There is something intriguing about the history of a home – who designed it and why, what accomplishments occurred under its refuge, who might have met within its walls and what precious moments might have consequently transpired? This trail follows the homes from the life of Louisa May Alcott that appear to make cameo appearances in Little Women – from their humble homes in Concord to the Hancock family manor in Boston.
I am pleased to present this guest post by Helen Batchelder — she had the privilege of visiting the birthplace of Bronson Alcott.
You can still sign up to attend Helen’s two lectures on Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum – call 978-456-3924, ext. 291. Cost is $12 for members, $20 for non-members.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Land impacts our development, actions, preferences, and constitutions.
Did you grow up on flat farmland? Near mountains? By rivers? Lakes? Streams? In a cityscape? I grew up in a quiet country town that had two major disturbances — the construction of a highway, and housing developments prompted by a boom in the job market thanks to Digital and IBM, but they were far from my drumlin, my arthritic ancient apple trees, and the gigantic rocks left behind by running glaciers. Likely this granted me a very different perspective on life and my place in it than I otherwise might have had, if the privacy of my childhood home had been the 34th floor of an apartment building in New York. In my research on Amos “Bronson” Alcott, I kept turning to his hometown, picturing him, a youth, the first of his parents’ nine children, ambling about a sparsely wooded hill, gathering who he would be. I provincially imagined that hill to be like my drumlin, much smaller than the 420’ elevation of my hometown of Harvard, Massachusetts in which he would, in 1843, attempt a “Con-sociation” called Fruitlands. Continue reading →
Last Wednesday I attended the first of three lectures on Bronson Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA, presented by Helen Batchelder, a local scholar.
Fruitlands in the dark
I have never been to Fruitlands before in the dark and it was disconcerting to see the lights over the mountains, reminding me it was 2017 and not 1843. Gazing down the road however, I could not make out the red farmhouse in the dark and for a moment, I could feel the intense loneliness and isolation of living there. The Fruitlands experiment was, if anything, high drama for two families and it was to impact them for the rest of their lives. To get a sense of the tragedy of Fruitlands, I highly suggest reading John Matteson’s account in Eden’s Outcasts.
from Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott
As the birthdays of two of my favorite people dawns today, I can’t help but think how deliciously ironic it is that I am finally finishing Eden’s Outcasts, the Pulitzer prize-winning book on the life of Louisa May Alcott and her father Amos Bronson Alcott by John Matteson.
and yet I never finished the book until now. I just couldn’t. I loved the book so much I didn’t want it to end. I find that reading this compelling story of two such talented, creative, intelligent, and difficult people orders my mind and fills my heart. It is told with such elegance along with touches of humor and irony. Among other things, it explores the spiritual aspect of the Alcotts which was so important to them. Continue reading →
Research 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.
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)
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 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)
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.
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)
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.
“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.”
Welcome to the third episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
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.
“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.”
“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!”
Continuing 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 …”
Houghton Library: Amos Bronson Alcott papers, 1799-1888. MS Am 1130.12, pgs. 395, 396 September 17, 1855
The 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
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
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 email@example.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.
“It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if one only knows how to look at them.” (from “Marjorie’s Three Gifts,” 1877)
Welcome to the second episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
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. 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:
All stories are available through Google Books or Project Gutenberg.
“Extraordinary Beauty in an Ordinary World: May Alcott and Women’s Painting during the 19th Century”
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.
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”
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.
Kristi Lynn Martin
“The Sacred Domestic, Memorialization, and Literary Imagination in the Alcott Sisters’ Sphere”
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.
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!
“Castles in the Air Versus Two Inches of Ivory: A Comparison of Louisa May Alcott’s Sisters with Jane Austen’s Bennets.”
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)!
“Five at Fredericksburg: Revising What We Know about The Battle that Transformed American Culture.”
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.
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.
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.”
I invite you to visit Jeannine Atkins’ blog to meet members of this special community — she captured it to perfection.