Saturday, June 23, 2012

Louisa May Alcott

Concord, MA.  Visited July 2003

This is the first entry of a group of writers buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA. Our subject is 19th Century author Louisa May Alcott. Alcott’s fame is largely built on the enduring popularity of her 1868 semi-autobiographical novel “Little Women” and its lesser known sequel “Little Men”. When you think about it “Little Women” is an author writing a story about writing a story about herself. But the novel (and the films made from it) has always had an audience; and Alcott an enduring place in American literature because of it.

Louisa May Alcott was born in November 1832 in the Germantown area of Philadelphia. Her parents were transcendentalists – part of a group of intellectuals who developed a philosophy around the inherent goodness of man and nature and the corruptive influence of institutions. Her father, Bronson Alcott, moved the family to Massachusetts to be part of the progressive philosophical scene, settling in Concord among an intellectual community including Emerson, Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Bronson’s desire to build an educational system around his beliefs led to several failed utopian ventures and years of near poverty for the family. But the closeness of family ties that comes through in “Little Women” seems to reflect the genuine experience of life in the Alcott home. Eventually with the aid of some inheritance the Alcotts were able to settle into a home they called Orchard House in the village of Concord.

Orchard House, the Alcott home in Concord.  My wife Jill and friend
Linda Evans loitering out on the front step

Financial troubles in the family required Alcott to labor as a seamstress and governess throughout her formative years. But she began to show promise as a writer early, penning magazine articles on a variety of subjects. During the Civil War she briefly served as a nursing aid at Union Hospital for Wounded Soldiers in Washington DC. The letters written about this experience were formed into magazine articles and became Alcott’s first critically received published work. Following the war she wrote a number of fictional pieces in the popular sensational style of the era.

130-23 MacDougal Street in Manhattan.
Alcott composed "Little Women" in a
second story bedroom.  Window AC
units were added later. 

After a year in Europe she returned to the States and settled in an uncle's house in Manhattan.  It was here in 1868 that she published “Little Women”.  This was actually the first half of what was to become the novel we know now. The book was an immediate critical and commercial success. G. K. Chesterton observed that the natural setting of the novel anticipated literary realism by 30 years. “Little Women” established Louisa May Alcott as an author for life. The income derived from this book and a few subsequent works allowed Alcott to bail her family out of significant long term debt and set herself in financial security for life.

"Little Women" has been turned into two memorable films.  Check out the trailers for each here - the 1949 June Allyson version and the 1994 Winona Ryder version.

A matronly Louisa May Alcott at work

Louisa May Alcott never married. She was a significant figure in the feminist and suffragist causes of the late 1800’s. In later years Alcott suffered from various physical ailments. She died of a stroke in Boston at the age of fifty-five in March 1888.

Louisa May Alcott is buried a family plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA. This isn’t the same Sleepy Hollow from the Washington Irving story, which is in New York. But it is a quaint old New England burial ground with a lot of character. Alcott is buried on Author’s Ridge, a section of the cemetery where Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathanial Hawthorne are also buried. I first visited the cemetery when I was on a trip to see my brother who was at Gordon Conwell Seminary. We had driven out on a history tour which included Lexington and Concord. It was near dark when we got to the cemetery and walked up to Author’s Ridge. It’s a pretty spooky place to go at night – with an old wrought iron fence, narrow winding path and tightly packed headstones. I think we both got a bit weirded out by the experience. But I took pix anyway – its what I do.

Alcott's grave in Sleepy Hollow.  This was taken during a
visit with my friend and fellow pastor Bauer Evans and his
wife.  Earlier in the day, not as gloomy.