Research has a way of taking you places you never thought to go. I recently rereaded a 1937 biography of Louisa May Alcott by Katherine Anthony (of which I will write about in a future post) and started to wonder why so much came out about the Alcott family that year.
An era of the Alcotts
Odell Shepherd’s book on Bronson Alcott was also published in 1937. It then occurred to me that both books came out just before the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Louisa and Bronson, who died only a few days apart from each other after Bronson mysteriously invited Louisa to follow him “up” during their last visit together.
That led me to look again at the various artifacts I saw at The Wayside in Concord (specifically the North Bridge Center) where there were several newspaper accounts dating from the same period. The centenary of Louisa May Alcott’s birth was celebrated in Concord in 1932:
from the The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)
A very special guest
And in 1935 when the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association gathered for its annual meeting, they announced the visit during that year of a particular VIP:
The Concord Journal, December 5, 1935, from The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)
Louisa as micro-journalist
And, in the midst of these newspaper clippings, I discover a small article which sheds light on the origins of the Pickwick Portfolio from Little Women (aka, The Olive Leaf in real life):
The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)
To my delight and surprise, the book referenced, Lilliputian Newspapers by James D. Henderson, was available for download from archive.org. Thus I was able to read firsthand about the origins of “The P.C. and the P.O.”
Creating a diversion
Those who have familiarized themselves with Louisa’s life recall the time in Boston when the sisters were in their teens and twenties when the family lived in acute poverty. To keep her family in good cheer, Louisa created a newspaper in 1849 (when she was seventeen) called The Olive Leaf, in honor of a favorite periodical, The Olive Branch. There were several issues, all available at the Houghton Library at Harvard University — the first issue is replicated in its entirety in Chapter 10 of Little Women. Each sister took the role of a Dickensian character from The Pickwick Papers:
Anna/Meg as Samuel Pickwick
Louisa/Jo as Augustus Snodgrass
Lizzie/Beth as Tracey Tubman
May/Amy as Nathaniel Winkle.
In Lilliputian Newspapers, James D. Henderson reveals that in fact, Louisa created the newspaper when she was twelve in 1844. Henderson writes, “The Pickwick was a manuscript newspaper, in size 10 and 8 inches, and comprised four pages, two columns to a page, entirely written by hand.” (pg. 60, Lilliputian Newspapers). Two issues were published between 1844 and 1845 when the family lived at Still River and Concord. Louisa wrote the early issues but when it changed to The Olive Leaf, all four sisters contributed.
Henderson noted the Weekly Report of their behavior (from “very good” to “good” to “middling” to “bad”) and this invitation:
“THE DUSTPAN SOCIETY will meet on Wednesday next, and parade in the upper story of the Club House. All members to appear in uniform, and shoulder their brooms at nine precisely.” (Ibid, pgs. 62-63)
Ode to Marmee
If you are lucky enough to see or obtain a copy of Lilliputian Newspapers, you will see a reproduction of the original copy of The Pickwick, found in the pocket of the inside of the back cover. The reproduction was made possible by Miss Beatrice Gunn, formerly of the Youth’s Companion, a magazine to which Louisa often contributed. The Concord Journal reprinted the poem featured in the “Poet’s Corner:”
The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)
James Henderson’s book was published in 1936. Lots of good stuff during the 1930’s. I look forward to sharing with you soon about Katherine Anthony’s biography which is surprisingly frank and objective.
“It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if one only knows how to look at them.” (from “Marjorie’s Three Gifts,” 1877)
Welcome to the second episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
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. 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:
All stories are available through Google Books or Project Gutenberg.
“Extraordinary Beauty in an Ordinary World: May Alcott and Women’s Painting during the 19th Century”
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.
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”
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.
Kristi Lynn Martin
“The Sacred Domestic, Memorialization, and Literary Imagination in the Alcott Sisters’ Sphere”
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.
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!
“Castles in the Air Versus Two Inches of Ivory: A Comparison of Louisa May Alcott’s Sisters with Jane Austen’s Bennets.”
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)!
“Five at Fredericksburg: Revising What We Know about The Battle that Transformed American Culture.”
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.
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.
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.”
I invite you to visit Jeannine Atkins’ blog to meet members of this special community — she captured it to perfection.
The Alcotts were an atypical Victorian family to be sure. Along with rather unconventional philosophic and religious ideas as to how to live, the family did not subscribe to typical Victorian role models.
Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House
To begin with, Bronson’s refusal or inability to work to support his family necessitated that his wife Abba take on the breadwinner role. When her health began to suffer, Louisa took over, spending the rest of her life keeping that “Alcott Sinking Fund” (as she dubbed it) afloat, sacrificing artistic growth, independence and her own health.
from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter
The Alcott daughters were educated and well read. They were encouraged to think, to create, to pursue their dreams. Abba wanted to be sure her girls could support themselves. Both parents encouraged the girls in their career interests with the results being Louisa becoming a best selling author and youngest sister May realizing some success as accomplished painter before she died prematurely.
Run, jump, play!
drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard
Physical activity was very much the norm. The girls were allowed to play like boys, running and jumping, talking long hikes into the woods, playing into the mud and coming home dirty. Louisa writes about her many hair-raising escapades in “Poppy’s Pranks” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag Volume IV. Louisa and May, being the most physically robust of the sisters, continued with physical activity into their adulthood: Louisa took daily runs while May went rowing and horseback riding.
Romance and marriage
Unlike most Victorian parents, Bronson and Abba did not pressure their daughters to marry. Louisa, of course, never took the plunge nor did she consider it even though she had a romance with a man several years her junior in Europe known as Ladislas Wisniewski (although the nature of that romance is in question–see previous post). Despite herself, she did receive at least one marriage proposal.
There are few references even to romance when the sisters were of traditional marrying age. Anna appears to have had some sort of relationship while teaching in Syracuse but she was ultimately rejected. Louisa wrote a single cryptic line in her journal in 1853 about her seventeen-year-old sister Lizzie having a romance with “C.” Clara Gowing, in her book The Alcotts as I Knew Them described it as “A little affair of the heart about that time, which did not meet the approval of her parents …” May, a flirtatious sort, was the one sister who had many flings, most notably with next door neighbor Julian Hawthorne.
Marriage as rebellion
Only two of the daughters married and both rather late. Anna married John Pratt when she twenty-nine. In a sense, she rebelled against her family’s unconventional lifestyle, preferring to start a family of her own. She was happily married to John for ten years before he tragically died; they had two sons.
May the cougar?
courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com
May too, rebelled in a sense, opting to remain permanently in Europe rather than being near her family. Career was first and she had rightly determined that she could not become a great artist without living in Europe. She then married a man considerably younger than herself (and successfully lied about her age – the wrong age is on her death certificate since husband Ernest Nieriker provided the information.).
May died a few weeks after giving birth and bequeathed her daughter to older spinster sister Louisa. Thus Louisa became a single mother, raising Lulu as her own.
The right to vote
And one more tidbit from this most unusual family: Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. It had been a dream she had shared with her mother but sadly Abba did not live to vote herself or see her daughter cast it. She proudly cast it on March 29, 1880, adding “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town.”
The Alcotts thus made their mark, through the vote, through literature, through art, and most especially, through their fascinating family history.
From Women and Health in America (first edition) there is this intriguing essay titled “What Ought to Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century” by Carl N. Degler.
Quoting Dr Charles Taylor, 1882—
“It is not a matter of indifference whether a woman live a single or a married life … I do not for one moment wish to be understood as believing that an unmarried woman cannot exist in perfect health for I know she can. But the point is, that she must take pains for it.” “some other demand for the unemployed functions, must be established. Accumulated force must find an outlet …” (pg. 50)
We already know that Louisa May Alcott channeled her tremendous energy into her creativity–writing. Louisa, however, was not the only physically vibrant and passionate Alcott sister. What about May? Continue reading →
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 →
Note: Although I had promised a series of posts on women’s health in the nineteenth century, I need to postpone those posts until I clear up a problem with citing an important source. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, I thought I would share this with you.
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Doing a book on Elizabeth Sewall Alcott presents a problem: how do you get inside the head of someone who was so private? While one can speculate by “reading between the lines” when pouring over family letters, it’s hard to fully explore the private line in a biographical setting.
At one time, I was considering doing a fiction book (like Jeannine Atkins’ wonderful Little Woman in Blue) but decided against it because I am not a fiction writer. I read very little fiction, preferring biographies and essays. It seems to me one ought to be immersed in fiction to write fiction.
However, I did try my hand at it with a couple of attempts. This piece was going to be the introduction to a fiction book and I thought you’d like to see. I have another one, less finished, that I’ll show you in the next post.
I have to admit, I enjoyed writing these pieces. Maybe I will continue writing them if only to prime the pump for the real thing.
Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women
I’m hovering over my body laid out on the bed. Where has my hair gone? My face is so thin, hollow and pale. I look like a skeleton. At least the pain is gone. I see my mother and sister gazing up at me. There’s a look of wonder in their eyes although their cheeks are wet. Louisa is looking at Marmee and she’s saying, “What did you see?” I wonder where I am going, I hope it’s someplace with lots of flowers and sun. And music! Will I hear angels singing where I am going?
I thought I wanted to leave but now I’m not sure. The pain was terrible, even the ether didn’t help. Poor Father, he tried. I just couldn’t look at his face so consumed with sadness and worry. I just couldn’t look.
I don’t want to leave my family. Not just yet. I want to see what happens next. Will Anna marry John Pratt? From what she told me, he’s a very nice man. Funny too. Anna deserves someone nice.
Will my little Abby May become a famous artist someday? I want to see! Her drawings and paintings are so wonderful. She loves pretty things just like I do but she knows how to capture and keep them forever on paper. I can only remember.
And Louy. My Lu. I shall miss her so. She made me feel alive. She was so unafraid and me, well, I never wanted to leave the house. She will write a great book one day, I imagine lots of great books. Her head is always so full of stories.
Dear Marmee … oh Marmee, don’t cry! It wasn’t your fault. Those children, they were so sick. I wanted to help too. I wish I had been stronger, for you. You are my hero! How I wish I could sit in your lap right now, lean my head on your bosom and murmur “I love you.” Because I do. How could I not? You showed me what it means to be kind and giving. There was nothing you wouldn’t or couldn’t do.
Father, Father! You and I, we are one. I didn’t understand your words but your heart and mine, we were one. You were like Jesus to me. I wish I could snuggle close to you right now and tell you that. How I will miss your sweet, quiet voice. When you’d talk to me, it was like being outside in the sun, so warm, so peaceful.
My dear family! I have to leave now. God is good, I’m sure; He will let me watch over you. Keep my memory, let that console you. Come and visit me at Sleepy Hollow. Under the shade of the big elms we can be together.
I want to tell your story. My family, what a story! Lu, you have to tell it. I will help you. I will fill your mind with sweet memories. Oh yes, I know, we had it hard sometimes. I remember that gnawing in my belly and the only thing to fill it was that dry graham. I never told Father but I didn’t like it. It was like eating paper. But it was so sweet how he used to shape it into my favorite animals. It didn’t make it taste any better but the love he put into it made it sweeter somehow.
Lu, please tell our story, won’t you? Walk with me through the years, through those funny plays you and Anna used to put on that had us laughing, crying and shouting for more. Encore! Now that I am gone from this earth, maybe I can get inside your mind and watch the birth of your stories. I was always amazed at how you could stew on stories, cooking them to perfection while chopping vegetables in the kitchen. That head of yours was always so busy!
I hope there are kittens in Heaven. Remember all my kittens? So soft and furry, I loved hearing them purr. Maybe I will see all my pussycats again, running around in Heaven.
Did you know what went on inside of me? I know, I wasn’t good at sharing. I had many thoughts, many feelings but I was afraid to share. You and Anna, you were so smart! You had so many great thoughts to share. Father and Mother, they liked listening to your journals. I know they wanted me to share too but I just couldn’t. I was selfish, clinging to them as I did. And our family, we had hard times. I didn’t want to add to that with my little crosses. Sometimes those crosses got heavy though. This last cross was especially heavy. I died on this cross. Does that mean now that I am like Jesus?
What will God look like? Everything is very bright around me. How I wish I could tell you, shout to the world how happy I feel at this moment even as I say goodbye to you. Oh but dear family, I am not gone from your hearts.
Lu, I know you are the storyteller but I want to tell our story too. Now that I am well, I am free. For some reason, I no longer feel afraid to share what’s inside of me. I have so much that I want to tell you. May I tell you?
Marmee, Lu, there’s a mist around me, is that what you see? You are watching me rise up to Heaven, just as Father said I would. Isn’t God good to give you this glimpse of me, well, happy, ready to take on my brand new life. Father used to read the Holy Bible to us, remember? I’m glad he did that because I got to hear the word of God. It was hard to understand then but now I understand it all. I am rising up to God just like it says in the Bible: “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” I never knew what incense was; I think Father said it was like smoke. Smoke goes up into the air. But now I am a mist. Marmee, Louisa, you’re getting smaller and smaller. I wish I could reach out my arms to you for one last goodbye. My mist will stay with you, cover you like a sweet, light blanket on a summer’s night. Wrap myself around you. Remember me.