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Alcott Sources and Places to Visit

The whole Alcott family kept journals and wrote letters, as did many other people in the literary town of Concord, so I was lucky to have a lot of material about May Alcott and the time in which she lived. Some of May’s watercolors, the evocative drawings on her bedroom walls, and other work are displayed in Orchard House, a historic house open to the public where Louisa wrote Little Women. That novel is set in The Wayside, the rambling house next door, which is also open to the public. The Alcotts lived there earlier, and May visited when it later belonged to Nathaniel Hawthorne. After his death, May transcribed some of his letters, earning money to take art classes.

Books about May Alcott

May Alcott: A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor
The author of what is currently the only biography of May Alcott, published in 1928, quotes quite extensively from saved correspondence. We get anecdotes and a sense of the passionate woman whose work was generally viewed as of less importance than that of her sister and father. The book opens with a tribute from Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial and hundreds of other works, who credits May as his first art teacher. And admires her looks.

Studying Art Abroad and How To Do it Cheaply by May Alcott (aka Mrs. Abigail May Alcott Nieriker)
I read this slim book that was published shortly before May’s death in the Special Collections section of the Concord Free Public Library. Now, thanks to the growth of print on demand venues, you can find a reprint at online booksellers. May wrote it to help anyone in the late nineteenth century wanting to study art in Paris, Rome, and London, with an emphasis on women like her on a budget. May starts out with tips on managing the sea voyage (When leaving the U.S., don’t pay ten dollars for a steamer chair, but for the return trip, consider buying a pretty dark wood folding chair in London or Liverpool for ten shillings, which can later be put in a parlor.) She is generous with practical details about lodgings, ateliers, vistas to paint, and galleries to visit, as well as where to buy art supplies and the best gloves, hats, and hose.

Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters’ Letters from Europe edited by Daniel Shealy
The book reproduces letters from May and Louisa as they visited France, Switzerland, Italy, and England, with a broader context provided by Daniel Shealy. We get a sense of May’s love of exploring new horizons, as well as some disappointments. It’s beautifully illustrated with black and white copies of May’s drawings and paintings of people and places mostly done while traveling, though other artwork and family photographs are included.

The World of Louisa May Alcott by William Anderson and David Wade
Spare text and gorgeous photographs showcase close and long views of places important to the Alcott family. While the focus is on Louisa, there’s much that’s relevant to May’s life, including views of her room and paintings. Along with Healy’s book, this is where you’ll find the best reproductions of May’s artwork.

The Alcotts: Biography of a Family by Madelon Bedell
This book offers an insightful view of the growing up years of the four Alcott sisters and their parents. In 1975, Madelon Bedell interviewed May’s daughter in Switzerland, five months before her death at age ninety-five. Bedell was working on a second volume about the adult years of the sisters when she died.

The Memoirs of Julian Hawthorne by Julian Hawthorne
Julian became a prolific writer of essays, memoirs, and mysteries as he scrambled to support his large family. He wrote far more than his father, Nathaniel Hawthorne, though little proved lasting. This memoir showcases his happy-go-lucky voice, a contrast to the dense and serious tone of his father’s fiction. Memories of May include a scene in which they row on the Concord River to see the water lilies open at dawn.

Selected Books about Louisa May Alcott

There are too many books about May’s sister to put here, but some favorites of mine, essential to my research, include the following.

Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine Stern
This may be the most comprehensive biography, although contemporary readers may be used to a plainer style. Along with partner antiquarian book dealer Leona Rostenberg, Madeleine Stern uncovered work Louisa wrote under a pseudonym. They brought the gothic and sometimes a bit steamy stories back into print.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen
This fact-filled yet fast-paced book was clearly written with deep affection for the family, yet the author keeps an even tone and refrains from much commentary. The biography covers much of the same ground as previous works, though the author includes reports that Louisa may not have become ill due to mercury poisoning, as has long been presumed, but that she may have had an auto-immune disease such as lupus. Harriet Reisen located and quotes from Madelon Bedell’s papers, which included notes on her interview with May’s daughter. Though I knew how Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women would end, the account of the often lonely writer’s last days made me cry.

Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxton
Some LMA devotees dislike this book published in 1977, as it shows a darker version of a woman we love to love. Yet by all accounts, including Louisa’s own, she could be cross, judgmental, depressed, and sometimes short sighted. This fascinating biography offers not a flip side to the confident family we meet in Little Women, but it’s certainly more complex and fascinating.

Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever
The author of fiction, memoir, and biographies includes her personal responses to her subject, as the title suggests. Susan Cheever elaborates on both Louisa and others well known in their time, including Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. This overview of the community is extended in American Bloomsbury. As the daughter of writer John Cheever, Susan Cheever conveys a particular sympathy re living with a brilliant but sometimes difficult father.

Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs
A biography for young readers that won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1934, this remains an excellent introduction to the author.

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante
This book posits that Louisa’s strong mother shaped her choices at least as much as her father did. The dual biography reproduces letters and journal entries that explore the relationship of Louisa and her mother, who shared traits of intelligence, drive, love, and anger.

Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands by Jeannine Atkins
A novel for young readers about the family’s experience at Fruitlands, a farmhouse they helped establish as an utopian community in 1843, when May was only three. The residents wore linen so they wouldn’t have to depend on cotton picked by slaves, kept a vegetarian diet so strict that they wouldn’t take milk from cows or honey from bees, and eschewed money, hoping to support themselves from labor on the land. These were admirable goals, but most of the adults knew little about farming, and I wrote the book to explore how it might feel to the girls to wear scratchy bloomers, endure hunger, and see their father both extolled and criticized. John Matteson’s Pulitzer prize-winning Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father provides a thoughtful outlook for adult readers.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
No list is complete that doesn’t take us back to the 1868 novel that has never been out of print. A college student once showed me her copy inscribed with her grandmother’s name, her mother’s, and her own, written as a child. This is the copy my older sister and I shared, back when we played dress up, and she was the writer Jo and I was the artistic sister, Amy. Though I dreamed of penning dramas and poems in garrets, too, I secretly didn’t mind wearing the better clothes.

For more related books and all manner of things Alcott, you can’t go wrong visiting Susan Bailey’s blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion.


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