Monday, August 26, 2013

A Literary Founding Mother


It’s difficult to trace the exact moment I became a Bibliophile. Was it back in first grade when I could read Bread and Jam for Frances by myself? Or was it while following the pioneer adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family? Maybe.

When my mother brought down her huge box of books she had kept from her own childhood, I knew an entire universe had just opened up to me. My favorite? Little Women. How I loved the spunky Jo March and her self-reliance! It was the only time this only child ever wanted sisters.


“She transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature,” writes Susan Cheever on page 192 of American Bloomsbury. “Without even meaning to, Alcott exalted the everyday in women’s lives and gave it greatness.”

I was taken aback by how visiting Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott’s final family home in Concord, Massachusetts, affected me. First of all, it looked almost exactly like the March home in the 1994 movie starring Winona Ryder as “Jo” and Susan Sarandon as “Marmee.” (That’s a great version, by the way. I highly recommend it.)

Orchard House (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

Before our trip, I had been reading American Bloomsbury, so little tidbits about the Alcotts were fresh in my head. Honestly, I never realized how much autobiographical information was included in Little Women, but with a few changes, of course. We saw her sister Elizabeth’s (“Beth” in the book) dolls and instruments, portraits of the family, May Alcott’s room and pieces of art (“Meg” from the book), and best of all, Louisa’s writing desk — the highlight of any author’s home tour for me — a semicircle between two windows that her father, Bronson, had built for her. Her room also included first editions of her work, as well as that of her favorite author, Charles Dickens.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

Louisa May Alcott had been writing professionally for sixteen years before the first volume of Little Women was published. She wrote short stories, essays (such as Hospital Sketches about her experiences as a nurse during the Civil War, novels, and edited a children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum.

Her editor, Thomas Niles, asked Louisa to write something for little girls, which she wasn’t very thrilled about, but the initial run of 2,000 copies of Little Women sold out in one month during October 1868. Fans and Niles wanted more, so Alcott wrote the second volume entitled Good Wives. Both volumes sold 30,000 copies within the first fourteen months of their releases and made Louisa May Alcott a literary superstar. She continued to write and gain fame until the end of her life.

Alcott supported her family and even paid for May’s art education in Europe. She was a true working writer in every sense of the word at a time when most women didn’t even work, muchless write. She chose not to marry, to not surrender her freedom. She was an active abolitionist, suffragist, and advocate for women’s education.

Alcott family plot (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

My family and I paid our respects at Author’s Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where she lies in a family plot with her father, Bronson, her mother, Abba, and her sisters Anna, Elizabeth, and May, all of whom she outlived except for her older sister, Anna. I thanked her for paving the way for all of us women writers and for her tender tale that sparked my love of reading so.

One always hears the phrase “Founding Fathers.” Well, for all American women writers, I will always think of Louisa May Alcott as a Founding Mother.

Louisa May Alcott's grave (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)

For more information about Louisa May Alcott, read American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever, Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson, or visit Orchard House’s web page.

All week long, my Facebook page will be featuring fun facts about Louisa May Alcott. Hope you stop by if you get a chance.

Next week: Ralph Waldo Emerson, “the Sage of Concord.”


6 comments:

Kelly Hashway said...

Great post! My grandmother bought Little Women for me when I was in middle school. It was her favorite.

Beverly Diehl said...

Loved Little Women and Louisa May Alcott - did a biography report on her once in ?elementary school? She did not have an easy time of it.

How wonderful that you visited AND shared these photos - they're great!

I was devastated when Beth died, in Little Women, especially as I was close to my own sister Beth and then had this vague childish notion that "Beths" were destined to die.

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

How lovely of your grandmother, Kelly.

Oh, Beverly! That would scare any kid.

Chrys Fey said...

When I was growing up, I loved the Little House on the Prairie books, and the movie Little Women with Winona Ryder is my all time favorite movie! I have sisters but reading "Little Women" made me yearn for sisters like Jo/Louisa had. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

Leah Griffith said...

Thank you for taking me to Louisa May Alcott's home. I was born in MA and lived there for 33 yrs and never visited her home. Your photography is awesome too!

Gina Stoneheart said...

Thank you for sharing, Karen. These pictures bring me to an even better appreciation for Louisa May Alcott.
My mother and I both adored Little Women. I was always so heartbroken when Jo decided to turn away from Laurie. Still gets me!