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Essay On Transcendental Wild Oats By Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women

I am delighted to have been asked to choose a ‘classic memoir’ text to discuss at the Sydney Memoir Club in Randwick on Tuesday the 28th July – to which you are all invited.

I’ve chosen Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 humorous essay ‘Transcendental Wild Oats’and would like to talk about this in the context of the immensely popular Little Women series for which she is best known.

When I was a child Little Women and Good Wives(together in one big red volume) was one of the few books we had, and the character Jo March was enormously influential for me as for many others.

‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ — regarding the year when she was ten and her family joined an extremely idealistic utopian community — gives, however, a very different picture from the ‘shabby gentility’ of the Marches.

Amos Bronson Alcott

Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a well known Transcendentalist philosopher, and the family were friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau and other New England intellectuals. However Bronson Alcott chose to concentrate on his philosophy to such an extent that the task of breadwinner often fell to Louisa’s mother, Abby, and later to Louisa herself, at a time when it was extremely difficult for a ‘genteel’ woman, especially a married one, to find paid work.

For one season, for instance, they lived on a diet of bread, apples and water. And as you’ll read in ‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ the Alcotts (which Louisa sometimes referred to as ‘The Pathetic Family’) were way more eccentric than the Marches and went through some extreme challenges that are glossed over in the fiction.

Abigail (Abba) Alcott

Which of course would be fine — there is a big difference between fiction and memoir, after all — except that for many of her biographers Little Women is ‘Louisa’s own story just as it happened’, ‘truer than true’, told ‘without artifice,’ ‘written from the heart exactly as it occurred’.

Indeed Louisa encouraged this blurring of the boundaries and in later life actively participated in the creation of this mythology.

For in Little Women she created a version of her upbringing that rescued her family and made them respectable (neatly dispatching Mr March off to war, for instance, so Marmee could legitimately run the show). The popularity of the books also provided her, in a time when spinsters were generally looked down upon and silenced, with a safe and authoritative persona as ‘Aunt Jo’ (married and a mother by the third book) while allowing Louisa herself to nevertheless remain unmarried and ‘paddle her own canoe’.

The Little Women series also provided the framework for her more controversial and troubling works — such as her ‘lost’ novel Moods (written when she was in her late 20s and roundly criticised by reviewers for its questioning attitude to marriage) and her blood & thunder stories written under a pseudonym — to be attributed to the young inexperienced ‘Jo’ and ignored by most of the biographers as juvenilia.

‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ is a curious piece of writing, because it sits in a way in a crack between the disavowed works (which often question marriage as providing emotional safety for women) and the canonised ones (with the famous dictum, ’to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a women’).

Her voice is ‘humorous’, but underneath is a biting criticism of a world ruled by men, even when those men are some of the most ‘enlightened’ of their time.

‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ is available for download at http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/engl368/transoats.pdf

Little Women & Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys are all available for free at Project Gutenberg where you can download them as pdf, mobi (for kindle) or ePub versions. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/102

The Sydney Memoir Club for Writers and Readersmeets on the last Tuesday of every month in the Norm Hoffman Memorial Hall of The Randwick Literary Institute at 60 Clovelly Road, Randwick, NSW, from 6-9pm.

Donation: $15 at the door for hall hire, refreshments and speakers.

Food: $15 for a plate of delicious vegetarian finger food (different each meeting). Ring or text to book a plate: 0450 907 422.

Thank you to Beth Yahp, Barbara Brooks and Alison Lyssa for organising this. More info here at Beth Yahp’s blog.

This talk will be partly based on my research and ideas from my thesis ‘Louisa May Alcott: the Lost Work, the Later Work, and the Life’ (Sydney University, 1982). I read nine biographies for that thesis (and most of her books and much else). However there has been a whole new batch of biographies since then… Will have to do some quick catch up reading! Louisa May Alcott is a fascinating subject.

Hope to see you there.

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Louisa

Dissertation Synopsis, Introduction, and Novel Synopsis .

Synopsis.

This dissertation is about the relationship between Alcott’sMoodsand the aspects of Transcendentalism she was exposed to as daughter of a Transcendentalist educator and resident of Concord. The major contention is that Moods examines the practical value of different aspects of Transcendentalism for adolescent women in the nineteenth-century. Throughout I am concerned with Alcott’s examination of the expediency of Transcendentalist views concerning individualism, the family, social convention, marriage and the role of women. To this end I study Moods’ references to works by Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and its allusion to Margaret Fuller’s death. I speculate about its autobiographical relevance to life on the Transcendentalist commune, Fruitlands, and Thoreau’s courtship. I conclude that Alcott conceded that Transcendentalism offered a valuable social commentary, but failed to provide a cogent alternative for women. Alcott advocates a deeper understanding of the value of family life as the solution to the issues Moods raises.

See Footnote 4- a spiritually instructive letter from Bronson, sent to Louisa on her seventh birthday. Courtesy of the Houghton library, Harvard University.

Louisa May Alcott’s Moods and Transcendentalism.

Louisa May Alcott’s earliest education in authorship was a Transcendentalist one. Her father Bronson Alcott was one of the founders of the movement: a personal friend and associate of Emerson from 1835. They were introduced by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who assisted Bronson at his Temple School in Boston from 1834-1836 where Margaret Fuller also taught before editing The Dial. Bronson moved to Concord, following the failure of the school in 1836, and during the years that the family spent there: 1836-1842 and 1844-1848, Louisa lived next door to Nathaniel Hawthorne with free access to Emerson’s library, whilst receiving lessons from Thoreau.

Bronson Alcott’s Transcendentalism was not straightforward, nor was there a common Transcendentalist manifesto. What united the group in Concord, of which Emerson was at the centre, was a belief in a state of being achieved by individual intuition that could transcend the corporeal world. Emerson referred to this state of being as the ‘Over-soul’ that lay dormant throughout humanity: ‘the soul of the whole… to which every part and particle is related…’[1] Emerson defined Transcendentalism as Idealism. A Transcendentalist was one who insisted on ‘the power of Thought and Will, on inspiration, on individual culture’.[2]

As a logical extension to this faith in individual culture Bronson felt that each person was bound to ‘manipulate their environment and control their own destiny’ to realise their ‘divine and unlimited potential’,[3] and he attempted to take an active role in bringing this about in all of his children.[4] However, when his personal aspirations to this perfection came into conflict with his family, Bronson’s role as spiritual guide was compromised.

The Fruitlands farmhouse

In his Fruitlands experiment of 1841 Bronson ‘confronted the conflict between the centrifugal force of American individualism…and the social need for the bonds of community and family’.[5] In an attempt to create a community where everyone could realise their divine potential, Bronson moved his family to a small tract of land near Harvard, Massachusetts. Endeavouring to transcend all physical needs, as well as to respect the organic oneness of the human being within the natural world, Bronson excluded all meat, salt, cane sugar, spices, coffee and tea from the daily diet, as well as banning everyone from wearing wool, as it was considered theft from sheep. This invariably brought him into conflict with his wife, who was concerned for the health of their daughters. The issue came to a head when his associate, Charles Lane, who believed that one’s love for common Man should exceed that of the family, suggested that the commune move to a segregated-sex Shaker community.

Louisa’s exposure to Transcendentalism, its resistance to social convention and nineteenth-century family life, was to have great influence on her literary work. Central to her writing is an attempt to reconcile self-culture with conjugal and familial bonds. The contact she had with Thoreau also allowed her to consider the appropriateness of the Transcendentalist manifesto for women. Her understanding of the man and his philosophy, particularly his courtship with Ellen Sewall, informed her doubts regarding the ability of women to cope with both solitude and independence. Her acquaintance with Margaret Fuller as a child at the Temple School also reinforced this. Emerson deepened her insight into her father’s philosophy, as many of his essays stressed the importance of maintaining individual freedom in the face of social convention. Her enthusiasm for the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, (she claimed The Scarlet Letter was her favourite novel)[6] was to inform her examination of marriage, both in the context of Transcendentalism and in relation to the role of women in society.

Bronson Alcott

While Louisa venerated individual fulfilment, she also recognised the family as central to the development of identity. In her account of the Fruitlands experiment, Transcendental Wild Oats, the philosophical problems of the affair are resolved when the father figure realises that familial responsibilities must override all other concerns:

“My faithful wife, my little girls… they are mine by ties that none can break. What right have I to leave them alone?… This duty remains to me, and I must do it manfully… The world will forgive me in time; [and] for their sakes, God will sustain me now.”[7]

While there is no evidence that Bronson himself experienced such a revelation, Louisa’s account is telling. It would seem that, in her view, the only consolation to one who failed in the attempt to achieve spiritual divinity was the family. Furthermore, one had a greater duty to the flesh and blood begotten of the self, than to the individual self.

Louisa was not the only writer to observe the problems created by an undue emphasis on individualism in Transcendentalist communes. In his novel The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne presents the reader with the portrait of a man who is so overcome by his philanthropic vision that he is prepared to sacrifice the commune and its objectives, as well as the individuals in it, in order to achieve his purpose. Furthermore, the introspectiveness of Hollingsworth’s vision allows his ego to subsume his sense of responsibility to others in a similar way to that of Bronson. [8]

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Like Louisa’s, Hawthorne’s critique was based upon his own experiences in an experimental community and the problems it raised for family life. Hawthorne was promised that for three hours daily manual labour he could purchase a private cottage with his wife in Brook-Farm and use his leisure time to write. He advanced $500 toward the building of a house, a sum that was never returned. The private residences were never built, and the inhabitants found that they had to work for much longer than three hours to keep the farm functioning.[9] Hawthorne consequently became very disillusioned with Transcendentalism and much of his writing, both public and private, testifies to this.[10]

While Louisa clearly saw the problems with her father’s position, she did not come to despise it, unlike Hawthorne. She was an avid admirer of Emerson: the individualist philosopher who had a great influence on her father’s school of thought, and the para-text of her first novel Moods (1864) was taken from his 1844 essay, ‘Experience’. This dissertation will examine how Moods explores Alcott’s complex relationship with the Transcendentalist vision.

Alcott’s publisher, Redpath, asked her to cut the novelby half as he felt a two volume edition would be unprofitable. Louisa followed his advice but the novel received a mixed reception and she published a revised edition in 1882, claiming that the original ‘was so altered, to suit the taste… of the publisher, that the original purpose of the story was lost…’, implying a return to her initial vision for the novel: ‘Several chapters have been omitted, several of the original ones restored…’[11] The emendations excluded a minor sensational storyline regarding the romance of one of the heroine’s suitors with a Cuban temptress. Assuming that it was written on the advice of her publisher and purposefully excluded from the author’s preferred edition I neglect to discuss it in this dissertation, focusing largely on material that is present in both. Alcott did however make a conscious amendment to the ending in the second edition, explicitly referring to a change of view concerning her heroine’s fate: ‘At eighteen death seemed the only solution for Sylvia’s perplexities; but thirty years later… my heroine meets a wiser if less romantic fate…’ (ibid.).  As this amendment reflects a change of perspective, an examination of both endings is essential to any discussion of Transcendentalism in Moods.

Its heroine, Sylvia Yule, is a highly-strung and moody eighteen-year-old who is determined to maintain the Transcendentalist mode in which she views the world despite the external pressures she is subject to. In course of the first seven chapters Sylvia passes through a myriad of moods: in the first chapter she goes into a neighbour’s house without asking permission, borrowing books and making use of the rooms whilst expressing an open reluctance to meet the master. By the end of the chapter she sings to him in a fit of sudden friendliness, however, and expresses a wish to make his acquaintance. In the chapter ‘Warwick’ (p.234) she is so depressed that she walks along a causeway as the tide comes in and almost drowns. Yet, in the following chapter she is greatly excited by a prospective camping trip: a voyage where she risks her life, and atones for her escapades by becoming mutely obedient to her companions.

It is on the camping trip that her brother’s two friends fall in love with Sylvia. Each appeals to, and perhaps even represents, a different side of her character. Adam Warwick is ‘a man untamed by any law but that of [his] own will’ (p.8), ‘violently virtuous…a masterful soul, bent on living out his aspirations at any cost’ (p.37). Thought by Urbanski[12] to be based on Thoreau, Warwick comes and goes as he pleases and will dwell anywhere, fortified by an extensive knowledge of the natural world. Moor, on the other hand, is a poet of serene disposition who, having just nursed his only sister and last surviving relative at her death bed, craves a wife and family. Elbert claims that he may have been based on Emerson.[13]

Louisa’s tomb

Out of loyalty to his friend, Warwick withdraws from courting Sylvia, little realising his feelings are reciprocated. Believing that Warwick does not care for her, and under severe pressure from both her suitor and immediate family to settle herself in society and regulate her moods, Sylvia marries Moor only to realise too late that her feelings for Warwick are returned. From this point onwards Sylvia’s emotions are continually repressed as she attempts to conform to the needs of all around her. When Warwick, in a state of loneliness, comes to visit his friends, Sylvia, in an attempt to please everyone, goes on as usual until, after a somnambulistic episode, she reveals her emotional torment to her husband. Warwick attempts to convince her that her marriage with Moor is permanently damaged, arguing that such a union is irredeemably false and harmful to all parties. Sylvia dismisses her husband to Europe, following the advice of spinster and maternal role model, Faith Dane, in order that she may learn to develop her identity on her own, free of all external demands and influences. At this point the editions differ extensively, as the plot moves toward its climax. In the first edition, Sylvia comes to the conclusion that she can never change herself or her love for Warwick, and dies as a result of the extreme emotional stress that has been placed upon her too fragile body. In the revised edition, however, Sylvia matures as a result of her new independence and the opportunity to grow as a person on her own. After a year, she feels ready to love her husband, and continues with their marriage. In both editions Warwick has already given up his life in a shipwreck to save Moor.


[1] ‘The Over-Soul’, in Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Richard Poirier (Oxford 1990), pp.152-166 (p.153). All future references for Emerson will be to this edition.

[3] F.C. Dahlstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott, An Intellectual Biography (New Jersey, 1982), p.12.

[4] See the second attached image: a spiritually instructive letter from Bronson to Louisa, written on her seventh birthday.

[11]Moods, ed. Sarah Elbert (London, 1999), p.225. All future references will be to this edition.

[12] ‘Thoreau in the writing of Louisa May Alcott’ in Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott, ed. Madeleine Stern (Boston, 1984), pp.269-274 (p.271).

[13] ‘Introduction’, in Moods, pp.xi-xli (p.xxx).

azelinaCopyrighted by Azelina Flint 2012

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