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 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 two): “Marmee and Louisa:” author Eve LaPlante unveils her important new book

Everyone knows the phrase, “Behind every great man stands a woman.”

In the case of Louisa May Alcott, it’s a “great woman.”

Who was the woman that stood behind her? She is Louisa’s mother, Abigail May Alcott, commonly known as Abba.

An inside look at the life of Abba Alcott

Eve LaPlante, author of Seized, Salem Witch Judge and American Jezebel is uniquely qualified to write on the life that woman: she is the direct descendant of the Reverend Samuel Joseph May, brother and confidant of Abba.

Using newly discovered letters and journals belonging to Abba, Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother promises to be a revealing study of a dynamic, highly intelligent woman. Abba’s unwavering faith in and support of Louisa proved to be the inspiration for and strength behind a prolific author and an iconic classic.

Eve LaPlante’s remarks at the Orchard House Summer Conversation Series

I had the privilege of hearing LaPlante speak about and read from her new book at the Orchard House Summer Conversation Series on July 17.

Family records passed down

Before reading, LaPlante shared how her Aunt Charlotte had passed down detailed family records.

From Anne Hutchinson …

From those records LaPlante learned that she was the 11th generation granddaughter of Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan who defied the elders and was expelled as a heretic; this spawned American Jezebel.

… to the Witch Judge …

She also discovered that she was related to Judge Samuel Sewell of the Salem Witch Trials who was the only judge to repent. She told his story in Salem Witch Judge.

… to the Alcotts

Being related to these notable people was just the beginning of the story. As she continued to trace her family history, LaPlante discovered she was directly related to the Reverend Samuel Joseph May, brother of Abba, making her a first cousin of Louisa May Alcott.

Digging deeper

This gave LaPlante unprecedented access to personal papers and letters written by Abba. It was commonly thought that the vast majority of these papers had been destroyed by Louisa at her mother’s request.

Obviously some of those papers did manage to survive. What did they reveal? How do they change the legend of Louisa May Alcott?

Marmee’s significance

Marmee and Louisa confirms what women often suspected – that Abba was Louisa’s rock just as Marmee had been Jo’s. Louisa made it clear in her semi-autobiographical classic; why then has Abba been largely been ignored?

Eve LaPlante is seeking to set the record straight with Marmee and Louisa and its companion volume, My Heart is Boundless featuring the aforementioned journals and letters.

Inside the woman

LaPlante has discovered many papers that reveal Abba’s inner life. She was a highly intelligent, well-educated and ambitious woman whose writing talent surpassed that of her famous daughter.

Abba’s true ambition

Abba’s life was marked with frequent frustration, anger and disappointment. As a woman born in the Victorian era, she had few options and no real right to determine her own destiny.  Feeling stifled in her limited role, she poured herself into her children hoping that they could achieve what she could not – autonomy.

The connection

As Louisa shared her mother’s temperament, the two became soul mates: utterly dependent and totally connected. Quoting LaPlante, “Abba was Louisa’s muse.”

Did other women influence Louisa?

Louisa’s had many intellectual mentors but only the men are usually mentioned: her father Bronson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Rarely mentioned are the female intellectual giants that Louisa was exposed to through her mother: Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody and Lydia Maria Child.

Why has Abba been ignored?

Few of Louisa’s biographers made much mention of Abba’s intelligence and accomplishments. Despite the fact that Louisa confirms Abba as the primary influence in her life as shown in Little Women, scholars instead most often cited Louisa’s father Bronson as her main influence.

A plausible explanation

Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House offered a possible explanation for this discrepancy. Not so long ago it was considered improper for a well-bred woman to be mentioned in public apart from her birth, marriage and death. This is Turnquist’s theory as to why Abba’s memoir, written by Bronson and Louisa, never came out. Instead Louisa wrote about her mother through her stories, thus protecting her mother’s reputation.

Old habits do indeed die hard.

Louisa’s vow

Louisa understood early that her Marmee was the most important person in her life. At the age of ten she vowed in her heart to be Abba’s protector after the Fruitlands debacle, a vow manifested in this tender poem:

Eve LaPlante reads from her book.

To Mother
by Louisa May Alcott

I hope that soon, dear mother,
You and I may be
In the quiet room my fancy
Has so often made for thee,—

The pleasant, sunny chamber,
The cushioned easy-chair,
The book laid for your reading,
The vase of flowers fair;

The desk beside the window
Where the sun shines warm and bright:
And there in ease and quiet
The promised book you write;

While I sit close beside you,
Content at last to see
That you can rest, dear mother,
And I can cherish thee.

LaPlante’s contention is that we cannot understand Louisa apart from Abba. Thanks to Marmee and Louisa, a much fuller revelation of Abba Alcott will be made public at last.

A sneak preview fans the flame

After reading the introduction to the book, LaPlante paused to ask if we’d like to hear more. Every head in that spellbound audience nodded “yes” vigorously.

We only wish she could have read the entire book!

Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother will be released this November 6th,

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