Thursday, September 12, 2013

At Home with the Alcotts

Read the published version of Library Director Charlotte Canelli's column in the September 13, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

One of the things I love to do is tour Massachusetts with my out-of-state friends.  I had this honor in the last weeks of the summer with two of my oldest friends.  By oldest, I do mean my girlfriends who grew up with me bosom buddies in the suburbs of San Francisco.

I was transplanted from the Blackstone River towns of Massachusetts as a very young child.  I only rediscovered my New England roots as an adult, traveling past mills that stand proud (renovated or not), historic homes that held generations of families, and graveyards that tell the stories of amazing lives.

Last week, I was delighted to share part of the Massachusetts legacy of author Louisa May Alcott with friends when we visited the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts. Fruitlands is just under an hour’s drive from Norwood.   On a gently rolling hillside overlooking woods and walking trails, one can view (on a clear day) Mt. Wachusett in Princeton, MA and Mt. Monadnock in Jaffrey, NH in the distance.

It was in a farm house there at the bottom of the hill that Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, moved his family in 1843.

They called it The Fruitlands, but it really was anything but. It was meadow and farmland at the time with a few apple trees that barely passed as an orchard. Louisa May Alcott’s father was a Transcendentalist, along with some of his intellectual contemporaries and companions, Emerson and Thoreau.  Bronson Alcott’s dream of a simple community of self-sustenance is a complicated story that takes up pages of books written about the movement.  What can be said briefly here is that Bronson Alcott was able to convince his wife, and several followers to move to Harvard where he had dreams of redeeming and transforming New England society through his own experiment of a strict vegan lifestyle, pure living and self-sufficiency.

And so, Alcott’s family followed him to this gentle dale in Harvard, MA in the spring of 1843 only to abandon the Fruitlands farm within seven months. While Alcott spent weeks of his time traveling to spread the word about the movement, he left his wife and four daughters alone to tend to the hard work at home.  Louisa’s mother, Abigail, insisted on leaving the complex and rescuing her family before the worst of the harsh winter months of 1944.

Today, the Fruitlands Museum is a daylong adventure. It was the brainchild and project of author and preservationist Clara Endicott Sears, a descendent of wealthy New England families. She opened the Alcott farmhouse in 1914 after purchasing the land in 1910.  She transplanted a Shaker home from a village that had closed in 1917. Later she added a building to house a portrait gallery of Early American folk paintings and another to house her collection of Native American artifacts from around the country, but most specifically, New England.

Louisa May Alcott described the Fruitlands experiment in her own fictionalized, satirical account, “Transcendental Wild Oats: Excerpts from the Fruitlands Diary” written in 1873, twenty-five years after the family abandoned the Fruitlands home.  Clara Endicott Sears compiled letters and accounts of Bronson Alcott and his associates in “Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands”.  The Sears book has been combined with Louisa May Alcott’s own accounts in many versions published in the last decade (a combination of the two titles above.) A children’s version of Louisa’s story was written by Gloria Whelan in “Fruitlands: Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect” (2002). The book (written for 8-12 year olds) is a wonderful description of Fruitlands without the wordy and complicated philosophies behind Bronson Alcott’s utopian ideals.

Richard Francis describes the ideal of the father and the suffering of ten-year old Louisa and her family during the unsuccessful utopian experience in “Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia” (2011).  Louisa’s na├»ve father Bronson Alcott would be said to be a man sometimes too bright for his own good. While his head was high in intellectual clouds, Bronson Alcott’s wife Abigail supported the family by both her own labor (seamstress and cook) and the wealth of her parents.
Louisa’s mother Abigail’s letters and diaries were compiled by her great-niece Eve LaPlante in 2012 in “My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother”. Eve LaPlante was researching her great-aunt, Abigail Alcott for the biography “Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother” (2012) when she came across Abigail’s papers, which were thought to have been destroyed. Both books shed light on the strength that Louisa got from her mother, a spirited feminist and the rock in the family. Memories of the Fruitlands experiment combine with a lifetime of others in her writings and in LaPlante’s biography.

There are numerous other books about Bronson and Louisa May Alcott that include a narrative of Fruitlands and other years of their lives. Author Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her fictionalized description of Bronson Alcott’s Civil War years in “March” (2005). Through historical fiction, Brooks illustrates Alcott’s experiences in the war and on the battlefield that led to his abolitionist sentiments. “Eden’s Outcasts: the Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father” by John Matteson (2007) describes the sometimes strange coincidences and deep contrasts between Louisa and her father.  They shared a birthday – November 29 – and they died only two days apart in 1888.  While Louisa respected her eccentric father, she was burdened nearly her entire life supporting him both intellectually and financially. It was Louisa’s writings, specifically Little Women in 1868, that pulled the family from poverty.

This leads, directly to my newest favorite account of Louisa May Alcott’s life combined with one of my favorite childhood books.  “Little Women: An Annotated Edition” by Daniel Shealy (2013) was published only months ago and it combines perfectly the story with a century of illustrations and study.  It’s an armchair book, not a pocket one, of about 600 oversized pages. Shealy includes commentary on the complicated issues of the 19th Century such as feminism, equality, the Fruitlands experiment and Louisa’s burdens and strengths, both amazingly given to her by her family.
Call or visit the library to request or check out these books on Fruitlands and the lives of one of New England’s favorite families, the Alcotts.