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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Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! Episode One: “Beauty in the humblest things”

Welcome to the premier episode of

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Topics and show notes:

louisa coverA reading

Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message
by Susan Bailey, pgs. 88-89,
from Work: A Story of Experience

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

News

The Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge
at “In the Bookcase”

louisa-may-alcott-2016-reading-challenge-banner

louisa in walpole“Walpole’s Louisa May Alcott,”
sponsored by
the Walpole, NH Historical Society

nest5-21-2015The Summer Conversational Series
at Orchard House

 

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Interview

lis adams with french louisa bio for webwith Lis Adams, Education Director of Orchard House on the Summer Conversational Series.

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

jan as louisa1And some words from
the old girl herself!

as portrayed by Jan Turnquist.

 

 

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

Music

All bumper music copyright 2000, 2002 and 2015 by Susan Bailey

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Time again for the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge! What will you be reading?

Dust off your books and library cards–it’s time again for the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge sponsored by In the Bookcase.

512 an old-fashioned girl louisa may alcott 01 covermarch-geraldine-brooksAlready there are some terrific books lined up by readers including An Old-Fashioned Girl, Proverb StoriesMarch by Geraldine Brooks and even my own Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message.

I am already about a third of the way through Pedlar’s Progress by Odell Shepherd on the life of Bronson Alcott. Concurrently I am reading Bronson’s journals edited by Shepherd, and How Like an Angel Came I Down: Conversations with Children on the Gospels.

pedlar's progress-horiz

You can follow the discussions on In the Bookcase and also through Goodreads.

Looking forward to seeing what everyone is reading!

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Those unconventional Alcotts left behind quite the mark

The Alcotts were an atypical Victorian family to be sure. Along with rather unconventional philosophic and religious ideas as to how to live, the family did not subscribe to typical Victorian role models.

alcott family horiz

Role reversal

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

To begin with, Bronson’s refusal or inability to work to support his family necessitated that his wife Abba take on the breadwinner role. When her health began to suffer, Louisa took over, spending the rest of her life keeping that “Alcott Sinking Fund” (as she dubbed it) afloat, sacrificing artistic growth, independence and her own health.

Career minded

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

The Alcott daughters were educated and well read. They were encouraged to think, to create, to pursue their dreams. Abba wanted to be sure her girls could support themselves. Both parents encouraged the girls in their career interests with the results being Louisa becoming a best selling author and youngest sister May realizing some success as accomplished painter before she died prematurely.

Run, jump, play!

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

Physical activity was very much the norm. The girls were allowed to play like boys, running and jumping, talking long hikes into the woods, playing into the mud and coming home dirty. Louisa writes about her many hair-raising escapades in “Poppy’s Pranks” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag Volume IV. Louisa and May, being the most physically robust of the sisters, continued with physical activity into their adulthood: Louisa took daily runs while May went rowing and horseback riding.

Romance and marriage

Unlike most Victorian parents, Bronson and Abba did not pressure their daughters to marry. Louisa, of course, never took the plunge nor did she consider it even though she had a romance with a man several years her junior in Europe known as Ladislas Wisniewski (although the nature of that romance is in question–see previous post). Despite herself, she did receive at least one marriage proposal.

alcotts as I knew them coverThere are few references even to romance when the sisters were of traditional marrying age. Anna appears to have had some sort of relationship while teaching in Syracuse but she was ultimately rejected. Louisa wrote a single cryptic line in her journal in 1853 about her seventeen-year-old sister Lizzie having a romance with “C.” Clara Gowing, in her book The Alcotts as I Knew Them described it as “A little affair of the heart about that time, which did not meet the approval of her parents …”  May, a flirtatious sort, was the one sister who had many flings, most notably with next door neighbor Julian Hawthorne.

Marriage as rebellion

Pratt-2528Only two of the daughters married and both rather late. Anna married John Pratt when she twenty-nine. In a sense, she rebelled against her family’s unconventional lifestyle, preferring to start a family of her own. She was happily married to John for ten years before he tragically died; they had two sons.

May the cougar?

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

May too, rebelled in a sense, opting to remain permanently in Europe rather than being near her family. Career was first and she had rightly determined that she could not become a great artist without living in Europe. She then married a man considerably younger than herself (and successfully lied about her age – the wrong age is on her death certificate since husband Ernest Nieriker provided the information.).

Motherhood

from alcott.net

from alcott.net

May died a few weeks after giving birth and bequeathed her daughter to older spinster sister Louisa. Thus Louisa became a single mother, raising Lulu as her own.

The right to vote

And one more tidbit from this most unusual family: Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. It had been a dream she had shared with her mother but sadly Abba did not live to vote herself or see her daughter cast it. She proudly cast it on March 29, 1880, adding “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town.”

The Alcotts thus made their mark, through the vote, through literature, through art, and most especially, through their fascinating family history.

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Inside the heart of Bronson Alcott

sonnetscanzo00alcorichIn the last post covering John Matteson’s talk at the Colonial Inn I mentioned Bronson Alcott’s Sonnets and Canzonets, published in 1882 and how they reveal the heart of the man. Each sonnet or canzonet is dedicated to his wife, daughters and many luminary friends such as Ralph Waldo  Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.

Presenting an entertaining dilemma

The sonnets and canzonets are not labeled by name so the identity of the person must be discerned from details provided in the piece. It makes for a fun detective game trying to figure out about whom Bronson was writing. The book is available on archive.org so I challenge you to read it and see if you can identity all to persons.

bronsonalcott1Did Bronson love?

Many do not associate Bronson with devotion and tenderness. After all, how could a man love his family and yet not provide for them? How could a man so seemingly narcissistic, so lost in the clouds of philosophy, understand what it means to love others?

Revealing the heart in earthly experience

But as we know, life is never that black and white. Bronson was, in fact, devoted to his family and his friends. It took many years for him to recognize that love is not merely pure, perfect and theoretical; it is in fact very imperfect. Earthy and physical. Messy, wrenching, and glorious. No life event drove that home to him more than death, whether it be losing two daughters to it, or nearly being deprived of another through her service to the dying.

And so I share with you sonnets to his four daughters: Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May. Judge for yourself the heart of this complex and all-too-human philosopher.

Here are sonnets for Anna, Louisa and Elizabeth:

Anna Alcott

Anna Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Elizabeth Alcott

Elizabeth Alcott

And finally, May Alcott.

Judging from the length of this sonnet, May’s unexpected death shook Bronson to the core:

Do you believe Bronson loved his family well over his entire life? Why or why not?
What do you feel was his greatest contribution to his girls?

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Louisa May Alcott was not the only Alcott working off sexual energy

From Women and Health in America (first edition) there is this intriguing essay titled “What Ought to Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century” by Carl N. Degler.

Quoting Dr Charles Taylor, 1882—

“It is not a matter of indifference whether a woman live a single or a married life … I do not for one moment wish to be understood as believing that an unmarried woman cannot exist in perfect health for I know she can. But the point is, that she must take pains for it.” “some other demand for the unemployed functions, must be established. Accumulated force must find an outlet …” (pg. 50)

Following the doctor’s orders

We already know that Louisa May Alcott channeled her tremendous energy into her creativity–writing. Louisa, however, was not the only physically vibrant and passionate Alcott sister. What about May? Continue reading

“A thousand kisses–I love you with my whole soul”: Relations between women in the 19th century, as reflected in Little Women

This comment from Diana regarding a previous post prompted a discussion on whether or not Louisa May Alcott was gay:

“What is your opinion of the evidence that she may have had some suppressed passion, such as crushes, on girls? Remember she said in an interview that she had been in love with so many girls in her life. This may have been an almost unconscious part of her complicated character; but it would need to be considered in examining her sexual energy. At any rate, if that energy was channeled into her writing, this aspect of it may have been an added component to the human richness of her genius, giving her an extra sensitive intuition into both sexes.”

It is tricky addressing this subject because the mentality of the nineteenth century was so different from our present day. Continue reading