15 October 2014

Orchard House and the Power of Place

In 2012 Orchard House celebrated it's 100th anniversary as a museum. There were many events held that year to celebrate. For one of these, Pulitzer Prize winning Eden's Outcasts author, John Matteson, spoke to Orchard House supporters about the personal connection he developed with the House as well as the "incredibly generous spirit" that many who visit feel when they are here. We wanted to share the following excerpts from that talk and highlight some of the reasons we are embarking upon our new documentary.

From our Kickstarter Campaign Video - John Matteson in Bronson's Study

I offer my thanks to all of you for the passionate and durable commitment that you have made to the legacy of Louisa May Alcott and to that extraordinary place known as Orchard House. . . as I say a few words about the House and what I shall call the Power of Place.

There are very few dissatisfactions that I can think of that go with being a biographer. One of them is the fact that your editor and your agent very seldom want you to write two books about the same people. Much as I would have loved to spend a good deal longer in Alcottland, the push was on for something different and, hence, as you know, I have spent the last four years intently focused instead on Margaret Fuller. And therein lies a fascinating comparison. . . quite honestly the experience hasn’t been the same, and I have been asking myself why. Some of it may have to do with the fact that there’s nothing to compare with the giddy experience of being a first time author. Perhaps something more of it has had to do with the personality of my subject. Louisa May Alcott’s humor, her vitality, and her loving insights into the human condition make her an incomparably appealing person with whom to spend four or five years. These might have been partial reasons why Eden’s Outcasts was a uniquely fulfilling project, but neither of them is the reason. I truly believe that the reason why writing about Margaret Fuller was more challenging – the reason why it was so much harder to bring her up closer to my imaginative eye —was that, unlike the Alcotts, she has no accessible public place that is particularly hers: no living shrine that is sacred to her memory. . .

The epilogue of my biography of Fuller is called “Margaret-Ghost,” which is a description borrowed from Henry James. It is singularly appropriate for her. Without a place where people can go to learn about her, to see her belongings and where she slept and ate and wrote, one feels that she is farther away, almost but not quite beyond the field of our magnetism, resistant to our poor power to call her back. We have letters galore, a few journals, and handful or two of images, but she can never be present.

It was from this same fate of almost irretrievable remoteness that Louisa and the other Alcotts were rescued a century ago, when the foresighted founders of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association saved Orchard house from destruction and set it on the path to becoming the thriving historic site that it is today. Knowing Orchard House as well as all of you do, I am sure you find it no mere flight of imagination to suppose that a building can possess a soul. One’s appreciation need not be for history; it need not be for literature. One need only understand the preciousness of love and family to know that Orchard House is more than boards and nails, greater and more precious than paint and plaster. It is a place that welcomes, and it is one that inspires.

My own association with Orchard House began when I was in the early phases of researching and writing Eden’s Outcasts. As you may know, Eden’s Outcasts was my first book, and back in 2002 and 2003, I was taking my very first steps toward authorship. If you had asked me then to offer any good reason why anyone should take any great interest in me as a writer, I would have been stumped for an answer. Astonishingly, though, that didn’t seem to make any difference to anyone at Orchard House, and certainly not to our wonderful executive director, Jan Turnquist. She immediately granted me full, behind-the-ropes access to the entire house and even conducted me down to the basement to discuss the then-intended renovations of the foundation. Then she took me to lunch. She made me believe that I was just the right person to be writing Louisa’s and Bronson’s biography, and she kept on making me feel that way, straight through to publication. What a remarkable woman, I thought then, and I think so now. But what I did not realize at the time was that Jan was really just reflecting in concentrated form the incredibly generous spirit that pervades the entire organization that makes Orchard House go. It is a spirit that began with the Alcotts themselves, and, remarkably, it continues to be made manifest in those who preserve the Alcott legacy. Private person that she was, it might have taken Louisa quite a while to get used to the steady stream of admiring visitors who now make their respectful way through her father’s house. However, if she were able to see the welcoming spirit with which today’s custodians have made the house available to the public, the careful fidelity with which they preserve the authenticity of the past, and the spirit of goodness that touches everything that is done there, I think she would be deeply proud.

Now, I should freely confess that I am a world-class sap when it comes to matters like this one. I should admit that, in 2005, when my wife Michelle and daughter Rebecca took me to see the Little Women musical on Broadway, I was sobbing helplessly before the curtain went up. So I may not be the best person to consult regarding the way a person of average sensitivity approaches Orchard House. But, for whatever it may be worth, I have walked along the Lexington Road from Concord’s Town Center with an anticipation and an upwelling of emotion that is barely describable. I have felt something that is probably quite close to the sensation Emerson recalled when he wrote of being “glad to the brink of fear.” I suspect that, as you have walked that last gentle curve before the Alcott property comes into view, many of you have felt the same involuntary tightening in your throat, the same hint of moisture in the corners of your eyes. If you have, then you know just what I mean when I call Orchard House one of the most precious places on earth. If you haven’t ever felt those feelings, then I encourage you to take that walk again, sometime very soon. For unlike the ghost of Margaret Fuller, who wanders always in search of her true home, the spirits of the Alcotts are safe at home and always waiting to receive us, thanks to all the marvelous people, in 1912 and in 2012, who have made certain that they need never stray.

05 October 2014

Becoming a Steward of the Alcott Legacy

Turning the key in the front door of Orchard House each morning, the guides set about breathing life into the quiet house. They flutter through the rooms, waking up the house and turning on the lights. No two are alike: one is push-button, one turns to the right, one has a hanging cord. This is the house’s subtle charm, and the memorized movements of the ritual recalls a feeling of familiarity. Orchard House opens every morning, ready to greet visitors from around the world and to welcome them into the Alcotts’ home, a place that feels already familiar from Louisa's stories and books.

Often, the charming presentation of the house conceals the complexity of the system that supports it, and I don’t simply mean the finicky light switches or the expensive and up-to-code foundation put underneath the house in 2001. The guides give a voice to the lives of the Alcotts, of course, but many of the required roles that give Orchard House its charm and magic are tucked away from view. Many of these roles are also entirely voluntary, falling into the hands of stewards of the museum who act only out of their love and appreciation for the Alcotts and the many causes they upheld.

The gardens and landscape, for example, are lovingly tended by neighbors and volunteers, many of whom know with intimate detail which plants are possible descendants of those planted by Mr. Alcott in the nineteenth century and what varieties of apples once grew in the orchard. Culminating in the annual Fall Gardens and Grounds Clean-Up—taking place this year on November 15th—the important task of maintaining the landscape falls into the hands of these friends. Anyone who has enjoyed a picnic lunch under the shade of a tree on the lawn can appreciate their hard work and dedication.

Like the apples in the garden, stewards of the museum come in all varieties. Many of Orchard House’s most well-received events are enhanced by the presence of the Alcott Helping Hands and Hearts, a group of children who donate their weekends in December to participating in the annual Holiday Program, some of whom travel great distances to partake in the living history and make this experience more enjoyable for our guests. Their lively energy and youth—not to mention their charming singing voices—are a particular favorite during the holiday season, but they also appear at many of Orchard House’s events throughout the year. This volunteer group offers the opportunity to grow into many different roles at the museum.

Supporting this whole operation are the museum members, who introduce Orchard House to family and friends, and who make possible the continuing preservation efforts necessitated by the 300-year-old structure, which, while charming, requires regular maintenance. Becoming a member offers many benefits, including free admission to the museum and a museum shop discount, while supporting Louisa’s legacy.

Because Orchard House has been open to the public for more than 100 years, there are many who feel they have grown up at Orchard House and experienced its many stages. These stewards often return to the museum after years away, bringing myriad talents that continue to promote awareness about the Alcott family, their writings and work, and their messages about charity, equality, and creativity. These particular stewards offer their expertise in fields such as creative writing, public relations, and web design to keep the Orchard House as current as it is historic.

Stewardship is an especially pertinent and personal subject for me; I came to Orchard House as a volunteer in the garden several years ago, as a recent college graduate looking to explore different fields of work. I never imagined that the gardening I offered would blossom into a passion for the lives of the Alcott family that has influenced so much of my life. I was weeding under the lilacs one day when a visitor left the museum enthusiastically talking about the communal experiment at Brook Farm. “Where was it?” she asked her friend, who did not have an answer.

“In Roxbury, Massachusetts,” I offered, peeking out from under the tree and shaking the dirt off my gloves, and as we delved into conversation about the relationship between Brook Farm and Mr. Alcott’s Fruitlands experiment, I realized that I had an irreplaceable opportunity while surrounded by this historically rich environment. In the past several years, I have worn many hats at Orchard House (including blog-writer), and Orchard House always leaves the door open for me, offering new capacities for me to give back to the place the has given so much to so many.

This is the place I return to, the place I call home.

As a part of the documentary about Orchard House, you too have the opportunity to become a steward of this beloved place, to perpetuate a legacy that began hundreds of years ago. To call Orchard House "home." This opportunity is fully explained at our Kickstarter Campaign page and on our website.

Without an entire network of people dedicated to the support of Louisa May Alcott’s museum, including donors, volunteers, and stewards of all sizes and types, Orchard House could not be home to so many, or to show its bright face every morning to a new crowd of visitors. Through the dedication of our stewards, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House retains its cohesiveness of vision as generations pass, preserving our history and the Alcott legacy, and opening the door for years to come.

17 September 2014

#PledgeYourLove to Orchard House - Back our New Documentary on Kickstarter!


Help us create the first-ever documentary about Orchard House!
Guess what? Orchard House is making a movie - the first documentary about the 350 year history of the house - and we want YOU to be involved in creating the film.
For those who may not be familiar, Kickstarter is dedicated to fundraising for creative projects just like this. Funding is all-or-nothing, which means we need to raise every penny of our goal by October 22, 2014 through pledges to our online campaign. 
Pledges  start at just $1.00 and donations of all amounts are welcome and encouraged. There are even some great rewards for our backers. #PledgeYourLove to Orchard House and become part of our legacy! 

28 August 2014

Louisa May Alcott & Uta Pippig Team Up for the Annual Orchard House Walk/Run!

At first glance, these two women may not appear to have much in common.  Louisa May Alcott (left) is best known for writing children's stories in the nineteenth century, while Uta Pippig (right) is an international marathon winner and founder of Take the Magic Step (c), a foundation for advocating healthy and active lifestyles.
Don't be mistaken! Though separated by centuries, these strong, independent women are much more alike than they seem.

Did you know, for example, that Louisa was an avid runner?  She once wrote,
"Active exercise was my delight, from the time when, as a child of six, I drove my hoop around the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening."

While growing up in Concord, Louisa described many instances of  brisk morning runs in her journal, where she wrote,
"I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run."

In the spirit of advocating this lesser known aspect of Louisa's life and work, Orchard House Executive Director Jan Turnquist began the 10k/5k Run and 5k Walk for Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House in 2006.  Over the past eight years, this fundraiser has proven to be one of the most anticipated events on the Orchard House calendar, and with 19th century games and living history actors, there are festivities for all ages.

Executive Director Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott, participating in the race in her hoop skirt!

Louisa May Alcott took five hours to walk to Boston, and Uta Pippig is also familiar with the twenty miles it takes to get into the city-- 26.2 miles, in fact--and she became the first woman to win the Boston Marathon three consecutive times, from 1994 to 1996.

Pippig has served as Honorary Chair of the Walk/Run since the beginning, and Orchard House is so pleased and honored to announce that she will be in attendance this year.  After all, a love of running is not the only thing these two women have in common; with a spirit reminiscent of Louisa's interest in reforms and advocacy, Uta Pippig is an inspirational woman striving to help people make healthier habits and lead healthier lives.

Uta Pippig congratulates the male champion of the 2011 Walk/Run
The 9th Annual Walk/Run will take place on September 14th at 12 noon at the Alcott School in Concord, Massachusetts. 

Bringing together the force of these two women will undoubtedly make this year's Walk/Run an unforgettable event!  Register online now at our active.com site or visit the Orchard House website for more information.

08 August 2014

Finding the Beauty Everyday - Reflections on our "Write Stuff!" Youth Writing Workshop

"I find it impossible to invent anything half so true or touching as the simple facts with which every day life supplies me," wrote Louisa May Alcott to Mary E. Channing Higginson on October 18, 1868.

Today, over a century later, I find myself feeling the same way as Louisa. This past week I had the privilege to lead "Write Stuff!", a summer writing workshop for kids, with the invaluable help of Lis Adams and Victoria Salemme, as well as all those associated with Orchard House, past and present.

Embarking on a weeklong journey of creative writing with a group of strangers struck me as a somewhat daunting task. I did not doubt that participants would be wonderful, but, still, I suspected that asking participants to compose, and sometimes share, writing with a group mere hours ago unknown to them might be exhilarating, yes, but also potentially terrifying, even unthinkable.

To be more fully equipped for this experience, workshop members were asked to select and bring in their own "scribbling suit." This idea was inspired by Louisa who often wore one while writing; hers included a black apron handy for wiping her pen as well as a black hat with a red bow.

On day one of our writing adventure, after touring Orchard House together, we played "get to know you" games. Participants were asked to write three facts about themselves, making one true and two invented using their imaginations. Next they each received three slips of paper and wrote a descriptive sentence on each, two in the first person and one in the third but all autobiographical in nature. Upon completion, they placed them in our "household" mailbox (a decorated box--inspired by Marmee's Household Post-Office for her daughters as a way, "to interchange thought and sentiment"), passing it around and guessing the writer.

The next day one girl eagerly asked something like, "When's the mail coming?! Maybe the mailman should come! I know, we can be the mailmen today, and you two can guess who wrote what!" They all seemed quick to like this idea, and with much excitement, took turns walking around pretending to be delivery people and bestowing their compositions on us readers. It seemed Marmee's idea withstood the test of time.

One morning we began in the Parlor, writing song lyrics. Then each took turns donning a costume and reading or singing his/her work. One girl was concerned about this activity; so, I wondered whether she might team up with someone to present. Another girl quickly volunteered to partner up, explaining that she felt nervous, too. Standing side by side, wearing old-fashioned lace gloves, one white and one black, on their outer right and left hands, the two presented. As they stood in the large doorway between the Parlor and Dining Room, with the open curtain, the Alcott sisters' productions (once held in that same spot) no longer seemed like they took place so very long ago.

Thursday morning we walked to the Emerson House Garden. We were very lucky, as Mrs. Gordinier greeted us and even explained a bit about the Emerson House. One participant exclaimed that he'd like to move here; that he loved this place! As luck would have it, he had a $20 bill along and began asking how much of the Garden his fellow participants thought he could buy with it. Ideas flew, but in the end, it was decided that he might like to work there someday--that that might do the trick.

These moments chronicle just a few workshop experiences. Part of a week during which, with enthusiasm and humor, our group "wrote" their own story, day by day. A story both touching and true.

01 August 2014

Oh, the Drama! The Alcott Family in Theater

From an early age Louisa May Alcott, and her sisters Anna, Elizabeth, and Abby May, often entertained their friends and families by performing “theatricals.” As children the two older sisters would dramatize stories for their neighbors, and as young teenagers, Anna and Louisa wrote and performed plays in their family’s barn at Hillside (now called Wayside).  For these shows they found or made their own scenery, costumes, and props; between the two sisters they took on all the major roles, and sometimes enticed their younger sisters, Lizzie and Abby May, who were less theatrically inclined, to perform the smaller roles.  Louisa loved to play the dashing heroes and villains of the pieces (such as the hero “Roderigo,” who appears in the Christmas play in Little Women), and Anna played the romantic and dramatic roles.

As older teenagers and into their adulthood, Anna and Louisa continued to be involved in theater.  They formed a community theater group in Walpole, New Hampshire; and in Concord, Massachusetts, they organized the “Concord Dramatic Union” with their friends.  Louisa’s roles now inclined toward the comic, character parts, and Anna, who reportedly was a very talented dramatic actress, would move her audience to tears with her portrayal of the serious roles.  Anna’s dream as a teenager and a young woman was to be a great actress in the theater, and for some time Louisa considered a life onstage as well.  Both young women tried their hand at playwriting; Louisa succeeded in having one of her plays, The Rival Prima Donnas,  produced and performed in a Boston theater in 1860.

After Louisa went on to become a successful and famous writer, she continued to act for charity, often playing scenes from Charles Dickens to help raise funds for worthy organizations.  In 1860 Anna married John Pratt, a young man who, with Anna and Louisa, was one of the original founders of the “Concord Dramatic Union,” and who had once played opposite Anna in one of their productions, The Loan of a Lover.  Anna abandoned her dream of being a great prima donna and raised a family of two boys, Frederick and John Pratt, but she still pitched in graciously now and then to play a dramatic role for family theatricals when the need arose.
The “Concord Dramatic Union” is today a thriving community theater, now named the Concord Players, which produces three plays each year at 51 Walden Street in Concord, Massachusetts.

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House continues the tradition of parlor theatricals by offering a week-long summer drama program for children, Apple Slump Players, and by staging tableaus and scenes in their annual living history Christmas program every December.

Lis Adams
Director of Education


26 July 2014

It's the Artists' Life for May

Today we celebrate May Alcott's birthday. May was the lively youngest Alcott sister, born July 26 1840.  May was a natural born artist and began to sketch and draw at an early age. Bronson & Abigail even allowed her to decorate the walls of Orchard House with whimsical sketches to support her creative spirit. Visitors today can still see some of her original work, drawn right on the paint! 

At the age of 19, May was admitted to and began studies at the Museum School at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. There she really began to hone her artistic talent and explore work as a painter. As a student of William Rimmer and William Morris Hunt, May became an early teacher to American master sculptor, Daniel Chester French. As a 17 year old student, he was captivated by May, and we could think of no better way to honor her birthday than to share some of his remembrances of her written for the Prelude to May Alcott, A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor.

"One sparkling summer's morning in 1868 a young woman rode into our yard in Concord, Massachusetts, wearing the long skirt and close fitting bodice which, with plumed hat, made up the picturesque riding habit of that day, setting off her tall and extraordinarily handsome figure to advantage. This was May Alcott. Her face was not beautiful, according to classical standards, but the liveliness of expression and the intelligence and gayety that shone from it led one to overlook any want of harmony in her features...Full of the joy of living, her enthusiasm was easily stirred in almost any worth-while direction...May was fond of her home and a quite ideal relationship existed between her and her father and mother and sisters. She, more than the others, contributed to the lively and gay element in the household. One felt that here indeed, "people were of more importance than things."

Miss Alcott was devoted to her art and gave to it the best of her enthusiastic nature. She had talent and training, and her works, particularly her water colors, have a very distinct charm. Her sketches are still eagerly sought, both for their intrinsic value and for their association with the name of Alcott."

21 July 2014

Leave your Calling Card & Be Entered to Win!

Nineteenth Century etiquette required leaving your calling card when visiting a household. Calling cards then were much like today’s business cards, but used for social interactions. The French version, Carte-de-Visite (visiting card), became popular in the United States during the 1860s and typically included a photograph. Family members treasured these when separated from each other
during the Civil War and when traveling. Recently we've launched a new "Calling Card" program at Orchard House for our visitors. But we wanted to be sure  to keep our online community involved too!

Coming this fall, Orchard House is poised to share our mission of education and preservation with more people than ever through several exciting on-line projects and initiatives. We would be honored to consider you our partner in these endeavors. By completing and leaving your own  electronic “calling card” below you will have the power to help us exponentially extend our outreach AND be entered to win fun prizes!

You will not be added to a regular mailing list, but rather to an exclusive list with limited e-mail contact this fall. (You may opt-in to more mailings later, if you wish.) The Alcotts treasured human relationships and we take our cue from them in carrying on that tradition. With your help, many more people around the world will be able to learn from, be inspired by, and enjoy Orchard House and the Alcotts.
http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/e6da1a886/" rel="nofollow">a Rafflecopter giveaway

Note: We respect your privacy and never sell/share information

16 July 2014

Reflections from the Classroom - Adult Learning at the Summer Conversational Series

Bronson Alcott was at heart an educator. Whatever else he did, he came back to education: from being a teacher of young children, to serving as the superintendent of Concord schools, to traveling across the country to give conversations. The Concord School of Philosophy was the last of his endeavors, and the most lasting. Although the School closed after his death, the ideals of the School of Philosophy became the foundation for a yearly conference, begun in 1999. For the last 15 years, the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House has continued Bronson’s legacy of adult education. Individual talks no longer last all day, but for the scholars who come, it is a chance to present more than the typical 20 minute talk given at most academic conferences. Young scholars still pursuing their studies, classroom teachers who remain life-long learners, college professors from multiple disciplines, and eminent scholars from museums and other institutions all come together in the same room. The yearly theme connects all the presentations together; threads of discussions begun on Sunday connect throughout the week until the final conversation on Thursday afternoon, when participants then reflect on those connections. Bronson Alcott would be pleased!

Topics for the Conversational Series have included 19th century issues such as abolition, the women’s sphere, and education. We have looked at Louisa May Alcott’s lasting legacy, what primary sources can teach us about the past, and Transcendentalism. John Matteson shared his early research on Bronson and Louisa one year, and the next year read from the finished Eden’s Outcasts (and the next year was celebrated for being awarded the Pulitzer prize for biography). Sarah Elbert, author of several books on Louisa May Alcott, has spoken at the Series many times, as have Joel  Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Eve LaPlante (an Alcott relative). Presenters have come from France, Japan, and Argentina.
This year the series focuses on Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts. Only half-way through the week, and the conversation ranged from discussion of the Faust myth, the difference between talent and genius (according to the Alcotts themselves), what illustrations can tell us about interpretations of Little Women, and Louisa May Alcott’s marketing genius. Although these may sound like very different topics, they have all overlapped and built on each other. We may not yet know exactly what genius is, but we are enjoying the journey this conversation is taking us.

I have traveled from California each year since 2006, first as a participant, then as a presenter. It is the best week of my year, seeing people who have become friends, gaining new insight into the life and work of the Alcott family. If it were not for this Series, I would not have as deep an understanding of Bronson, as developed an appreciation of May, or as strong an admiration of Abba. And my love of Louisa’s fiction might still be just a hobby, rather than a scholarly pursuit.

What is it that draws us all here, besides the chance to share our work with like-minded people? There is something special in this yearly meeting. Perhaps it is that many of the presenters stay for the week. Having heard the earlier talks, later presenters can build on what’s come before. Those who have already presented can share ideas that they did not have time for, when they connect to the current discussion. The conversation after each talk becomes a true conversation, not just a Q&A. The Series is a space where the scholar (who has written multiple books) thanks the graduate student (just beginning dissertation research) for new insight into a specific topic. Speakers bring work they have just started, or read from finished books. Participants, all of whom are genuinely interested in what’s being shared, ask astute questions and add their own insight through their comments. And added to all of that, is Orchard House itself. Volunteers and staff bring lunch and home-baked goodies and select and beautifully wrap gifts for each presenter. We all, presenters and participants, go on the house tour and shop at the gift shop (what new books can I find this year?). As I talk to others during the Series, I sense that many of us simply love this place. It is not just the Alcotts, or the people who come to the Series. It is all of it together. I am proud to be part of Bronson Alcott’s educational legacy, and I am already planning for next year.

- Dr. Cathlin Davis, professor of Education, CSU Stanislaus
Part I will focus on 19th Century French women authors Madame de Staël and George Sand
and their influence on the Concord Transcendentalists, while Part II will examine the
representation of women in two well-known French works of 1857 --

Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

09 July 2014

Concord College for Adult Education: From Dream to Reality

A. Bronson Alcott on the steps of the School of Philosophy

The Concord School of Philosophy began as a dream. After Amos Bronson Alcott began his mercurial career as a schoolteacher in the 1820s, during which he tried out his radical educational ideas in the classroom in a series of schools that he ran in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and in Boston, Massachusetts, he abandoned the idea of running his own schools in favor of holding “conversations” for groups of adults, often traveling as far as the Midwest to find his audiences. Alcott’s dream of one day opening an adult educational center, a “college” that would be open to the public, was an idea he entertained as early as 1842 . On his trip to England to meet the founders of the Alcott School, named in honor of Alcott’s educational ideas, he collected hundreds of volumes of books on literature and philosophy, bringing them back to Massachusetts for the library of his future ideal classroom.

The dream became a reality in 1879, when the very first session of the Concord School of Philosophy “Conversational Series” was held in the Study of Orchard House. There were so many attendees that they spilled out the doors; and afterwards a benevolent participant from New York, Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, donated $1,000 to build a structure that would house the large numbers of future participants.

1899 Rendering of the School of Philosophy Building

During the following years the School was run each summer with great success. Many women and men, coming from as far away as the Midwestern states, would attend, boarding in town during the weeks of the sessions. Speakers who graced the stage included such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Peabody, Julia Ward Howe, William Torrey Harris, and Franklin Sanborn.
Franklin Sanborn, eminent Concord educator, thus described the conversations that followed each series lecture: “What is sought in the discussions at Concord is not an absolute unity of opinion, but a general agreement in the manner of viewing philosophic truth and applying it to the problems of life.”

The Hillside Chapel, as Alcott named it, built in 1880, still stands today on the Orchard House grounds. Bronson Alcott’s legacy lives on in the Summer Conversational Series and Teacher Institute, held annually each July at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

The School of Philosophy as it stands today.
This year’s Summer Conversational Series and Teacher Institute, “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts,” runs Sunday, July 13 through Thursday, July 17, and is open to the public. Massachusetts teachers may receive Professional Development Points for attending. Speakers include Pulitzer Prize winners Megan Marshall and John Matteson, screenwriter Olivia Milch, and others.

Pre-registration and prepayment are suggested. For a full schedule and additional information CLICK HERE, or call 978-369-4118 x106.

Lis Adams, Director of Education

04 July 2014

Reflections on My Portrayal of Louisa May Alcott

 I am privileged to live in Concord, Massachusetts just a mile from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, where I have worked since 1977 in varying capacities, and now as executive director.  Through these years, I developed an original one-woman show, in which I portray Louisa May Alcott in as much depth as I can to show her complexity.  When in character, I enter the room where the audience awaits as if I’ve had a minor carriage accident and must wait for repairs.  As soon as I step in, however, I quickly leave, as one would do if one inadvertently walked into an assembled group.  The evening’s host must say something to the effect, “Wait, Miss Alcott, these people wish to meet you.”  My embarrassed answer: “But I am interrupting you!”  When assured that this is not the case, I confess that the young man who took my carriage to the livery mentioned that someone in the building had read Little Women and would probably enjoy meeting me, but I didn’t expect so many people!  I then interact with the audience for about an hour, staying in character and staying in Louisa’s time-period.  In some performances questions begin immediately and the entire time is a dialogue.  In other cases, the first part of the performance is more like a stage show and the audience warms up for questions later on.  The interaction with the audience is my favorite part of the experience.  For me this process is like having a large mental closet full of stories and quotations.  I pull out the ones appropriate for that audience.  I try to behave exactly as someone would if stranded in a very unfamiliar place but pleasantly surprised by interesting people.  My highest complement is when people tell me they feel that they’ve really met Louisa May Alcott.  One editor asked me to write of my experience portraying Louisa because, as he put it: “Figuratively standing in her shoes brings a special insight” into her life.  That request has inspired this blog post, as well. *

Louisa May Alcott has ignited passion in scholars and captured the attention of modern day readers because of her multifaceted personality.  I like to think of her, the strong-minded feminist, proud spinster, independent thinker, and rebel poised to enter the Civil War as a Union Army nurse.  In her November 1862 journal she wrote,

Thirty years old.  Decided to go to Washington as a nurse . . .. I love nursing and must let out my pent up energy in some new way . . . I want new experiences, and am sure to get ‘em if I go.

Who was the young woman who wrote those words in 1862?  At age thirty, she did not think herself to be young.  On the surface, one might say she did not think much of herself at all.  Continually self-effacing, Louisa did not consider herself attractive, socially adept or a great writer.  Rather, she considered herself a workhorse who had the harder road, at least compared to her youngest sister.  In one journal entry, she wrote, “She (sister May) is one of the fortunate ones, and gets what she wants easily.  I have to grub for my help, or go without it.  Good for me . . . cheer up, Louisa, and grind away.”

Louisa routinely identified with the outsider and wistfully acknowledged what she could not have.  The reader of Alcott’s journals may conclude that Louisa was jealous of her sister, but should also note numerous passages such as, “On the 17th go to B[oston] and see our youngest [May] start on her first little flight alone into the world, full of hope and courage.  May all go well with her!”   Keeping the whole person in mind as I portray Louisa, I take the view that her sibling envy is only on the surface.  Underneath, I see her deep love for her sisters and her strong spirit taking over.   Looking beneath that surface in order to understand her, one does see a strong-minded feminist, an independent thinker, a dutiful daughter, a humorist, an actress, a preacher, a repressed soul, sometimes frustrated not to be in a more traditional, cared-for role, a proud, independent spinster, a jealous outsider, a rebel, an optimist, and a pessimist.  Louisa was all of these, and reflected them in her writing.  She was, after all, a product of her age.  Women were strongly admonished everywhere in the Victorian culture to prepare themselves to fulfill their sacred duty to be wife and mother. 

Even as one sometimes sees traditional female roles reflected in her writing, one must remember her thriller tales, uncovered by foremost Alcott scholars Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern.  In tale after tale, with titles such as Behind a Mask, or the Story of a Woman’s Power, Louisa celebrated strong, independent, bold women.   I loved discussing these stories with Rostenberg and Stern, who become very close friends.  At our first meeting, I was extremely nervous, knowing that these Alcott experts were about to see me perform as Louisa May Alcott after a dinner at Trinity College honoring their lifetimes of scholarly achievement.  After the performance, Miss Stern said to me, “You are Louisa May Alcott.  Louisa would have loved this!”  As our friendship grew, I learned more about their thoughts on Alcott and also discovered that it was the depth of my characterization, and my willingness to include divergent aspects of Louisa’s personality that drew Miss Stern’s compliment (which I shamelessly treasure to this day).

In the bosom of a family that practiced what they preached, Louisa learned to value people more than things and greatly admired her mother whom she called, “The best woman in the world.”  Well-born Abigail May was a true philanthropist who gave out of her own need, when she could not give out of abundance.  She truly was the Marmee of Little Women, with more dimension in real life.  Indeed, the cheerful actions and words of Mrs. Alcott and her daughter were often exhibited in the midst of suffering and death.   Both Louisa and her mother also had an acerbic wit and could also express dismay and distress in their journals.  Even so, the Alcotts repeatedly made an intentional choice to search for joy in hard times.  Louisa loved finding or making fun.  Humor gave her a healthy perspective on her life and life around her, even in the midst of suffering.

Louisa dearly loved her philosopher father, Amos Bronson Alcott.  Although he did not provide well for his family materially, he nurtured his daughters’ inner beings.  Instead of mourning his lack of sons, he celebrated his girls as equally viable movers and shakers – remarkable for that time.  In an era when it was considered unlady-like for a woman to have a desk of her own, Mr. Alcott built his budding authoress her own desk.  Louisa enjoyed this personal encouragement, love and support even as she was sometimes frustrated by her father’s extremely idealistic impracticality.   She once wrote, “Why try to know the unknowable when there are still poor to be fed?”  Louisa also wrote, “I wish the stupid would wake up and pay him what he is worth,” after learning that as a lecturer, he was not always paid what was promised, even though his conversations had been characterized as going “to heaven in a swing.”

When preparing the role of Louisa May Alcott, I try to be honest and take her as a whole being.  I endeavor to take conflicting feelings and let them coexist in one person.  Indeed, we are all made up of contradictory parts, which we frequently do not see very clearly in ourselves.   Yet as a whole, these diverse pieces come together to create a vital, interesting person.  A problem with intelligent, complex historic people, such as Louisa May Alcott, is that when dissected in a purely academic light, one loses that sense of the whole.  For Alcott, as for others, like a pointillist painting, close inspection of the tiny pieces means loss of the whole where one sees the true character.

            A strong part of the popular culture, Louisa’s book, Little Women, is a useful reference point for understanding Alcott – to a degree.  Readers are not called upon to dissect and scrutinize tiny pieces of a character’s conflicting nature.  They understand conflict to be a normal part of an interestingly complex real person.  One of Jo’s most endearing qualities is that she is not perfect, yet she goes on loving, living, and doing her best to make a real difference in the world.
            In this way, I believe Little Women is an aid in understanding the young woman who stood at the brink of war and wished to plunge in!  Louisa was ready to make a real difference in the world, even as she was self-effacing.  To some degree, that modesty was a façade, fulfilling society’s expectation of a woman, yet the side of her that went forth and acted boldly anyway always won out over any doubts.  Such action is a sign of healthy esteem, even if you also look wistfully to what might have been, as Louisa sometimes did.  The imaginative and creative soul can envision oneself on the path not taken, feel a sense of loss, but refuse to dwell on regrets.

                        Louisa May Alcott was both a product of her times and a challenge to them.  Her autobiographical character, Jo March, has been hailed as a role model for women for over a century now and inspires people from all walks of life and all parts of the globe.  Women in particular draw inspiration from Jo March.  Yet, it is unfortunate that the very title, Little Women, creates a certain reluctance to reading the book in some males.  I am convinced that Louisa’s experiences in life and in the Civil War allowed her to cut through gender roles and convey the inspiration and attraction of her family experience to male and female alike.

            She begins her classic, Little Women, during the dark days of the Civil War.  To make her book more socially acceptable, the pragmatic author gave many of her own Civil War experiences to Mr. March.  The similarities are unmistakable:  A telegram brings the family the dreaded news that Mr. March is in a Union Army Hospital.  Mother leaves immediately for Washington, “praying that she is not too late.”  In reality, Louisa was the subject of just such a telegram and her father traveled to the Union Hotel Hospital, hoping that he may see his second born alive.

            In Little Women and in the Alcott home the warmth and support of family – no matter how flawed -- provides strength when far away and in trying circumstances.  With remarkable straightforward simplicity, Louisa shares what she experienced that the strength of a good family is a constant presence.

            In my role as performer, as well as in my job as executive director of her home, Orchard House, I meet literally hundreds of her readers every month.  I have been truly astounded by her impact on lives.  I am often asked to explain phenomena such as the hundreds of thousands of Japanese visitors who flock to Orchard House, brimming with enthusiasm.  I have come to believe that because Jo March displays strength and independence, while maintaining absolute respect for all members of her family and championing the value of family and people over material possessions and social standing, she is a universal role model.  Humans the world over long to find ways to maintain their inner spirit, while sustaining connections to those who really matter in life.

            Of all the statements that I have heard, however, a recent one really gave me pause.  A woman, who saw my Louisa May Alcott performance, told me that her fifteen-year-old grandson’s favorite book was Little Women.  She told me that he would not admit to his friends that he had even read it, much less how much he loved it.  I asked her if he had given her a reason for his fondness of the book.  She told me that he said it was because the March family was weird in a cool way.  I have turned this idea over in my mind a great deal since then.  “Weird in a cool way.”

            That pretty much sums it up, I guess.  In the midst of people who are afraid to be themselves, whether the year is 1861 or 2061, it can seem weird to be oneself with all of one’s conflicts and inconsistencies showing.  It can definitely seem weird to stand up for one’s unpopular beliefs and to act in ways that do not “fit in” with everyone else.  And in today’s vernacular, where “cool” means admirable; it is cool to see the bravery and integrity it takes to do these things.   Do I hero-worship Louisa May Alcott?  No.  Do I admire her?  Yes.  Her writings come from the heart and intellect of a person of tremendous integrity and spirit.  They accurately record events of the time, yet hold a timeless quality.   Louisa May Alcott imparts the unique perspective of a person whose family nurtured her with independence and integrity – a person. flawed, but definitely “cool”

* Parts of this blog originally appeared in my introduction to Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War from Edinborough Press, c 2007           --Jan Turnquist

11 June 2014

Anna Alcott Pratt's 1860 Wedding Dress on Display

Once a year, during the months of May and June, visitors on tour at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House have an opportunity to see Anna Alcott Pratt’s original 1860 gray silk wedding gown.

Anna Alcott was 29 years old on May 23, 1860, when she married John Bridge Pratt, a young Concord man who had once played her leading man in an amateur theatrical production called “The Loan of a Lover.”  It was typical (and practical) for a bride of that period to choose a gown of a neutral color (brown, navy, gray) that she could wear again.  “Hoping to be married in the evening,” she wrote in her journal three months after the event, “I had proposed a very simple white dress meaning to look like a bride, but on deciding it should be in the morning & knowing myself to be neither young nor pretty I laid it aside as unsuitable & wore my riding dress of silvery grey, & Louy [sister Louisa] placed in my hair & upon my bosom, sprays of lilies of the valley.”

The wedding party was small, comprised of “Mr. & Mrs. Emerson, Mr. Thoreau, (Franklin) Sanborn, & the two families,” and took place in the front parlor of Orchard House, with the bride and groom standing “together beneath an arch of lilies, hand in hand.”  Mrs. Alcott’s brother (the bride’s uncle), Unitarian minister Samuel May, presided over the couple, bringing tears to the eyes of the onlookers with his heartfelt words, according to Anna:

I was in a dream, the lovely day, the bright May sunshine stealing in upon the sweet flowers & wreaths, & loving faces, the influence of the kind hearts around me, Uncles gentle voice, and the touch of the hand that held mind so firmly yet so fondly, all seemed so beautiful, that altho’ my heart beat fast and the tears came to my eyes, I did not feel like Annie.”  After the ceremony, “we danced on the lawn under the Elm…we ate the wedding dinner, and then the carriage came and I began to wake up, & think ‘I am going away.’  Tearful faces kissed me goodbye, loving hands held mine as if they could not let them go and amid such plentiful affection as even the most beautiful bride in the world could (experience), I drove away from my dear home… a happier wedding day a woman could not ask.

Recording Anna’s wedding day in her journal, Louisa May Alcott wrote that she and her sister May were dressed “in thin grey stuff and roses,--sackcloth, I called it, and ashes of roses, for I mourn the loss of my Nan, and am not comforted.”  She added:  “Then, with tears and kisses, our dear girl, in her little white bonnet, went happily away with her good John; and we ended our first wedding.  Mr. Emerson kissed her; and I thought that honor would make even matrimony endurable, for he is the god of my idolatry, and has been for years.”

One month after the wedding, Louisa called on Anna and John in their home in Chelsea.  She wrote:  “Saw Nan in her nest, where she and her mate live like a pair of turtle doves.  Very sweet and pretty, but I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”

Louisa May Alcott herself never married, claiming that “liberty is a better husband than love.”  She and Anna remained close friends throughout their lives.

It is presumed that Anna did wear her dress again for special occasions, since silk would not have been suitable (or practical) for everyday use.  The full costume would have included “undersleeves” that went to the elbow beneath the fashionable bell sleeves on the dress.

Orchard House also owns a replica costume that has been worn in living history wedding reenactments, performed as public events every few years.  Brides portraying Anna Alcott, as well as the grooms portraying John Pratt, most often have been descendants of Anna herself.  One memorable reenactment featured a family descendant from Germany: the great-great-granddaughter of May Alcott, Anna’s youngest sister.

Alcott descendants participate in wedding reenactment (with replica wedding gown).
To visit Orchard House and experience the dress for yourself, guided tours are available daily at 399 Lexington Road, Concord, MA, Mondays through Saturdays, 10 – 4:30 p.m., and Sundays 1 – 4:30 p.m.  Groups of 10 or more may make advance reservations by calling 978-369-4118 x106.