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

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

thoreau-fuller

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

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

Here is the transcription of Thoreau’s notes.

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2014 Summer Conversational Series: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius

john matteson1The Conversational series welcomed back a perennial favorite in John Matteson whose Pulitzer-prize winning book Eden’s Outcasts is a standard in Alcott scholarship. He has also written a fine book on Margaret Fuller called The Lives of Margaret Fuller; she was the focus of his presentation entitled “ ‘The Mind in the Full Glow of Power’: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius.”

Was Fuller a genius?

Fuller tackled an age-old problem: was genius for men alone? Although Fuller was probably the best-educated woman in America, she denied herself the mantle of genius. It was a source of great consternation to her; more on that a little later.

The evolving definition of genius

Matteson gave a brief history of the definition of “genius” and how it has evolved over the centuries. It was originally associated with pagan belief (coming from a more magic realm) and was considered contrary to the scriptures. It was generally believed that Genius was a personal god, directing the individual, a belief that endured in Fuller’s time. The meaning then morphed into what was considered a “good” genius versus an evil genius. Some felt genius was influenced by the stars.

The root of genius

Matteson pointed out that Genius and Genesis have the same root; Genesis only allows for one genius, God. Genius is polytheistic, each person having it. Therefore, Genius was considered a heresy since it was perceived to be against God.

Influence of Romanticism

samuel taylor coleridgeThe Romantic Movement influenced the change in the definition of genius. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a major influence in the Transcendental Movement, had a lot to say about genius, following up on Kant. Coleridge connected genius to the spiritual and the artistic. Talent was appropriating the knowledge of others whereas genius was original.

Genius and Transcendentalism

Genius to the Transcendentalist was divine in origin. Coleridge felt that genius needed be controlled whereas Emerson saw no need for genius to be hindered. Coleridge felt that genius was for men only but there were feminine traits. Genius is meant to inspire awe and the sublime; thus the results of genius were large and by nature, public, which placed it out of reach of women who never meant to be in the public sphere.

Unfulfilled potential

Fuller’s father was responsible for her incredible education but then felt he had created a “monster” and set her off to finishing school. Although she edited The Dial for Emerson’s Transcendental community, she was never paid for her work. Once she reached New York she was hired by a major newspaper as a correspondent. It was there that her gifts were finally appreciated and compensated.

Was there a genius to be found in America?

margaret fullerFuller felt that America had yet to produce a poetic genius. American literature and knowledge was yet to be respected. She felt that America’s diversity hindered its growth (moral and intellectual) with regards to talent and the higher pursuits. She did not find her criteria of genius being met in any American woman.

Fertile ground for genius

Transcendentalism felt that genius was the ultimate goal; Affiliated with this movement, Fuller used her conversation classes to cultivate and seek out genius in women. She discussed the meaning of gender thoroughly along with the question of genius. She also took up the quest of education for women. She did not see a lot of difference between what girls learned versus what boys learned but as Matteson pointed out, her training was unique. In general the education of girls was broader and shallower. Men were expected to “reproduce” what they learned; this is neglected for women. Fuller took up conversations to cultivate and grow education for women so that they too could “reproduce.”

Fear of genius

Female education led in the opposite direction from genius; male education cultivated talent but not genius. Creating something original was not encouraged, perhaps a leftover bias from the religious culture due to fear of the intellect.

Was genius moral?

Fuller maintained that genius demanded two forces – mad passion and ordered consistency. Genius was not merely to be held in awe but to be feared. While Channing held that genius was the highest order of good, Fuller believed there was a moral indifference with genius sometimes delighting in evil. It occurred to me that if genius was considered amoral, even evil, it would make sense why society would not associate it with women who were commissioned to tame their men and make them adhere to moral values. How could a woman do that and be a genius?

No women geniuses?

the lives of margaret fullerFuller believed that a woman should cultivate her talents and intellect. A female genius was possible but she never was able to identify any woman as such. As an example, Fuller was well versed with music but could not name a woman composer.

Genius out of reach?

Fuller did not believe she was a genius despite the fact that she felt herself to be one of the greatest minds in the country. This was devastating to her. Her father saw the potential and crammed her head with everything possible. Her sense of self and her emotional well-being depended on the growth of her potential. She did not see herself however as original and this was very hard for her.

Did no one measure up?

Transcendentalism was infused with the binary, such as genius versus talent, finite versus infinite, etc. In Emerson’s mind one had to be a genius to be a part of his circle; therefore he obviously felt that Fuller was a genius. Fuller tasted all the loneliness of being exceptional but never the satisfaction of being exceptional. If she was not a genius, could anyone achieve it? Her own mind was the yardstick, the utmost development of the female mind and yet she did not believe herself to be a genius; thus there were no women she could call a genius.

Promoting genius

If Fuller could not be a genius, she would promote others who were, using her writing skills; she became a critic (he critic is the younger sibling of genius). She believed as a critic that she must be well-versed in all the forms she critiqued. For example, she could not critique a poem if she was unable to write one herself. The critic must be very observant. Fuller was the chief critic for a NY publication.

The ideal for women and men

Like many women, Fuller believed women were imprisoned by being subservient; she also believed that men too were imprisoned because of this concept. Her ideal was that men and women would relate to each other as equal partners so that both could be freed from convention (something Louisa desired, writing about it in Work A Story of Experience through the marriage of Christie and David). Parties would meet mind to mind; mutual trust would be needed. Seeing marriage as an intellectual communion, it would become a pilgrimage. Fuller married later in life (though a legal marriage has never been confirmed) to Giovanni Ossoli, a younger man she met as a foreign correspondent in Italy. One wonders if she found that intellectual communion she sought in a partner and how that marriage would have fared had she lived longer; tragically she, Giovanni and their baby were drowned in a shipwreck.

Can each of us possess a little genius?

As all of us listened, wondering if genius existed in us or perhaps lamenting that it did not, Matteson ended his presentation on a hopeful note: Fuller did not believe one had to be a genius to possess genius. It is entirely possible to cultivate our own genius.

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Thanksgiving memories from one of Abba Alcott’s best friends, and an interesting parallel with Little Men

Lydia_Maria_Child

Lydia Maria Child

One of Abigail Alcott’s best friends was author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. A successful children’s author in the mid 1800s, Child is best known for a poem about Thanksgiving, part of which is set to music:

Here is an image from her three volume book called Flowers for Children, of the first few stanzas:

lydia marie child thanksgiving 1844

You can read the entire poem here.

Didactic tales for children by Lydia Maria Child

juvenile miscellanyUndoubtedly the Alcott children had to have read Child’s works since the families were so friendly with each other. Flowers for Children, a collection of Child’s favorite stories and best known articles from her successful juvenile magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany, contain moralistic stories for children. Didactic tales for youngsters were the norm for the day and Louisa was influenced by them in her own writing for children.

Could this story have influenced Little Men?

christ child and the poor childrenIn reading the first story, “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children,” I was struck by the many similarities between this story and Little Men. “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” is the story of a group of very poor and disadvantaged children, some of whom are turning to crime. Heinrich and his little sister Gertrude come from a dysfunctional family where the father is a mean drunk and the mother taken to fits of insanity. Wolfgang is the neighborhood bully. We encounter the Christ-Child at Christmastime when Heinrich and Gertrude receive a rare gift of money; they purchase apples, nuts and green boughs to create a Christmas tree. Gertrude offers thanks to the Christ-Child for providing the means. Unfortunately, Wolfgang spoils everything by stealing the apples and nuts from the children.

The gift of money had been provided by an older man who runs a home for orphans with his wife. Eventually the three children become a part of that home, working at trades to earn their keep and contributing to the family home. Heinrich and Gertrude’s parents eventually join them. Wolfgang struggles with trying to resist his formerly evil ways and falls from grace on numerous occasions, only to be forgiven and taken back by the community. Eventually he reforms his life.

Interesting parallels

littlemen03I’m sure already you can see the similarities between this story and Little Men. For me,

  • Heinrich reminded me of Nat. Both are sensitive boys.
  • Gertrude resembled Bess in appearance but reminded me more of Daisy because of her eternal optimism and innocence.
  • I instantly thought of both Dan and Jack when introduced to Wolfgang: Dan because of Wolfgang’s physical build and willfulness and Jack because of what he did (he stole Tommy’s money and let Dan lie about it to protect Nat) and because of his contrition.
  • “Father” and “Mother” in the story instantly brought to mind Professor Bhaer and Mrs. Jo. The god-like quality of “Father” made me think of Bronson. Plumfield was not unlike this home for orphans.
  • The camaraderie of the poor children smacked of all the boys at Plumfield along with Daisy and Nan.

Undoubtedly, stories like “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” were a common part of the reading diet of the Alcott children. It just struck me as amusing that the very first story I pick up mirrors Little Men in so many ways.

Many of you are far more knowledgeable than I am about the
didactic literature of Louisa’s time, and the influences on and origins
of Little Men –
What other stories might have influenced Louisa May Alcott in her writing of juvenile tales (besides her own)?

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Day Two of the Summer Conversational Series – Louisa as a practicing Transcendentalist

Day Two of the Summer Conversational Series featured a fine array of speakers.

Kristi Lynn Martin and Duty’s Faithful Child

kristi1 560Starting off the morning was Kristi Lynn Martin, a doctoral candidate at Boston University. Martin’s many years of experience as a tour guide at Concord’s finest historical homes (The Old Manse, “Bush” (aka the Emerson homestead) and Orchard House) served her well, giving her a unique insight into lives of the distinguished Transcendentalists that lived there.

The golden circle

Martin’s presentation, called “Duty’s Faithful Child:” Louisa May Alcott and the Transcendance of Transcendentalism covered the many famous thinkers in Louisa’s circle. These people included Ralph Waldo Emerson who sought to gather radical intellectuals like himself into a community, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, the Rev. Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley and of course, Louisa’s father Bronson Alcott.

Louisa’s brand of Transcendentalism

Dubbed “The Newness,” Transcendentalists sought a new spiritual vision beyond traditional religion. Growing discontent with empty ritual and spiritual hollowness, they sought to stretch their minds and hearts, seeking a more invigorating spiritual experience. While Louisa was ambivalent about Transcendentalism, mainly because of her father’s inability to provide for his family, she could not get away from its influence and it shows in her writing, especially her juvenile stories. She transcended the impracticality of Transcendentalism as taught by her father through her writing and reform efforts.

Heartfelt conversion

Louisa experienced a spiritual awakening at a young age while spending time outdoors. Nature had touched her soul, giving her an experience of God that she would never forget. Louisa, however, was like her mother, a pragmatic reformer at heart just like the Mays and Sewells before her (which presenter Eve LaPlante spoke about in the afternoon session – more on that in a bit) and therefore practiced a more practical Transcendentalism. She embraced the self-reliance of Emerson, the principled pragmatism of Thoreau, the moral theology of the Rev. Parker, the dynamic feminism of Fuller and the educational reform of Peabody and her own father.

Important women in the golden circle

Martin went on to demonstrate how Transcendentalism influenced Louisa’s writing through a careful study of Moods, Work and Hospital Sketches. She highlighted the important women in Louisa’s life including her mother Abigail, Margaret Fuller and Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley (whom Louisa regarded as a feminine ideal, one who exercised her mind and followed her heart while taking care of her husband and seven children).

Stefanie Jochman: Jo’s Transcendental marriage

stefanie1 560Stefanie Jochman was a new presenter to the Summer Conversational Series. She teaches high school at the Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Wisconsin and is currently pursuing her master’s degree. Her talk, “Professor Bhaer and Mr. Emerson: Jo March’s Transcendent Marriage” provided unique insight into Jo’s relationship with Frederick, and with her mentor and muse in real life, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

How was Professor Bhaer modeled after Emerson?

With the thoroughness of a lawyer, Jochman presented her case with numerous examples of why Professor Bhaer more resembled Emerson even though the popular view has been that Bronson Alcott was the model. There are too many examples to include in this blog post but here are a few:

Bhaer, to Jo, is the hero of her life. His guidance, love and desire to help Jo be the best she can be was much like the kindness Emerson showed to a young Louisa when he allowed her to browse through her library, suggesting appropriate books to stimulate her mind. Bhaer influenced Jo’s writing by frowning on her potboilers and encouraging her to write at a higher level which eventually paid off for her with a successful career as an authoress. Emerson too provided much encouragement to Louisa, suggesting books, giving advice and simply being someone she would wish to emulate.

Lifting the burden

Jochman pointed out a simple example in Little Women demonstrating how Professor Bhaer was introduced to the story by physically lifting the burden of the maid in the boarding house. Jochman compared that act to Emerson’s consistent efforts in lifting the financial burdens of the Alcott family. In one such instance, he supplied the rest of the money needed for the family to purchase Hillside (now known as The Wayside), the home where the family would live for three and one half years. It provided the setting for Little Women and the first truly stable environment for the Alcott children.

Transcendental utopia

Jo and Frederick’s work with boys at Plumfield created a Transcendental utopia. Jochman cited Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay in which he sings the praises of boys and the need to celebrate their childhood through their exposure to nature. Both Alcott and Emerson strongly believed in Nature’s ability to illuminate the mind and this was especially demonstrated in the story of Dan, the boy who struggled the most at Plumfield, and in life. As a small example, in Little Men, Jo set aside a drawer for Dan for his collection of things from nature; during the discussion that followed Jochman’s presentation, previous presenter Kristi Martin shared that Emerson had a similar drawer for his collection of artifacts from nature. This was something she picked up from her years as a tour guide.

Jochman had much more to share and I am hoping to entice her to write some guest posts for this blog so that you can find out more from her presentation.

Eve LaPlante: Family history of personal and social reform

eve1 560Eve LaPlante, author of Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother and My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother, gave an intriguing presentation of the family history of reform which was passed down from generation to generation, right down to Louisa. Using her service as a Civil War nurse as documented in Hospital Sketches, LaPlante, a direct descendent of Abigail May Alcott’s family, told stories of relatives from her past who followed a similar pattern to Louisa’s of self-discovery, spiritual introspection and commitment to reform.

In the beginning

Beginning with Judge Samuel Sewell, LaPlante told the story of his heartfelt repentance after the Salem Witch Trials. Judge Sewell, then in his forties, examined his heart through prayer and realized the wrong he had committed in condemning men and women as witches without hard evidence. He devoted himself to reform as a result, writing the first tract (which cited the Bible) condemning the practice of slavery. LaPlante also mentioned another document written years later which unfortunately no longer exists where Judge Sewell defended the idea that women as well as men went to heaven, their physical bodies being resurrected like their male counterparts. This amazingly went against the theology of the day which insisted only men went to heaven.

Forsaking wealth for a healthy soul

Joseph May, father to Abigail, married Dorothy Sewell, great-granddaughter of Judge Sewell. In his thirties, Joseph May, then a successful entrepreneur, lost his business and his money in a bad land deal. After a protracted depression, May turned away from the pursuit of money, calling it unhealthy for the soul. He was not a social reformer like Judge Sewell but believed in personal interior conversion.

Pioneering abolitionist

His son Samuel Joseph May was an influential reformer. Ordained as a Unitarian minister, Samuel Joseph went through a dramatic overnight conversion in his thirties regarding his views on slavery. He became the first to preach from the pulpit against slavery, something which caused his father much consternation. Joseph May endured much ridicule from his neighbors for his son’s views. Samuel Joseph May was also the first to preach on women’s suffrage.

Like brother, like sister

Samuel’s sister, Abigail emulated her brother and took reformation to heart as well. Marrying Bronson Alcott (whom Samuel introduced to Abigail) against the wishes of her father, Abigail admired Bronson’s principles and similar heart for reform. She envisioned a life in equal partnership with Bronson, promoting educational reform. Although their life together didn’t turn out as she had hoped, she was able to pass the idea of social reform down to her daughter Louisa who then struck out on her own as a reformer for the first time in her service as a Civil War nurse.

What we can see in Hospital Sketches

A collection of Louisa’s letters to her family about her war experience was serialized and eventually created her most successful book to date, Hospital Sketches. Critics agree that it was Hospital Sketches that revealed Louisa’s writing voice, relaying with humor and poignancy her real life experiences getting to and then serving in Washington at the Union Hotel Hospital following one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. LaPlante’s analysis of the writing of Hospital Sketches as a vehicle by which Louisa’s true self emerges spawned a lively discussion of the text (including a remembrance of Gabrielle Donnelly’s spirited reading of a portion of the first chapter). The mixture of humor with moving descriptions of suffering and death (including one John Suhre whom Louisa loved) demonstrated the many wonderful facets of Louisa’s writing and personality.

It was another full day of thought-provoking talks, conversation and fellowship with fellow Louisa lovers. Does it get any better than this?

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Day One of the Summer Conversational Series – Health, Nature and Reform

Monday’s session of the Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House was lively, funny and thought-provoking. A fellowship of sisters (and some brothers) gathered to enjoy talks from Gabrielle Donnelly, Kathleen Harsy and Kyoko Amano.

Gabrielle Donnelly on Louisa’s health

gabrielle donnelly2 560Donnelly, the author of the popular The Little Women Letters, presented “Louisa May Alcott, Courageous Heroine: Never ill before this time and never well afterward.” She traced Louisa’s health history, beginning with her tomboy days when she would fall out of trees and run like a horse. Bringing in Hospital Sketches, Donnelly spoke of Louisa’s service as a Civil War nurse and the price she paid with her health after she suffered from typhoid pneumonia. Suffering for twenty-five years until her death at 55, Louisa experienced a multitude of ills (see previous post). Unable to regain her own vigor, she poured that same vigor into memorable characters such as Jo March, her sister Amy and Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl.

A new look at Amy March

Donnelly focused for a time on Amy March and the physical abilities she demonstrated in Little Women such as rowing and horseback riding. Her alter ego May Alcott was a physically active woman who was an accomplished horsewoman. In her letters from Europe, May recounted rowing across the Thames. Donnelly remarked on how unremarkable Amy was in the second half of Little Women until suddenly she burst forth as a passionate, dynamic woman. May was such a woman whose sheer force of personality attracted many admirers. A successful artist in Europe, May’s abilities were toned down in the character of Amy but Louisa did honor the work of her sister, demonstrating how a sketch Amy did of Laurie prompted him to search his heart and change his slovenly ways.

A taste of Louisa’s humor

The highlight of the presentation was Donnelly’s exhilarating read of a section of Hospital Sketches when Tribulation Periwinkle finds herself in Boston desperately trying to get her ticket for the train to take her to Washington. Donnelly had us all in stitches as she playacted Nurse Periwinkle and the different people she met along the way. The reading brought out Louisa’s humor in a fresh new way.

Kathleen Harsy and environmental education

kathleen1 560The second presentation was made by Kathleen Harsy, a high school teacher from the Chicago area. Her presentation was titled “Forgetting and Finding Our Place: Environmental Education’s Role in Ending Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Speaking on a timely (and yet age old) topic, Harsy presented a passionate argument for the need to reacquaint students with the outdoors. Citing the example of the vegetable garden she and fellow teachers developed at the Riverside-Brookfield High School, Harsy spoke of the educational benefits of getting children back out into the natural world. She focused in particular on ADHD children and how getting back to nature improved their condition.

Push and pull

A surprising aspect of Harsy’s talk was the amazing resistance environmental education receives from parents and administrators who are too focused on test scores. A lively discussion ensued among us about the need for a more holistic approach to education; we expressed fears for children today being able to think for themselves and to think creatively. We all agreed that the Transcendentalists were on to something with their insistence that each of us get back in touch with the natural world.

Eric Sawyer: Music and Transcendentalism

eric sawyerAfter lunch we were privileged to hear from Eric Sawyer, a composer who was commissioned to write a concerto based on the Transcendentalist thinkers. He discussed his process for composing the piece which will be presented in Concord on October 18 and 19 by Triple Helix, three women who play piano, cello and violin. Sawyer focused on three Transcendentalists, assigning them to instruments: Emerson to the piano, Bronson Alcott to the cello and Margaret Fuller to the violin.

Kyoko Amano and the birth of social reform

kyokoThe afternoon presentation was given by Kyodo Amano and it focused on “Women’s Place in Social Reform: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott.” Her fascinating talk traced the history of social reform, rising up out of the Unitarian faith tradition with reformers Joseph Tuckerman and Samuel Joseph May, both relatives of Abba Alcott. Citing Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and Alcott’s Little Men, Amano described the creation of reform schools for orphaned boys, mostly from immigrant families. Thinkers such as Lydia Maria Child (a best friend of Abba Alcott’s) believed that the focus on crime needed to shift from punishment to prevention with the best way being taking in young boys from the street before they had a chance to commit crimes, often out of necessity because of their family’s abject poverty.

Women, family and reform

Amano spoke of women’s roles in reform citing Jo Bhaer from Little Men. Plumfield School was an extended family where Jo and Professor Bhaer were mother and father to the boys they took in. Amano cited Nat and Dan in particular, both street boys. Dan was a troubled boy who created problems at Plumfield and had to be sent away; he eventually comes back into the fold, changed by the parental love and guidance shown to him by Jo and Professor Bhaer.

Generic religion

Even though the reform movement was born from a religious tradition, Amano made the point that both Hawthorne and Alcott presented a more generic Christianity in their novels. Neither spoke of any necessity to convert characters to a particular religion (such as converting Catholics to Protestantism). Amano also suggested that Nat and Dan were in fact immigrants judging from certain descriptions and details in Little Men but that Alcott played down that aspect, making that too generic.

Fellowship

After the talks we all gathered together for impromptu conversation. There is nothing sweeter than a true meeting of the minds and hearts which this get-together delivers.

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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.

Click to Tweet & Share: How are LMA and Margaret Fuller connected? Biographer John Matteson knows both women intimately and discusses how. http://wp.me/p125Rp-15W

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