Three-part series on Bronson Alcott at Fruitlands Museum: genius or crackpot?

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

from Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

Genius, deadbeat, visionary or crackpot?

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A blunt, controversial psychological study of Miss Alcott — Katharine Anthony’s 1937 biography

katharine-anthony-biography

The 1930s was an interesting time in Alcott scholarship. The year 1932 marked the one hundredth year of Louisa’s birth. 1938 not only marked the 50th anniversary of Louisa and Bronson’s death but also the 70th anniversary of the publication of Little Women. Thus in 1937, two important biographies were released – Odell Shepherd’s Pedlar’s Progress on Bronson Alcott (see previous post) and Katharine Anthony’s Louisa May Alcott.

Reception of the biography

alcotts bedellAnthony’s book was not well received. Although deemed substantive and scholarly by reviewer Frederic L. Carpenter (writing for the New England Quarterly in December of 1938), he roundly criticized her need to psychoanalyze Alcott, calling the results “unfortunate” and “ridiculous.”

martha saxton 190That, however, was 1938. More modern biographies by Martha Saxton in 1977 and Madelon Bedell in 1980 conduct their own psychoanalysis which makes for fascinating and often, uncomfortable, reading. This was true as well with Anthony’s book.

Controversies

And yet, Anthony’s book reads like a novel. It was one of the first adult books I read on Louisa (after Martha Saxton and Madeleine Stern). Knowing so much more now after years of research, Anthony’s take on Louisa affirmed much of what I had suspected and raised new controversies. I will focus on two of those controversies for this post.

A threesome at Fruitlands

Charles-Lane

Charles Lane

The first involves the relationship between Abba, Bronson and Charles Lane. Those of us knowledgeable of Fruitlands are aware of the complexity of the relationship between these three. Madelon Bedell has suggested a possible homosexual relationship between Bronson and Charles Lane. Other biographers think perhaps Lane was attracted to Abba despite the fact that he urged Bronson to be celibate. There is no doubt that Abba had many issues with Lane during the utopian experiment. In noting Charles Lane’s curious return to the Alcott family two years after Fruitlands, Anthony describes the difficulties Louisa experienced from this odd arrangement:

“For Louisa, who wished to see everything through her mother’s eyes, this reinstatement of the dragon was devastating. Her letters and diaries of that summer show how piteously distracted was her state of mind. If her mother, having once demolished the beast, had turned the sword in his body, all would’ve been plain sailing. But she saw now that the relation between the three grown-ups was a more complicated situation than she had any idea of and it gave her the feeling of a nerve-racking dilemma.  She wrestled precociously with her mother’s contradictory character, and the struggle made her sometimes despondent and sometimes reckless. The departure of Mr. Lane brought her providential relief.” (Louisa May Alcott, pg. 54)

Carpenter in his review called this section of the book “unpleasantly ambiguous,” wondering if Anthony was suggesting some kind of secret liaison between Lane and Abba since Bronson left for New York during his stay.

Going after Abba Alcott

abbaFor me, it was the beginning of a quiet vendetta against Abba Alcott by Katharine Anthony. With regards to the family’s need to move to Boston due to financial need, Anthony writes,

“A perverse vision had come to Mrs. Alcott while still in Concord. Both of her older daughters were earning wages. Anna was teaching away from home, and Louisa had begun to teach also, having opened a school in the barn. By a reversal of the usual process between parents and children, the girls set an example for their middle-aged mother. Mrs. Alcott, having steadily refused to see the necessity for working prior to her marriage when the necessity for it had been most apparent, now at once saw it very clearly. Just when her family needed her attention most, she decided to go forth and become a wage earner. Their finances had not become any worse, because Anna and Louisa had begun to bring a little money into the home. But Mrs. Alcott’s heroism drove her just at that point to take her spectacular plunge into a life of wage earning.” (Ibid, pg. 74)

Very different take

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Was Anthony’s criticism of Abba influenced by the time the author lived in? Women’s roles were still pretty much confined to the home in the 1930’s. Despite the fact that Anthony was a professor at Wellesley College along with being an accomplished author and scholar, she appeared to judge Abba by rather conventional standards. I am not aware of any other biographer taking the point of view that Abba did not need to go to work in Boston. Anthony insinuates on the next page that Abba’s efforts were not all that successful, citing no records of the reports she wrote on her work that were said to be excellent (such records now exist at the Houghton Library). She discounts the value of Abba’s intelligence office, writing that “The only domestic service job that Mrs. Alcott secured, as afar as we know, is the one she turned over to her daughter Louisa …” (Ibid, pg. 75)

Valuable analysis

Anthony’s various insights throughout Louisa May Alcott are interesting to say the least and they don’t just apply to Louisa. Anthony provides meaningful sketches of each member of the family (and in my opinion, she is one of the few to give Lizzie her due). Her analysis of Louisa is not oppressive or overbearing such as is the case with Martha Saxton (although I believe Saxton’s book has value) because she does not dwell on the amount of detail that Saxton reveals. The point, however, still gets across.

Health issues

louisa readingMuch has been made of Louisa’s health after her service as a nurse in the Civil War. After surviving both typhoid pneumonia and the mercury poisoning from being dosed with calomel, Alcott suffered from a wide variety of physical disorders including pains in her legs, headaches, digestive disorders, vertigo, the loss of her voice, etc. Historians and medical doctors Bert Hirschhorn and Ian Greaves suggested Lupus, an immune disorder, possibly triggered by the mercury poisoning (see Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)..

Louisa kept careful track in her journals of her health problems and often blamed “nerves” and overwork for her difficulties. Considering the heavy load that she carried in being head of the family and the breadwinner, it is not surprising. In the waning years of her life, she became obsessed with her health as she could find no relief.

Possible cause

Katharine Anthony offers her suggestion for Louisa’s health problems: shell-shock. Citing the Great War and the mental and nervous disorders in the veterans, she surmises that Civil War veterans would have also suffered similar trauma. “It was some form of shock to which Louisa May Alcott succumbed as a hospital nurse in 1862,” she writes (Ibid, pg. 252). Such an injury to the nervous system could afflict the victim for the rest of her life. Anthony also believes Alcott was predisposed to such a condition given her high strung nature.

from alcott.net

Lulu Nieriker, from alcott.net

There is no doubt that Louisa lamented repeatedly in her journal regarding the onslaught of her life and writing (aka, overwork) on her nerves. Between sudden fame for a woman who did not feel worthy, the untimely deaths of John Pratt and May Alcott, the care of May’s daughter and their aging father, and the self-inflicted pressure to continue writing (and earning), it is no wonder Louisa May Alcott had health issues.

Louisa’s last days were painful, difficult and sad as despair overtook her. The final pages of Louisa May Alcott describe those days with a haunting eloquence as Anthony marvels at Alcott’s ability to continue churning out cheerful and meaningful stories for the young even to her dying day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Loves Mankind, Hard on People” – Bronson Alcott, Mr. Keating, and the Dangers of Putting Ideals before Students

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This an amazing post from one of our readers, a young educator who spoke for the first time at the Summer Conversational Series this summer. She certainly made me rethink “Dead Poet’s Society,” one of my favorite movies.

edreverie

Orchard HouseI have spent the last week at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, attending their annual Summer Conversational Series. (As an aside, it is my second year attending the SCS, and it’s an amazing experience. If you haven’t been, and you area fan of the Alcott’s, transcendentalism, philosophy, or education, you really need to go!)

Anyway, there are SO many things I have taken from this week that I will probably be writing about for a long while. However, there is a certain phrase that stuck with me especially, and is where I will begin the first of many SCS 2015 reflections.

At Thursday’s SCS session, John Matteson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts, took questions and led discussion on “all things Alcott.” Bronson Alcott became a subject of conversation here, and he was subject to criticism (as Bronson Alcott seems to always be) for…

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Elisabeth Alcott through the eyes of her father

lizzie alcott2By the time Elisabeth Sewall Alcott was born, Bronson had moved on from chronicling the daily activities of his daughters to exploring the soul. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson writes that “Elizabeth was fairer than her elder sisters and … was the model of serenity that Bronson had vainly hoped Anna and Louisa would be. (pg. 84, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, ebook)” Calling his work “Psyche, or The Breath of Childhood” (aka “An Evangele”), Bronson “with naïve eagerness, plunged into his impossible task.” (Ibid)

Bronson’s ideal

Elisabeth and Bronson were soul mates. While Anna was often referred to as his favorite (with the vast majority of his letters to his children addressed to her), he appears to have placed Lizzie on a higher plane. Anna was a real child with virtues and faults; Lizzie was theoretical, just like “Psyche.”

High standards

In an Ode he wrote to her at Fruitlands on her eighth birthday (most of which had nothing to do with his little girl), note the heights to which he places her (underscoring is my emphasis):

IV

fruitlands smHither we all repair
Our hope and love, to bear,
To celebrate
In rustic state,
Mid’st this refulgent whole
The joyful advent of an angel soul,
That, twice four years ago
Our mundane life to know,
Descended from the upper skies
A presence to our very eyes,
And now before us stands
And asketh at our bounteous hands
Some tokens of our zeal
In her celestial weal
Before us stands displayed
In raiment of a maid,
Unstained and pure her soul
As when she left the Whole

That doth this marvellous scene unrol [sic]
And day by day doth preach
The Gospels meant for each

That on this solid sphere
Designed for mortals were.

V
amaranth-767690… And be a flower that none shall pluck away
A rose in Fruitlands quiet dell
A Child intent in doing well;
Devote, secluded from all sin
Fragrant without, & fair within,
A plant matured in Gods device
An Amaranth in Paradise
(The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Herrnstadt, pg. 105-106)

Granted, this was Fruitlands and Bronson was at the zenith of his Transcendental zeal but subsequent letters to Lizzie (and they are few) rarely point out character flaws. No doubt the polar opposite of the letters he wrote to Louisa!

Idolized

Even as an emerging adult, Lizzie was idolized by her father as shown in this letter dated August 10, 1853):

“Elisabeth’s part comes off to the quietest perfection in whole and detail; the apartments all [word] their tidy mistress whose housekeeping throughout, for ought I can see, vies favorably with that of the absent Matron alike in neatness promptitude and efficiency to the credit of her teacher, and comfort of guests.” (Ibid, pb. 166)

Anxious yet absent father

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Invalid_-_Louis_Lang_-_overallDuring my visit to Houghton last Saturday (see previous post), I came across several references to Lizzie’s illness in Bronson’s letters. Although far from home (and inexplicably slow in returning there), he was deeply concerned about her welfare, as shown in this letter from November of 1857:

“Keep me informed of every matter pertaining to your welfare. And let me hear weekly if you can command the leisure from our imposed cares. Elisabeth’s condition you cannot fail to state. To her, and all, much love.” (Houghton Library, Amos Bronson Alcott papers MS Am 1130.9 (4))

Bronson is greatly concerned about Lizzie’s weight loss and refers to it consistently in his letters from 1857, in very exacting form (underscoring is my emphasis):

 “Anna promised and so will write: and the Invalid shall add her fortnight’s gain, if she can, in the pounds avoirsdupois and ounces exact, by the inevitable standard. Hoping for the good tidings from the family group, and that soon, I remain Yours, and Theirs ever …” (Ibid, November 20, 1857)

Advice to the Invalid

tumblr_mhneo1aZRC1r94vvxo1_500In a longer passage, Bronson offers advice to Abba regarding Lizzie’s care:

“I mean to have some quiet talk with Dr. Jackson, who comes up this afternoon from Glen Haven, and learn something helpful to Elisabeth if he has any information for us. Of one thing I am certain already: she must use water–warm water even–with great discretion now in her present enfeebled state, having no heat to spare in too frequent bathing; and be sure she never bathes in cold water, or before going to bed. The beef tea experiment she need not report.–Keep yourself warm, my Child, take fresh air as you can safely, ride rather than walk at present, keep the good watch and consult our experiences about your food, and sleep, and occupations, and, more than all else, encourage good hopes, esteeming yourself gaining as your spirits waken and your interest in life and the little things becomes more active and freshens from week to week. I do not say, day by day. You will have ebbs and langours, and little discouragements, but the months will measure gain, to you, if not in flesh just yet or weight, in comfort and slow mitigation of the old troubles; the cure working itself out for you in the reasonable manner and time. Not to lose is great gain, and the pledge of restoration. So be a good Child and get well in the best way.–And write me, sometimes about your day’s occupations and any thing you care to communicate. But be careful about using your eyes, or any of your poor senses, rashly or too long at once, Take care of the draughts of air, and practice your usual caution in every thing. I shall write to you now an then, and have you much in mind.” (Ibid, November 21, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, pgs. 263-264)

Remaining positive

spoon with medicineBronson, naturally, is very concerned about Lizzie’s state of mind. What I found surprising was the total lack of reference to prayer or calling on God for assistance, strength or consolation. Lizzie was expected to use her own will to make herself better. Here is another example:

 “… Dear Lizzy. I shall hear particulars always gladly, not sadly now. As soon as may be, dispense with the pellets and powders, and find the strength that can feed itself and increase on the virgin substances–the social influences–friendly food for body and soul.” (Ibid, December 1, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, pg. 267)

Gentle scolding

In this letter, dated December 14th of that same year, Bronson is obviously receiving news from Abba that Lizzie is resisting treatment. There is an added sense of urgency to this passage with a strong (and rare) admonition from Bronson:

 “I am anxious to hear. Your last letter brought agreeable news. Lizzy must replenish her Spirit by all good helps: flesh and weight will come–it may be so slowly and imperceptibly as to tell nothing to the senses and or the scales for some time–but she must not expect Nature to rally from such a shock forthwith to bring the health she so desires. Pray let me know just how she is, and how she Behaves by Night and by day. I can excuse every thing. Only she must take the part of painstaker about herself, and not defeat the helps and hopes of careful nurses and kindred, by any imprudences of hers. I will not talk for  for [erasure]–my precious patient, but come home to see it, eye to eye, if she will not mind me otherwise.” (Ibid, December 14, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott pgs. 269-270)

Rare words from a teenaged Lizzie

I was fortunate to find a rare letter from Lizzie written when she was seventeen. It is short and sweet, revealing little on the surface. However, I was stunned at her handwriting, so meticulous, not changed much from her Hillside journal except that it was even neater. Each line is perfectly straight. It looks like fine and simple typography. Yet between the lines of sweetness there is a sense of pathetic longing for her beloved, the ever absent father (I wish I had permission from Houghton to post the picture I took of the letter, but I don’t have it):

Dearest father,
I suppose the letters should not go without a word from me, as I promised I would write, We were all so happy this morning to get your beautiful letter, telling how pleasantly you were living, and of your success. We live along here without you, but I am sure miss you very much. Annie is very good about writing and so we get her pleasant letters every week, and I wish we heard as often from the dear father; but I suppose you are very busy, tho am sure, do not forget us. Your loving Lizzie.
(Houghton Alcott family additional papers, 1724-1927 MS Am 2745 (71)

Keeping vigil

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402When the passing finally came in March 14, 1858, Bronson’s beloved passed into eternity; he kept an all-night vigil by the wasted body that remained behind:

Bronson Alcott sat up with the body of his child all night. No one else approached him. His little lost Psyche, who had seemed to him in her infancy the most promising of all his daughters, alone kept him company. One of the brightest auguries of his life had vanished with her loss. (Katharine Anthony, Louisa May Alcott, pg. 89)

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A day at Houghton: Getting to know the inner Bronson through his own hand

houghtonEver since last July I have dreamed of the day I could return to the Houghton Library at Harvard and Saturday was that day. I had made a connection with one of the librarians who had supplied me with scans of three of Abba’s letters (see previous post). She told me that a collection of letters assembled in a book and labeled for Bronson might hold clues on Lizzie. It’s again a case of hidden in plain view. She is on a quiet crusade to properly catalogue each letter.

This librarian’s instinct was correct. A careful reading of Bronson’s letters did indeed present many clues and opened up a Pandora’s box of questions as well. But first, I want to share insights into Bronson that came to light by reading these letters.

The value of handwritten letters

It continues to amaze me how much of a difference it makes reading primary sources. A letter, penned by the hand of an iconic historical figure does much to make that figure a real flesh-and-blood person. In a sense they become smaller, in a good way, by becoming peers. Since the Alcotts lived during the time of my great-grandparents, it feels like I’m reading letters from them.

from smallnotes.library.virginia.edu - (MSS 7052-c, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

from smallnotes.library.virginia.edu – (MSS 7052-c, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

It disturbs me to think of what future historians will be missing out on by not having handwritten accounts. Our digital age of endless photos, videos and email create a barrier between the person we are studying and ourselves. A sterile email cannot compare with a letter written with the tip of a quill pen on textured paper, letters written in either beautiful broad strokes (Bronson), hapless scrawl (Abba) or picture-perfect script in totally straight lines (Lizzie). A rare letter by Lizzie, written when she was seventeen, revealed so much more by seeing the handwriting than by just revealing the words. This I will get into in the next post.

Many admirers

What first surprised me about the letters were the numerous ones addressed to Bronson from admirers. Often he is gently (or not so gently) mocked for his Conversations but in this collection there were not only letters but small printed flyers announcing his Conversations with the average price of a ticket being three dollars. In conversations he proposed from Walpole in August, 1856, the topic discussed was the Private Life (Descent, Home, Health, Pursuits,Victories). The flyer states, “The discussions, it will be perceived, are suited to select companies, and invite the protection of the parlour, and the presence of ladies particularly.” (Letterbooks of ABA Houghton MS Am 1130.9 (3)).

Flawed business plan

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402The letters from admirers spoke about the meaningful nature of his Conversations; many of these people extended invitations for him to come to their town to speak. There were informal expense sheets showing the costs of holding these Conversations which made it plain why Bronson never made any money. His audiences were of necessity, small and intimate. Thus, the ticket sales barely paid for the expenses since he did not command the level of fees of his friend Emerson.

Similar experience

I had a flash of understanding and felt great kinship with Bronson and his Conversations. Before I got into writing I was a musician, writing and singing Christian music. I too preferred the intimate settings and I too had a very niche audience (which pretty much guaranteed intimate settings!). The mainstream audience didn’t understand the kind of music I played which I presented more as prayer. But, like Bronson I had my small group of admirers who wrote nice letters and invited me to their towns to perform. Over a sixteen year period I performed live and recorded a series of self-published CD. I never turned a profit but did manage to pay for everything out of my earnings. The music I offer for sale on my website still brings in a little profit which I now use to indulge my Louisa passion.

I approached my music with the same level of commitment as did Bronson with his Conversations. The difference, of course, is that I was gainfully employed and did music on the side as a passionate hobby.

Disciples of Bronson

Bronson had his “disciples.” One young man wrote two long letters to Bronson demanding a reply despite the fact that it was early 1858 and Bronson’s daughter Elizabeth was dying. The man was either clueless, or just unaware of the turmoil in Bronson’s life. His letters were filled with mystical proclamations which he obviously felt were brilliant (but likely were not). Bronson did eventually reply.

Anxious about the home front

In 1857 and 1858 during Lizzie’s illness, Bronson was in the Midwest conducting his Conversations. His frequent letters to Abba detailed the people he met and the success or failure of his efforts. It was clear, however, that there was an underlying anxiety about all that was occurring at home. While Bronson felt compelled to conduct his Conversations (and many would question that compulsion, myself included), his letters also demonstrated deep concern (which included advice and admonitions to Lizzie). I saw his detailed discussions of business as a means of putting off the more difficult discussion of reality. Usually that took place at the end of the letters.

Difficult patrons

And business had to continue. I recall one letter from a man in April of 1858 who had received notice from Bronson that he would have to delay his coming (as Lizzie had died in March). After the brief, perfunctory mention of sympathy, the man launched into all the inconveniences he encountered in trying to reschedule. Complaining that he had to “notify each person individually,” he demonstrated an incredible smallness of mind and heart.

Gracious sympathy

lizzieThere were others, however, who were magnanimous. A certain William Russell from Lancaster, MA was also informed of a delay in meeting Bronson and his response was as follows:

Mrs. R. and I sympathise (sic) deeply with Mrs. Alcott and yourself in the experience through which you have have been called to pass in the loss of your daughter Elizabeth. Her peculiar traits of mind and character impressed us very deeply with their indications of ample promise for a noble and generous development. Judging from our own experience, however, I think we can assure you that while such a loss leaves a deep felt sense of privation, the solid consolation will from year to year of life, be strengthening in the heart, that such of its treasures are imperishable. Many of your serenest and happiest hours will be those in which the Beloved returns, in the silence of the soul, to irradiate it with her presence. (Ibid)

He too had sick daughter (Mary), a son studying away from home and two additional daughters named coincidentally, Anna and Lizzie.

Moment of truth

One letter from Bronson dated March 2, 1857 made a particularly strong impression. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson had made reference to it.  Bronson describes seeing the play, “Medea,” and the impression it made on him:

“The play is exciting, yet enjoyable with all its appalling accompanyments (sic). I wished Anna with me and my family, yet the Spectacle of the Sacrifice would have been too much for my wife, and the tenderhearted Elizabeth, suggesting events too vividly, perhaps, of home experiments and the courage of Principle. I had “Fruitlands” before me, and ideas there celebrated and played out to the applauding snows – the tragedy of ox-team and drifting Family wailing their woes to winding winds. You shall imagine the sequel and the rest.” (Ibid)

It is quite rare to see Bronson express regrets about his actions; the only other time I can recall was after Abba had died and he had a chance to read her journals. Knowing how blunt Abba could be, it is no wonder that Bronson felt compunction about his behavior during their marriage after reading them. The light of revelation that shines on the soul once truth is faced can be searing.

Shedding light on the mystery

In the next post I will get into the advice and admonitions that Bronson sent to Lizzie through his letters. I have a feeling that much can be learned about this mysterious Alcott daughter through a careful scrutiny of the writings of her beloved soul mate.

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Book Review: Fruitlands Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan

fruitlands louisa may alcott made perfectOne of you (Julie) gifted me with a wonderful book and once I picked it up, I could not put it down. The book, geared for older children, is called Fruitlands Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan.

A lost diary

The premise of the book is based on Louisa’s diary kept at Fruitlands. This was her first diary and sadly, only a few pages survive. They were miraculously found in the wall of the Fruitlands house years ago. Gloria Whelan maintains that Bronson destroyed much of it as he had also destroyed Anna’s kept during that time.

A tale of two diaries

Whelan through the power of storytelling restores it. But, she not only restores it, she presents two diaries, one written for public consumption as was the custom in the family, and one kept secret. In the first entry of the secret diary Louisa writes, “In the first diary there will be Louy, who will try to be just what Mother and Father would wish. In the second diary there will be Louisa, just as she is.”

Knowing that privacy was in short supply in the lives of the Alcotts, I had to work a bit to accept the premise but once I did I was swept into this book.

Real children

512 moving to fruitlands (socrates bust)Whelan is the writer I wish to be. She is a masterful storyteller, revealing so much through the details, dialog and actions of the characters. She fleshes out each child by comparing how they’d respond to a situation. From Louisa’s secret diary:  “Lizzie is good-natured and listens patiently to all the questions that Father puts to us. Anna tries hard to give the correct answers, but sometimes when the questions are difficult she pleads a headache and slips away. I say what comes into my head and know at once it is a foolish answer. I wish I could learn to keep my silence.”

Big sis Anna

Anna normally considered the “good girl,” the counterpart to Bronson, is cast in a somewhat unflattering light. She did indeed exhibit Bronson’s ways, especially his penchant for being judgmental. She did everything she could to please him at the expense of her sisters. Typical of an older sister, she never failed to lord it over Louisa and point out her faults.

Little sis Lizzie

Lizzie is Louisa’s safe haven. Whelan presents a flesh and blood little girl that we could truly love through the gentle actions, words of encouragement and total acceptance that she offered to everyone. In her public diary entry, Louisa recounts being rude to Mr. Lane (a common occurrence): Mr. Lane then talked with us upon the subject that all men are equal. I was rude and impertinent, for I asked Mr. Lane if we are all equal, why should be always be the one to tell us what to do? Even Mother was angry with my rudeness. I cried and begged Mr. Lane’s pardon.” In the private diary entry she recounts crying into her pillow and how “Lizzie crept over and put her arm around me. Anna asked, “Louy, why must you always say just what you think?”

A rich and complex child

512 louisa contemplatingThrough these diaries, Whelan paints a detailed picture of a complex child, acutely aware of her surroundings and compelled to speak her mind despite the consequence. I found myself engulfed in her soaring imagination as she organized games with the other children, pretending to be fairies, witches and characters from Shakespeare. Often Louisa would explore her darker side through the parts she chose to play making me think of the potboilers and thrillers she’d indulge in as an adult, stories ironically that would keep the family financially afloat.

A room of one’s own

from essitolling.wordpress.com

from essitolling.wordpress.com

Whelan described an exquisite place outdoors that Louisa claimed as the room of her own where she could write and think: “I found a weeping willow tree. It stands close to the river, and its overhanging branches form a curtain. When I pushed the branches aside, there was a leafy tent I could craw inside and be invisible to all … The breeze gently moves the trailing branches this way and that, so that first one part of the land is visible, and then another. It is as if pages in a book of pictures are being turned for me.”

Building tensions

fruitlandsThe best part of this book was the “slow burn:” the building desperation, not only of how the extended family would survive but Louisa’s own desperation with herself and all the criticism she took from the adults. I could feel the weight of the oppression on her as she was undermined again and again by her father and Charles Lane.  Whelan creates a keen sense of claustrophobia not only physically with the dwindling supplies and the fierce winter closing in, but psychologically as the community shrinks in membership and slowly breaks down into chaos.

Public and private

There were times when the choice of language and the conclusions drawn by Louisa seemed too mature for a girl of 10, despite her “old soul,” but in most cases, the diary entries rang with Louisa’s voice. What truly propelled the book was the ploy of first featuring Louisa’s entry for the masses followed by the entry from her heart. I couldn’t wait to read further and find out her take on the story.

The greatest complement I could pay this book? It ended far too soon. I’m reading it again. Thanks, Julie!

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The unknown players of Fruitlands – finally hearing their voices

What was it like to live at Fruitlands?

Serious Alcott biographers have devoted much ink to the family’s experience during this six-month utopian experiment. Sometimes thoughtful, often absurd and always dramatic, Fruitlands is credited with both the shaping of the famous daughter, and a change in the power structure of the Alcott marriage and family life.

Richard Francis’ exhaustive study, Fruitlands The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia reveals extensive excerpts from the writings of Charles Lane whom, with Bronson Alcott, created the community.

bronson alcott's fruitlandsBut what about other members?

In Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands, Clara Endicott Sears reveals the lives and writings of two such members: Joseph Palmer and Isaac Thomas Hecker. It is a rare view of Fruitlands from those who simply lived it.

Isaac Hecker

Isaac Hecker was a seeker. Feeling an urgent inner call to an ascetic spiritual life, he came over from Brook Farm to join the Fruitlands community. Born in New York in 1819 to a well-to-do merchant family, his long and winding road would eventually lead to the priesthood and the founding of the Paulist Fathers. These progressive priests dedicated themselves to spreading the Catholic faith in America using the modern methods of preaching on the road and the printing press. They stressed the personal holiness of each individual, believing that the European Church placed too much emphasis on the routine side of religious observance (Wikipedia, Isaac Hecker).

Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands

Isaac Hecker went through much torturous soul searching before deciding on the celibate life of a priest. He found separating from Brook Farm to be excruciating but the call within for the spiritual life was too strong. He writes:

“I can hardly present myself from saying how much I shall miss the company of those I love and associate with here. But I must go. I am called with a stronger voice … Here are refining amusements, cultivated persons – and one whom I have not spoken of, one who is too much to me to speak of, one who would leave all for me. Alas! Him I must leave to go.” (pg. 76-77, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott Sears).

Hecker’s biographer, Walter Elliot in Life of Father Hecker, attempts to clarify the use of the word “Him,” indicating that Hecker appeared to have originally written “Her,” then changed it to “Him.” Whatever the nature of the relationship, it was an attachment that Hecker felt he must break in order to achieve spiritual perfection.

He hoped to find that at Fruitlands. He adjusted well to the diet and clothing requirements and at first, seemed to be finding the life he sought. He describes conversations amongst the members:

“This morning after breakfast a conversation was held on Friendship and its laws and conditions. Mr. Alcott places Innocence first; [Samuel] Larned, Thoughtfulness; I, Seriousness; Lane, Fidelity.” (Ibid, pg. 78, from July 12).

And

“… there was held a conversation on the Highest Aim. Mr. Alcott said it was Integrity; I, Harmonic being; Lane, Progressive being; Larned, Annihilation of self; [Samuel] Bower, Repulsion of the evil in us. Then there was a confession of the obstacles which prevent us from attaining the highest aim. Mine was the doubt whether the light is light; not want of will to follow, or light to see.” (Ibid, from July 13)

It did not take long for Hecker to realize that Fruitlands would not meet his spiritual needs:

“… I cannot live at this place as I would. This is not the place for my soul … My life is not theirs.” (Ibid, pg. 82, from July 23)

While he admired Charles Lane’s unselfishness, he suspected Bronson’s motives: “I suspect he wanted me because thought I would bring money to the Community. (Ibid, pg. 84). He noted the enormous work load Abba and her daughters carried while “Mr. Alcott looked benign and talked philosophy.” (Ibid)

Hecker would move back home to New York with his family and maintain the ascetic dietary life he discovered at Fruitlands. In six years he would become a Roman Catholic priest.

Joseph Palmer

Palmer was the practical support for Fruitlands. He provided animals to plow the fields when Bronson and Lane realized they could not break the earth themselves. In fact, those animals caused somewhat of a scandal when it was learned that Abba was taking milk from the cow to give to two year-old Abby May.

Although Joseph Palmer went back and forth from Fruitlands to his farm in No Town, he was fully committed to the community, providing farming skills and tools. He also provided practical and moral support to Abba when the community was collapsing and they faced starvation and the cold of winter. He was to eventually take over the property and turn it into his own community, the Leominster and Harvard Benevolent Association (Wikipedia, Joseph Palmer).

joseph palmer

What is perhaps most remembered about Palmer though was his attachment to his fine, luxurious white beard. He was mocked and openly persecuted for it in the 1830s and was even imprisoned for a time. Relishing the opportunity to fight for his right to wear it, he remained in prison longer than was necessary until he was asked to leave. A man of principle, he never wavered and kept the beard till his dying day.

After finally leaving jail, Palmer heard about Fruitlands and being a reformer at heart, was eager to join. He offered to run the farm pro bona and provided furniture for the house. Without his practical help, Fruitlands would not have survived as long as it did. He was much more a doer, while Bronson and Lane especially, preferred to just “be.”

The legacy of Fruitlands preserved, thanks to a visionary

Clara Endicott Sears did a great service by providing her book and purchasing the property to preserve for the ages.  Looking over the beautiful vista, one can imagine the community living in the house, the girls running through the fields and the meaningful and often challenging conversations that took place. There was hope in the valley.

But one can also sense the ghosts of broken promises, the oppression of poverty, the bone-chilling winter cold, the desperation of certain starvation and the tensions that tore away at a close family. These were the things that molded and fueled a certain impressionable, highly creative little girl with great talent to dream big dreams that would take care of her family for the rest of their lives, and impact generations of women after her.

For a mere six month experiment, Fruitlands was indeed important. Thank goodness Clara Endicott Sears had the vision and the means to preserve it.

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