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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On the journey to harmony–Thoreau, the Sound Map and opening up the inner eye

I recently tried a couple of the exercises in Corinne Hosfeld Smith’s book, Henry David Thoreau for Kids–“Record Wild Animal Behavior” and “Draw a Sound Map.” It was a wonderful time outdoors and I was surprised how much I heard! Here’s my Sound Map:

panoramic photo (uses first and third photo)2-720

I wrote more about this on my other blog (Be as One) – you can read it here: On the journey to harmony–Thoreau, the Sound Map and opening up the inner eye — Be as One

You can read my review of Henry David Thoreau for Kids and get to know Corinne in this fascinating interview.

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Talking with Corinne Hosfeld Smith, author of Henry David Thoreau for Kids

As promised, here is an extensive and fascinating interview with Corinne Hosfeld Smith, author of Henry David Thoreau for Kids (see previous post for review).

I see that you became interested in Henry David Thoreau in high school, having read “Civil Disobedience” and Walden. What was it about Thoreau that attracted you?

civil disobedience-vertFirst of all, I admired his spirit of independence. I had a good and quiet suburban childhood. But I was an only child with a very domineering mother. Her word was the law in our household, and my introverted father and I generally bowed to her will. So when I read in “Civil Disobedience” that we all had internal higher laws that we could call upon and follow, this was a revelation to me. You mean, I could think for myself? I didn’t have to be like everyone else? And I could be RIGHT? Wow! I want more of this. Continue reading

Book Review: Henry David Thoreau for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities by Corinne Hosfeld Smith

Henry David Thoreau for Kids is geared towards children ages nine and up but I am going to review this book as one for adults as well.

thoreau for kids

Abridged version of Thoreau

Cutting right to the chase—I loved this book. As a perpetual student of Louisa May Alcott and as someone who appreciates nature, I have been fascinated with Henry David Thoreau since childhood. I do find his writing however to be difficult to plough through at times as it is very dense; Thoreau’s works demand complete attention from the reader and this can be hard to sustain at times. Therefore I look upon Corinne Hosfeld Smith’s book to be a welcomed abridged version of Thoreau.

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

Recent discovery of Thoreau’s notes sheds light on tragic drowning of Margaret Fuller

The Houghton Library at Harvard University has acquired the complete set of notes made by Henry David Thoreau as he visited the site of Margaret Fuller’s drowning along with her husband and little son aboard the steamship Elizabeth.

thoreau-fuller

Here is a teaser from the article, published in the Harvard Gazette:

A recent Houghton Library acquisition is shedding new light on the tragic drowning of Margaret Fuller and on what Henry David Thoreau found as he investigated the death on behalf of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Here’s Thoreau, he is being sent by Emerson, also a very important figure to our collections, to investigate the death of Margaret Fuller. And the Fuller papers are here,” said Leslie Morris (photo 2), the curator of modern books and manuscripts, who helped acquire the manuscript. “It really plays to three of our major figures here at the library. It brings them together … and it’s something that’s been completely unknown to scholarship.”

Here is the transcription of Thoreau’s notes.

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Rose in Bloom: Endings and beginnings

I am glad that I somehow got the idea from another blog that Mac and Rose did not get together. It pained me to see how Mac wooed her and she would not give in. When he shared his Thoreau essays with her and found them well received, it pained me again. So you can imagine my surprise and joy when in fact, the story of Rose in Bloom ended exactly as I hoped it would.

Thoreau yet again

thoreauI had to smile at the injection of Henry David Thoreau into the story. Louisa was not shy in showing her immense admiration of the man. I think Mac was the best representation yet of Thoreau—a seeker both intellectually and spiritually. Mac was a Thoreau who grew into the idea of sharing his life with a woman and finding happiness and fulfillment in that relationship.

Perfect pairings but no perfect marriages

While David Sterling was also a Thoreau-like figure who gave his life to Christie Devon in Work A Story of Experience, there was something more satisfying to me about Mac. Louisa, however, never took the relationships beyond the marrying: David was killed off in the Civil War, and Rose in Bloom ended with Mac and Rose agreeing to marry. I realize that Louisa, having never married herself, perhaps did not feel qualified to explore marriage but I would have like to have seen her ideal of marriage played out. She certainly did a fine job of describing Meg’s marriage to John (particularly when it came to raising the babies).

Justice for Phebe

Phebe was finally accepted into the family because of her care of Uncle Alec during his illness. It’s unfortunate that she had to prove her worth in order to be accepted, considering the fact that she was already worthy despite not coming from a noted family. I was glad to see that Aunt Plenty came around although I had to wonder if she would have had Uncle Alec not survived.

phebe and alec

Love and genius

So all was well that ended well. I enjoyed Rose in Bloom very much with its overall theme of talent versus genius and the conclusion that one could be a genius at things not associated with the fine arts (in Rose’s case, in giving to others). Dr. Cathlin Davis was indeed correct about Louisa’s premise that love was the necessary element to spark true genius as love prods us to move beyond ourselves to something bigger.

Becoming a single parent

from alcott.net

from alcott.net

Adult issues such as alcoholism (see previous post) and single parenthood were also explored. Louisa had a remarkable talent for introducing potentially controversial issues in such a stealth manner such that one never notices they are in fact controversial; it was part of her own genius. It’s interesting to me that she introduced the idea of a single woman adopting a child before she had done it herself with Lulu. It reveals a longing that May’s tragic death was able to fulfill.

Rose in Bloom was a satisfying read and I thank everyone here who so heartily recommended it. You, dear readers, are the experts on Louisa’s canon and I appreciate you educating me.

Which book shall we discuss next? Leave a comment with your suggestion.

 

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