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Little Women and their Pa

Maurice Earls

I recently visited Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. This is the house in which the Alcott family lived and where Louisa May Alcott wrote her famous novel Little Women. It is essentially a work of auto-fiction, closely based on her family’s life in Concord. The story offered the reading public, for the first time, a picture of girls and young women as rounded, struggling human beings, warts and passions and all. The building is now a museum called, “Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, The Home of Little Women”.

I took the tour with a group of women. I did notice one other man around but he was asleep in his car. Although conceived by its author as a story for girls, when the novel appeared in 1868 it quickly became a bestseller and was discussed and enjoyed across society, by readers ranging from bankers to clerks to schoolgirls. Little Women was a publishing sensation and it made Alcott one of the richest women in the US. To achieve that JK Rowling level of success, a work has to have very broad appeal. Yet the absence of men on the tour did not entirely surprise me. Sometime in the interim Little Women ceased to have broad appeal and became solely a “girl’s book”. How that happened I cannot say, but certainly none of my male friends, some of whom are quite prone to referencing books, has ever mentioned Alcott’s work. 

One of the many fascinating things I learned from our guide was that when the family first arrived at Orchard House, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, assembled a great team of mules which were then used to haul the sizeable building ‑ it is the one which features in Greta Gerwig’s wonderful film ‑ to what he regarded as a more favourable location on the plot where it stood. The information surprised me as I had not known that such a thing was possible. Our guide pointed out that this was possibly because the house had no foundations but, as if to calm her visitors, she added that the museum authorities had some years previously added foundations to the building. This intelligence further surprised me, as I had not known that such a fundamental matter could be addressed retrospectively. I found myself half-remembering a New Testament parable that touched on that sort of thing. But Bronson, as I already knew, did not believe the New Testament should be taken literally, indeed he made it his business to question all manner of received wisdom.

Notwithstanding what I had learned about New England construction practices, the mule team episode continued to puzzle, but for a reason entirely unconnected with the mechanics of building. I knew that just before arriving at Orchard House the family had been through a traumatic experience which Bronson had brought upon his family in consequence of his efforts to put into practice his belief in the possibility, if not the moral necessity, of humans living in perfect harmony with nature.

The experiment in natural living he arranged for his family turned out to be something of a philosophical and physical hell, which left the family malnourished, exhausted and in penury. I had assumed, possibly owing to some recalcitrant petit bourgeois instincts, when after the collapse of the utopian community, the family found shelter in Orchard House that Mr Alcott would have been content, if not anxious, to quickly and without fuss settle in and secure his family. But apparently not. His panglossian optimism, his faith in the possibility of perfection on earth and his commitment to the primacy of the spirit never faltered. If a superior orientation for Orchard House was possible, it must be brought about.

A question I found myself contemplating as I looked around the room where Louisa May did her writing was what, if any, was the connection between the idealistic ‑ let us settle on that relatively neutral adjective ‑ Mr Alcott and one of the great novels of the nineteenth century? I knew that Bronson was sometimes a source of annoyance to his daughters, and especially his wife, but I also knew they didn’t seriously dislike him; indeed they loved him. In fact they shared many of his advanced ideas, while perhaps wishing his admirable principles had not crowded out all semblance of practicality and the capacity to accumulate a few dollars.

Bronson, as will perhaps be obvious by now, was not what would be called “a great provider” but neither was he a bully or anything else at that end of the spectrum. He encouraged his daughters’ creativity and when Louisa May was writing Little Women he made her a desk and brought apples and cider to her room. Apples were the foodstuff which was always in ready supply in the Alcott home. Indeed, on more than one occasion they were reduced to living on apples and bread, which even for a family that refused all animal products on principle, was surely far from ideal, not to say nutritionally deficient.

Bronson’s inadequacies caused his wife and daughters much discomfort. Louisa was obliged at an early age to seek work to help support the family. There was marital discord and at one point permanently splitting up the family was contemplated. While the life of the March family in Little Women was less troubled than that of the Alcotts, the author made the family’s poverty and the role of Mr March in their condition quite clear. However, in order to write the tale she wished to write, it was necessary for Louisa May to keep the Bronson figure firmly in the background. This she achieved by the simple expedient of sending him off as a chaplain to support the Union side in the Civil War.

Alcott’s writing career reflects a pragmatism alien to her father but also a resolve which may have owed something to his firmness of principle. She was a committed writer before publishing Little Women and earned a steady income from sensational stories published under a pseudonym. In 1864 she published her first novel, Moods, a work which engaged with transcendentalist themes. It received good reviews but was also criticised for treating the subject of marriage and divorce. Her most successful pre-Little Women work was Hospital Sketches, published in 1863 and based on her experience as a Civil War nurse. Like Little Women it drew on her personal experience.

Bronson was enthusiastic about Hospital Sketches and was instrumental in the work’s publication. The great success was, of course, Little Women, which traced the lives of four sisters growing up in an unorthodox household and which proved to have a seismic effect on the American imagination. Louisa May had talked to her sisters and her mother, Abigail Alcott, about basing a book on the family. They all agreed it was worth a try. “[O]ur queer plays and experiences may prove interesting,” Alcott decided.

If the father in Little Women was kept in the background, Bronson Alcott was a significant presence in Alcott family life. Before marrying, he ran a school at a Masonic hall in Boston. As we might expect he had strong views on the subject of education. Actually, they were the sort of views which would be widely approved today. Unlike classic rationalist pedagogical theorists, such as Maria Edgeworth and her father, his emphasis was not on education through instruction but rather on education through discovery. In Little Women Marm reads Edgeworth’s moral tales to her daughters as no doubt Aby May Alcott did to hers. Happily, the one-dimensional and stilted world of Edgeworth’s instructive tales had little discernible aesthetic effect on the author of Little Women, whose inspiration and energy came from the Alcotts’ lived experience.

Bronson and his family were good friends of the wealthy transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, (his wife died aged twenty, two years into their marriage, leaving him a large estate), the ecologist Henry David Thoreau, who Louisa May is said to have fancied, and Nathiel Hawthorne, who was generous towards the Alcott family but who found the success of women writers hard to take, commenting: “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women.” The famous writers of nineteenth century Concord have almost challenged the town’s primary fame as the location of first battle of the American War of Independence. Emerson wrote a renowned poem celebrating that event and particularly the patriot Minutemen who stopped the British at the river Concord firing “the shot heard round the world”. It was a heritage which the March/Alcotts were both aware of and proud.

Bronson’s formal politics, which included opposing slavery and promoting the rights of women, had their origins in the Age of Reason. On the other hand, his emphasis on the individual human spirit, nature, his veganism and transcendentalism emerged from an engagement with post-Enlightenment romanticism. But in religion, the Age-of-Reason heritage prevailed. Alcott was effectively a deist, which meant that he was somewhat irreverent regarding the literal truth of the New Testament. He was likely to talk about metaphor in religion and ask his pupils if they felt particular biblical episodes and miracles were true, while he also suggested that all people were part of God. For many parents, this was going a bit far and they began to withdraw their children. It was not long before the school became unviable. Bronson, however, was not one for trimming his sails. He withdrew to a “parlour school”, but that too closed when parents objected to his enrolling an African American child.

Bronson met his wife, Abigail May, also a teacher, when he was in Boston. She admired his pedagogical principles and described him as an “intelligent, philosophic, modest man”. She was possibly unaware that he held his principles with such fervour that providing for a family would never be permitted to distract him. If so, this innocence did not last long. A short time into the marriage, when she was pregnant with their first child, they were reduced to a diet of bread without butter in consequence of Bronson’s leaving a relatively secure educational position in a reasonably progressive environment in order to pursue an even purer but less financially secure educational path. This Abigail endured with great cheerfulness.

The utopian community whose collapse led to the family settling in Orchard House was known as Fruitlands. We know a great deal about the experiment because in the early 1870s Louisa May Alcott’s account of the family’s life there was published as Transcendental Wild Oats, a work which actually drew on the author’s contemporaneous diary, started when she was ten. It is a work in which Aby May, Marm, emerges as the hero, a centre of practical humanity whose good sense is invaluable to the family as they find themselves surrounded by a variety of utterly impractical male philosophers.

Louisa May’s sympathy for her mother is beyond doubt. One of the first things she did when the Little Women money began to roll in was to buy her a soapstone sink and draining board, a very expensive item at the time. The original has gone but the museum has a convincing replica.

In Transcendental Wild Oats Alcott does not treat the antics of her father and his philosopher companions harshly but rather with humour and a benign irony reminiscent, at times, of Jane Austen’s work.

The opening paragraph sets the tone:

On the first day of June, 184-, a large wagon, drawn by a small horse and containing a motley load, went lumbering over certain New England hills, with the pleasing accompaniments of wind, rain, and hail. A serene man with a serene child upon his knee was driving … a brown boy with a William Penn style of countenance sat beside him, firmly embracing a bust of Socrates. Behind them was an energetic-looking woman, with a benevolent brow, satirical mouth, and eyes brimful of hope and courage. A baby reposed upon her lap, a mirror leaned against her knee, and a basket of provisions danced about at her feet, as she struggled with a large, unruly umbrella. Two blue-eyed little girls, with hands full of childish treasures, sat under one old shawl, chatting happily together.

In a communication to The Transcendental Tripod, the initiators of The Fruitlands Community set out their objectives and plans:

We have made arrangements with the proprietor of an estate of about a hundred acres which liberates this tract from human ownership. Here we shall prosecute our effort to initiate a Family in harmony with the primitive instincts of man. Ordinary secular farming is not our object. Fruit, grain, pulse, herbs, flax, and other vegetable products, receiving assiduous attention, will afford ample manual occupation, and chaste supplies for the bodily needs. It is intended to adorn the pastures with orchards, and to supersede the labor of cattle by the spade and the pruning-knife. Consecrated to human freedom, the land awaits the sober culture of devoted men. Beginning with small pecuniary means, this enterprise must be rooted in a reliance on the succors of an ever-bounteous Providence …

Upon arrival:

The newcomers were welcomed by one of the elect precious – a regenerate farmer, whose idea of reform consisted chiefly in wearing white cotton raiment and shoes of untanned leather. This costume, with a snowy beard, gave him a venerable, and at the same time a somewhat bridal appearance.

Another of the philosophers was

 … a bland, bearded Englishman, who expected to be saved by eating uncooked food and going without clothes. He had not yet adopted the primitive costume, however; but contented himself with meditatively chewing dry beans out of a basket.

The leader, Charles Lane, given the name Timon Lion in Alcott’s book, described the proposed daily routine:

“Each member is to perform the work for which experience, strength, and taste best fit him”, continued Dictator Lion. “Thus drudgery and disorder will be avoided and harmony prevail. We shall arise at dawn, begin the day by bathing, followed by music, and then a chaste repast of fruit and bread. Each one finds congenial occupation till the meridian meal; when some deep-searching conversation gives rest to the body and development to the mind. Healthful labor again engages us till the last meal, when we assemble in social communion, prolonged until sunset, when we retire to sweet repose, ready for the next day’s activity.”

Marm had one question:

“What part of the work do you incline to yourself?” asked Sister Hope, with a humorous glimmer in her keen eyes. “I shall wait till it is made clear to me. Being in preference to doing is the great aim, and this comes to us rather by a resigned willingness than a willful activity, which is a check to all divine growth,” responded Brother Timon.

The effort to create a prelapsarian paradise quickly ran into difficulties. As is frequently the case with those of a theoretical and discursive bent, the philosophers’ everyday capabilities turned out to be limited as was their willingness to engage in demanding labour. Their fine words, alas, buttered no parsnips, not that butter would have been permitted in Fruitlands. Mrs Alcott stuck with her husband throughout, which Louisa May describes as “a little remarkable” and records her mother saying cheerily that she was ballast for his balloon.

When it came time to harvest the grain which had been sown, things became desperate. The men disappeared “on some philosophical mission” and sister Hope (Mrs Alcott) with the assistance of four small children managed to get the grain in just before a destructive easterly storm arrived.

With the advent of winter the whole project collapsed in disorder and financial ruin. The leader Charles Lane went off to join the Shakers, an established self- supporting community. There “he found that the order of things was reversed and that it was all work and no play”.

It was following the collapse of this experiment in transcendental idealism that the Alcott family limped back to Concord and somehow managed to secure Orchard House, which, one suspects, was found agreeable to all with the exception of Bronson who felt it ought to hauled to another location within their garden, which, indeed, is what happened.

"Little Women and their Pa" draws on a wide range of sources. The author is grateful to Deirdre McCafferty of Cornucopia Dublin for lending her copy of Transcendental Wild Oats

1/3/2020

Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.

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