate piece on this book in my spiritual journal which you might like to read. Beautiful writing has a way of lifting the soul up and out of the darkness.

Have you heard the first episode of The Podcast yet? Check it out here or on iTunes. Be sure and leave a review on iTunes.

 

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