Book Shelf THE STACKS

A Scribbling Suit

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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some Boston cream pie
for the birthday of a beloved author.
** Linger to admire
a hard-working writer and the inspiring hero she created.
** Savor a last ½ cup
on a literary tour of New York City, circa 2017.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

STT-35

First Sip:

I had lots of troubles,
so I write jolly tales.

– Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott
in her attic in Concord, MA
by Norman Rockwell

.


Slice of Cake:

I was an abolitionist at the age of three.

– Louisa May Alcott1

Louisa May Alcott described her childhood as
“falling out of trees, over fences, uphill and downhill tumbling,
till the topsy-turvy girl shot up into
a topsy-turvy woman.”


Her mother, Abby May, was raised to be a lady in a wealthy and influential Boston family.
Her father was from a farming family.
Yet it was her mother who was the practical one and held the family together.

Her father, Amos, was well-known, respected, and completely incapable of maintaining a steady income to support his family.

For instance, he opened Temple School in Boston in 1834, and it became famous for its innovation.

The child must be treated with reverence
as a free, self-guiding, self-controlling being.

– Amos Bronson Alcott1

Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Temple School and called Amos ‘the highest genius.’

But the school only lasted a few years. Already in trouble for his frank answers to children’s questions about God, miracles, bodies, and babies, Amos drew further protests by enrolling a young African-American girl. Unfortunately, few agreed with his methods. Many parents withdrew their children. Soon the school ran out of money.

Next, Amos enthusiastically moved his family 50 miles west to create Fruitlands, a self-sufficient Utopian community on 100 acres of Massachusetts farmland.

He gathered like-minded writers and philosophers, but no farmers.
He brought books and his bust of Plato, but very few farming supplies.

Emerson visited and wrote: “They look well in July. Let us see how they fare in December.”

In fact, they fared poorly, and well before December.

The band of brothers began by spading garden and field;
but a few days of it lessened their ardor amazingly.

– Louisa May Alcott2

Then Abby received money from her family, plus Emerson gave them $500,
and so the Alcott family was able to buy ‘Hillside,’ a house in Concord, Massachusetts in 1845.

Those Concord days were the
happiest of my life.

– Louisa May Alcott1

Their neighbors included Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.
The house also became a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But money ran low again, and the family moved to Boston in the hopes of finding work.
All in all, they moved 30 times.

The decade 1848-1858 was especially harsh for the Alcotts. They stayed in a basement apartment in a Boston slum neighborhood, and everyone in the family took whatever jobs they could.1

In March 1860, Louisa published a story in Atlantic Monthly magazine and received $50.

Then war broke out.

I’ve decided to go to Washington as a nurse.
…I must let out my pent up energy…
I have often longed to see a war,
and now I have my wish.

– Louisa May Alcott1

Louisa left for Union Hospital in Washington DC in the winter of 1862.

Her father’s comment: “I’m sending my only son to war.”

Nursing was a brand new profession then and Louisa was working hard.
She wrote letters home describing the conditions, the lack of medications, and the suffering men.

After just six weeks, she contracted typhoid fever.

Her father came to fetch her home.

During her restless illness and high fevers, the family was afraid she would die.

After three weeks of delirium
I didn’t know myself when I looked in the glass.
I had all my hair cut off…
Felt badly about losing my one beauty.

– Louisa May Alcott1

.

“Jo, dear, what is it? Are you crying about father?”
“No, not now.”
“What then?”
“My… My hair!” burst out poor Jo,
trying vainly to smother her emotion in the pillow.
It did not seem at all comical to Meg,
who kissed and caressed the afflicted heroine
in the tenderest manner…
“I thought you were asleep,
so I just made a little private moan for my one beauty.”

— from Little Women
by
Louisa May Alcott
chapter 15

After her recovery, Louisa published Hospital Sketches, a book based on her letters from Washington.
It met with critical success and she was paid $200. She felt encouraged.

Her first try at writing serious fiction was the novel Moods (1865).
The critiques were harsh. Henry James wrote of “her ignorance of human nature.”
Louisa was outraged.

I wrote out of my own observation and instinct!
– Louisa May Alcott1

She also felt the book had been ruined by her editor’s insistence that she shorten it.

“You said, Mother,
that criticism would help me.
But how can it, when it’s so contradictory…”
cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices…
“This man says…’The theory of the book is bad,
full of …unnatural characters.’
Now, as I had no theory of any kind…
and
copied my characters from life,
I don’t see how this critic can be right…

I wish I’d printed the whole or not at all,
for I do hate to be so misjudged.”

— from Little Women
by
Louisa May Alcott
chapter 27

Next, Louisa turned to the lucrative pulp fiction market.

I can’t afford to starve on praise
when rubbishy tales are written in half the time
.
– Louisa May Alcott1

She wrote many ‘blood and thunder‘ stories under a nom de plume and she made a good income from it.
And she enjoyed it.

I think my natural ambition is
for the lurid style.

– Louisa May Alcott1

Both her father and her publisher urged her to try juvenile fiction.

I could not write a girl’s story
knowing little about any but my own sisters
and always preferring boys.

– Louisa May Alcott1

Louisa decided to try a novel based on her and her sisters’ girlhood.

I’m so full of my work, I can’t stop to
to eat or sleep or for anything but a daily run.

– Louisa May Alcott1

Her ‘lively, simple book for girls’ was immediately accepted for publication.

It’s simple and true,
and we really lived most of it.

– Louisa May Alcott1

Little Women was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869.

It’s interesting that—although Alcott based the story on her own childhood—she didn’t set the story in the years of her girlhood (the 1840s).
Instead, it’s set in her present day, during and just after the American Civil War (1861-1867).

The first printing of Little Women was 2000 copies, and it sold out immediately.

Best of all, Louisa May Alcott kept the copyright herself.

Gentlemen: Many thanks for
the check for $8500, which made my
Christmas an unusually merry one.

– Louisa May Alcott1

In 151 years, Little Women has never gone out of print.

“Don’t use such dreadful expressions,” replied Meg…
“I like good strong words that mean something,”
replied Jo, catching her hat.

– from Little Women
by
Louisa May Alcott
Chapter 4

Film versions of Little Women include:
1917 & 1918: both silent movies
1933: with Katharine Hepburn as Jo
1949: with June Allyson as Jo and Elizabeth Taylor as Amy
1978: a tv mini series with Susan Dey as Jo and Meredith Baxter as Meg
1994: with Winona Ryder as Jo
2018: a modern re-telling for the 150th anniversary of the novel.
And a new version, set to be released on Christmas Day 2019.

..

Happy 187th Birthday
** Louisa May Alcott
**

– born November 29, 1832
in Germantown, Pennsylvania

.


Linger Awhile:

I have been thinking this week about the “cheerful red bow” on Jo’s cap.

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.

drawing by
Frank T Merrill

This cap was beacon
to the inquiring eyes of her family…
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…
when the writing fit came on,
she gave herself up to it
with entire abandon, and led a blissful life,
unconscious of want, care, or bad weather,

while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world.

— from Little Women
by
Louisa May Alcott
chapter 27

I read Little Women many, many times as a young girl.
We had one copy at our house, and I remember that my younger sister and I both wanted to read it at the same time.

Okay, yes. It was her book.
But I was pretty good at hiding.

I was the third of four sisters,
and just like Beth, I was very ill as a child.
But my childhood was in the 1960s, not the 1860s,
so I received something that Beth could not: penicillin.

I’ve also read Little Women many times as an adult. Jo’s struggles and successes at writing—and especially her ability to “give herself up to it with entire abandon”—was very inspiring to me.

I’m not the only one.

Authors J K Rowling, Gloria Steinem, and Simone de Beauvoir have all said that Jo March helped inspire them to become writers.

And not just writing, Alcott is also inspiring as an activist.

Louisa May Alcott was the first woman registered to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.

It was 1879, and Massachusetts had just granted women the vote
but only in town elections, and only on issues involving children and education.
Then Alcott worked to encourage other women to vote, with petitions and reading groups that stressed the importance of voting.1

Biographer Harriet Reisen wrote that she met a woman in Korea who said:
“You don’t grow up to walk two steps behind your husband when you’ve met Jo March.”3


Louisa May Alcott never married.

Describing the wedding of her sister Anna, this is what Louisa wrote:

A lovely day,
a house full of sunshine, flowers,

friends and happiness.
Very sweet and pretty…
But
I’d rather be a free spinster and
paddle my own canoe.

– Louisa May Alcott1


She echoes a little of this in Little Women:

“Right, Jo.
Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives,
or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands,”
said Mrs. March decidedly.

– from Little Women
by
Louisa May Alcott
Chapter 9

Louisa didn’t need a husband to support her—her books supported her.
She had a lot of success and made a lot of money.4

Yet there was regret there, too. And lost potential.

There were so many bills. She had an extended family (young, old, sickly) who looked to her to provide for them. So she was stuck. Instead of feeling free to branch out, to take risks, to explore her craft, she was trapped into repeating the narrow formula of juvenile fiction that she knew would pay.1

Virginia Woolf said:
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

I think Alcott’s experience adds an addendum to this:
A woman can have money, and a room of her own, but still not feel free to write what she wants to write.

I’ll always be grateful for Little Women.
I’ll always wonder what more its author could have done.

So long as you write what you wish to write
that is all that matters.
And whether it matters for ages or only for hours
nobody can say.


– from A Room of One’s Own
by
Virginia Woolf

.


“Half Cup More”

I’ve never yet got to visit Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, a museum in Concord, Massachusetts.

But I did get to New York to see the house where Alcott lived when she was finishing up Volume 2 of Little Women.

‘You asked me the other day what my wishes were.
I’ll tell you one of them, Marmee…
I want to go away somewhere this winter for a change…
I feel restless, and anxious to be seeing, doing,
and learning more than I am.
I’d like to hop a little way, and try my wings.’

‘Where will you hop?’

‘To New York.

I had a bright idea yesterday…You know
Mrs. Kirke wrote to you for some

respectable young person to teach her children and sew…
I think I should suit if I tried.
…It’s not exactly going out to service;
for Mrs. Kirke is your friend…and no one knows me there.
Don’t care if they do;
it’s honest work, and I’m not ashamed of it.’

– from Little Women
by
Louisa May Alcott
chapter 32

me, in Nov 2017,
at Alcott’s 1869 home

New York City
(photo by Patricia Finnegan)

.


Take-Away Box

I’m not afraid of storms,
for I’m learning how to sail my ship.

– from Little Women
by
Louisa May Alcott
chapter 44

.


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…


—————————–
footnotes:

1.
There’s an excellent documentary
called
‘The Woman Behind Little Women’
PBS American Masters (2009)

It won several awards, including:
Booklist’s Editors’ Choice: Best Video of 2009
Best Feature Documentary: L.A. Reel Women Int’l Film Festival


2.
Transcendental Wild Oats (1873)
an essay by Louisa May Alcott

3.
The PBS documentary above is based on
a biography by
Harriet Reisen.
Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women (2010)

4.
In Louisa May Alcott’s lifetime, her books sold 1,800,000 copies
making her $100,000.
Henry James in his lifetime made $25,000.
Herman Melville made just $10,000.
(These figures are from the PBS documentary cited above in #1.)


STT-35

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© Kelly J Hardesty 2022

1 thought on “A Scribbling Suit”

  1. “Best of all, Louisa May Alcott kept the copyright herself.

    Gentlemen: Many thanks for
    the check for $8500, which made my
    Christmas an unusually merry one.”

    I’ve just caught up on your blog and this post, especially this part, is my favorite.

    I need to read Little Women now that I’m an adult. Did I ever even read it as a kid? I’m ready to fully appreciate it now.

    ♥️

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