Alcott in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates

Alcott in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates

by Daniel Shealy


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By 1888, twenty years after the publication of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was one of the most popular and successful authors America had yet produced. In her pre-Little Women days, she concocted blood-and-thunder tales for low wages; post-Little Women, she specialized in domestic novels and short stories for children. Collected here for the first time are the reminiscences of people who knew her, the majority of which have not been published since their original appearance in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the printed recollections in this book appeared after Alcott became famous and showcase her as a literary lion, but others focus on her teen years, when she was living the life of Jo March; these intimate glimpses into the life of the Alcott family lead the reader to one conclusion: the family was happy, fun, and entertaining, very much like the fictional Marches. The recollections about an older and wealthier Alcott show a kind and generous, albeit outspoken, woman little changed by her money and status. From Annie Sawyer Downs's description of life in Concord to Anna Alcott Pratt's recollections of the Alcott sisters' acting days to Julian Hawthorne's neighborly portrait of the Alcotts, the thirty-six recollections in this copiously illustrated volume tell the private and public story of a remarkable life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780877459385
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 06/28/2005
Series: Writers in Their Own Time Series
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Daniel Shealy, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has published nine books on Louisa May Alcott, including The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott and The Journals of Louisa May Alcott.

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ALCOTT in Her Own Time A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2005 the University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-938-5

Chapter One [Reminiscences of a Childhood in Concord in the 1840s]

[Annie Sawyer Downs]

* * *

Annie Sawyer Downs's recollections of the town of Concord and its famous literary men and women were written in late 1891, almost fifty years after the fact. These childhood memories are thus filtered through the eyes of an adult who had long lost contact with the personages of whom she writes. Despite the years, however, Downs's stories provide little-known facts about these Concordians and often paint a concise picture of how the village of Concord reacted to its literary lions. Born in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1836, Annie Sawyer moved with her family in the early 1840s to Concord, where her father became an established physician for almost a decade. Her father's position allowed her the opportunity to meet and know many Concordians. She moved with her family to Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1852 and completed her education at Bradford Female Academy. After marrying S. M. Downs, a music teacher at Abbot Academy, she lived the rest of her life in Andover, Massachusetts, where she died in 1901. While her memories of Louisa May are few (she was closest to Elizabeth and especially May), her comments on Abigail and Bronson present us with one of the most honest reflections on how the town viewed the family. As she elevates Abigail to an "almost saintly reputation," she remembers Bronson as "largely responsible for a great number of the whimsical schemes and paradoxical theories which sometimes made Concord appear ridiculous."

Therefore to those acquainted with the circumstances, it does not appear surprising that so many remarkable persons were attracted to Concord, Massachusetts, between 1830 and 1880. The name of the town is itself significant of the character and aim of its founders. What appears to have been the most important factor in the fashioning of Concord character was the presence in the settlement from a very early period of an unusual number of books. The fact that there were many books is probably due to the liberal education and easy circumstances of the founders, and the wide and constant use of the books themselves, to the sheltered situation of the town, and that it never offered any inducements to trade or manufacturers. Mr. Hawthorne used to say Concord character was like the Concord river,-so slow that even Henry Thoreau never was quite certain it had any current!

However that may be, it is undoubtedly true that there never has been in Concord any sympathy with the hurry, distraction, and never-ending whirl characterizing adjacent towns and cities. On the contrary, circumstances have always favored plain living, honest speech, and a singular quality of condition which may have existed in Utopia, but I know not where else.

And what more could be desired to render a beautiful village fit residence for poets, orators, and genius generally than a library ... proximity to Boston and Harvard College, an appreciative constituency, a history of two hundred years, and numerous woods, fields, and thickets wherein to roam at will? ...

Of Miss Louisa Alcott I had no knowledge as a child excepting as I remember her and Ellen Emerson bringing to school in manuscript a book of fairy stories Miss Alcott had written for her. I knew slightly the sister whom all the world afterwards knew and loved as "Beth" in Little Women, but Miss May Alcott, the Amy of the same story, was a frequent companion.

Mrs. Alcott, whose pleasant voice and tender smile won the heart of every child, bore an almost saintly reputation in Concord, and whatever wild pranks or reckless speeches might be reported of her ever conspicuous daughters, there never was the slightest doubt of their unusual cleverness and brilliant future. The ups and downs of the Alcott family in Concord would make as lively a novel as Miss Alcott herself could have written, and whenever I hear her incidents pronounced impossible and her conversations forced and unnatural, I long to say, "My dear sir, or Madam, you do not know; you simply did not live in Concord." This, while really detracting from Miss Alcott's literary art, undoubtedly adds to the human interest of her books. Sometimes the Alcotts would be so poor rumor would declare the family must be scattered among relatives, then somebody would leave Mrs. Alcott a little money and friends would breathe easier. The next tidings would be that she had been persuaded to let her husband have it to put into the Fruitlands or some other scheme and it was all gone!

A pathetic anecdote was frequently repeated that when the whole family was setting out for Fruitlands, which was situated in the town of Harvard, not far from Concord, a friend met them and noticing that they were on foot and heavily laden said, "I hear you have done away with beasts of burden." "O, no," returned Mrs. Alcott, "they have me." Looking back on this period I think Mr. Alcott was largely responsible for a great number of the whimsical schemes and paradoxical theories which sometimes made Concord appear ridiculous. I recall vividly the amusement produced in one of his conversations by the following occurrence. The great drawing room of the biggest house in the town was crowded. Mr. Alcott divided man into the "Knower, Thinker and Doer." Then he paused to allow any who either approved or disapproved of his not very original classification an opportunity to speak. Instantly a worthy sister who had strayed somewhat late in life into the transcendental fold eagerly asked if that was the same Noah who came out of the ark.

Mr. Emerson's endorsement of Mr. Alcott, which puzzled many other sensible people besides Thomas Carlyle, undoubtedly procured him many hearers but at that time he was not regarded so highly in Concord as he was out of it, and I confess I was very much pleased to hear Mr. Emerson say in later years that he deplored the uncertainty of Mr. Alcott's inspiration in public conversation, and that the man he knew and prized could not be found in any of his writings.

In his venerable age, when he was supported and surrounded with luxury by his devoted and successful daughter, he was a picturesque and charming figure, but if he had not so early and so persistently attached himself to Mr. Emerson I am convinced he would have been regarded as a merely interesting person of marked intellectual endowments, but in whom discrimination was so entirely lacking that he never seemed able to comprehend how unpoetical many of his poems and how unphilosophical much of his philosophy.

Miss May Alcott, the youngest of the family and the Amy of Little Women, was Miss Louisa Alcott's pet and darling for whom nothing was too good and whose beauty deserved all praise. Some such fascination as Mr. Alcott exercised over Mr. Emerson, May must have exercised over Louisa. May was tall, possessed abundant light hair, and a turned up nose, and was an artist or at least possessed ambition to be one. But the grace and vivacity of the charming Amy were largely in the eyes of her partial sister and I think many friends who loved them both often felt a heart-ache when Miss Alcott pinched that May might spend, going year after year in the most inexpensive attire that May might ruffle it with the best.

The last time I had any conversation with Miss Alcott was on the day of Mr. Emerson's burial, April 30, 1882. She had arranged a harp of yellow jonquils which against a background of green hemlock she fastened to the front of the pulpit in the church where Mr. Emerson rested. She spoke with feeling of Mr. Emerson's kindness to her and to her family and added that she brought the jonquils because they were the ancient Greek emblem not only of death, but of immortality. I had never associated them in that manner and questioned their right to so much of sentiment and antiquity, but she was as satisfied in her belief as if she had been able to adduce the reason which to my mind was totally lacking. Every newspaper reporter described the harp of yellow jonquils given by Miss Alcott and went out of his way to mention they were the flowers of death and immortality.

Often now when I visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where lie so many of the Alcotts, I turn a little aside to look at Louisa's grave, and in spite of my incredulity in regard to the jonquils, it gives me pleasure to see as I sometimes do a great bunch of them at her head.

Annie Sawyer Downs, "Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Thoreau, Miss Alcott, Mr. Emerson, and Me," ed. Walter Harding, American Heritage 30 (December 1978): 95, 101-2.

[Louisa May Alcott in 1860]

Augusta Bowers French

* * *

Born in Concord in 1846, Augusta Bowers French grew up there for the first eighteen years of her life. Her recollections of her childhood in the town, written when she was eighty years old, were composed for her own grandchildren and not intended for publication. Louisa May occasionally wrote poems for the school festivals when Bronson, for the annual salary of one hundred dollars, was superintendent of schools in Concord from April 1859 to 1865. The verses French fairly accurately recalls here are from Alcott's "The Children's Song," which was composed for the March 1860 festival. The poem, sung to the tune of "Wait for the Wagon," contains brief descriptions of her Concord neighbors, including Thoreau as "the Hermit of blue Walden" and Emerson as "the Poet of the Pines." Louisa recorded her memory of the event also: "Wrote a song for the school festival, and heard it sung by four hundred happy children. Father got up the affair, and such a pretty affair was never seen in Concord before. He said, 'We spend much on our cattle and flower shows; let us each spring have a show of our children, and begrudge nothing for their culture.' All liked it but the old fogies who want things as they were in the ark" (Journals, 98).

Many of our literary townspeople were interested in our schools-Louisa Alcott often wrote verses for the High School when there was to be a public entertainment-I recall one verse of a little poem

"And one there comes among us With counsels wise and mild, With snow upon his forehead, But at heart a very child."

Miss Alcott had reference to her father-I can see Miss Alcott now, breezy and snappy and using a lot of slang-I also see Henry Thoreau with bowed head, on his way to Walden pond-Mr. Hawthorne also with head down, speaking to no one and seeing no one-Mr. Emerson, with bowed head, but seeing everything and missing no one-and Mr. Alcott, head bowed, but always raised to greet a friend-

"Reminiscences of Augusta Bowers French," Thoreau Society Bulletin 130 (Winter 1975): 5-7.

[Louisa May Alcott in the Early 1860s]

Anne Brown Adams

* * *

Anne Brown, born in 1843, was the daughter of the abolitionist John Brown and his second wife, Mary Ann Day. After the death of her father, she had enrolled, along with her sister, Sarah, in Frank Sanborn's academy in Concord, while her mother remained on the family's farm in North Elba, New York. Sanborn, long a supporter of John Brown, had helped the abolitionist meet people and raise money when Brown first visited Concord in 1857. In 1869, Anne married Samuel Adams, a blacksmith from Ohio, and they moved to Rohnerville, California, where Brown's widow and several of his children had settled in the mid-1860s. Adams wrote her recollections of her Concord days late in life, but they show Louisa May as the budding writer prior to her fame. Not only does Adams report on Concord's illustrious literati but she also writes of town events during the Civil War years. She captures Alcott in the afterglow of her first real literary success-the publication of her story "Love and Self-Love" in the March 1860 Atlantic Monthly. The editor, James Russell Lowell, had paid her fifty dollars for the tale after reading it in November 1859. Alcott confided in her journal: "Hurrah! My story was accepted.... I felt much set up, and my fifty dollars will be very happy money. People seem to think it a great thing to get into the 'Atlantic,' but I've not been pegging away all these years in vain, and may yet have books and publishers and a fortune of my own. Success has gone to my head, and I wander a little. Twenty-seven years old and very happy." For her next entry-just a month later-she would note the hanging of John Brown in December 1859: "The execution of Saint John the Just took place on the second. A meeting at the hall, and all Concord was there" ( Journals, 95).

I first met Louisa M. Alcott, at a party given for my sister and myself, by Mrs. and Miss Thoreau, mother and sister of the late Henry D. Thoreau, in the early spring of 1860. A short story of hers had just been published in the Atlantic Monthly, and people had just "found her out," and were congratulating her. I am sorry I have forgotten the name of the story. It was a fancy sketch of "a quarrel and make up" between a young wife and her husband. She told me afterwards, that she wrote the story to amuse her sister May, during a short illness, and a cousin of theirs came there on a visit at the time, and some member of the family showed him the story. He asked her why she did not send it to the Atlantic Monthly. She replied that they would not publish any of her writings, as she had tried them several times. He took the manuscript and told her laughingly that he would bet her as much as they paid for it, against a new hat, that he could get them to publish it. A short time after she was surprised by receiving a check for the full amount. As the family were then in very straitened circumstances, it proved an agreeable surprise. This was the real beginning of her literary career. Her chief ambition was to make money to supply her mother's wants. She used to talk to me a great deal about it. I afterwards boarded with them a while. They took a few boarders to help "make ends meet" in the household expenses, she and her mother doing all the work themselves, except the washing. They were the first persons I ever knew who advocated folding clothes and giving them "a brush and a promise" instead of spending so much useless time at the ironing board. I used to think that if Mr. Alcott's philosophy had made him wear a few less clean shirts, that his wife might have rested instead of toiling and sweating over the ironing board so long to pamper his fastidious notions.

Mrs. Alcott was very fond of gathering the young people about her in the evening and playing games with them. She had a theory, and she practiced it too, that it is the duty of every mother in the land to invite a few young men to spend their evenings at their home, and so fill them with quiet rational amusements that it would draw the young men away from bad places. The Hawthornes lived next door. They lived a very secluded English life. Mrs. Alcott tried hard to get the children to spend some of their evenings with her. She only succeeded once while I was there. When they went home Miss Louisa, my sister and I escorted them. I remember on our way back, Miss Louisa would run a few steps then whirl around and squat down on the side walk and "make a cheese," with her wide full skirts.

One day Miss Louisa came bounding in, whirled around and clapped her hands above her head, exclaiming "I came, I saw, I've conquered." When she saw me looking at her in astonishment, she burst into a laugh and told me she was not quite crazy, but that she had for a long time been trying to get Hawthorne to ask her up into his tower, which he used as a study, that she had racked her brains for subjects to ask questions of him, and on that day he told her he was too busy to look in a certain volume in his library and invited her to come up and look it out herself. She was perfectly happy over her success in getting into Hawthorne's den, where he created his stories....


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Table of Contents

Contents Photographs follow page....................152
[Annie Sawyer Downs], [Reminiscences of a Childhood in Concord in the 1840s]....................1
Augusta Bowers French, [Louisa May Alcott in 1860]....................5
Anne Brown Adams, [Louisa May Alcott in the Early 1860s]....................7
Elizabeth B. Greene, [A Visit to the Alcotts in 1864]....................12
Moses Coit Tyler, [A Letter about Louisa May Alcott in London] (1866)....................15
Anna Alcott Pratt, "A Letter from Miss Alcott's Sister about 'Little Women'" (1871)....................17
Anonymous, [Louisa May Alcott Visits the Sorosis Club in 1875]....................20
Lydia Maria Child, [A Letter about the Alcotts and Orchard House] (1876)....................21
Bessie Holyoke, [A Visit with Anna Alcott Pratt] (1878)....................23
Anonymous, "Miss Alcott's Birthplace" (1891)....................27
Anonymous, "Mr. Alcott and His Daughters" (1882)....................28
Louisa May Alcott, "Recollections of My Childhood" (1888)....................32
Lurabel Harlow, From Louisa May Alcott: A Souvenir (1888)....................40
Mary Bartol, "The Author of 'Little Women'" (1888)....................42
Frances Bellows Sanborn, "The Alcotts" (1888)....................47
Ednah Dow Cheney, From Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals (1889)....................53
Maria S. Porter, "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" (1892)....................58
Anna Alcott Pratt, "A Foreword by Meg" (1893)....................74
Frank Preston Stearns, From Sketches fromConcord and Appledore (1895)....................78
Edward W. Emerson, "When Louisa Alcott Was a Girl" (1898)....................89
Alfred Whitman, [Reminiscences of "Laurie"] (1901 and 1902)....................100
Annie M. L. Clark, From The Alcotts in Harvard (1902)....................110
Rebecca Harding Davis, From Bits of Gossip (1904)....................124
F. B. Sanborn, "A Concord Notebook: The Women of Concord-III. Louisa Alcott and Her Circle" (1906)....................126
Clara Gowing, From The Alcotts as I Knew Them (1909)....................133
F. B. Sanborn, "Reminiscences of Louisa May Alcott" (1912)....................145
John S. P. Alcott, "The 'Little Women' of Long Ago" (1913)....................153
Lydia Hosmer Wood, "Beth Alcott's Playmate: A Glimpse of Concord Town in the Days of Little Women" (1913)....................162
Frederick L. H. Willis, From Alcott Memoirs (1915)....................169
LaSalle Corbell Pickett, From Across My Path: Memories of People I Have Known (1916)....................183
[Russell H. Conwell], [A Visit to Louisa May Alcott] (1917)....................186
Julian Hawthorne, [Memories of the Alcott Family] (1922 and 1932)....................188
Mary Hosmer Brown, From Memories of Concord (1926)....................211
Maude Appleton McDowell, "Louisa May Alcott: By the Original 'Goldilocks'" (1936)....................220
Marion Talbot, "Glimpses of the Real Louisa May Alcott" (1938)....................224
Nina Ames Frey, "Miss Clara and Her Friend, Louisa" (1960)....................227

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Alcott in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
nessreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Because this is a collection of articles and interviews done during Alcott's life, the same questions and answers get repeated, which makes the content a bit repetitive if you read the collection cover to cover. Still, as she was still a celebrity and not yet an icon when these pieces were done, it's interestingly fresh.