Monday, July 30, 2007

Louisa May

Before I leave Concord and head west into Pennsylvania like my ancestors did, I need to say a few words about the real heroine of the Transcendental movement—Louisa May Alcott. Louisa was the youngest of the group and the most enduring. She was also the most practical. She practiced what they preached. I had always dismissed her as the author of one good children's book and nothing more, but after finishing Cheever's book, I have a new respect for her.

Louisa grew up under her father's tutelage and was allowed to browse freely in Emerson's famous library. She went for walks with Henry David Thoreau in the woods and according to Cheever, had a crush on him. Louisa and her sisters were enrolled in a school that the Thoreau brothers started where instruction included many field trips. She said that Thoreau taught her things about nature she had never noticed before. They went for boat trips together on the Concord river.

She survived her father's financially disastrous lecture tours and the failed Fruitlands experiment. She endured as the family was made to move 20 times in 20 years. She presented an early work she had written to James Fields, the famous Boston publisher of Hawthorne's works, and was told, "Stick to your teaching. You can't write," but kept on writing anyway and eventually became the family's breadwinner.

She assisted her father and Thoreau as they helped slaves pass through Massachusetts on their way to Canada via the Underground Railroad. When the Civil War broke out, she volunteered as a nurse and spent six miserable weeks in Washington caring for the soldiers who were wounded at Fredericksburg, the bloodiest battle of the war. She contracted typhoid and was treated with calomel (mercury) to the point of being poisoned by it and which eventually led to her death.

With Margaret Fuller as a role model, she became a suffragist and was the first woman to vote in Concord.

She wrote Little Women at the behest of her publisher, Thomas Niles, not because she had a burning desire to write it. But once started, she worked in what I call a white heat, straight through without stopping for anything—even food or sleep. She wrote about her own life, her sisters, and her own "Marmee." She was Jo, the family rebel, the one who liked to race around pretending to be a horse. She wrote about what she knew and it came from the heart and so sounded true to its millions of readers. It was an instant success.

Cheever sums up her own feelings about the book:

Little Women gave my generation permission to write about our daily lives...She transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature. Without even meaning to, Alcott exalted the everyday in women's lives and gave it greatness.


  1. This comment is a bit late but I love the Top Soft tank that you finished earlier this month. It's gorgeous. I'm planning to start something out of this same yarn but was worried about the drape, and/or stretch in the length. Your project has inspired me.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Amanda, but see today's blog entry (Knitting Update, 7/31)before you go out and buy this yarn!