Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Discovering Louisa May Alcott

I didn't realize I was taking the month of August off until I just now noticed that my last post was August 2. It was a month full of activity, a lot of pool time, a milestone birthday, and a blissful week in Maine. My husband had never been to Portland, and I had never been north of Portland, so we spent a couple of days enjoying the city before we drove up to Boothbay Harbor, a lovely little village mid-coast.

We decided not to do the six hour drive home in one fell swoop, however, so we booked a room at the Best Western in historic Concord, Massachusetts, about half way. I was the one to settle on Concord for two reasons: 1) my daughter will be studying American history this year and that's where the Revolutionary War began so we could take her to the battlefield; and 2) we could visit Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott.

My husband has never read Little Women, and my daughter, sadly, never got into it. But when I was 9, I immersed myself in it. I felt I knew Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as if they were my own sisters, and of course I identified with Jo, the sister who wrote stories, like I did. My parents gave me a copy of the book, and I read it so many times the binding broke and the cover eventually fell off it. I've still got it in a box somewhere, although I bought a new copy for my daughter, hoping she'd see the magic in it as I did.

While I knew everything there was to know about the Little Women, I didn't know a lot about Louisa May Alcott herself, the writer, preferring to enjoy the fictional depiction of her own growing up and her own sisters. But a PBS documentary produced last year portrayed a fascinating woman who joined the army as a nurse during the Civil War, enjoyed fame at the level of JK Rowling, and died too young from what was possibly mercury poisoning as a result of medication taken during an almost fatal bout of scarlet fever.

For the first time, I saw the writer behind the story, and when faced with the possibility of seeing Orchard House, where she'd penned her most famous work, I was almost giddy with excitement.

It's a typical New England wooden house, right by the road. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a family friend, lived down the street, and he visited frequently, along with Henry David Thoreau. Alcott's father, Bronson, was a bit of a layabout, a philosopher who fashioned a school using his own educational theories. The house is very much as it was when the Alcotts lived there, even down to the furniture and a chest in May's (Amy's) room with costumes from the plays they'd perform for family and friends, just as the sisters in Little Women did. May was an artist, like Amy, and her drawings are throughout the house. In fact, she had a studio and in the 1980s, it was discovered that behind the plaster on the walls were her sketches of her students. While Louisa's desk where Little Women was created is a focal point of the house, so are May's drawings, paintings and sketches.

Louisa May Alcott came alive for me in our visit to Orchard House, and it brought back hours of joy reading her books, because I didn't stop with Little Women. I read Little Men, Jo's Boys, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom.

I don't think that it's a coincidence that I decided to become a writer the year I read Little Women.

If you're a writer, what book or books helped shape your dreams? And if you're a reader, what book from childhood do you remember reading over and over? Do you feel about Little Women as I do?


AnswerGirl said...

I too read at least one copy of LITTLE WOMEN to tatters.

I read Cornelia Meigs' INVINCIBLE LOUISA years ago, but don't remember much about it. If she lived today she would probably be an out-and-proud lesbian, and I wonder whether she'd have chosen to write children's books.

Repression, while bad for the spirit, is often wonderful for creativity . . .

Karen Olson said...

The PBS documentary said that Louisa had a very serious male beau in Europe, a Polish guy, who was much younger than she was, so not so sure about the lesbian thing, but of course you never know and not that there's anything wrong with that.

Her sister May married a much younger man, had a baby and died a few weeks after giving birth. The little girl was sent to Louisa, who raised her.

May also was an influence to the man who sculpted the Lincoln Memorial, but I can't remember his name now...

KK Brees said...

I also visited her home this past summer. Her bedroom was interesting with its painted decorations on the walls. The house was smaller than I had imagined but I could see her writing there. Like another of your responders, I wonder if today she would be "out" with her sexual identity. She lived in repressive times, for sure.

Vicki Lane said...

Oh, I can see I need to visit Orchard House. I still have my grandmother's copy of LITTLE WOMEN -- it's over a hundred years old now and I bought another copy as I do re-read it now and again -- along with AN OLD-FASHIONED GIRL, LITTLE MEN, and EIGHT COUSINS. Those characters are as real to me as my kin. And yes, Jo was always my favorite.

Congratulations on the new release, Karen!

Sheila Connolly said...

I still have the copy of Little Women that my mother handed to me when I was in bed with the measles in third grade. And of course I identified with Jo!

Seeing Orchard House is quite an experience. I live not far away, but I had never been there until there was a segment on This Old House where Norm said the place was falling down. He wasn't far off--but the plus is that the home hasn't been over-restored, and it still feels very lived-in. The docent tells a story about Louisa using her first payment for her writing to buy her mother a kitchen sink.

The artist was Daniel Chester French, who had a studio in Concord, and who created the Minuteman statue that stand near the "rude bridge" at the Revolutionary War battle site in Concord.

The intellectual atmosphere in Concord in those days must have been heady, to say the least. Can you imagine dinners with Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts--together?

Hey, Karen--the Boston Tattoo Convention is in town this weekend. I thought of you.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Little Women is one of the three books that made me a writer, and I still have ancient editions of all Alcott's books, which I'm happy to say my husband has read too. I think Little Women is the Great American Novel. Get your daughter to try again in a couple of years. :)

Jen said...

I certainly feel the same way about Little Women that you do and completely identified with Jo, not only through her writing, but through her "tomboy" nature, as well. She was my hero.

Like you, I've never really looked into the actual life of Louisa May Alcott - but now I'm curious to see the documentary and visit her cottage.

Hmmm.... influential books that got me "going" on writing? Weirdly enough, Harriet the Spy. D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. I wanted to *be* Jo, so there was probably some of that, too.

Eileen said...

I loved Little Women. My sister & I fought over the copy we had (she took it with her when she moved, too)!

My husband & I went to visit the house last month (August) and we enjoyed ourselves no end.

My other favorite Alcott book is Under the Lilacs.

Karen Olson said...

It's amazing how Little Women seems so timeless. And how it's touched all of us.

Jen, I also loved Harriet the Spy. I think next to Little Women, I read that the most when I was a kid!

Sheila, I feel so tattooed out after finishing the fourth book this summer! Although I admit I haven't gone to a convention and it definitely would be something to see, I'm sure!

Vicki, thanks for your congrats...and they're in order for you, too, with Miss Birdie's book out at the end of the month. Can't wait.

Chris said...

Oh how lucky you were to go there! On our vacation we visited Lucy Maud Montgomery's home this summer. So we were thinking alike there. ;)

I still have my first copy of Little Women. It's falling apart but that's ok.

Ellis Vidler said...

I'm an Alcott fan too. I loved Little Women, Eight Cousins, and Jo's Boys. I felt deprived because we didn't have an attic I could use for writing.