Happy Birthday Louisa May Alcott!

November 29 is  the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, one of the most popular authors America has ever produced. And unlike many best sellers of the 19th century, Alcott’s books are still familiar to most Americans.

Louisa May Alcott

Success did not come easily to Alcott, but once it arrived, it lingered for more than her lifetime. Her most famous book, Little Women, lives on not only in print, but in a long parade of film versions. Looking at the last several versions shows an interesting perspective on the storylines and actresses favored over the years. The leading character in each of these adaptations is Jo, the tomboy who grows up to be a writer. The actresses who have played  Jo mirror some of the changes in the way we have viewed women over the years.

During the difficult years of the 1930s when Americans were struggling with lost jobs and few opportunities, many of them turned to the movies for encouragement. The 1933 version of Jo was played by Katherine Hepburn, who brought to the film the sharp-tongued, cleverness of an actress who exemplified the never-say-die attitude that helped us survive the difficult 1930s.

By the time 1949 had rolled around, America had recovered from the Great Depression and World War II was over.  The sweet-faced June Allyson was a perfect example of a spunky American girl who no longer needed the sharpness of Hepburn. She made her way through life with a sunny smile and obstacles melted in her path.

When Greta Gerwig remade the story for a new film in 2019, Jo had changed into a very 21st century woman who knows her own mind and finds her own independent path. Played by Saoirse Ronan, she no longer needs the sharp tongue of Hepburn or the sweet smiles of Allison. Striding into the future that she is determined to build no mere man would dare to question her right to her ambition or to her success.

I can’t help wondering what Louisa Alcott would have thought of these versions. Growing up in a family plagued by poverty even though her father was part of a vibrant group of New England intellectuals,  she wrote her most famous book under the pressure of need. She resented having to write a book for children, but her family needed money and she felt she had no choice. Success came quickly as Little Women became a best seller and gave the family security, but Louisa was never quite content. During a long life of writing bestsellers and supporting her family, she was never able to fulfill her deepest ambition to write meaningful adult novels.

Bronson Alcott

The story of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott has been well told in John Matterson’s 2008 book Eden’s Outcasts; The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Matterson’s biography is an adult version of what life was like for the Alcott girls as they grew into womanhood. It offers a poignant recasting of how one American family grew during the turbulent 19th century. If you read Little Women when you were a child,  perhaps it is time to read Eden’s Outcasts. It will broaden your understanding of how real life interacts with the fictions that grow out of it.

In the meantime, let’s all raise a toast to Louisa May Alcott on her birthday this weekend.

Bronson Alcott–a Sixties Radical One Hundred Years Early

This week we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision outlawing racially segregated school in the United States. That ruling followed a long history of white Americans choosing to keep African Americans out of the schools attended by white children. It’s a shameful history and not one we want to remember, but fortunately at least we can be proud of the people who over the years took chances and tried to build an integrated education system.

One of these risk takers was Bronson Alcott, eccentric friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, believer in communal living, non-stop talker at public meetings, extreme vegetarian (vegan long before that word was invented) and inspired educator. More than 175

picture of Bronson Alcott
Bronson Alcott
years ago, Alcott opened the Temple School in Boston. From the beginning the school caused scandal. Not only were the children encouraged to express their opinions without being punished, but Alcott answered their questions no matter how frank. Alcott’s assistants kept a record of the lessons and these reports were published so parents learned what was going on in the school. Many were shocked to discover that children were encouraged to talk about the Bible as though it were just a collection of stories. They even asked embarrassing questions about the birth of Jesus. Most parents and teachers expected children to accept Biblical stories with respect and without question. Alcott always questioned.

Despite the unconventionality of the Temple School, some parents in Boston continued to send their children to it until Alcott 1837_TempleSchool_Boston1went a step too far—he admitted a young African American girl, the daughter of freed slaves, into the school. That was so unconventional that soon Alcott was teaching only that girl and his own children. He was forced to close the school. It would be more than a century before the country was ready to admit that integrated schools should be the norm rather than an exception.

Alcott lived at a time when people were questioning many of the accepted practices of American life. The 1840s were to the nineteenth century what the 1960s were to the twentieth century. The country was just emerging from the great depression of 1837, and many people wanted to try new ways of living and working. Forming communes where people could share their living and working skills? That was a popular notion and Alcott was friendly with George and Sophia Ripley, who started Brook Farm in Massachusetts. The idea was that everyone would share the work of the farm and the household so that each person would have time to pursue intellectual interests. Brook Farmers dreamed of milking cows in the morning, plowing fields and preparing meals in the afternoon, and then having time to write poetry and argue about philosophy in the evening.

Brook Farm wasn’t quite radical enough for Bronson Alcott. He and his wife, along with his friend William Lane, took their daughters (including Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women) and founded a commune called Fruitlands. There the family and the few members who joined them struggled to keep the farm without imposing on farm animals to labor at pulling plows—the men pulled the plows themselves. The group was strictly vegetarian and Abigail Alcott, Bronson’s wife, was forbidden to give their daughters milk from their only cow. Abigail resented that restriction, but she put up with it at least for a while. But farming without farm animals was extremely difficult and Bronson and Charles Lane spent much of their time traveling and giving lectures to raise money. The commune soon collapsed and Bronson and Abigail took their girls to Concord where they lived near Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Bronson Alcott spent most of the rest of his life as a writer and lecturer, although he never was able to earn much money from these activities. His friend Emerson helped him financially and after his daughter Louisa May Alcott became a successful writer, she was the major support of the whole family. It is easy to laugh now at his eccentricities. Many of his ideas have been discarded, but his principles of education are now widely accepted. As Emerson and others realized, he was an influential figure whose conversations and friendships left a lasting mark on American life.

Bronson Alcott is one of several historical figures who make a

A Death in Utopia
A Death in Utopia
cameo appearance in my mystery story A Death in Utopia, which gives a fictional account of events that might have happened during the turbulent 1840s in Massachusetts.