A room of one’s own: what if your “room” could be portable?

Louisa’s yearning for private space and her glorious room at Hillside/Wayside always made me crave a special space too. I never dreamed it could be portable!

Here’s a picture of where her room was in the house at Wayside. Nathaniel Hawthorne changed the house after he bought it from Bronson and Louisa’s little room no longer exists. But you can stand in the space where it was. Very cool.


Be as One

What happens when you get the urge to create?

  • Do you retreat to a music studio to write a song?
  • Do you go to your specially designated study to write?
  • Do you paint your latest masterpiece in a light-filled studio?
  • Do you shut the door when you enter your room?

Why do secret hideaway places draw us like magnets?

I wanted a room of my own when I first discovered Louisa May Alcott as a kid. There was an illustration of Louisa in her special room where it was quiet and she could think. When she had finished writing her latest poem or story, she could indulge in her other favorite passion, running, by racing out the door to her room that led outside.

drawing by Flora Smith from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard drawing by Flora Smith from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Getting away from the noise

Louisa’s family was noisy; quiet and privacy…

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Louisa’s calling card

I just found an article from the Rauner Library Blog from Dartmouth College detailing the story behind the calling card. The article features the calling cards of such luminaries as Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens among others. These cards all have pictures. I never knew anything about the nature of the calling card and found this article quite fascinating. Check it out here: http://raunerlibrary.blogspot.com/2012/01/calling-cards.html

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Tapping into my inner Thoreau; play-acting as Sylvia Yule

It’s vacation time again with more opportunities to visit Concord. The more times I visit, the more I want to see.

A trip down the Sudbury River to Great Meadows

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

I enjoy kayaking very much and so took a trip down the Sudbury River, launching from the bridge off of Lowell Road, just off of Concord center. My plan was to paddle to the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a prime place to go birdwatching. I used to go there as a child with my parents to watch birds, and in later years, traveled with the bird group from our parish, led by our parish priest! He was a true birder, visiting Plum Island on the North Shore of Massachusetts in March – great time to see ducks and shore birds, but the weather can be most inhospitable! Only the serious birder goes there. 🙂

Introducing the “Sylvia Yule”

The “Sylvia Yule” begins its trip on the Sudbury River in Concord

I bought my own kayak this summer so that I could get out more and decided to christen it the “Sylvia Yule.” The chapters in Moods that Louisa May Alcott devoted to the boat/camping trip of Sylvia, Adam, Geoffrey and her brother Max (and where Adam and Geoffrey both fell in love with Sylvia) described to perfection what it is like to paddle a boat on a river like the Sudbury. The kayak appeals to me because it places you so close to the water. I feel like I am one with the water.

Practicing Thoreau’s methods

Needless to say, Thoreau too was very much on my mind. His discourse in his “Walking” essay, about becoming one with nature and allowing it to penetrate your inner being certainly was a reality during this trip.

Sites of interest along the way

About to pass under the Old North Bridge, site of the first battle of the American Revolution

As an extra treat, I was able to travel under the Old North Bridge, the place where the first battle of the American Revolution took place. I was also able to dock and take a tour of Minuteman National Park. The Old Manse was conveniently next door and I got to see it too. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new bride Sophia Peabody lived there for a time and legend has it they proclaimed their love for each other by carving their initials into the glass of a window with her diamond ring.

I hope you enjoy the slide show I’ve assembled of my tour of the Sudbury in beautiful Concord.

p.s. if any of you know flowers, I’d love if you could identify the flowers I photographed at Great Meadows. I’m sure they’re quite common but my knowledge of flowers is pitiful. 🙂

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Need book recommendations about Transcendentalism

I would like to read some basic books on Transcendentalism and its famous writers (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Fuller, etc.) that are not too scholarly (for now) just to get a better, objective idea of what the tenants of it are. I had started reading American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever and was enjoying it but after reading the scathing reviews on Amazon about the many errors and unsupported theories in the book, I no longer wish to read it.

I also need recommendations on good, basic and reliable books on life in the 19th century for the average man and woman. Intellectually I understand that the Concord writers were revolutionary but I want to understand it emotionally (ideally from the point of view of an average 19th century man or woman – is that possible?). I am particularly interested in books about what Christian spirituality was like at the time as I know that Louisa’s spiritually was considered fairly radical.

I am beginning to suspect that my own spirituality and way of looking at life both have been very much influenced by Transcendentalism (gee, big surprise considering I’ve lived all my life in eastern and central Massachusetts) through my mother especially (she was loosely Unitarian and grew up in Lynn and Swampscott, also known as the North Shore in MA). I was raised Roman Catholic (through my dad) and very much practice it and consider it the core of my life but I feel so at home too reading Thoreau and seeing the Transcendentalist threads especially in Moods. The spirituality that Louisa espoused in Little Women felt very familiar and was very attractive to me (the spirituality that I gleaned from reading between the lines).

So, any suggestions? I’m all ears . . . 🙂

“How I Went Out to Service” – Louisa May Alcott’s humiliation

I am so glad I went on that buying spree a few months ago for books by and about Louisa because now as I plough through Susan Cheever’s book, I actually have at my fingertips the vast majority of sources and stories she mentions. Chapter 4 talks in part about Louisa’s foray into being a paid companion (servant) with her piece, “How I Went Out to Service” and eventually how the eminent publisher James T. Fields responded to it. Ever since  I heard about it in Joan Howard’s children’s biography, The Story of Louisa May Alcott, I have been very curious about this piece. It turned out to be different than I had imagined.

Quick Summary

To quickly summarize, an older gentleman, the Honorable James Richardson, a lawyer from Dedham, came to Abba’s mission in Boston searching for a paid companion for his sister. He promised lovely surroundings and light work. Louisa presented herself for the position and ended up working herself to the bone for 7 weeks until she finally left in disgust. The gentleman apparently hounded her, following her everywhere, droning on and on in boring monologue or reading poetry to her. At one point she had had enough and an impudent fashion, reminded her employer that she was to be a companion to his sister, not him. Out of spite, Richardson then assigned her all the heavy work to do in and out of the house and furthered her humiliation by insisting that she blacken his boots (apparently one of the most lowly of tasks for a woman – page 360, Alternate Alcott edited by Elaine Showalter). Louisa finally left and to her dismay, found that her employer only paid her $4 for 7 weeks worth of backbreaking work. In anger, the money was returned with Bronson as courier.

Thoughts about the essay

First of all, I would tend to agree with Cheever’s assertion that her employer, depicted as Reverend Josephus in the story, may have had romantic/sexual intentions towards Louisa. He was probably old enough to be her father and Louisa was just 18, in the prime of her youth. There is a section in “How I Went Out to Service” where Reverend Josephus is addressing Louisa which I found rather creepy: ” ‘Nay, do not fly,” he said as I grasped my duster in guilty haste. ‘It pleases me to see you here and lends a sweet, domestic charm to my solitary room. I like the graceful cap, that housewifely apron, and I beg you to wear them often; for it refreshes my eye to see something tasteful, young, and womanly about me . . .’ ” (page 357). In an earlier reference he says, “. . . I hope you will here (referring to his study) allow me to minister to your young and cheerful nature when your daily cares are over. I need such companionship and shall always welcome you to my abode.” (page 353). If I didn’t know better, I would swear he was speaking with his wife.

There are other disturbing elements in this story. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I saw a passage  in Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott which referred to Louisa’s “Humiliation in Dedham” and how it tapped into and fueled her anger. Stern writes, “Although Louisa subsequently made light of this experience in ‘How I Went Out to Service,’ there can be no doubt that from her humiliation an anger was born that would express itself both obliquely and directly when she sat down to write her blood-and-thunder tales.”

I was also disturbed by the fuss her family made over Louisa’s acceptance of the position, and their lack of faith in her. Louisa devoted nearly 2 pages to the “laughter and lamentation” from her family members. I found it rather odd that they felt it was beneath an Alcott to go out to service; never mind that the family was destitute and Louisa was willing to accept honest work. Proud family indeed!

Finally I thought that when the Reverend Josephus roused Louisa’s ire, she rather deliberately tried to provoke further trouble; it felt like a game to see how far she could push him. She could indeed be prickly which was what I often saw in her alter ego, Jo March.

While I thought the story was a little uneven in the way it was written, it certainly was very revealing if you read between the lines. My curiosity was more than satisfied. 🙂

Becoming a professional writer

Cheevers writes that the essay was Louisa’s first serious attempt at a memoir, and the realism that became her trademark (p. 109 Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography). She didn’t feel the essay was successful because there was no real conclusion. She saw a lot of ambiguity in the piece, maintaining that Louisa wasn’t exactly sure what happened or what Richardson’s true intentions were. I agree with this, considering the fact that she was only 18 and naive about the world (incredible when you think of all the hardships she bore, but her family lived in their own bubble). Louisa took Richardson’s word on face value as pointed out in the essay and never suspected anything despite the fact that he wrote several letters before she arrived that she described as “peculiar.” (pg 353 Alternate Alcott). I doubt that she had the savvy or life experience necessary to correctly interpret the confusing signals he sent.

So perhaps “When I Went Out to Service” was not the best piece of writing to show to an established publisher like Fields known for publishing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best seller, The Scarlet Letter. Cheevers believes it was a watershed moment for the emerging writer; that day Louisa became a professional. Fields’ famous statement, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott, you can’t write,” most likely was the catalyst that propelled her into eventual success. Cheevers quotes Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson from his book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, supporting her contention: “He [Fields] could hardly have hit on a surer way to stoke her determination.”

In that case, thank the Lord for James T. Fields!