“The Alcotts” — Charles Ives

“The Alcotts” by Charles Ives

If the dictagraph had been perfected in Bronson Alcott’s time, he might now be a great writer. As it is, he goes down as Concord’s greatest talker. “Great expecter,” says Thoreau; “great feller,” says Sam Staples, “for talkin’ big … but his daughters is the gals though—always DOIN’ somethin’.” Old Man Alcott, however, was usually “doin’ somethin'” within. An internal grandiloquence made him melodious without; an exuberant, irrepressible, visionary absorbed with philosophy AS such; to him it was a kind of transcendental business, the profits of which supported his inner man rather than his family. Apparently his deep interest in spiritual physics, rather than metaphysics, gave a kind of hypnotic mellifluous effect to his voice when he sang his oracles; a manner something of a cross between an inside pompous self-assertion and an outside serious benevolence. But he was sincere and kindly intentioned in his eagerness to extend what he could of the better influence of the philosophic world as he saw it. In fact, there is a strong didactic streak in both father and daughter. Louisa May seldom misses a chance to bring out the moral of a homely virtue. The power of repetition was to them a natural means of illustration. It is said that the elder Alcott, while teaching school, would frequently whip himself when the scholars misbehaved, to show that the Divine Teacher-God-was pained when his children of the earth were bad. Quite often the boy next to the bad boy was punished, to show how sin involved the guiltless. And Miss Alcott is fond of working her story around, so that she can better rub in a moral precept—and the moral sometimes browbeats the story. But with all the elder Alcott’s vehement, impracticable, visionary qualities, there was a sturdiness and a courage—at least, we like to think so. A Yankee boy who would cheerfully travel in those days, when distances were long and unmotored, as far from Connecticut as the Carolinas, earning his way by peddling, laying down his pack to teach school when opportunity offered, must possess a basic sturdiness. This was apparently not very evident when he got to preaching his idealism. An incident in Alcott’s life helps confirm a theory—not a popular one—that men accustomed to wander around in the visionary unknown are the quickest and strongest when occasion requires ready action of the lower virtues. It often appears that a contemplative mind is more capable of action than an actively objective one. Dr. Emerson says: “It is good to know that it has been recorded of Alcott, the benign idealist, that when the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, heading the rush on the U.S. Court House in Boston, to rescue a fugitive slave, looked back for his following at the court-room door, only the apostolic philosopher was there cane in hand.” So it seems that his idealism had some substantial virtues, even if he couldn’t make a living.

The daughter does not accept the father as a prototype—she seems to have but few of her father’s qualities “in female.” She supported the family and at the same time enriched the lives of a large part of young America, starting off many little minds with wholesome thoughts and many little hearts with wholesome emotions. She leaves memory-word-pictures of healthy, New England childhood days,—pictures which are turned to with affection by middle-aged children,—pictures, that bear a sentiment, a leaven, that middle-aged America needs nowadays more than we care to admit.

Concord village, itself, reminds one of that common virtue lying at the height and root of all the Concord divinities. As one walks down the broad-arched street, passing the white house of Emerson—ascetic guard of a former prophetic beauty—he comes presently beneath the old elms overspreading the Alcott house. It seems to stand as a kind of homely but beautiful witness of Concord’s common virtue—it seems to bear a consciousness that its past is LIVING, that the “mosses of the Old Manse” and the hickories of Walden are not far away. Here is the home of the “Marches”—all pervaded with the trials and happiness of the family and telling, in a simple way, the story of “the richness of not having.” Within the house, on every side, lie remembrances of what imagination can do for the better amusement of fortunate children who have to do for themselves-much-needed lessons in these days of automatic, ready-made, easy entertainment which deaden rather than stimulate the creative faculty. And there sits the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony.

There is a commonplace beauty about “Orchard House”—a kind of spiritual sturdiness underlying its quaint picturesqueness—a kind of common triad of the New England homestead, whose overtones tell us that there must have been something aesthetic fibered in the Puritan severity—the self-sacrificing part of the ideal—a value that seems to stir a deeper feeling, a stronger sense of being nearer some perfect truth than a Gothic cathedral or an Etruscan villa. All around you, under the Concord sky, there still floats the influence of that human faith melody, transcendent and sentimental enough for the enthusiast or the cynic respectively, reflecting an innate hope—a common interest in common things and common men—a tune the Concord bards are ever playing, while they pound away at the immensities with a Beethovenlike sublimity, and with, may we say, a vehemence and perseverance—for that part of greatness is not so difficult to emulate.

We dare not attempt to follow the philosophic raptures of Bronson Alcott—unless you will assume that his apotheosis will show how “practical” his vision in this world would be in the next. And so we won’t try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with much besides the memory of that home under the elms—the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day—though there may be an attempt to catch something of that common sentiment (which we have tried to suggest above)-a strength of hope that never gives way to despair—a conviction in the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done, may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its transcendentalists.




Fifty Shades of Louisa May: A Loving Biography Masquerading as a Smutty Novelty Book


Fifty Shades of Louisa May by L.M. Anonymous, is , to all appearances, the kind of cheeky send-up that E.L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey hardly deserves. Satire has the strange, paradoxical power to somehow dignify its target after all, or at least point out how the thing being satirized is, you know, worth actually talking about. However, Louisa May has no proximity to Fifty Shades of Grey, other than the window dressing of its cover and its title, both of which exist somewhere on the thin line between clever and crass. Sure, Louisa May has its share of sex scenes (most are more ridiculous than erotic), but this slim little book is, at its core, really a loving biography of novelist Louisa May Alcott.

The conceit is that Alcott, dipping into her secret vice of a midnight bottle of Madeira, decides to a pen a memoir (that she intends to burn) of her “carnal episodes, some amusing, others touching, but all rife with the sighs and heavings of Love’s labours.” (How the “X-rated woodcuts” that accompany each chapter made their way into the book remains unclear; I suspect that they follow the tradition established in the mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Organized roughly around Alcott’s difficult life with her transcendentalist parents and their transcendentalist friends, each chapter of Louisa May culminates in an erotic episode, albeit one that our heroine usually witnesses as voyeur and not participant. These episodes tend to involve other transcendentalist figures. In one inspired vignette, Louisa May sneaks out of her house to follow Herman Melville to the Old Manse, where she watches him watch Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne get it on:

I heard a small groan from Mr. Melville’s beech tree and saw that his own garments now circled his ankles and he was busily engaged in the art of Onan, his slitted eyes on his mentor, beard shivering with concentration. I looked away quickly—even in my youth I knew that such solitary activity must remain unwitnessed.

The Hawthornes let out a quivering scream, Nathaniel’s voice as high pitched as his wife’s as he rose from his chair to finish the work that his wife had begun. Thus spent, Sophia lay back in his arms. The ever-fastidious Mr. Hawthorne reached out with one hand to set to reordering his manuscript pages.

Mr. Melville let out a low hoot and sent a frothy fusillade across the yard to strike the windowglass with a furious splash.

“Look, my Dove, it appears to be raining,” Sophia said.

The episode is obviously more comical than erotic, its style—indeed the style of the entire book—a strange mashup of Alcott’s own rhythms and the diction of Victorian smut. There’s something joyously silly in the way L.M. Anonymous throws together various transcendentalists into would-be erotic interludes; when our heroine describes Fruitlands founder Charles Lane jacking off by moonlight, the whole thing feels like a big dirty in-joke for those of us who love this period of American history and literature. And sure, the jokes can be very crude—here’s Henry David Thoreau, nature lover:


L.M. Anonymous (“a well-known writer who prefers the cloak of anonymity to the vulgar embrace of rude fame,” according to the back of the book) seems to know his/her history (and attending rhetorical styles) fairly well. I’d have to guess that the author is, if not an Alcott scholar, then at least a passionate enthusiast—because what stands out most about Fifty Shades of Louisa May isn’t the smut but the internal conflicts of our narrator Louisa May.

In Anonymous’s imagination, Alcott is an embittered soul who has never forgiven her father for his foolishness, nor gotten over the fact that she’s the sole source of income for the Alcotts. She badmouths her books as unserious trash, bemoaning that she could do more:

Too often I have found myself diminished by the company of Famous Men to praise them. Had I been but relieved of the burden of supporting the entire legions of Alcotts with my earnings, I could have written novels and poems to equal their best—of that I am most confident. Instead of greatness, I lingered at the Trough of Rubbish too long, achieving only a shining of tin, not the glimmering of gold. But it is too late for me to be concerned with such matters. Time sorts out all writers, revealing each for what they truly were. I only hope that I shall be remembered as much for what I did not achieve as for what I did.

There’s so much tenderness here: Anonymous’s love and respect for his/her subject is plain. The author also seems to write through the book, through the narrator in this passage, as if acknowledging, in some metatextual move, the book’s own novelty status, pointing out that the book, a shaky Grey cash-in, is in some way a part of the Trough of Rubbish, but also that there’s more here too.

I read Fifty Shades of Louisa May in one short sitting, and found it at times amusing, if not especially erotic. I was prepared to to write it off as a silly novelty book—which perhaps it is—but there’s also a real love—and understanding—for Louisa May Alcott that comes through here. Who is it for? I’m not really sure. I’m going to guess that Fifty Shades of Grey fans will be disappointed, and fans of Little Women and its sequels will find their beloved tome trashed by Alcott herself (or at least her character). The book might work best as a primer to the American Renaissance, although I’m not sure which professor would be brash enough to stick this on her syllabus. My hope would be that Grey fans might find in Louisa May an inroad into better writers; at minimum though, they’ll at least be exposed to prose far superior to E.L. James’s trough of rubbish.

Fifty Shades of Louisa May is new in trade paperback from OR Books.