Into the head and heart of Bronson Alcott: a most surprising and satisfying journey

bronson alcott drawingThe Journals of Bronson Alcott by Odell Shepard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished reading The Journals of Bronson Alcott, edited by Odell Shepard. I was fascinated, stimulated and deeply moved. Let no one judge Bronson Alcott until they have done a thorough study of his life (which I have not yet done but I’ve been reading). This man is far more complex and cannot be summed up in a soundbite. He was a brilliant, original thinker, a lover of life and Spirit and a deeply flawed man. It’s impossible to do a blog post on this book, there’s just too much to ponder. I can only urge you to read for yourself and see what it offers. I can tell you it is the extraordinary evolution of a long and fruitful life with much penetrating commentary and insight on some of the most brilliant people of 19th century America.

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

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Book alert: Pilgrimage by Annie Leibovitz and Doris Kearns Goodwin

I just got a glimpse of Annie Leiborvitz’ new book, Pilgrimage and it is amazing! For those who don’t know, Pilgrimage is a journey through the places that mean the most to Leibovitz. One of those places is Concord where she toured Orchard House, Emerson’s home (Bush) and Walden Pond.

The pictures from Orchard House were AMAZING! Leibovitz went deep into the treasures of Orchard House to produce a stunning picture of May’s room with the sketches on the wall, Bronson’s journal with his hand and Louisa’s hand traced on the page, and a picture of 3 dolls, one made by Lizzie with the face painted by May. Leibovitz also showed a handkerchief that Louisa embroidered with her initials, the desk where she wrote Little Women and a collection of photos of people she admired (some famous).

I also was taken in by the photo of the original setting of Thoreau’s cabin with the stones. Apparently Bronson Alcott was the first to set stones in the setting to mark where the cabin had been.

I’m already a big fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin so I look forward to her commentary.

I nearly bought the book on the spot but knew we had to Christmas shop instead. However, I have ordered it on Amazon (where it is a lot cheaper :-)).

Get down to your favorite bookstore and check out Pilgrimage – it’s a coffee table book that will never leave your coffee table.


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Getting to know the principal characters in “Moods”

The 1882 version of Moods includes 3 interesting chapters which develop the principal characters of the novel and their interaction with each other.

Geoffrey Moor

Chapter 2 gives us a glimpse into Geoffrey Moor, based upon the loyal, lifelong friend of Bronson Alcott, and the Good Samaritan who quietly and discreetly helped the Alcott family on countless occasions when the family was destitute. Emerson was kind in other ways to the family, encouraging the child Louisa’s love of reading by loaning her books from his library and often discussing them with her. Louisa jokingly commented that she used to borrow his books the way she borrowed his kittens. As she grew older, he supported her writing as well. Emerson always seemed to be there at the most important moments, kissing the bride, Anna, on her wedding day, or breaking the news gently to Louisa about the passing of her sister, May.

Louisa imagined herself as Bettina to Emerson’s Goethe, writing love letters in the night and leaving them at his door. Subsequently there is a reference to Bettina and Goethe in the chapter as Sylvia shares with Moor her admiration of Goethe, wishing she was Bettina:  “I always envied Bettina and longed to be in her place. People now adays are so unheroic and disappointing, even the famous ones.”

My impression of Sylvia’s attraction to Moor is that he was a port in the middle of her storm, the turmoil that was her constant shifting of moods. Moor had a inner tranquility about him, a maturity born of  patient suffering (taking care of his sister for 5 years until she finally passed away). He had 30 years of life experience heightened by virtuous sacrifice  which mellowed him and made him wise and kind. She, on the other hand, saw herself as as constantly pulled back and forth by her emotions, causing her to be impulsive. Moor seemed attracted by Sylvia’s sheer life force, leading him out of his sadness. There’s a good basis for their attraction to each other.

Sylvia Yule

In chapter 3, Louisa, in typical fashion, takes a “time out” from the book in a rather amusing fashion (naming the chapter “Dull, but Necessary”) to enlighten the reader with vital information about Sylvia and her life. I had seen this tact used several times in Little Women and thought it odd, but the chapter was hardly dull and definitely necessary! Knowing about her parents’ unhappy marriage, the death of her mother upon her birth, and her lifelong craving for love set the stage for Sylvia’s other potential love interest, Adam Warwick.

Adam Warwick

Chapter 4 introduces us to Adam, fashioned after the other great love interest in Louisa’s life, Henry David Thoreau. I admit that I don’t know a lot about Thoreau apart from his friendship with the Alcotts, and often it is his softer side: his interest in nature, his way of delighting the child Louisa with fantasy-laced stories of the natural world that I’ve seen. Thoreau, however, was also known as an iconoclast demonstrated in his most well-known essay of an individual’s protest against the government, “Civil Disobedience.” He was known to have spent a night in jail for not paying his poll tax. Louisa obviously admired Thoreau’s strength of character, intellect and adherence to his principles as she describes Adam as the “manliest man” she has ever met, not only in demeanor but in stature, standing a head taller than Moor. The story plays out with Adam saving Sylvia from nearly drowning after being caught unexpectedly in the high tide and leads to a meeting of the minds as both enjoy watching people and discerning their characters. Here is a very different love interest, setting the stage for the conflict to come.

As a side point, I’ve read in at least three biographies that Louisa’s near attempt at suicide is used in two works: her other major adult novel, Work A Story of Experience, and a short story, ” Love and Self-Love.” I’m curious as to why Moods is not also cited since there is definitely a contemplation of suicide by Sylvia in this chapter (though I am not certain as to how serious it really was). It is not driven so much by despair as it is grief over never knowing her mother, and a fierce longing, a fantasy-type desire to join her mother in the afterlife. It makes me wonder if Louisa’s thoughts at the Mill Dam to throw herself into the water in despair figured into this episode for Sylvia.

A Personal Connection

I am very much enjoying Moods so far. When I was younger, I was subject to the kind of interior distress Sylvia describes with her turbulent moods, and I felt guilt over that distress as I think she might have too. I also have a deep temper like Louisa that would often turn inward, causing depression. Aging has its advantages, one of them being a mellowing out of the peaks and valleys, and I no longer experience that kind of distress (my devotion to my Catholic faith helps a great deal too). But when I first learned of Moods through a reading of Martha Saxton’s biography, Louisa May Alcott A Modern Biography back in my 20s, I felt an emotional connection to Louisa, seeing a kindred spirit. As a child I had shared Louisa’s love of acting and producing plays, and in writing, but once I learned of her very adult emotional turmoil, I made a much deeper connection. Why I didn’t read Moods after finishing Saxton’s biography is beyond me, but reading it now brings back powerful memories of a time when I was a slave to my emotions. My connection to Moods is quickly becoming very personal. And knowing how personal Moods was to Louisa makes the reading of it even more powerful.

Moods, chapter 1- Sylvia

I loved this description of the main character, Sylvia. Knowing how autobiographical Louisa’s books were makes it even more more interesting. I wish I knew where reality ends and fiction begins. Here’s how she describes Sylvia:

The book, of course, is meant to focus on how one’s moods can affect one’s life and I remember how moody I used to be. Fortunately, things have calmed down quite a bit since I’ve gotten older!

I also thought it was interesting how Sylvia thought about men and how the average man didn’t seem at all interested in a woman’s inner life. In fact, it all seemed like a game. I remember that chapter in Little Women, “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair” and all the games she and her friend played to attract men at the party and how Meg eventually found that all to be wanting.

I would have found it very difficult to be a 19th century woman!

p.s. Louisa was so transparent in the way she wrote about people. Obviously it didn’t embarrass her that Emerson or Thoreau might recognize themselves in print!