How “Moods” is helping me to get to know Louisa May Alcott, and myself, better

Progressing through Moods, I can see that even though I love it, it may not be a book to suit everyone’s tastes. Of all the current biographies (meaning in the last 30 years) that I’ve read or are reading on Louisa (Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography by Martha Saxton, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen and Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever), only Saxton seems to have really liked Moods on its own merits. I was going to read and comment on her chapter on Moods but decided to wait until I’ve read the book because I don’t want to read all the spoilers. But I will comment on her take once I’m done.

At any rate, I know my interest in Moods may be rather unique. If you’ll pardon the expression, it’s personal. What I’m discovering is how much Louisa and I could have shared in common regarding our interests and temperaments, and I believe that is what drew me to her in the first place. Saxton’s biography, heavy-handed as it is, pointed that out to me. I never did suffer from the extremes of moods that Louisa suffered from (and lately my emotional landscape has evened out nicely) but I can very much relate to her turbulence, anger and depression: how such things can make life miserable and yet feed creativity.

Having just finished chapters 3 and 4 of Moods (the earlier incarnation), Sylvia-as-Louisa is showing me some of the interests I could have shared with Louisa. Chapters 3 and 4 laid out the story of a 3-day camping trip including Sylvia, her brother Mark (or Max), Warwick and Moor. I imagine most people might have been bored with Louisa’s seemingly endless descriptions of what it was like out in the boat, how serene it was, what the world looked like from the water, etc., etc. As an avid kayaker and naturalist, I reveled in the descriptions (especially since we’ve been buried in snow and cold here in the Northeast!). I was transported into our tandem kayak on a beautiful and hot day, lazily drifting down river, drinking in the scents and sounds, spying on people’s houses and dreaming of a summer place of our own, and mostly, loving the silence and the peace. The descriptions were so authentic that I knew she must have spent time rowing and perhaps enjoyed it as much as I do. After several minutes adrift on the water, Louisa writes:

“Slowly they drifted onto the current, slowly Warwick cleft the water with reluctant stroke, and slowly Sylvia’s mind woke from its trance of dreamy delight, as with a gesture of asset she said, ‘Yes,  I am reading now. That was a happy little moment, and I am glad to have lived it, for such times return to refresh me when a many a more stirring one is quite forgotten.”

Exactly how I feel. It’s like when you’ve just finished a delicious meal and then eat it all over again in your mind, just to relish the feeling.

Immediately after, Sylvia sees a fire off in the distance and wants to explore it, oblivious to the possibility that it might be dangerous (and of course it turns out to be!):

“A moment after she added, eagerly, as a new object of interest appeared: ‘Mr. Warwick, I see smoke. I know there is a wood on fire; I want to see it; please land again . . . I love fire, and that must be a grand one, if we could only see it well.’ “

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that; you might call me a fire chaser! I could do that with tornadoes too (yes, I’ve seen the movie Twister a million times and love it every time). The point is, I really connected with Sylvia’s desire to chase that fire.

Finally, there was the moment shared between Warwick and Sylvia which I’m figuring must have happened between Louisa and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa describes a scene where Warwick is feeding wild birds bread crumbs out of his hand, and my ‘love’ for Warwick grows as does Sylvia’s:

“The appearance of a thirsty sparrow gave her thoughts a pleasant turn, for, sitting motionless, she watched the little creature trip down at the pool, drink and bathe, then flying to a willow spray, dress its features, dry its wings, and sit chirping softly as if it sang its evening hymn. Warwick saw her interest, and searching, in his pocket, found the relics of a biscuit, strewed a few bits upon the ground before him, and began a low, sweet whistle, which rose gradually to a varied strain, alluring, spirited, and clear as any bird voice of the wood. Little sparrow ceased his twitter, listened with outstretched neck and eager eye, hopping restlessly from twig to twig, until he hung just over the musician’s head, agitated with a small flutter of surprise, delight, and doubt. Gathering a crumb or two into his hand, Warwick held it toward the bird, while softer, sweeter, and more urgent rose the invitation, and nearer and nearer drew the winged guest, fascinated by the spell . . . His last fear conquered, and he flew confidently to Warwick’s palm, pecking the crumbs with grateful chirps and friendly glances from its quick, bright eye. It was a pretty picture for the girl to see; the man, an image of power, in his hand the featured atom that, with unerring instinct, divined and trusted the superior nature which had not yet lost its passport to the world of innocent delights that Nature gives to those who love her best.”

All my life I have been a passionate (albeit it amateur) bird watcher and I’ve had the privilege of having wild birds feed out of my hand. It happened at a bird sanctuary in the Hamptons on Long Island, known for the birds being so tame that they will literally feed out of your hand. Louisa, being so keen an observer, must have witnessed that wonder for herself and I believe I know just how she must have felt.

These various experiences, of course, advance the love story and Warwick and Sylvia grow closer, walking hand in hand through the woods and back to the camp. I very much enjoy how they try to read each other and then describe each other to their colleagues. People watching is also something I’m passionate about and I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it.

I apologize since this post has really been all about me and not much about Moods! Pretty self-indulgent. 🙂 I’m just really surprised at how much I’ve learned about why I am passionate about Louisa May Alcott from reading this lesser known work of hers. I’ve often pondered why I have this obsession – Moods is helping to shed some light on that.

That being said, I can hardly offer an unbiased, intelligent review of this book. I can only offer how it speaks to me. Hopefully it will speak to you too.

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“Moods” so far

Moods was Louisa May Alcott’s first serious novel and her”baby,” most likely the book that Jo referred to in Chapter 27 of Little Women, “Literary Lessons.”

Louisa describes Jo’s writing process which likely mirrors her own. “Falling into a vortex,” as she calls it, it’s like Louisa/Jo steps into another dimension, oblivious to the outside world:

“Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and ‘fall into a vortex’, as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.”

This other dimension had its share of rituals for Jo, and I wonder if they didn’t hold true for Louisa as well:

“Her ‘scribbling suit’ consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?”

If we are to assume that the descriptions of Jo as writer are accurately paralleling Louisa’s actions, then I must say that, always an actress at heart, Louisa had a flair for the dramatic as demonstrated by her need to visually show how she was doing:

“They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on, in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew, and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew, and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did anyone dare address Jo.”

Eminently practical, Louisa/Jo found it necessary to “chop up” her “baby” if it was ever to see the light of day as a published book”

“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 . . . 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.”

And therein lies the origins of Moods, albeit probably romanticized in Little Women as many things were. There was no doubt, however, that she had to do violence to her first novel, cutting out nearly half of it. Published originally in 1864, Louisa revisited the novel again in 1882 and restored some of the lost chapters, and changed the ending. She felt the book had been misunderstood and took advantage of her fame to “give my first novel, with all its imperfections on its head, a place among its more successful sisters: for into it went the love, labor, and enthusiasm that no later book can possess.” (from the preface of the 1882 version of Moods).

She goes on to say, “When Moods was first published, . . . it was so altered, to suite the taste and convenience of the publisher, that the original purpose of the story was lost sight of, and marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.”

After Moods was first published, Louisa addressed a letter from a Mr. Ayer who apparently “so entirely misunderstood Moods that I am anxious to set you right as far as I can in a hasty letter” (pg. 109 The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealey and Madeleine Stern). (I had the privilege, by the way, of seeing this letter when I visited the Special Collections Room of the Concord Free Public Library; it was one of the ones I hand copied in part – here are my two posts on that visit: part one and part two). She goes on to explain again how the state of marriage was not her point (and she makes quite an eloquent case for the importance and sanctity of marriage, despite the fact that  her parents had such a difficult relationship), but rather “to show the effect of a moody person’s moods upon their life . . .” (pg. 110 The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott). I intend to revisit this letter in another post.

So what’s the point here? I felt it necessary to go over a very brief history of Moods because I am reading both versions. I was lucky enough to find a free copy in Google Books of the 1864 version, and Barnes and Nobles’ Nook has the 1882 version (yes, I have crossed over into eBooks since acquiring the iTouch, but that’s yet another whole post. :-)) I intend to compare, contrast both versions, and express my final preference.

Here is a brief summary of the plot of Moods, showing the differences between the two versions, as described on the website, Fantastic Fiction:

“Like her later works for children, Alcott’s first novel is well and imaginatively written, highly moralistic, unlikely, and moving.” –The Antioch Review Moods, Louisa May Alcott’s first novel, was published in 1864, four years before the best-selling Little Women. The novel unconventionally presents a “little woman,” a true-hearted abolitionist spinster, and a fallen Cuban beauty, their lives intersecting in Alcott’s first major depiction of the “woman problem.” Sylvia Yule, the heroine of Moods, is a passionate tomboy who yearns for adventure. The novel opens as she embarks on a river camping trip with her brother and his two friends, both of whom fall in love with her. These rival suitors, close friends, are modeled on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Aroused, but still “moody” and inexperienced, Sylvia marries the wrong man. In the rest of the novel, Alcott attempts to resolve the dilemma she has created and leaves her readers asking whether, in fact, there is a place for a woman such as Sylvia in a man’s world. In 1882, eighteen years after the original publication, Alcott revised and republished the novel. Her own literary success and the changes she helped forge in women’s lives now allowed her heroine to meet, as Alcott said, “a wiser if less romantic fate than in the former edition.”

I have since read 2 chapters of each version and found interesting differences already. The 1864 version opens with a subplot that was dropped from the 1882 version in which Adam Warwick is “taking a break” (to use a modern phrase) from a Cuban lover who he feels has deceived him. The second chapter (which is the first in the 1882 version) then goes on to describe Sylvia. Already in this chapter, I see slight changes, such as her brother Mark being referred to as Max in the new version. She also changes the way Geoffrey Moor first perceives Sylvia as she is out gardening – the original version makes it out like Sylvia is a lad, but the 1882 version states that he sees a “girl.”

Right away I felt like Louisa was trying to soften Sylvia by calling her a girl rather than a lad. I rather liked the idea that Moor mistook her for a young boy as she worked in the garden. To me it added to her charm.

Now in the next chapter of the first version, called “Afloat,” I am reading a most delightful description of Sylvia’s time in the boat with Moor, Warwick and her brother. Being a kayaker myself, I found Louisa’s descriptions of floating in the boat to be so much like my own. I loved Louisa’s descriptions of the other boaters, the houses and people on the shoreline, and Sylvia’s own happiness. I felt like I was Sylvia because I have felt all those things too. Louisa must have loved the water very much, as I do.

It’s confusing flipping back and forth between the two books and I see that in the second version, Louisa devotes chapters to Moor and Warwick, so I will have to go back and read those before I post next time.

So far I am preferring the 1864 version but I imagine that could soon change.

I know some of you have read Moods already, what are your thoughts about Louisa’s “first born?” Which version did you read?

Note: Thanks to Harriet Reisen for sending me the original book cover of Moods.

Comparing the March sisters with their real life counterparts

Harriet Reisen, author of Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, sent me this. It’s interesting and fun to see the comparisons. I’d love to hear what you think!

Thanks, Harriet, for this contribution!

Gentle Readers:

Asked to compare Louisa May Alcott’s fictional sisters to her real four, I find that they are inextricable in my mind, as I suspect they were in Louisa’s.  That she found it impossible to write of Amy March after the death of May Alcott suggests that to me. I find the beginning of Jo’s Boys almost unbearably touching for its image of Amy March in a terrestrial heaven (“Mount Parnassus”). Continue reading

Book review: Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

I just finished reading Harriet Reisen‘s book (which I bought for myself), Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women and already wishing I could turn back the clock and read it all over again. It’s been a wonderful companion this past month. Having read several biographies on Louisa May, I wondered if I could learn anything new, and indeed I did! This book had all kinds of tidbits to please passionate hobbyists like myself, but also presented such a comprehensive picture to newcomers and enthusiasts of Little Women who wanted to know the real life woman behind their beloved Jo.

I discovered this book by watching a terrific documentary which aired on PBS this past winter. I had never seen any films on Louisa May before and was thrilled to see this one. I felt the actress who portrayed Louisa captured her spirit admirably and I couldn’t wait to read the book.

For those who want to dig into Louisa May’s life, you must first become intimately acquainted with her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, and her mother, Abigail May. A good portion of the first half of the book details their lives and the lives of their young daughters: Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May. To some (myself included) this section was a bit dry and tedious. But if you hang on and get to where Louisa grows into adulthood, the pace and feel of the book greatly picks up. I would not have appreciated the second half nearly as much if I had not ‘done my homework’ with the first half.

Reisen beautifully captures the spirit of Louisa May, portraying a much more complex woman than the one hinted at in Little Women’s Jo. I found much to love,  but also wondered sometimes how much I would have liked her. For example, while I can understand Louisa’s desire for privacy (and people can be very rude), still, I can’t help wishing she had been more gracious towards her fans. I know for sure she wouldn’t have appreciated this blog! 🙂

Rather than get into a summary of the book, I’d rather point out two things about this book that changed my perceptions and greatly fueled my passion.

The first is Reisen’s treatment of Bronson, who was equally as complicated (if not more so) than his famous daughter. Talk about ambiguity! There are times when Bronson seemed so narcissistic, so self-absorbed, that often his family was in danger of starving! Sometimes he seemed outright mad (think of Fruitlands and Charles Lane). And then slowly, over the years, he grew into a gentle and wise sage, charming many (especially women) with his ideas. And he grew to love and appreciate his difficult second daughter who shared his birthday but was so opposite from him. The last few times that he and Louisa were together I found very touching, and his poem about Duty’s Faithful Child brought a tear to my eye. Reisen’s treatment of him showed him as a complete man, someone worthy of scorn and criticism, but also someone worthy of love.  I thank the author for showing, finally, a more complete view of Bronson Alcott.

The second thing this book did for me was to open up the richness of Louisa’s writing. This is going to sound very strange coming from someone so passionate about Louisa May Alcott, but I never liked her writing! I’m not a natural reader and found the 19th century form of writing so cumbersome. After Reisen’s description of Hospital Sketches, however, I felt compelled to read it. Finding it in its entirety online, I read it with great fervor. It was just as the critics had said: funny, poignant, insightful . . . I couldn’t get enough of it. Of course it helps that I love the Civil War period and greatly appreciated the first hand accounts from Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle. But no one writes as poignantly about death and dying as Louisa does. Her depth of experience with death and her deep understanding of it shines through in her writing. Having lost my mother a few months ago to a long illness, I find reading scenes such as the death of her beloved John in Hospital Sketches (and Beth in Little Women) tremendously helpful in dealing with my own grief. Somehow Louisa manages to convey hope and it truly comforts me.

Having had my eyes opened at last to the richness of Louisa’s books, I’ve started reading Little Women for real this time, and have lined up several of her adult books to read as well.

Therefore, I can say with certainty that Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women has changed my life. I have now become a reader.

You can find this book on Amazon or in your favorite bookstore. It’s also available at Orchard House’s gift shop, should you be fortunate enough to be able to visit it.

Addendum, June 2017

Audio Book edition

DVD of PBS American Masters film

Seven years later I consider Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women a must read. If you are curious about the creator of Jo March, this book will tell you most everything you want to know. Reisen’s obvious love for Alcott’s writing shines through with references to her well-known books (Little Women, Little Men, An Old-Fashioned Girl) and many less familiar stories and books (Hospital Sketches, her many blood-and-thunder stories, her first novel  The Inheritance and numerous juvenile short stories). Published in 2010, the book revealed much new information about other family members including Elizabeth and May.

I am on my third read having bought the audio book. Reisen does the reading, providing us with additional insight by the nature of her read.

Having bought the DVD of the PBS American Masters program of the same title, I have watched that several times as well.

If you are interested in getting to know the author of Little Women, you can’t do better than to make Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women your first read.

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