Dear Miss Alcott . . .

These dressses are from the Beth and Amy dolls that my mother made for me, long ago. The hope chest was made by my aunt.

My mother made these dresses, intricately trimmed with pintucks and lace, along with two “Little Women” rag dolls. I am grateful that she steered me in the direction of Louisa May Alcott’s books, even before I could read.  The hope chest, made by my aunt, brings to mind the four chests described in Jo’s poem, “In the Garret”: “Four little names, one on each lid . . .”

Dear Miss Alcott,

After years of admiration, I am writing to tell you how much I have enjoyed your books–especially Little Women (like so many of your fans) and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.  On first reading Little Women at the age of eight, I was delighted with the frills and trappings of the nineteenth century: I longed to live in the time of petticoats and gloves, calling cards and carriages. But I was even more pleased to make the acquaintance of the four March sisters, who were bickering (as sisters are wont to do) about how to celebrate Christmas when you introduced them to me.

As a child, I loved all things "Little Women"--paper dolls, dolls, movies. Here are Madame Alexander's doll versions of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

As a child, I loved all things “Little Women”–paper dolls, movies, and my precious Madame Alexander dolls.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–they were as different from one another as four sisters could be, in both appearance and personality. Many nuances were beyond my understanding on that first reading. For years, I did not realize that the book given by Marmee to each daughter at Christmas was Pilgrim’s Progress, and I failed to appreciate how cleverly you used Christian’s journey as a parallel for the lessons that each of the March girls was learning.  Later, I grasped that the war taking Mr. March away from his family was the Civil War that I had learned about in school. My ignorance notwithstanding, the ambitions of the four sisters nourished my own ambitions: was I going to be a great writer, a great pianist, or a great artist, I wondered, as I built my castle in the clouds along with the March girls.

In 2011, I paid a visit to Orchard House, which is a National Historic Site.

In 2011, my family and I visited Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Bronson and Abigail May Alcott moved to Orchard House with daughters Anna, Louisa, and May in 1858. Another daughter, Elizabeth, the model for “Beth,” died shortly before they moved to the home that would be the final residence for Bronson, Abigail, and Louisa.

Miss Alcott, as I read and re-read your books, the disappointments of the March girls became my disappointments. I watched with horror as Amy was punished for bringing limes to class and, later, burned Jo’s manuscript in a fit of pique; I sympathized with Meg’s longing for finery, Jo’s disappointment when Aunt March chose Amy for her European traveling companion, Beth’s fear of Mr. Laurence, and Amy’s realization that her talent was not genius. Their joys were also my joys, as Meg gave birth to twins, Amy and Laurie comforted one another after Beth’s death, and Jo finally found romance with the impoverished but lovable Professor Bhaer. Even after the three surviving sisters became women–strong, compassionate women, who coped with single parenthood, founded schools, and helped struggling artists–I loved to read about them. Again, layers of meaning escaped me, such as references to Goethe and Schiller or to Greek mythologybut it is a tribute to the richness of your books that I gleaned something new with every reading.P1010235

Like you, Miss Alcott, I am one of four sisters. Longing to be pretty and artistic, I initially identified with Amy, whose character was loosely based on your sister May. In time, I came to prefer Jo, your fictional counterpart, who poured herself into her writing, who put her interests aside to help her family, who could not perceive her own beauty, who struggled to rejoice when good things happened to her sisters.

Unlike you, I have never been called upon to sacrifice and toil for my family, as you did from your teen years. Indeed, without your tireless writing or the kindness of family friends such as Mr. Emerson, your family might have fared poorly.  When I read the book Marmee and Louisa,  a gift from my youngest sister, it seemed to me that your parents held you to a very high standard indeed and chided you for your failings less gently than they might have. But, rather than complaining, you used your talents to improve your family’s fortunes, and you endeavored to apply your parents’ criticisms.

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Orchard House is a museum today, open for guided tours. Louisa wrote most of her books here, often wearing a “scribbling suit” like Jo’s.

I feel, Miss Alcott, that your personal striving towards humility, selflessness, industry, and compassion communicates itself to your readers. I do not mean to imply that your primary purpose in writing Little Women was didactic: as I understand it, your publisher wanted you to write a book for girls because he thought it would sell well. (He was right.)  In writing about a way of life that you knew intimately and about the family that you loved, however, you created a world that has attracted and influenced generations of young girls. Even as your readers delight in the comic adventures and heartbreaking tragedies of the March girls, they are seeing examples of kindness, courage, and–dare I say it, in the age of the selfie?–modesty.

No matter how old I grow, Miss Alcott, I never tire of reading Little Women.  As recently as 2007, your best-selling classic inspired The Mother-Daughter Book Club, a novel for young adults set in modern-day Concord, Massachusetts.  An Old-Fashioned Girl–which contrasts the life of the hardworking poor girl with the frivolous rich girl–was also one of my childhood favorites, and I enjoyed your books about the orphan, Rose, and her cousins (Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom).

Although your own life, sadly, was filled with hardship, loss, poor health, and personal disappointment, it may be some small consolation to know that you have brought a great deal of joy to a little girl growing up in the late twentieth century.

With the deepest respect,

A Devoted Reader

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From 1845 to 1848, the Alcotts lived in this Concord home, Hillside, where Louisa had her own room and wrote her first book. Later, they purchased and renovated the home on adjoining property, which they christened Orchard House.  In 1849, Nathaniel Hawthorne purchased Hillside and renamed it The Wayside.

This plaque at the Wayside (originally named Hillside by Bronson Alcott) tells about the house's history as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

This plaque at The Wayside (called Hillside by the Alcotts) tells about the house’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Two fugitive slaves stayed here in the winter of 1846-1847. Today, The Wayside is part of Minute Man National Historical Park.

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The Dream Reader: For Whom Do I Write?

(Photo by David Fleming)

(Photo by David Fleming)

It is rare for me to sit blankly at a keyboard. Usually, my fingers are flying before my brain knows where it is going, but the fourth assignment of Blogging 101 is difficult: who is the person I most want to read my work? That is a highly personal question, which is daunting for this newbie blogger.

Before I can determine for whom I am writing, I should review why I’m writing:

1)  Without an audience, I won’t edit.

2) Interaction with other bloggers is stimulating.

3) The journalist in me enjoys chronicling my experiences.

Candor forces me to own up to a fourth reason for writing: the cringe-worthy goal of wanting to impress my readers–with my eloquence, my insight, my wit, my relevance.  Despicable but true. Who are the people I’m trying to impress most–my would-be “dream readers”?  Beloved authors, respected teachers, and my parents and siblings come to mind. (My sweet husband needs no impressing.) Old friends aren’t far down the list. I want new acquaintances to think well of me, too (that means you, fellow bloggers).  What about my children: surely I covet their good opinion?

At my sister’s wedding, I accompanied my other sisters on the 2nd movement of J. S. Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins”  (David Bibeault Photography)

Initially, I enjoy the rush of pleasure that comes with a compliment about my writing. The pleasure is very fleeting, though, and is usually followed by awkwardness, particularly if the compliment is paid in person.  During my college days, I felt the same sense of strained happiness after a solo performance on the piano: I wanted people to applaud my efforts, but, oh, how uncomfortable it was to accept the longed-for praise. I remember well that slightly intoxicated feeling of standing at the reception after a recital, feeling pleased and embarrassed and guilty all at the same time.

Typically, my own impressions of my performance were so blurred that the compliments (or lack thereof) were useful as a way of gauging how the performance had gone. Back then, after the recital hour was over, my piano solos lived only in memory. (Here you can read a poem I wrote in college about the ephemeral nature of music.) Today, the student musician’s experience is vastly different: thanks to camcorders and iPhones, virtually every performance is not only recorded these days but also shared via social media. Two of my performances were recorded on audiocassette; despite my limitations as a pianist, I am glad to have those recordings.  But, in the days before video recording was de rigueur, the audience’s reception of a performance was the sole critique. Audience feedback matters tremendously with writing, too, but an essay–ah, an essay can be re-read and edited endlessly. It can live on indefinitely.

View from the overlook at the small college I attended

View from the overlook at the small college I attended

It can be gratifying to stumble upon something that I wrote years ago and to realize that it was good work. But there is a far better reason for writing than to impress others or even to achieve a sense of satisfaction: to give concrete form to an idea–to give birth to a brainchild, as it were.  When I’m writing something, I become like Jo March of Little Women, scribbling in her garret as “genius” burns. After my thoughts have been transferred lucidly to my laptop,  I feel relief.  Yes, I want to connect with others. Yes, writing has the power to change policy, to change ideas, to change people. But, in the final analysis, the person for whom I truly write is myself. I am my own dream reader.

 

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A side-view of Orchard House and its garret, photographed by my son Samuel

Although Miss Alcott did write her most famous book at Orchard House, she, unlike Jo, did not do her writing in the attic.

Although Miss Alcott wrote her most famous book at Orchard House, she–unlike the fictional Jo–did not confine herself to the attic when writing.

What a cop-out, huh? Back in the nineties, I used to watch “Beverly Hills 90210,” surprising though that may seem. I am reminded of an episode in the fifth season in which Kelly has to choose between traveling with Dylan or marrying Brandon. Kelly chooses–drum roll, please–herself. It was the typical TV resolution-that-is-not-a-resolution-at-all. After nearly a season of dramatic tension, she chose herself? (At least I get to be Jenny Garth in this scenario: I’ve always wondered how it felt to be a blonde.) Fear not: I shall force myself to choose someone–or some group of people–from the categories laid out in my third paragraph and write a post to that person.  A famous writer? a teacher? parents? siblings? Who will it be? Stay tuned.