Important discovery of previously unpublished photos of Anna Alcott Pratt and John Bridge Pratt

Read the Boston Globe story about this discovery,
first revealed on this blog.

I am thrilled to be able to reveal, for the first time, previously unknown photos of Anna Alcott Pratt and John Bridge Pratt to you. Continue reading


Call for proposals for 2017 Summer Conversational Series

“Noble Companions and Immortal Labors”*:
The Alcotts, Thoreaus, and the Quest for Social Justice

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House SUMMER CONVERSATIONAL SERIES
Sunday, July 16 – Thursday, July 20, 2017

thoreauTranscendental neighbors and thinkers Amos Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau shared ideals and hopes for changing society.  Ever interested in improving the world to make it a better place to live in, they and their families worked publicly and also behind the scenes to stand up for social justice and put themselves on the line for others.  The women as well as the men were committed to furthering the cause of justice, freedom, and equality in their communities and in the world at large. Continue reading

Three-part series on Bronson Alcott at Fruitlands Museum: genius or crackpot?

Last Wednesday I attended the first of three lectures on Bronson Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA, presented by Helen Batchelder, a local scholar.

Fruitlands in the dark

I have never been to Fruitlands before in the dark and it was disconcerting to see the lights over the mountains, reminding me it was 2017 and not 1843. Gazing down the road however, I could not make out the red farmhouse in the dark and for a moment, I could feel the intense loneliness and isolation of living there. The Fruitlands experiment was, if anything, high drama for two families and it was to impact them for the rest of their lives. To get a sense of the tragedy of Fruitlands, I highly suggest reading John Matteson’s account in Eden’s Outcasts.

from Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

from Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

Genius, deadbeat, visionary or crackpot?

Continue reading

Elizabeth’s form of genius; Beth’s power in Little Women (guest post by Kristi Martin)

Warning: this is a long post but I believe, well worth the time. I was so fascinated when I first heard the presentation at the Summer Conversational Series that I opted not to take notes and just enjoy it!)

560 kristi martin

Kristi Martin

At the recent Summer Conversational Series, Kristi Marti (tour guide de force; she has been a guide at nearly every major historical home in Concord) presented her paper on the genius exhibited in each of the Alcott sisters. Normally we don’t think of genius extending to the quieter sisters Anna and Elizabeth; Kristi presented a compelling argument in favor of Lizzie’s form of genius which extends in the character of Beth March in Little Women. Kristi was kind enough to send me a copy of her paper, a portion of which I am presenting here as a guest post.

From “Beth’s Stage-Struck!”: The Alcott Sisters and “the Difference Between Talent and Genius,” presented on Monday, July 14, 2014 at the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House:

Surrounded by genius

560 kristi teaching2The daughters of Abigail and Amos Bronson Alcott were no strangers to “Genius.” Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May were immersed within a community of New England’s most renowned literary and artistic intellects, with Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and artist Washington Allston among their parents’ dignified and intimate friends. Indeed, Hawthorne and Emerson were the Alcott family’s sometime neighbors in Concord, with Thoreau living in the same town. Like the four muses, each of the four sisters possessed striking talents in different branches of the arts: Anna possessed a passion for theater, Louisa had a gift of words and expression, which took a literary bent; Elizabeth was a musician; and, the youngest, May, was an accomplished artist …

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kristi weaves her discussion of the Alcott sisters in with the fictional March sisters. Here she begins her discussion of Beth’s importance to the story, and the real life young woman Beth was based upon:

Beth’s unsung role in Little Women

jo and beth… But Jo does have a conscience. As Beth lay ill with scarlet fever, Jo tells Laurie, “Beth is my conscience, and I can’t give her up.” (Little Women, pg. 188) With Beth confined to her sick bed it becomes clear that quiet, shy, and domestic Beth has perhaps the largest sphere of influence in the novel. “Everyone missed Beth. The milkman, baker, grocer, and butcher… even those who knew her best were surprised to find how many friends shy little Beth had made.” (Little Women, pg. 186) As Jo witnessed Beth’s physical distress, she “learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition to live for others, and make home happy by the simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth, or beauty.” (Little Women, 185) Meek and too often taken for granted, I contend that Beth is in fact the most powerful character in the novel. Her influence is quiet, but potent. It is Beth who suggests the girls buy Christmas presents for Marmee, rather than themselves (Little Women, pg. 7) It is Beth who sanctions Laurie’s admittance into the Pickwick Club. “Yes, we ought to do it, even if we are afraid,” Beth advises her sisters, “’I say he may come…’ This spirited burst from Beth electrified the club…” and Laurie was voted in unanimously (Little Women, pg. 108). It is Beth who makes the invalid Frank laugh more than he has in “ever so long.” Amy boasts of her sister’s captivating qualities, “Beth is a very fastidious girl, when she likes to be…,” Amy, of course “meant ‘fascinating.” (Little Women, 104) Beth’s strength is both a moral power and a useful power.

Lizzie’s sense of humor

lizzie alcott2Alcott scholars have been disappointed in the archival material left by Elizabeth Alcott. Unassuming and private, Elizabeth’s writings are not overtly revelatory when compared to the voluminous journals and letters left by other members of her family. Her family too was troubled by her quiet evasiveness, her father complaining that she hid her “feelings in silence.” (Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 247). Family biographer Bedell wrote, “One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling, and never find it.” (Bedell, pg. 248) This, however, is somewhat of an exaggeration. Alcott biographer John Matteson refers to “spirited arguments” Elizabeth had with a friend over vegetarianism, but he too concludes that Lizzie seemed “never to have wanted more from life than a quiet, comfortable smallness.” (John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, pg 186) Yet, Susan Bailey has uncovered some of Lizzie’s letters in the archives of Houghton Library, which are more telling. There is a passive aggressiveness in some of her letters to her father, the yearning for attention and affection. Other family members’ letters intimate her depression during her final illness, the “natural rebellion” that Louisa hints at in Little Women as well. Lizzie possessed a resiliency and the Alcottian humor of her mother and sisters, too. As she was dying in 1858, Louisa wrote in her journal that Lizzie was trying to keep her sister’s spirits up (The Journals, pg. 88). Louisa also delighted in Lizzie’s letters, telling Anna that Lizzie “writes me the funniest notes.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 9). This sense of humor comes through strongly in one of Lizzie’s extant letters written to her family, while she and her mother Abba were traveling for Lizzie’s health. Lizzie teasingly admonishes her father that if “he grows thinner on her account … I shant write any more letters … and he will not know how I am. It must seem so good not to have to run every minute to my bell or hush all the time. I know you miss your little skeleton very much don’t you.[sic]”. Telling of her journey, she recalled a woman who “put her head” into the carriage “very saucily to inquire if I was an invalid and where going if I had been sick long.” She seems to have disliked the impertinent concern of some: “Miss Hinkley came in, and was horridly shocked at my devouring meat … and stared her big eyes at me, she will probably come to deliver another lecture soon. I don’t care for the old cactus a bit,” (Letter, August 6, 1857; see previous post with entire letter) sounding like Louisa.

Was Lizzie actually like Beth?

beth and jo march from little womenDistinctly unlike Beth in Little Women, who “was too shy to enjoy society,” (Little Women, pg. 380) at the seashore, Lizzie was ecstatic at the idea of visiting the ocean. She wrote, “Joy, Joy, we are going to Lynn.” Far from not wanting a world beyond her home, she declared that she was “not homesick one grain,” but enjoying herself at the Sewall home in Boston. She reported that she played checkers in the evening, and went often to Boston Common in company with Tom, which was “delightful.” In this letter, Lizzie did not seem to shrink from society, but rather to observe those around her. As with the woman in the carriage, Lizzie wrote of her cousin Mary: “She is a queer girl and spends such funny days, mending old sheets and looking at me while I eat my food…” Those around Elizabeth seem to have been concerned and solicitous for her comfort and welfare. (Letter, August 6, 1857) Like Beth, Lizzie seemed to make friends wherever she went. Louisa wrote after the funeral that the family had longed for their uncle Samuel May or Theodore Parker to preside over the service, remarking that Parker “loved Lizzie and always missed her face when she was not at church.” (The Letters, 33)

Making sense out of death

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Coming to terms with the inevitable

In Little Women, Beth is able to die peacefully, content in the knowledge that “her life had not been useless.” (Little Women, pg. 427) She entreated Jo to take her place in the household, assuring her, “you’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing the world.” (Little Women, pg. 428) Both Beth and Lizzie’s death is presented as “the good death.” Like “Sylvia” in Alcott’s Transcendental novel Moods, Beth/Lizzie “proved that she did know how to die,” a Thoreauvian principle, that Alcott envisioned as “strength purified and perfected…,” an “unconscious power, which we call influence of character .. which is the nobelest.” Alcott, Louisa May. Moods. (Ed. Sarah Elbert. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pg. 203) Both Beth and Sylvia’s deaths, perform an Emersonian compensation, in which the true purpose is gained within a seeming loss. It is Beth, the domestic character, who is Jo’s conscious. Beth thus comes to represent true genius in the novel, which in Alcottian terms is the higher conscious that she embodies. In giving writing advice to an admirer, Louisa quoted Michael Angelo: “Genius is infinite patience.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 231) It is Beth/Lizzie who exemplified infinite patience, both in the novel and real life. When Jo finally has success with her writing, it is only when she writes a story with “truth in it,” and she credits her parents and Beth for the goodness that is in her book. (Little Women, pg. 446)

How do you feel about Beth’s role in Little Women? Did she possess genius? Were you surprised at the sauciness of the real life Elizabeth?

Kristi also had many interesting things to say about May Alcott which I will present in the next post.

Do Louisa May Alcott’s didactic tales of fantasy have a place in children’s reading today?

2004 Orchard House edition

2004 Orchard House edition

Last December I had the opportunity to tour Orchard House during the Christmas season (see previous post, “A lovely holiday visit to Orchard House, capped off by some great finds!”). The theme of the period decorations was Louisa May Alcott’s “first born,” Flower Fables. To properly prepare for the tour, I decided to read this book.

Learning about a fairy tale pioneer

I had misgivings about reading it at first as I am not a big fan of fantasy tales. I recalled, however, a presentation by Daniel Shealy at the American Library Association workshop on their Louisa May Alcott initiative back in 2011 (see previous post, “The American Library Association Louisa May Alcott Project: A DVD and Book Start a Movement”). Dr. Shealy had stated that Louisa was an often overlooked pioneer of American fantasy and fairy tales. Intrigued by this notion, I dug in.

Tales told to a friend

flower fables from concord libraryLouisa was fifteen when she originally crafted and told these tales to a young Ellen Emerson. Ellen was so taken with them that she demanded they be written down. Louisa complied; the charming little books, handwritten and bound with ribbon can be seen at the Concord Free Public Library in their Special Collections. It gave me a special thrill to actually touch and read them (see previous post, “The field trip of a lifetime).

A safe haven

Yes, the tales are overly sweet. Yes, they are preachy. Yes, they are dated. I read the book, however, very soon after the mind-numbing shooting of scores of school children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I found Louisa’s “preaching” be a safe haven where I could retreat, to a time of more wholesome thoughts and feelings.

Time to revive these stories?

As I read I began to feel an urge to share these tales with children. It reminded me of how I felt after reading some of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag and the urge I had then to ask my local library if I could read some of these stories to children. Many lend themselves to terrific creative activities.

Louisa had a fertile imagination that never lost its childish innocence even as she continued writing such stories in her fifties as she suffered through her illness. The lessons that she imparts may be considered “old-fashioned,” but I found them quite timely.

Fairies and elves in a romantic backdrop

Flower Fables is unique in that it is Louisa’s first published book, written when she was a dreamy teenager. Her exposure to the outdoors through the likes of her father and Henry David Thoreau provide a natural and romantic backdrop rich in detail. She knew her flowers, trees and birds and it was here that she set her tales of fairies, elves and children.

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Here are a few highlights.

Nature and fantasy become one

From “Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land,” pg. 40, Flower Fables, Orchard House edition

“… soon through the rippling water came a strange little boat.

It was a lily of the valley, whose tall stem formed the master, while the broad leaves that rose from the roots, and drooped again till they reached the water, were filled with gay little Elves, who danced to the music of the silver lilybells above, that rang a merry peal, and filled the air with their fragrant breath.”

male fairy with mushroomsLouisa’s familiarity with nature was woven effortlessly into the fantasy so that the real world of plants and animals and the imaginary world of elves and fairies became one. It was once said that Thoreau showed her a cobweb and declared that it was a fairy’s handkerchief. His instinctive understanding of the flight of fancy and its relationship to reality nurtured Louisa’s mind and heart. He connected with the child, sparking her desire and feeding her imagination and she was able to share that with countless other children.

A song to God

Continuing from “Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land,” pg. 43

“When the sun rose the Fairies, and, with Eva, hastened away to the fountain, whose cool waters were soon filled with little forms, and the air ringing with happy voice, as the Elves floated in the blue waves among the fair white lilies, or sat on the green moss, smoothing their bright locks, and wearing fresh garlands of dewy flowers. At length the Queen came forth, and her subjects gathered round her, and while the flowers bowed their heads, and the trees hushed their rustling, the Fairies sang their morning hymn to the Father of birds and blossoms, who made the earth so fair a home for them.”

It’s easy here to see the transcendental influence on the author. Louisa effortlessly blends in a gentle religious lesson of praise to God, free from denominational identification, theology, rules, etc. It’s just a simple faith from the heart. The transcendental quality, of course, is the connection with nature.

Moral lessons

One more passage from “Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land,” pgs. 45-46

2girlfairy“They passed on, and Eva saw beside each bed a Fairy, who with gentle hands and loving words soothed the suffering insects. … Then said the Fairy, while she bathed the broken wing — “Love-Blossom, you should not murmur. We may find happiness in seeking to be patient even while we suffer. You are not forgotten or uncared for, but others need our care more than you, and to those who take cheerfully the pain and sorrow sent, do we most gladly give our help. You need not be idle, even though lying here in darkness and sorrow; you can be taking from your heart all sad and discontented feelings, and if love and patience blossom there, you will be better for the lonely hours spent here. Look on the bed beside you; this little dove has suffered far greater pain than you, and all our care can never ease it; yet through the long days he hath lain here, not an unkind word or a repining sigh hath he uttered. Ah, Love-Blossom, the gentle bird can teach a lesson you will be wiser and better for.”

This is a pretty sophisticated lesson! I am in my mid-50s and only just learned it the last time I was sick (because I have a sterling example in a woman I visit each week who suffers from a debilitating disease of the middle ear which causes severe vertigo resulting in dizziness, nausea, headaches and difficulty walking.) Louisa and her sisters “acted out” these lessons with dolls and stuffed toys as shown in Little Women (especially Beth with her invalid and headless doll, Joanna).

Is Beth March out of fashion?

Jo and Beth; illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

Jo and Beth; illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

The heart of the moral lessons in Flower Fables is self-sacrificial love and patient suffering. Both of these are characteristic of Beth in Little Woman and considered “out of fashion” in today’s society. How many times have I heard that “nobody wants to be Beth.” And yet, I keep meeting people, young and old, male and female, who do. Why do people dismiss the Beths of this world when there are many quiet souls who give of themselves because they want to?

Why are these stories still remembered?

This is what I find so compelling about Louisa’s didactic stories. I realize writing of this type was common in the 19th century. The question is what made Louisa’s way of conveying it unique such that her stories are still remembered today?

Stories like these (and the play that ensues) connects people to one another and fosters care of one another. Video games do the exact opposite.

Guess I’m the one who is preaching now!

This is a small taste of what is offered in Flower Fables. In in the next post, I will share a conversation I had with Dr. Shealy about Louisa’s fantasy tales plus highlights from an essay he wrote about this aspect of her work.

Click to Tweet & ShareDo Louisa May Alcott’s didactic tales of fantasy have a place in children’s reading today?

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

Channeling a little Thoreau, a little John Denver while gardening

Memorial Day weekend means getting all our gardens into shape.  I’ve got more of a black thumb than green (meaning I’ve killed the vast majority of things I’ve planted :-)) but there are some plants I can keep alive! I decided to rely on the tried and true this year so that my gardens will stay pretty all summer long.

My husband has a thing for fountains and bought a couple for our deck. I love having them and enjoyed filling the deck with plants to accompany the flowing waters. One of the fountains has a light so you can see the flowing water at night – very cool!

Lately I’ve gotten into listening to John Denver and whenever I hear his hit, “Rocky Mountain High,” I feel like he’s singing about a modern day Thoreau. It was nice to have the spirit of Henry with me while digging my fingers into the soil, hoping to add color and new life to our surroundings.

Here’s how it all came out. After the flower slide show, there’s a video I posted of John Denver singing “Rocky Mountain High” at his Wildlife Concert.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

Torn between two lovers

So what’s a girl to do?

Louisa May Alcott is my passion but so are spring birds!

Two weeks out of the year, the spring migrants come through my area. I am fortunate to live in what’s known as a “fly zone” where all sorts of colorful birds with lovely songs spend a few days before continuing on up north to Canada to nest.

The weather is key as to how this all shakes out. All last week we had dreary, gray and cool weather with temperatures in the 50s. Just 300 miles away, temps were in the 70s. The cold front we were stuck in acted like a wall, and the birds were waiting.

Saturday morning, temperatures rose slightly, opening the door. And the birds streamed in!

Every birder dreams of witnessing a “fall-out” where literally, all different kinds of birds rain down upon the observer. I had that experience on Saturday. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Pictured are all the birds I saw in a 2 hour period.

I have to imagine that Henry David Thoreau must have experienced at least one “fall-out” in his lifetime (and probably more). Maybe Louisa experienced it with him (dreamy :-)). Did he talk excitedly to himself as I did watching 2 brilliant red Scarlet Tanagers singing and chasing each other? Thank goodness no one was around to see!

Did he lie on his back to watch the birds so high up in the trees? I did (stupidly, forgetting about the danger of deer ticks!). Glorious! And luckily, I found the two deer ticks on me.

So, in the morning, when I’m indulging in my Louisa passion, reading, writing for this blog, or just writing, I hear the spring birds singing outside, longing to grab my binoculars for another look.

Remember that song, “Torn Between Two Lovers”? That’s me! At least, until the spring migration is over.

What a glorious time of year!

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter