A Louisa May Alcott Christmas: “A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came”

christmas tales and storiesFrom the Barnes and Noble collection of Christmas stories by Louisa May Alcott called Christmas Tales and Stories (edited by Laura Ciolkowsk) comes a sweet tale with a lot of fodder between the lines for those of us well-acquainted with the life of Miss Alcott.

“A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came”

The premise is familiar: a poor family trying to figure out how they can celebrate Christmas. Normally one or both of the parents have died but in this case, both parents are present. And here’s where it gets interesting.

Parallels: father to Father

The children (Kitty, Tom, Sammy, Dilly and Dot) are sad when they speak of their father

“for all knew that father’s headaches always began by his coming home stupid or cross, with only a part of his wages; and mother always cried when she thought they did not see her, and after the long sleep father looked as if he didn’t like to meet their eyes, but went off early.

They knew what it meant, but never spoke of it–only pondered over it, and mourned with mother at the change which was slowly altering their kind industrious father into a moody man, and mother into an anxious over-worked woman.”

drunkNote that Louisa does not mention the trouble (though it doesn’t much to figure it out, and she does reveal at the end of the story what the trouble was) which to me, makes this all the more pointed.

Is Louisa hinting at a condition her own father suffered?

Granted, I am coming off of reading Madelon Bedell’s outstanding The Alcotts: Biography of a Family in which the author spends a great deal of time describing various episodes in Bronson’s life where he teetered to the point of insanity. The two most prominent incidents were just after Fruitlands and shortly after leaving Hillside for Boston. In each case the description that Louisa paints in the story of the father is not that far off course (naturally it is generalized–the father in the story didn’t suffer from hallucinations and mystic experiences). We can recognize Abba’s response in the mother.

I admit to being more sensitive than usual about spotting this kind of connection but it is quite fascinating.

The power of the story to work through difficult times

transcendental wild oatsLouisa’s powers of observation are well-known but there is no direct mention of either episode in her journals, at least mentions that survive. Instead they come out as “A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came,” Transcendental Wild Oats and probably other stories as well.

Inspiring themes

Kitty, the oldest sister, is the Louisa counterpart: capable, industrious, resourceful, and intent on making enough money with her siblings to guarantee a turkey on the table for Christmas since her father could not provide. It’s a common Alcott theme but it never grows tired. It is always inspiring to see stories of young people putting their minds to hard work and creative thinking to solve problems (so long as they don’t get exploited, which of course, was a major problem in the 19th century).

No incrimination

There is, of course, the usual pathos, especially in Kitty’s case, going home after a long day, coming up short with her portion, and happening upon a gay children’s Christmas party in a beautiful home. Yet Louisa does not paint the wealthy as villains but rather as generous patrons, giving freely without condescension.

Feminist themes

silver dollarThe feminist Louisa pops up with this declaration from Kitty: “Girls never can earn as much money as boys somehow,” only to be countered by younger brother Sammy: “I’ll give you some of my money if you don’t get a dollar; then we’ll be even, Men always take care of women, you know, and ought to.” To this reader there is more of a sense of partnership rather than deliberate domination on the part of Sammy–a very simple illustration of the type of marriage Louisa would imagine for herself if the right man existed: a marriage of equals.

Even Sammy’s charge of the babies Dilly and Dot while Kitty goes out to sell her wares (handmade wreaths) hints at a future of equality.

Enjoyable story

At least that’s what I saw. I enjoyed “A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came;” it had a natural feel about it despite the moralizing (which I happen to enjoy). Louisa’s writing did not dictate the moral lessons she sought to get across but instead illustrated how those lessons could be learned. Having recently read some of Lydia Maria Child’s didactic tales, there is a certain freshness in Louisa’s approach, especially in the dialog between the children.

Have you read “A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came”? What did you think? What did you see?

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Six women writers (including Louisa May Alcott) and their journeys as writers on film

There is a wonderful film online featuring the stories of six prominent women writers (including Louisa May Alcott, of course!. It is called Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write. Here is the summary from the website, Films on Demand Digital Educational Video:

Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write

This program explores the obstacles overcome by six prominent female authors: Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. On-location footage at sites such as Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, complements discussion from an array of critics and experts, including Dr. Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life; Professor Elaine Showalter of Princeton University; Dr. Sarah Elbert, author of A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture; Madeleine Stern, Alcott’s biographer and editor; and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, who, together with Stern, proved that Alcott wrote many sensationalist stories under a pseudonym. Produced by the Open University. (50 minutes)

You can watch the film in its entirety here.

This is a breakdown of the film from Films on Demand:

Women Struggle to Write (04:19) 
Until the mid-twentieth century, women writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austin had to negotiate and justify their desire to write.

Louisa May Alcott (04:39) 
Alcott recreates her life with her three sisters and mother in “Little Women” depicting the hopes and dreams of a house full of females. She negotiates mental and physical space to write her novel.

Emily Dickinson (04:08) 
Dickinson created a reclusive space to write exquisite poetry reflecting women’s culture and women’s inner life. Hundreds of unconventional poems are published posthumously.

Alcott’s Sensation Stories (02:24) 
In the 1970s fascinating research by Stern and Rostenberg discovered Alcott’s sensation stories. Clues in “Little Women” reveal the writing activities of Jo March that parallels Alcott’s life.

Discovery of Letters and Pseudonym (04:13) 
Researchers discover letters to Alcott approving the publication of “Behind the Mask” and evidence of her pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Alcott’s work is autobiographical and controversial.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (04:59) 
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman is about a woman’s stifled creativity and the development of madness from domestic confinement. Gilman escapes her marriage through divorce.

Gilman Inspires Other Women (03:09) 
In the 1890s yellow represented decadence. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes obsessed and lost in it. Gilman continues to inspire women with further political works and feminism.

Virgina Woolf (04:20) 
In Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” she states that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She was a prodigious writer of essays, short stories, and novels.

Sylvia Plath (06:21) 
American writer Sylvia Plath greatly admired Virginia Woolf. In “The Bell Jar” and “Lady Lazarus,” she expresses madness as rage. Like Gilman and Woolf, Plath plans and commits suicide.

Alice Walker (02:04) 
Black women writers have had to deal with issues of gender, race, and class in ways that are not central to white women’s literature or men’s literature. Black tradition influences Alice Walker.

“The Color Purple” (04:09) 
“The Color Purple” is what Walker would call a “womanist” novel including issues of eroticism and a struggle missing from white feminism. Walker gives Celie space through her letters.

Quilting (04:02) 
Walker’s use of quilting is found in “The Color Purple” through the characters in both fragment and form. “Sister’s Choice” is a type of quilt that is a metaphor for the differences of women’s lives.

Watch the entire film here.

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My 3 days with Louisa May Alcott (part four): connections between Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller

Note: This post is longer than usual. I had considered running it in two installments but thought it would lessen the impact of its message by doing that.

So sit back with a cup of coffee, relax and read. 🙂

Two ladies,
same vision

Two New England feminists, both heavily influenced by transcendentalism.

Both in the company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott.

Both very reform-minded.

Both would forever change history for women.

Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller were neither friends nor colleagues yet they shared a similar passion for women’s rights, believing it was best for society.

Continuing with the theme of yesterday’s post, Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson drew connections between these two women while highlighting their different approaches.

What was Margaret Fuller’s vision for women?

Margaret Fuller, much like Bronson, believed in attaining spiritual perfection. She was the most passionate of the transcendentalists, that passion often spilling over to the individuals themselves.

Much more than a flirt …

Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is titillating to read about her intense relationships with Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne (not a transcendentalist, but he did base the heroine of The Scarlett Letter on Margaret – see Wikipedia on Margaret Fuller) but it is also distracting. Margaret may have been a flirt but she was brilliant.

Living her words

A woman’s voice was needed in the Transcendentalist movement and she brought it. While Bronson and Emerson talked a great game regarding the value and worth of women, Margaret lived it, educating women through her writing and her brand of “conversations.”

The vision laid out

Women in the Nineteen Century is Margaret’s tour de force, where she lays out her vision for women.

Matteson laid out Margaret’s demand for full rights for women, well beyond the political and economic; this would include equality spiritually and intellectually.

Bringing virtue to the marketplace

A reformer at heart, she believed that women needed to be in marketplace in order to bring about reform. Taking the traditional role of the wife leading the husband to greater virtue, she extends it out to the greater society: women in business would lead the marketplace (and the men in it) to greater virtue.

Man versus Men, Woman versus Women

Margaret was a philosopher greatly influenced by Transcendentalism. She, like Bronson Alcott, believed in attaining spiritual perfection. Part of that perfection involved gender. Daily reality had placed men and women in narrow roles and neither gender was free because of what she called, “debased living.”

Note that the original title of Women in the Nineteenth Century had been “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women”; it was originally a series of essays serialized in The Dial, the Transcendentalist magazine that Margaret edited for Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Effects on marriage

The distortion of the genders in turn, warped the institution of marriage Margaret believed that the dependency of women on men had debased marriage and sex. She remained single for several years until she had a child with Italian revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a marquis who had been disinherited by his family. While it is assumed they were married but there is no hard evidence that they did (source: Wikipedia).

Lead by deeds

Placing reform above all else, Margaret felt that women did not necessarily need to rule but to lead by example. In order to do that, it was imperative not to impede the soul. Each man and woman had to be free to realize their full potential, be who they were meant to be.

Benefits to society

This freedom, however, was not meant just to satisfy individual wants. Here Margaret led by example. She denounced not only the treatment of women but African and Native Americans as well. She advocated for reform in prisons, visiting women in Sing Sing in October of 1844 and even staying overnight (source: Wikipedia). She raised concerns for the homeless, especially in New York (Ibid).

On the same page

If you are familiar with Louisa’s beliefs on women and reform, you can see in similarities already between the two women from Matteson’s description of Margaret’s vision.

Louisa’s vision for women and society

Spiritual father …

Louisa came from one of the founders of Transcendentalism, Bronson Alcott. He was all about spirituality, perfection and becoming divine.

… and reformer mother

But she also came from her mother Abba, a pragmatic reformer. Unlike her philosophical husband whose head was in the clouds, Abba practiced her Christianity day to day, often giving to others out of her family’s own want (Bronson practiced this also, believing that God would always provide).

Bronson exuded serenity as he sought to perfect himself. Abba passionately wrestled with life and others to bring forth reform. Her most noteworthy efforts were in Boston in the 1840s as one of the first social workers.

Societal change needed

Coming from such a background, it is no wonder that Louisa felt that society must be reordered. It began with freeing the slaves.

Belief coming from experience

Matteson noted an incident when Louisa was 3 which most likely opened her eyes to African Americans as equals. While living in Boston, she fell into the Frog Pond; she was rescued by a black boy. She notes in her writings that this boy lit the flame of abolition in her heart.

Living out that belief

Throughout her life, Louisa helped her parents shield and transport runaway slaves to Canada; their home in Concord, known then as Hillside, was on the underground railroad.

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard.

With pride, Louisa notes that she served tea to John Brown’s widow at Orchard House.

An rare open statement

Louisa didn’t usually state her feminist views blatantly in her fiction writing. One exception was Hospital Sketches where she writes, “I’m a woman’s rights woman, and if any man had offered help in the morning, I should have condescendingly refused it, sure that I could do everything as well, if not better, myself.” (from Chapter 1, Hospital Sketches)

Another was a short story, “Happy Women.” This excerpt explains in a nutshell Louisa’s vision for womanly happiness:

This class is composed of superior women who, from various causes, remain single, and devote themselves to some earnest work; espousing philanthropy, art, literature, music, medicine, or whatever task taste, necessity, or chance suggests, and remaining as faithful to and as happy in their choice as married women with husbands and homes.

Subterfuge in her writing

Most of the time she teased out her views in her writing. She would describe the lives of purposeful women who earned their keep and remained independent. Matteson described the importance of work to Louisa saying that life was full of work that needs to be done, and it needs to be done by both sexes.

Becoming the best she can be

Louisa believed as did Margaret that women needed to develop themselves for if a woman developed her talent fully and used it for others, she would be happy. And just as Margaret led by example, so did Louisa, becoming a best-selling author.

Using her bully pulpit

In that position, Louisa could wield a lot of influence and she took every advantage to use it. While Jo March is often cited as the best example of an independent woman, Matteson used the example of Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl who takes her well-off, bored and disgruntled friend Fanny to visit her sisterhood of working, purpose-filled women. Fanny’s life is changed forever after seeing that life could be so much more than the emptiness of parties and fashion.

Giving your best

Louisa was also greatly valued sacrifice. Like Margaret, a woman’s right to reach her potential was not just for herself; she was to give her best to those around her. This belief plays out again and again in her books.

Duty’s faithful child

Bronson distrusted Louisa’s selfless intentions until she became a nurse. When he saw how she was willing to give up her own life for others by nursing, he wrote his famous sonnet to her, “Duty’s Faithful Child.”

Using her right to vote

Matteson ended his lively presentation with an ironic anecdote. Noting that Louisa was the first woman to register and then to vote in Concord, he quipped that the registrar gave her a literacy test! She also was required to sign her name to prove she could write.

It was the one time in her life that she was in a hurry to pay her taxes so she could qualify. 🙂

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My 3 days with Louisa May Alcott (part three): John Matteson talks about his two favorite ladies

Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson

This was the day I was waiting for.

Ever since I started reading Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, I have been dying to talk to John Matteson.

His penetrating insights into Bronson and Louisa have forever changed the way I look at them (most especially Bronson).

Unique understanding

In my opinion, he is the only biographer I’ve read who commands an understanding of spirituality, a necessary part of the puzzle when analyzing the life of the complex, often exasperating Bronson Alcott.

Matteson has referred to Bronson as a mystic. Mystics often teeter between sanity and madness; Bronson certainly fit that description.

The Lives of Margaret Fuller

Since writing Eden’s Outcasts, Matteson has released a new book called The Lives of Margaret Fuller.

Brilliant mind

Fuller, probably the most intellectually brilliant of the transcendentalists, has largely been ignored. Yet her treatise on women’s rights, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, inspired many feminists including Susan B. Anthony. Fuller’s book was the first major feminist work in the United States (source: Wikipedia).

First foreign correspondent

Matteson mentioned that Fuller, in spending her final years in Italy, was not only the first female foreign correspondent for a newspaper, she was the first foreign correspondent, period.

Links between Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller

He thus used his lively presentation to discuss his two favorite ladies, Louisa and Margaret, and the ties between them.

Not necessarily colleagues

Louisa and Margaret didn’t actually know each other. Twenty-two years her senior, Fuller had left Concord by the time Louisa was twelve.

First meeting

But they had met. There is a bit of lore from Eden’s Outcasts about the first meeting between the two in 1840 when Fuller was introduced to Bronson’s “model children.”

illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

As the introduction was about to take place, those children came racing to the front of the house in active play. Louisa, acting the part of the horse, pulled the wagon carrying Anna (the proper young lady), Lizzie (the dog, barking as loudly as her little voice would allow) and baby Abby May. Upon seeing their father with Margaret, Louisa stubbed her toe and fell, dumping all the occupants out of the wagon. Much laughter ensued amongst the tangle of legs. Louisa’s mother Abba grandly announced, “Here are the model children, Miss Fuller!” (Eden’s Outcasts, page 209, ebook)

Similar ideas through different approaches

Louisa and Margaret may not have been friends or colleagues but they both had similar ideas about the right of a woman to determine her own destiny, and how this would benefit the greater community. Where they differed was in their approach. Margaret the philosopher favored cultivating oneself while Louisa the pragmatist, emphasized service. She believed a woman could still fulfill her duty while cultivating her intellect.

Louisa praises housework

Providing a simple illustration, Matteson cited a letter Louisa had written in which she lauds housework as a great opportunity to think on and discuss high-minded topics. She herself often “simmered stories” while fulfilling her domestic duties.

Their vision of women’s rights

Both women agreed that women’s rights were not necessarily for the individual but for the community. It was deeper than gaining economic opportunities (although such opportunities certainly facilitated independence).

Complex fathers

Amos Bronson Alcott

Louisa and Margaret were also alike in the kind of support (or lack of) that they received from their fathers. Both women received a rich education from their fathers and were consistently encouraged to use it.

Both women also had fathers who were poor providers.

Persistent poverty and its consequences

Bronson’s lack of ability (some say desire) to provide financially for his family is legendary. He was incapable and unwilling to work for a living wage and the family was destitute for years.

Matteson remarked that the constant poverty gave Louisa a “depression-era mindset” where she obsessed over money, counting every penny. She overworked herself with constant writing long after the fame and fortune that came from Little Women.

Humiliation through dependence

In Margaret’s case, it was a father who reneged on his responsibility to secure a will before he died. This left Margaret, her mother and her siblings at the mercy of her father’s brothers who took control of the property and finances, forcing Margaret and her family into the humiliating position of being dependent on them. Inevitably these legal problems deprived her of educational opportunities.

Rising above their circumstances

Despite these difficulties both women fought for a better life for themselves, their families and most especially for society. The education so generously bestowed on them by their fathers bore its fruit through the written (and in Margaret’s case, also the spoken) word. Theirs was a message of women’s rights, autonomy, and reform.

In the next post, I will detail Margaret and Louisa’s vision for women and the benefit to society as laid out by John Matteson in his presentation.

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Announcing the Poet’s Corner Virtual Book Club selection: “Work: A Story of Experience” by Louisa May Alcott

I would like to begin a discussion of Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott, the newest selection from Poet’s Corner Virtual Book Club.

Don’t remember how the book club works? Here’s the original post about it.

Yes, I know, the last time we tried this with Eight Cousins, I didn’t finish. I promise that this time, I will.

I have been listening to an audio book of Work from Librivox and have already found much fodder for discussion.

Plus I have essays from Sarah Elbert, a prominent Alcott scholar, and Joy Kasson, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin version, plus other commentary from biographers.

I hope that you will join in the read and discussion!

Leave a comment for this post if you plan on reading along, or, if you’ve already read it and want to join in the discussion.

This should be a good one!

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comReading Work is part of my Louisa May Alcott Summer Challenge.

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Join the discussion: Little Women – Feminist Novel?

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Jo and Laurie from the 1880 version of Little Women

During the month of July Nancy from The Silver Threads blog is hosting the discussion of Little Women at A Year of Feminist Classics.

She proposes that the book puts forth opposing messages: a feminist message of independence and self-expression, and a message of social conformity. She asks, which is it – a liberating view of female possibilities or an imposition of community expectations? Her proposition is that Little Women delivers both messages. The tension between them is what makes the book so real and so memorable.

What do you think? Click here to join in the conversation.

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Abba Alcott’s contribution – behind every great woman stands a mother

You know how they say that behind every great man is a great woman? How about behind every great woman? In studying the life of Abba Alcott through the reading of Marmee, the Mother of Little Womenby Sandford Meddick Salyer, there indeed was a great woman behind Louisa May Alcott. She was a mother whose vitality, intelligence, resourcefulness, support and example shaped one of the great authors of our time.

Excellent lineage

Abba, coming from May, Sewall and Quincy stocks, possessed great intelligence and a fighting spirit. She had a heart for others and their plights. These traits served her well through her difficult life.

Louisa of course, immortalized Abba as Marmee in Little Women and she was all those things. But Abba was also a pioneer in many ways, paving the way through her example of womanly autonomy and independence, all motivated by love.

Talent passed down

Louisa came by her writing talent honestly. Salyer describes Abba as a gifted wordsmith in her own right with a rich background of storytelling in her family:

“Abba was a born storyteller. She had once had aspirations to be a writer. Perhaps she should have been. It was her talent that Louisa inherited, her ingenuity, the vigor and dash of style which Abba could show at times but seldom did. It was certainly Abba’s suggestions and encouragement that helped make Louisa’s books. Alcott has told us that many of Louisa’s plots were suggested by her mother’s recital of incidents she recalled. Abba knew, too, many of Colonel May’s stories; and after her mother’s death Louisa sent Sam for her grandfather’s notebooks, from which she derived many more suggestions.” (page 75, Marmee, the Mother of Little Women).

Budding actress

Abba also had a flair for the dramatic and even nursed ideas of becoming an actress when she was a child (pg. 110). Anna and Louisa, of course, loved to stage plays and Abba fully supported them, knowing it was a good way to channel energy and imagination as well as stress. Undoubtedly, this proved to be an important coping mechanism through the difficult early years the family faced.

The May household was always filled with friends and neighbors eager to listen to Colonel May weave his stories. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

A mind for reform

A lesser known facet of Abba’s life is her pioneering work as a relief worker. With Bronson unable (or unwilling) to work for a living wage, she became one the first modern social workers out of necessity. Her family was often nearly as poor as the people she served. Salyer writes glowingly of  her work which showed a marked flair for organizing while caring for the poor from her heart. :

“For two years Abba continued her noble work. How noble it really was, only those could tell to whom she personally ministered. Her reports, vivid and vigorous as they are, cannot begin to show all she accomplished and all she learned. She came to know how true had been some of the portrayals of London slum life which she had before thought overdrawn and oversentimentalized. Louisa saw some of what to her mother had become familiar, and Abba later recalled scenes and incidents that Louisa used freely in her books, notably in Work[: A Story of Experience]” (pg. 148)

From mother to daughter

Louisa learned from her mother’s example and developed a passion for reform, seeking pragmatic rather than philosophical solutions. She worked for women’s suffrage both on a national stage and in her hometown of Concord (being one of the first women to vote). She would visit prisons and homes for orphans. She often signed her letters, “Yours for reform always.” And her writing, especially on the juvenile level, sought to expose young people to reformist ideas, especially about women (see post on An Old-Fashioned Girl).

These are just a few examples of the profound nature of Abba’s influence on Louisa.. She is the finest example of a mother who poured herself into her children and saw great results. Abba was very gifted and in today’s society could have enjoyed great success professionally. However, she used her gifts just as well, if not better, by pouring herself into her family.

Is there someone in your life who has stood behind you and made you great? “Great” has many definitions . . . think about it. 🙂


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