“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

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The Alcotts at Fruitlands, seen through the eyes of a “regular child:” Book Review: Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass

little women next doorSome of the best books written about Louisa May Alcott are those geared for children.

One of my favorites is Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass. In a gentle yet poignant story Klass shows the Alcotts during their time Fruitlands through the eyes of a child from a typical family of the 1840s. That view does much to tone down Bronson’s reputation as a crackpot or lunatic. While he was probably his most extreme self during this period, Klass shows the valuable gifts he instilled in his children. Bronson may have been a lunatic at times, but he was also a gifted teacher who opened the world to his children.

About the main character

In this story, Louisa and her sisters help a girl deprived of her childhood to gain it back again by helping her to blossom from within. The main character, Susan, is a child who lost her mother at birth and whose father keeps his distance because he associates Susan with the loss of his wife. While her aunt is kind and caring, Susan is lonely with no friends her own age and no inner life of imagination. Furthermore she stutters which makes communication very difficult. Her father’s lack of patient with her affliction only makes it worse.

New friend

Sheila Solomon Klass www.bmcc.cuny.edu

Sheila Solomon Klass www.bmcc.cuny.edu

Susan and her family live next door to Fruitlands and soon meet the Alcotts after they move in. Here Klass shines a light on the Alcotts by comparing them to Susan and her family in terms of what they deem important. Those of us who immerse ourselves in all things Alcott forget how extraordinary this family was. Susan discerned immediately that Louisa was special.

Learning self expression

Susan takes lessons from Bronson along with the Alcott girls and William, the son of Charles Lane. Susan finds Bronson to be a very different kind of teacher, kind and patient as he works with her to overcome her stutter. Anna and Louisa help too. In addition Louisa gives Susan a journal and invites her to write down her thoughts.

Growth and reconciliation

Susan’s exposure to the freedom and imaginative games that the Alcott children enjoy transforms her. Growing in confidence and now able to communicate with her father through her writings, Susan and her father reconcile.

Bronson’s greatest gift

I really loved this book. It was a very different look at the Alcotts as seen through the eyes of a “regular” child who blossomed because of her friendship with Louisa and her lessons with Bronson. With all the talk about Bronson’s many flaws, he did give Louisa the key to the interior life, one full of adventure, and a place where she could retreat when the world around her was too hard to bear. It was that interior life that would eventually equip Louisa with the tools to take her family out of the perpetual poverty to which Bronson had subjected it.

You can find Little Women Next Door on Amazon.

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“I Will Remember You:” a video and musical tribute to Louisa May Alcott and her sister Lizzie

louisa and lizzieI created this video in tribute to these two special ladies in our lives. In a previous post I had mentioned how Louisa and Lizzie had changed my life; thus I put together this song and video in tribute.

Enjoy and spread it around!

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Little Men: The Good Man (chapter 3, “Sunday”)

coverAs mentioned in a previous post about the art of domesticity, I have been reading Little Men, or Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys. The audio book version from Librivox.org has actually been my companion while doing yard work and gardening these past few Saturdays. Keeps my mind off of my aching joints and bones! Listening to Little Men as opposed to reading it has given me a chance to take a step backward and see the story as a stand-alone work.

Different from Little Women

I’ve had problems reading Little Men in the past because I had assumed it would be an extension of Little Women. Instead, it concentrates more on the boys and girls of Plumfield rather than Jo and Professor Bhaer (and after twelve chapters, I’ve seen little or no reference to the other main characters of Little Women with exception of Laurie). It reminds me of the experience of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkein. The magic of the story was lost for me after the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, because the Fellowship split up and went in different directions. It was the chemistry of the Fellowship that made the story special for me, just as the sisterhood of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy made Little Women special.

A direction not taken

Some distance from Little Women has helped me to better appreciate the charm of Little Men although it did leave me wondering why Louisa chose to go this way with her sequel. Obviously the sisters are grown women now with their own lives but I would have thought she would have placated her fans with more about the sisters. Louisa was indeed a professional writer with a keen understanding of what sells, but she was independent too.

Why the book was written

John Pratt, husband to Anna, father to Fred and John

John Pratt, husband to Anna, father to Fred and John

Little Men was written as the result of the sudden death of Anna’s husband John Pratt. Louisa and May were in Europe at the time, taking the Grand Tour. When Louisa heard the news she immediately sat down to write Little Men so as to support her nephews, Freddy and Johnny, with its sales. It would follow then that the book would be written more with them in mind.

Much taken from real life

Like Little Women, Little Men is full of real life anecdotes, and in some ways, they are more obvious. For those of you with a thorough knowledge of Louisa’s life, these anecdotes jump right off the page. Yesterday while listening to chapters 6-12, I picked up on several which I’ll share in upcoming posts.

Bronson’s presence

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402

Amos Bronson Alcott

Her father Bronson is very much present in the good and kind Professor Bhaer as well as in Grandpa March. In Chapter 3, “Sunday,” I could hear Bronson speaking clearly through the voice of Demi, Meg’s son.

Consolation for Nat

Nat is the new boy, having only been at Plumfield a day or two when  chapter 3, “Sunday,” opens. At bedtime he notices a picture on the wall at the foot of his bed which he found  “peculiar … for it had a graceful frame of moss and cones about it, and on a little bracket underneath stood a vase of wild flowers freshly gathered from the spring woods. It was the most beautiful picture of them all …” Nat found himself longing to know more about the picture and Demi noticed. He began then to tell the story of Christ, The Good Man, as told to him by Grandpa March.

Demi shares Grandpa’s story

jesus_with_children300In the picture, Christ is blessing the children and Nat, who knows little about Him (except for His name being taken in vain), remarks how kind Christ looks. Grandpa March had given the picture to Demi after telling him the story of The Good Man many times. Demi related to Nat that Christ loved poor people, “and was very good to them. He made them well, and helped them, and told rich people they must not be cross to them, and they loved Him dearly, dearly.”

Help for Nat

chp. 3 Christ the Good ManHe continued to tell Nat about the life of Christ and how the “bad men killed Him.” Nat, only at the school for few days, took great comfort in the story; Jo, so grateful to her nephew for offering such comfort to Nat, thought to herself, “Demi is unconsciously helping the poor boy better than I can …”

Real life counterparts

There are references in Anna’s childhood diaries of conversations with her father on biblical stories: On Wednesday, September 2, 1839 she wrote, “I had a very interesting talk with father about Jesus. He explained to me some things that I wanted to know about what he did: about his feeding of the five thousand people, and about raising the dead to life, and stilling the tempest. I like conversations with father.” (from Houghton Library, Amos B Alcott Family Letters 1837 TO 1852 Vol. 1 to Vol. V 1852-1855).

anna large

Anna Bronson Alcott Pratt

In another passage, Anna shows her preferences for her father’s way of teaching religion: Sunday, December 22, 1839 “I went to Mr. Barnard[‘s church] this morning. I wish he would preach about something that I could understand as father does when he talks with me about being good. After I came home, father read about God’s making the World, about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, eating the forbidden fruit, and being sent out of the garden, and about Cain’s slaying his brother Abel. Father explained it to me so that I might understand it. He wishes me to understand all I read. He talked with us about loving one another.” (Ibid)

For all of Bronson’s faults, his way of making religion a living faith for his children is to be commended.

It’s obvious through Demi’s story of the Good Man and its impact on Nat, that Louisa was greatly impacted too. The voice of her father through Demi was tender way that he told it to Nat, who needed that kind of consolation.

It’s these kinds of stories that makes Little Men special to me.

Click to Tweet & ShareLittle Men: The Good Man (chapter 3, “Sunday”) – Bronson Alcott in the voice of Demi http://wp.me/p125Rp-1u6

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

Finding his mission: Bronson Alcott, part 2 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

How did a remote and poor farm boy evolve into a visionary educator? This is one of the great questions regarding Bronson Alcott for which I wanted answers.  John Matteson in Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father provides some interesting insight.

In the beginning

In the first chapter Matteson traces  Bronson Alcott’s beginnings. On page 14 we find that Bronson’s family is directly descended from the two Alcotts (aka Alcock) who crossed over on the Arbella in 1630 with Governor John Winthrop who coined the phrase, “a city upon a hill” (rumor has it that my mother’s ancestor, Allen Breed (aka Bread) also came over on that ship).  Bronson’s family settled on Spindle Hill in Connecticut where they became farmers.

Anna Bronson Alcott

Bronson described his father Joseph in this way: “He gave himself to life with earnestness & simplicity of a child. He was the most diffident person I have ever known.”

Bronson’s mother Anna came from a family of some stature and he described her as kind-hearted, gracious, gentle, and affectionate.  She proved to be enormously supportive of Bronson’s pursuit of learning.

Learning from his cousin

Bronson was born with a deep desire to learn but educational prospects were meager. Fortunately he found a kindred spirit in his  second cousin William Alcott:  “The two boys shared books, exchanged ideas, and started a small library together. ” Odell Shepard author of Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott, wrote that “Indeed there is a sense in which nearly everything Alcott wrote and did is attributable to William.” (taken from Wikipedia).

Dr. William Alcott

Matteson writes, “Apart from his mother, Bronson’s only ally in this search for broader horizons was his cousin William, about sixteen months his senior. As teenagers, they exchanged stories and hand-delivered weekly letters to each other, discoursing as best they could on the books they read and their newfound ideas. They read each other’s journals and discussed their dreams. They both thought that teaching might make a good profession, and they even aspired to authorship.” (page 17)

William’s contributions
as an educator

William was successful as a teacher, pushing for more practical reforms: (from Wikipedia)  “He observed that the benches used by students were often painful and, at his own expense built backs onto the benches; these became the ancestors of the later school desks. He campaigned for better heating and ventilation in schools. He labored to improve the intellectual content of classrooms.”

Sensitive soul

Bronson was a sensitive soul who was deeply affected by cruelty. The harsh treatment of prisoners coupled with witnessing a hanging made him absolutely averse to it (pg. 22).

Selling leads to learning

Thomas Waterman Wood (American artist, 1823–1903) The Yankee Pedlar

Bronson’s experiences as a Yankee peddler greatly shaped his life. Initially he took to it well, finding the business “instantly absorbing.” (p. 23) His work often took him deep in the South where he was influenced by the manners of southern gentlemen, absorbing the “graces and good manners” of gentility.

Selling gave him the chance to hone his power of persuasion.

Being a peddler gave Bronson a chance to indulge in his love of reading and learning, taking full advantage of intellectual opportunities along the way by partaking of the libraries of his customers. That love of reading was often to the detriment of his business as he spent too much time at it.

I like to imagine Bronson meeting southern gentlemen like Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind – it makes for a nice bit of fancy. 🙂

The dark side of being learned

Bronson was known throughout his life for his arrogance and the first whiff of it showed up in an early letter home where he “performs” using the new words he’s learned through his reading, and association with southern gentility – “He wanted to sound like anything but the son of a subsistence farmer.” (pg. 24)

Despite a propensity for spiritual thoughts and reflection, Bronson did have a taste for the finer things of life as well.

From mammon to God

As his peddling business began to wane, an allegory from his favorite book, The Pilgrim’s Progress (the book that would shape his life) caused Bronson to rethink mercenary work. He wrote to his cousin William, ” ‘ Peddling is a hard place to serve God, but a capital one to serve Mammon.’ Bronson now wished to amend his ways.” (pg. 25)

Thinking for oneself

Bronson was utterly impatient with orthodoxy: “To dare to think, to think for oneself, is denominated pride and arrogance. And millions of minds are in this state of slavery and tyranny.” (pg. 28)  This is an ironic statement coming from someone whose eventual downfall would come exactly from such pride and arrogance. Perhaps there is some wisdom in orthodoxy.

Turning to his life’s mission

With peddling behind him, Bronson turned to teaching and found that it immediately resonated with him. He became headmaster of a school in Cheshire, CT and began to see teaching as his mission in life. With the fervor of a minister, he sought to “imbue the youthful heart and mind with a reverence for goodness.” (pg. 26)

In the next part of this series, I will explore Bronson’s early success and growing passion for teaching, revealing how he came to become such a visionary.

If you missed Part One, you can read it here.


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