For all those who have ever read Little Women and loved it, Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott shows how much of Little Women was based upon Louisa May Alcott’s own family. What makes this biography special is that it is primarily told in the letters that the Alcott family wrote each other, including a letter from five year old Anna telling her mother that “You have a splendid husband”.
I don’t know if Bronson Alcott was that splendid of a husband (he was a failure as a businessman, and his family lived in poverty most of their childhood), but he definitely was a “splendid” father.
Here is what he wrote Elizabeth on her fifth birthday:
I I I I I Years
one two three four five
My very dear little girl,
You make me very happy every time I look at your smiling pleasant face—and you make me very sorry every time I see your face look cross and unpleasant. You are now five years old. You can keep your little face pleasant all the time, if you will try, and be happy yourself, and make everybody else happy too. Father wants to have his little girl happy all the time. He hopes her little friends and her presents and plays will make her happy to-day; and this little note too. Last birthday you were in Beach Street, in the great City, now you are at your little cottage in the country where all is pretty and pleasant, and you have fields and woods, and brooks and flowers to please my little Queen, and keep her eyes, and ears, and hands and tongue and feet, all busy. This little note is from
who loves his little girl very much, and knows that she loves him very dearly.
All the day,
Jump and run
Full of fun,
A piece of cake,
For my sake.
Unfortunately, having him as a father had its downside, including the Fruitlands experiment and its failure that was immortalized by Louisa Alcott in her “Transcendental Wild Oats.”
The detail of it is thus described by a friend of the Alcott family, who had the story from Bronson Alcott himself:
The crop failures necessitated the community living on a barley diet, as anything animal was not allowed, not even milk and eggs. Now and then they gave a thought as to what they should do for shoes when those they had were gone; for depriving the cow of her skin was a crime not to be tolerated. The barley crop was injured in harvesting, and before long want was staring them in the face. The Alcotts remained at Fruitlands till mid-winter in dire poverty, all the guests having taken their departure as provisions vanished. Friends came to the rescue, and, Mr. Alcott concluded with pathos in his voice, “We put our little women on an ox-sled and made our way to Concord! So faded one of the dreams of my youth. I have given you the facts as they were; Louisa has given the comic side in ‘Transcendental Wild Oats’; but Mrs. Alcott could give you the tragic side.”
Indeed, it was always Mrs. Alcott who could have given the tragic side, skillfully as she kept her worries hidden. Her own family, indignant because Bronson Alcott could not better provide the material needs for his family, on more than one occasion besought the faithful wife to leave him.
Reading this book, I am struck by how strong an impact the father had on that family. Bronson Alcott was an idealist, with strongly-held views of the world, and he passed those strongly held views to his children with love and tender care.
Strongly-held views taught with love and tender care are not necessarily correct. For instance, I doubt my daughters would agree with the sentiment of a young Louisa Alcott that “love of cats” is a vice. Having Bronson Alcott as a father definitely was a mixed bag, the type of life that makes great source material for a novel.
What a wonderful slice of the life of one of America’s most interesting literary families! I remember visiting the Alcott house in Concord some years ago, where I learned that Bronson was quite a fascinating (and deeply flawed) character. Looking forward to reacquainting myself with him and the other Alcotts when I read these letters. Thanks for this post!
I had fun smooth-reading this book. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the family, and into the society they lived in.