Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! Episode Two: Wrap-up of the 2016 Summer Conversational Series

“It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if one only knows how to look at them.” (from “Marjorie’s Three Gifts,” 1877)

itunes graphic3Welcome to the second episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
The Podcast!

During the next thirty six minutes I will give you an overview of the recent Summer Conversational Series, “‘Finding Beauty in the Humblest Things’ — Louisa May Alcott’s Literary Vision” which took place July 10-14 at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. You’ll get to hear from many of the speakers and hear a summary of their presentations. Here on the show notes I have links to my notes so that you can get all the details

And now, on with the show!

Cathlin Davis, PhD
“Bringing Beauty to the World: Youthful Reformers in Louisa May Alcott’s Juvenile Fiction”

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Dr. Davis, Full Professor in the College of Education at California State University-Stanislaus, has been presenting for over ten years at the Summer Conversational Series. She likely has the largest collection of books by Louisa May Alcott (many first editions) and is the go-to person for information and analysis of Alcott’s juvenile works.

On Monday she demonstrated how Alcott brought beauty to the world through her children’s stories. She covered three commonly used themes through a series of stories:

  • Kindness to animals (“Nelly’s Hospital,” “Old Major,” “Baa! Baa!,”)
  • Kindness to each other, rich and poor (“May Flowers,” “Roses and Forget-Me-Nots,”)
  • Sharing Christmas joy (“How It All Happened,” “The Little Red Purse” and “Kate’s Choice.”)

Dr. Davis introduced her session by reading portions of a children’s picture book by another author, Barbara Cooney called Miss Rumphius which demonstrates the theme beautifully. You can watch it here on YouTube:

Download my notes

All stories are available through Google Books or Project Gutenberg.

Elise Hooper:
“Extraordinary Beauty in an Ordinary World: May Alcott and Women’s Painting during the 19th Century”

Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper is a teacher of history and the author of The Other Alcott, a novel about May Alcott Nieriker, due for publication in the Fall of 2017.

Hooper traced the life of May Alcott Nieriker, citing the influence of her parents. Although May lacked a thorough formal education, her home encouraged creativity, enthusiasm and beauty, all of which drove her in her ambition to become a professional artist.

Hooper explained the need for May to seek her training in Europe as America was in its infancy with regards to art. With the exception of a few prominent teachers (among them Dr. William Rimmer and Stephen Salisbury Tuckerman, both of whom instructed May), there was no support for a professional career in art for women. Because of strong Victorian norms, it was impossible for women to receive the necessary anatomical training as that necessitated the use of nude models, male and female.

Still, Boston was more progressive in the arts than most cities and May was able to take full advantage. Once she reached Europe through the help of her famous sister Louisa, May threw herself into studies. Hooper discussed May’s success as a Turner copyist and two-time exhibitor at the Paris Salon.

Download my notes

You can find out more about The Other Alcott here.

Anne-Laure François
“A Lesson in the True Necessities and Means of Life: Louisa’s Children as Wise Seers of the Sublime in Everyday Life”

Anne-Laure François

Anne-Laure François

Dr. François is an assistant professor at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense working in both the English and Law Departments. Her doctoral dissertation offered the first detailed study in French of Louisa May Alcott’s fiction, examining Alcott’s strategy of re-writing Transcendentalism and adapting its philosophical principles to the demands of the fast-growing American literary market in the second half of the 19th Century. As an educator, she helped create an alternative high school in the South of France — a project notably based on Alcott’s “Plumfield,” the school utopia that paid homage to her father’s groundbreaking educational ideas and work.

Dr. François chose to examine a little-known short story written by Alcott in 1857 called “The Cross on the Old Church Tower.” She believes that this story foretold the type of writing that would propel Alcott to great success. It is also important to note that “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” was written during Lizzie’s last illness.

Faustian themes, a favorite of Alcott, is featured in this story and found in later works such as A Modern Mephistopheles. One of the main characters, Walter, represents Faust while the other, Jamie, is his savior through his simple and virtuous life. Walter eventually becomes a writer of love stories through Jamie’s influence. There are many parallels between “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” and the story of Beth’s death and her influence on Jo in Little Women.

Dr. François described how this story shows the depth of Alcott’s reading. She believes the story is prophetic regarding Alcott’s future as a successful writer.

You can read “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” here http://www.online-literature.com/alcott/1976/

Download my notes

Kristi Lynn Martin
“The Sacred Domestic, Memorialization, and Literary Imagination in the Alcott Sisters’ Sphere”

Kristi Lynn Martin

Kristi Lynn Martin

Kristi Martin is a registered tour guide for all the historic homes in Concord including Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. She is currently doing her dissertation for her PhD on literary tourism in Concord (“Creating ‘Concord: How Preservation and Tourism Transformed a New England Village into a Tourist Mecca, 1824 – 1965”).

Kristi’s specialty is the Alcott sisters and in her presentation told true stories of each sister that line up with the fictional tales of the March sisters. The Alcott sisters were known as The Golden Band by their father Bronson and he wrote beautiful sonnets for each sister. In Little Women, he is the wise and quiet leader of a bustling household of women.

Beginning with the eldest, Anna, Kristi described Anna’s love of beauty (her favorite word was “beautiful”) and used her wedding as the perfect example of Anna’s virtuous beauty. Meg March’s wedding was very similar to Anna’s right down to the grey silk dress and Lily of the Valley flowers. The simplicity of that wedding underscored the beauty that be the marriage between Anna and her John (aka Meg and John Brooke).

She highlighted Louisa’s sacrifice of her nursing service which resulted in a near fatal illness and the loss of her “one true beauty” – her long chestnut tresses. In Little Women Mr. March serves in the war and Jo sacrifices “her one beauty” impetuously to help send Marmee to his side during his recovery.

Beth’s gentle goodness and gracious death proved to be perhaps the major moral force of the novel as shown by the change in Jo after Beth dies. Kristi shared quotes from Lizzie demonstrating that the shy shadow sister in fact very much enjoyed the company of others and could have a saucy sense of humor not unlike Louisa herself!

Finally she contrasted May with Amy demonstrating that although like Amy, May grew into a gracious woman, she also took her art far beyond where Amy was able to take it.

Download my notes

A visit from Louisa May Alcott!

From left to right, Lis Adams, Education Director, and Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott

From left to right, Lis Adams, Education Director, and Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott

We had a surprise visit from Louisa herself! (artfully portrayed by Orchard House Executive Director Jan Turnquist) She first talked about Father and Mother and their dear friends, Emerson and Thoreau. She spoke with affection about Emerson’s daughter Ellen and how she dogged Louisa for more fairy stories. That of course, ended up with the publication of Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables.

She was “surprised” that we all knew and loved Little Women and remarked how unexpected its success was to her as both she and her publisher, Thomas Niles, thought the book “dull.”

Louisa lovingly shared the familiar story of Bronson coming home after a trip out West, covered with snow and with only one dollar in his pocket.

She shared stories about her days as a Civil War nurse and even “reunited” with a soldier she had nursed in Washington! (Bravo John Matteson for your campy performance)

She then revealed her deep dark secret: she wrote pot boilers just like Jo! She then acted out one of her most notorious women characters, devious Jean Muir of Behind a Mask.

Continuing to enact favorite characters, she showed us Sairy Gamp from a Charles Dickens story, the character she used to cheer up her dear Lizzie as well as the soldiers in the Union hospital.

Calling us friends, she confided in us how she put off annoying fans by pretending to be the Irish maid.

It was a wonderful visit!

Gabrielle Donnelly
“Castles in the Air Versus Two Inches of Ivory: A Comparison of Louisa May Alcott’s Sisters with Jane Austen’s Bennets.”

Gabrielle Donnelly, photo by Jeannine Atkins

Gabrielle Donnelly, photo by Jeannine Atkins

Two classics: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Gabrielle Donnelly is a devotee of both authors.

Having written a modern day interpretation of Alcott’s book with The Little Women Letters, Donnelly is intimately familiar with the March sisters; as a member of the Jane Austen Society, she has similar affinity for the Bennet sisters.

Listening to any presentation by Donnelly is truly an unforgettable experience with her classic London accent and dry British wit; she is a perennial favorite at the Summer Conversational Series. She traced both stories and showed great differences between the March and the Bennet families. Of course, Pride and Prejudice was written in an earlier era and Alcott’s upbringing was unusual and progressive. Comparing and contrasting these two families revealed much about Austen and Alcott as women and writers.

The crowning moment was a piece of fan fiction crafted by Donnelly where she has Elizabeth Bennet meeting Jo March (Mrs. Frederick Bhaer)!

Download my notes

Download Donnelly’s fan fiction

John Matteson
“Five at Fredericksburg: Revising What We Know about The Battle that Transformed American Culture.”

Dr. John Matteson

Dr. John Matteson

Dr. Matteson, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts (about Louisa and her father), also author of The Lives of Margaret Fuller, presented a double session highlighting his latest book about the Battle of Fredericksburg and its effect on American culture through five prominent people (including Louisa).

Dr. Matteson’s presentation was part book description and part writing process. As several of us are working on book projects, this part of his presentation (and the ensuing Q & A) was especially helpful.

Dr. Matteson began by sharing how his new book project (with the working title of A Worse Place than Hell, a quote taken from Abraham Lincoln) was born through a discussion with one of his editors who pushed him to think “big.” Dr. Matteson shared some of his techniques for staying on track and not becoming overwhelmed by the mountain of research he has acquired.

He then got into the meat of the book, describing first the Battle of Fredericksburg and why it was such a bloody disaster. He then introduced the five persons transformed by the war:

  • Walt Whitman – his brother’s injury in a battle caused Walt to become a volunteer nurse.
  • The Rev. Arthur Buckminster Fuller (Margaret’s brother)
  • Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. (future Supreme Court Justice — how his view of the law evolved)
  • John Pelham (“the blond idol of soldier-loving girls”) – John especially captivated by his photo (that’s how I felt about Lizzie when I first saw her). He was the youngest soldier to lie in state.
  • Louisa May Alcott

Download my notes

Part two of Dr. Matteson’s presentation was an encore of the presentation he made last May at the Concord Inn which you can read about in my blog post, “Finding the ‘prince of patients’—John Matteson discovers the whereabouts of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches”

Closing thoughts

With heart and brain both filled to overflowing, our week together ended. The community that has developed as a result of the Summer Conversational Series is supportive, loving and generous.

AUDIENCE-560

Although not equal in achievements perhaps, we are equals in our love for the Alcotts and love nothing better than to share that love with each other and the world. Kristi Martin said it perfectly:

“My Alcott community is precious to me. It makes the Summer Conversation series a special occasion. I’m blessed to be a member of the extended Orchard House family; for the friendships, the countless ways that the individual and collective members carry on the spirit of the Alcotts, and bring kindness, joy, learning, inspiration, and beauty into my life.”

Amen.

I invite you to visit Jeannine Atkins’ blog to meet members of this special community — she captured it to perfection.

And my thoughts

I wrote some personal thoughts too which you can check out here.

NOTE: “Louisa May Alcott: The Podcast!” is no longer available on iTunes but you can listen here on the blog. For all the episodes, visit the Podcast Page.

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Where did Louisa May Alcott’s sexual energy go? And what fueled it?

By The Bostonian - Maria S. Porter. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The Bostonian v.3, no.4, Jan. 1896, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12518106

By The Bostonian – Maria S. Porter. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The Bostonian v.3, no.4, Jan. 1896, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12518106

Julian Hawthorne once speculated about Louisa May Alcott: “Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew; yet how could such a nature so imaginative, romantic, and passionate escape it?”

Choosing the life of a spinster

Louisa made the conscious decision to remain single, preferring to “paddle my own canoe.” Much has been made of her parents’ marriage, at times tumultuous, and how her mother was so burdened with her father’s inability to earn a living (a topic for another day). It was just that burden that Louisa assumed early as evidenced in her first journal writings which coincidentally concurred with the darkest years of Abba and Bronson’s marriage. She became the man of the house. Continue reading

Life restored after a season of loss: “River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times” in word and song

This past Wednesday was a BIG day. This arrived in the mail …

river of grace books-640

cover front only for webBut that was not all. I also got the final mix of my soundtrack CD for River of Grace from the producer. And I have to say he really outdid himself. I sent him a text back with 7 hearts – one for each song!

It was one of those rare, extraordinary days that sends you into orbit and you just want to cling to that feeling forever. I will write about it in my journal so I can go back and bathe in that grace, that pure gift from God whenever discouragement knocks on my door.

What does all this have to do with Louisa May Alcott?

Louisa's room at Hillside, dubbed "Poet's Corner," illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Louisa’s room at Hillside, dubbed “Poet’s Corner,” illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

By immersing myself into her life and works she became my muse. She reawakened a childhood dream of writing. When you think about it, it’s such a common tale when it comes to Louisa; she has inspired so many writers through her own life and that of Jo March, her alter ego. Little did she know of the impact her life would have on so many women.

Because of her, I became an author. It’s also because of you, dear readers. Your interest and contributions to this blog fueled my writing dream. I thank you.

Here’s a look inside of my first-born, River of Grace

00 cover drop shadowRiver of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times is a spiritual memoir that reveals how several major losses helped me rediscover creativity and faith. Published by Ave Maria Press, it is described as “Filled with powerful insights on the presence and action of grace–in the Mass and the sacraments, nature and grief, and even through the life and works of Louisa May Alcott–River of Grace guides readers in strengthening their faith, discovering their own hidden gifts and restoring a joy in living during and after tough times.” It contains lots of practical spiritual exercises called Flow Lessons that lead you there. (Some of the Flow Lessons are on my other blog, Be as One–check them out here.)

Losing a part of yourself

One of the losses I experienced was that of my singing voice. Yet throughout the writing of River of Grace, I kept thinking of songs that would fit with each chapter. While writing the third chapter on the loss of my voice, I experienced a miraculous healing after receiving a throat blessing on the Feast of St. Blaise.

This song was playing in my head; here’s a passage from chapter 3 on why:

How Can I Keep from Singing • Traditional Quaker hymn
“Instead of being raw and fragmented, I began to feel whole. A sense of wonder and deep gratitude welled up inside. The following Sunday as I entered the church to go to Mass I was immediately struck with the knowledge that I had received a significant healing with that throat blessing. I couldn’t wait to tell the priest.
Thereafter during Mass I noticed that it became easier to sing the hymns. Buoyed, I pushed my voice a bit further each week. One day while driving home after Mass I sang some of the most challenging songs in my repertoire including “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from Handel’s Messiah and discovered to my delight that I could sing them just as I had before. My voice had been restored. I had received a physical healing along with the emotional and spiritual.” (from chapter 3, River of Grace)

New life after loss

River of Grace is also about new life. In the writing I learned that creativity is far more than being able to sing, dance, paint or write. Creativity is all about intention. I thought of Psalm 103, traditionally read during the Easter season, and this song:

Lord, Send Out Your Spirit (from Psalm 103) • Words and music by Susan Bailey ©2001 Susan W. Bailey
“If you recognize and accept the presence within of God’s Spirit, you will live a creative life. Since God is limitless, the possibilities of creativity are limitless too. You only need to believe it and take your own deep dive to discover the authentic person within, the one created in the image and likeness of God, the person you are meant to be. Nothing is too small or too insignificant. Nothing is too foolish or crazy. No effort is wasted. God has placed the capability in every person to be “great” even if that greatness is quiet, unassuming, and shared within a small circle. … Broken as we are, we can be made new, made whole though likely we will never be the same again … By being immersed in the river of grace, we can go on the adventure of a lifetime.” (chapter 5, River of Grace)

Working through fear

River of Grace is also about overcoming fear; stepping out and seeing life as a glorious adventure.

This song came to mind:

Touch the Sky • Words and music by Susan Bailey ©1998 Susan W. Bailey
“I saw yet again that working through my fear was necessary in order to find and then be my authentic self. I could be like Gloria: passionate, confident, joyful, and enthusiastic, affecting those around me as a result. By believing in God’s love for me I could then become his emissary. I didn’t have to travel to Haiti; I only had to travel within to discover where the river of grace was leading me, and then commit to the journey. I had to get used to living with the uncertainty that is the fundamental part of self-discovery. It required being alert and awake to that quiet voice of God inside of me, his gentle hand nudging me this way and that. It gave new meaning to the scripture to “Beware, keep alert” (Mk 13:33). We must be alert and awake at all times to God’s call. This is what it means to be truly present to each and every moment. And if we pay heed to such moments, we won’t have the time to worry about the future or regret the past.” (from chapter 6, River of Grace)

So that’s the big reveal! This project has been my life for the last two years and a lot of the transformation I write about happened as I was writing the book. Writing is truly a life-changing experience.

I am so fortunate  to be working with a great publisher. Ave Maria Press is everything everyone said it would be. Totally professional, really helpful, and daring, taking chances on newbies like myself. I am so honored to have a book published by them.

You can order River of Grace (the book) through Ave Maria Press and Amazon. Don’t forget to write a review after you’ve read it!

The CD will be available by the end of October; I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

I have been fundraising for the cost of the CD;
can you help?

I hope you are enjoying these clips from the new CD. With the deadline of October 15 looming just around the corner, I still need much help in meeting the goal of raising $1600 to pay for the making of the CD. You can donate at http://igg.me/at/susanbailey. Every dollar counts. If you can only give $5 or $10, I will be so grateful. And for those who can give more, I am offering some rewards which I think you’ll appreciate.

louisa may alcott for widgetboth books for LMA blog widgetAre you passionate about
Louisa May Alcott too?
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Keep up with news and free giveaways on Susan’s books,
Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message, and River of Grace!

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Louisa May Alcott as grief counselor (on the fifth anniversary of this blog)

My obsession with Louisa played out in a rather odd way. Never a big reader until a few years ago, I’d find myself reading a biographical account of Louisa’s life (rather than read her own words) every few years. This began after reading Martha Saxton’s biography. After the reading (usually done during the autumn months) I would make a pilgrimage to Orchard House. That would satisfy my urge for a year or two, and then I’d repeat the process.

No longer a casual interest

lost summer 190My review of the latest biography on Louisa May AlcottAfter my mother’s passing in 2010, that passion for Louisa was ramped up in a big way. My dear husband had given me copies of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees and Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen months before my mother died but it was impossible to read them while she was ill. A couple of weeks after she was gone, I was ready for something new  and started reading. Coincidentally the PBS documentary of the same title by Reisen and Nancy Porter came out at the same time.

Getting to Louisa’s writing

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches" historicaldigression.com

From an 1897 edition of Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”
historicaldigression.com

Reisen’s love of Louisa’s canon finally got me to read Louisa’s books for the first time. In River of Grace I write,

It began not with Little Women, but with Hospital Sketches, a thinly veiled memoir of [Louisa’s] experience as a Civil War nurse. Her moving description of the death of a virtuous soldier named John Suhre and how she had nursed him acted as a soothing balm on my grief. She described death as noble, and her belief in the afterlife was unmistakable. Where once I had felt a kinship with Louisa because of our mutually shared mood swings, deep tempers, and passions for our art; now I identified with the woman who found sacredness and hope in death just as I had. While Louisa wrote mainly to support her family, it seemed that the act of creating helped her to work through her own grief after the tragic passing of her younger sister Elizabeth whom she called her “conscience” and “spiritual guide.” (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

This time I determined that my little reading binge would end with reading books and visiting Louisa’s home. I had to find other people as obsessed as I was with Louisa. It was just too much fun discussing my passion (which I did for an hour on the phone with Harriet Reisen; God bless her for indulging a total stranger!).

The seed was planted and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion was born on this day, August 18, in 2010.

Little did I know as I plunged deeper in to my passion that Louisa was acting as my guide through my grief. I had not been able cry over my mother because I was numb inside. I could not even remember anything about her except as she had been during the last few months: sick, ravaged, terrified and demented. I had been in battle mode for the last two years and that feeling continued for another year after she died.

Remembering Mommy

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

Louisa helped to draw me close to my mother again especially as I thumbed through her own copies of Little Women and Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag (Vol. 5) with her signed name plate. Slowly I recalled the vibrant, intelligent woman with “pizzaz” (as my brother-in-law called it). Mommy was curious and loved to learn. She poured over books and audited classes at her alma mater, Wellesley College. She was funny, animated (with a voice like a parrot), thoughtful and kind, and always interesting.

Beyond consolation

But more was happening as I read about and then wrote about Louisa: this passion was resurrecting my then-dormant creative life. Louisa’s own grief journey, beginning with the death of Lizzie, the marriage of Anna, and then continuing with the soldiers she had nursed (especially John Suhre), and how it had transformed her life and writing, helped me to understand what was happening:

I believe that the caring for and losing her sister acted as a catalyst to Louisa May Alcott’s transformation as an artist and a woman. The creative gifts of storytelling, play acting, and humor that she had used to minister to Lizzie were subsequently shared with countless soldiers, helping them to while away their lonely hours of pain. Letters sent home to family told the stories of the wounded. These stories, laced with humor and told with urgent realism and heart, compiled Hospital Sketches, a book which resonated with thousands of readers anxious for those first-hand accounts. Louisa’s creative gifts were honed and perfected through her painful journey. This nineteenth century author now was helping me to understand my own grief. She, like me, seemed to find an energy in grief and took action to work through it. We shared a common spirituality even though our religious backgrounds were quite different (I being Catholic, she influenced by her father’s Transcendentalism). To her, God was a loving Father and faithful Friend who revealed himself in nature and in everyday life. I too related to God in this fashion, seeing him in the natural world and in people around me, feeling him through the love of family and friends, tasting and being nourished by him in the sacred bread and the wine, and discerning him through prayer, the scriptures and reflection. (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

One thing leads to another

Before I knew it, I was feeling the urge to learn more about writing. This led to dreams of crafting a book … and the rest, as they say, is history.

Has Louisa acted as a grief counselor for you? What do you think of her writing on death? Does it strike a chord with you?

To all of you

THANK YOU for your readership and especially for your friendship over these past 5 years. I have had to pleasure of meeting many of you in person and yes, we gabbed about Louisa and will continue to do so. 🙂 This passion never grows old but only grows deeper, thanks to all of you!

Seems appropriate on this, the fifth anniversary of this blog, to share this video one more time with you where I express in music and images my love of the Alcott family and my gratitude to Louisa for being my grief counselor and writing guide:

louisa may alcott for widget00 cover smallAre you passionate about
Louisa May Alcott too?
Subscribe to the email list and
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Keep up with news and free giveaways on Susan’s book, River of Grace!

Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
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Why are you obsessed with Louisa? Why am I?

River of Grace is available for pre-order through Amazon.com.

I pondered that question during the two years spent writing my book, River of Grace. Because Louisa was an important part of this book, I had to figure out first, why I was obsessed with her, and second, how she has acted as my grief counselor, and as a result, guiding me back into my creative life.

Early attraction

I knew that as a child I was attracted to tomboy Louy. In River of Grace I wrote,

Louisa had captured my imagination as a girl. I was introduced to her through a story of her life given to me by my aunt. I felt a kindred spirit with the tomboy who put on plays with her sisters in the family barn, struggled with a bad temper, wrote stories in the apple tree, and longed for a room of her own. As an adult I identified with Louisa’s severe mood swings and how she lost herself in her writing, falling into what she called her “vortex.” Having experienced many of these things myself, I found that reading about Louisa helped me to understand myself a bit better. (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

joan howard story of lma 190That children’s biography was Joan Howard’s The Story of Louisa May Alcott. It was wonderful meeting another little girl who loved to put on plays and write, and had bad temper tantrums, just like me. And she craved time alone, cherishing her sacred spaces, just like me.

Meeting the adult Louisa

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon

My first adult encounter with Louisa was Martha Saxton’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. As much as Saxton has been criticized for her scholarship, that book taught me a lot about depression and its relationship to anger (depression being anger turned inward). The mood swings I experienced in my twenties were epic; at the same time I was at the peak of my musical creativity and songwriting. Knowing there was another young woman who had experienced that made me feel a little less alone in the world,

Going to the source

Louisa May Alcott Her Life, Letters and JournalsReading Louisa’s own words certainly helps in figuring it all out. I am currently going through Ednah Dow Cheney’s book, Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals. While I don’t care all that much for Cheney’s writing (too disjointed), I am enjoying hearing Louisa speak for herself.

The misery …

I had to smile at this passage from Louisa’s journal:

John Brown’s daughters came to board, and upset my plans of rest and writing when the report and the sewing were done. I had my fit of woe up garret on the fat rag-bag, and then put my papers away, and fell to work at housekeeping. I think disappointment must be good for me, I get so much of it; and the constant thumping Fate gives me may be a mellowing process; so I shall be a ripe and sweet old pippin before I die.

I am not the only one who throws a hissy fit when my creative plans are interrupted. I’ll bet she vented out loud a lot in that garret! And I’m willing to bet she suffered from aggravation as much as I do. No wonder she had headaches (I do too!).

And the pleasure …

This was during her first draft of Moods:

All sorts of fun was going on; but I didn’t care if the world returned to chaos if I and my inkstand only “lit” in the same place.

It was very pleasant and queer while it lasted; but after three weeks of it I found that my mind was too rampant for my body, as my head was dizzy, legs shaky, and no sleep would come.

Oh yeah. Totally get that! Especially the first part.

I’ll continue on this vein in the next post where I will explain how Louisa became my grief counselor.

Why are you obsessed with Louisa?

Places that are redemptive, and damning: Monday presentation by Stephen Burby at the Summer Conversational Series

Note: Mr. Burby kindly gave me his presentation (handwritten notes and all) in lieu of the fact that I was unable to attend the Monday session of the Summer Conversational Series. I thank him for doing so.

This is a longer post than usual as I found his presentation to be quite thought-provoking.

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Before attending this series, I was woefully ignorant of the concept of “place. ” Intuitively I understand about the need to create sacred spaces, whether it be places for prayer and contemplation, or rooms where I can create writing and music. I go to great lengths to create these spaces, considering every last physical detail such that entering these spaces immediately puts me into the “zone” where I can accomplish what I wish to do. Inhabiting such spaces brings me a great sense of happiness, peace and accomplishment.

A wider concept

I never understood however, the wider concept of place and sacred spaces; the speakers at last week’s Conversational Series have opened up a new world for me, a fresh lens from which to contemplate what I read in books and see around me.

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Louisa and place

560 steve burby1Mr. Burby’s presentation, “Out into the World:” Louisa May Alcott’s Sense of the World Beyond Concord.” continues to prime that pump. He begins by citing two classics by which he frames his discussion: Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. He maintains that Louisa’s writing,

“frequently deals with the transfer of the sacredness from good individuals, most often in the form of the sacred feminine, to the spaces they come to inhabit.”

The place of home

Bachelard states that

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home …”

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

We see this time and again in Louisa’s works, particularly in Little Women, where the home is central to the development of the characters. Bachelard points out the positives (“We shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection…) as well as the negatives (“tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the stanchest ramparts.”). He also writes, “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” This is played out to perfection in Little Women.

Burby illustrates both sides of Bachelard’s notion of home, first through Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, and then through A Long Fatal Love-Chase.

Redemptive spaces

In Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, Burby shows how Louisa uses the Eternal Feminine (in the forms of nurses Tribulation Periwinkle and Faith Dane), to transform space from profane to sacred by injecting goodness, mercy, empathy, kindness and understanding.

hospital sketchesA woman’s influence

Burby cites Louisa’s description of the hospital in Hospital Sketches where she describes the “vilest odors” and chaotic atmosphere. Nurse Periwinkle seeks to transform that space:

“After bathing and dressing wounds for a number of them [the wounded soldiers], the scene is partially transformed.”

When she takes over the night shift, Nurse Periwinkle is given greater control over her environment, thus completing the transformation:

“By eleven, the last labor of love was done; the last ‘good night’ spoken; and, if any needed a reward for that day’s work, they surely received it, in the silent eloquence of those long lines of faces, showing pale and peaceful glances that lighted us to bed, where Rest, the sweetest, made our pillows soft, while Night and Nature took our places, filling that great house of pain with a healing miracles of Sleep, and his diviner brother, Death.”

Dual vocations

hospital sketches illustrationIf I might digress for a moment: in reading Burby’s citations and his analysis of Louisa’s transformation of space, it made me wonder about about Louisa. We know she had a vocation as a writer, but she also sensed a vocation for nursing. She was aware of her talent in both areas. She had had the opportunity to live each out, by nursing her sister Elizabeth which led to her ability to serve as a Civil War nurse, and by writing about such experiences and more. Both vocations served others well, one by healing and the other by providing.

As a nurse …

In each case Louisa could play out the role of Savior, a role both satisfying and burdensome to her. Yet which vocation was the most satisfying and which the more burdensome? Nursing brought her face to face with life at its core: brutally authentic, vulnerable and poignant. She could see the immediate consequence of her ministrations, whether it was to bring healing, comfort, consolation or just her presence as Death loomed. It was Lizzie who told Louisa how much that presence brought her strength as she faced her own painful end.

… and as a writer

Louisa_May_AlcottSuch life experiences were then expressed through Louisa’s writing, especially in Hospital Sketches and Little Women. Those of us who are writers know how cathartic, even exhilarating it can be to process feelings and get them down on paper, sometimes in poetic prose if we’re lucky. Writing brought its benefits to Louisa, relieving the chronic poverty and bringing material comfort and security at last to the “Pathetic Family.”

The costs

Both vocations exacted their costs. Nursing brought on the typhoid pneumonia which robbed Louisa of her good health for a life time. It sobered her greatly with memories that could never be forgotten.

Writing stole away Louisa’s cherished privacy and free creative expression, while too exacting a cost on her health.

So which vocation most satisfied Louisa? Which one was more worth the cost? Likely both were equally important and worked in tandem with each other. But these were questions that came to my mind as I read Mr. Burby’s presentation. There is no doubt that some of Louisa’s finest writing comes from her nursing experience.

Transformation of space brings redemption

civil war mulattoIn My Contraband, Burby shows how that same chaotic and dark space, the hospital, is transformed by presence of Nurse Faith Dane. Yet in this case, it is more about the transformation of persons within that space: Bob, the recently freed and wronged slave and his vicious white half brother who had killed Bob’s lover. While the half brother is not redeemed, Bob turns away from doing his brother harm thanks to the efforts of Nurse Dane. Burby writes,

“And it is here that the protagonist is able to assert her influence in the most positive way possible, turning the man–her contraband [to whom she was deeply attracted], the former slave, Bob–away from tragic revenge.”

The transformation is complete when Bob consummates their relationship in a symbolic and spiritual way, taking on her last name as his own; he would now be known as Robert Dane.

A place of damnation

long fatal love chase2Burby then turns to A Long Fatal Love-Chase to demonstrate how a beautiful space does not always denote goodness. He notes in particular a long description of the setting of Valrosa, Tempest’s villa in Nice. Burby believes that since Louisa had visited Nice during her first trip to Europe, it was likely she was describing a real place. He goes on to write,

“The description of Valrosa … suggests that is the finest setting for Rosamond, the protagonist … She is unconsciously the fairest and most striking ‘object’ in the setting.”

He points out that the beauty of the setting was illusory as Rosamond’s lover Tempest turns out to be her Mephistopheles.

Evil dominating

In this case, despite the presence of a female protagonist, Valrosa changed from a sacred to a profane place because of the domineering power of Tempest and the false premise upon which the space was based. Rosamond could not turn him.

Triumph of the Eternal Feminine

Thus Burby demonstrates Louisa’s realism yet again: life does not always turn out right. Goodness does not always prevail. In Louisa’s thrillers, goodness rarely prevails.

Yet the writing of hers that survives through the ages in the imaginations of many are the ones where the Eternal Feminine does in fact, triumph.

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The pain of writing is performing the surgery, as demonstrated by Louisa May Alcott and Jo March

piles of manuscriptOver the past few weeks I wrote the longest piece I have ever written, over 6000 words. Life has been far too busy for my taste lately so I could only work on it in bits and pieces. I have my hour carved out first thing in the morning for writing, beginning with the first cup of coffee. Each morning for three weeks, I pecked away at that piece.

Hardly the vortex experienced by our heroine Louisa, but we all have our own methods!

Experiencing the pain

I’ve read frequently about the pain and suffering involved with writing: the doubts, the writer’s blocks, the editing, the panic. I’ve had my share of blocks (which felt more like vacations away from the work) but I have to admit I had yet to experience true pain and suffering.

Then my 6000+ piece came back from my editor. I had feared in the back of my mind that I might not have written the piece with the kind of thrust my editor wanted.  I was right.

Pulling it all apart

Now I am taking all the pieces apart, reassembling them, and giving it the thrust my editor wanted. I get the pain and suffering. Not because I feel especially attached to this piece but because I am terrible at puzzles! The details can overwhelm me.

How did Louisa
do it?

jan as louisaI always wondered how Louisa was able perform the massive edits on her first novel Moods. It really was like surgery. I have the advantage of word processing which makes it a lot easier to pull things apart while making sure everything is still saved. Louisa had merely the pen and paper. How did she ever do it?

Harriet Reisen described the process:

One sleepless night a scheme to cut Moods suddenly came upon her. “I slept no more that night but worked as busily as if mind & body had nothing to do with one another … The fit was on, & for a fortnight, I hardly ate slept or stirred but wrote, wrote like a thinking machine in full operation. When Louisa emerged from this latest vortex, she had cut ten chapters, sacrificing many of her favorite parts, but she was confident she had strengthened and sharpened as well as shortened the story. Loring [the publisher] agreed and promised to bring out the book right away. “Of course we all had a rapture,” Louisa reported. Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen, Chapter 12, Where Glory Waited

How Jo March describes it

jo writing (norman rockwell)Louisa recounted the process in Little Women as Jo prepared to edit her first-born:

Having copied her novel for the fourth time, read it to all her confidential friends, and submitted it with fear and trembling to three publishers, she at last disposed of it, on condition that she would cut it down one third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired …

“Now I must either bundle it back in to my tin kitchen to mold, pay for printing it myself, or chop it up to suit purchasers and get what I can for it …” said Jo …

So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody. Little Women, Chapter 27, Literary Lessons

Surgical means

Now that sounds painful. And like surgery. My work is not so dramatic but for the first time, I can truly relate to Louisa, the writer and how she had to hone art into a commercial product for sale.

Pictures-of--Surgical-InstrumentsTo me, the opportunity to work with a professional on my piece is well worth every bit of cutting, shaping, pulling apart and piecing together that it takes to make my art ready for market. Surgery is, after all,  a means of correction, to make something whole and better.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to get back to my puzzle … 🙂

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