Time to move over Mr. Alcott

MANCHESTER - When searching for a literary portrait of 19th century domesticity and home life, it's hard to ignore "Louisa May Alcott's novel "Little Women." Published in 1868, the book is an essentially fictionalized account of her own adolescence as a child growing up during the Civil War.

The book was a best-seller in its time and still widely read today. The Burr and Burton Performing Arts Department performed the stage version of the story a little over a year ago. The book is credited with influencing and inspiring generations of young American women ever since its release 145 years ago.

The book also earned Alcott enough money to support her family - a good thing since her father, Bronson Alcott, struggled financially for virtually his entire adult life. An educator of progressive ideas, many of which later came to be embraced by the mainstream establishment, he was an itinerant school teacher, who founded and closed schools with a consistent regularity, right up to the final decade of a very long life. But during his lifetime many of his ideas were held to be controversial, and prompted many moves from place to place. His financial insecurity induced occasional stresses within his marriage to Louisa's mother, Abigail May Alcott.

He was however, credited with helping shape the intellectual development and writing of his second daughter, Louisa May, who went on to write "Little Women" and a couple of other titles. However, a new biography written by a great-grand niece of Louisa May Alcott challenges that assumption, and instead shifts much of the credit for Louisa's intellectual flowering and writing to her mother, Abigail.

"Marmee and Louisa - the Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother," draws in part upon previously unknown family documents to buttress the case for Abigail's central role. The author, Eve LaPlante, a descendant of Abigail's and Louisa, will be discussing her new book on Friday, Jan. 11, at the Northshire Bookstore. Her talk starts at 7 p.m.

Some of the documents were ones discovered in an attic at her mother's home, but other sources include previously unexplored materials in Alcott's archives stored at Harvard University. Because of all the attention paid to Bronson and Louisa, the archives hadn't been sufficiently analyzed by historians, LaPlante said.

The new materials, plus the reappraisal of Abigail's role, are two of the key insights contained in the book, which also serves as a general biography of both women, LaPlante said in a telephone interview earlier this week.

"That was one thing - there were all these undiscovered documents," she said. "The other was that I realized Abigail was so central to Louisa and therefore an important figure."

From her mother, Louisa drew much of inspiration for her interest in the social issues of the mid-19th century, such as abolition of slavery, women's rights and suffrage. They were issues of concern to her mother long before they were those of her father's, she said.

At the same time, there was a slight irony playing out in their relationship. Louisa essentially became the breadwinner of the family, in part through the commercial success of "Little Women."

Both parents to a degree became dependent on her, even as she was being encouraged by her mother to go out and fight for women's rights and independence, she said.

"She was sort of stuck in this role, but at the same time she was writing about all these issues which are pertinent today," LaPlante said. "The kinds of problems Abigail and Louisa faced, in struggling to have both a private and a public life, are issues that, in more subtle ways, for women now."

Essentially, her book - which follows previous biographies on her fascinating family of ancestors, which also include Anne Hutchinson, titled "American Jezebel."

Hutchinson was an early dissenter in the Puritan colony based around Plymouth who was eventually banished from the colony. Another one of her books is about Samuel Sewall, titled "Salem Witch Judge," who took part in the infamous Salem witch trials of the 1690s, and eventually came to regret his role in them.

This will not be LaPlante's first visit to the Northshire Bookstore, having made an appearance here in 2004 to discuss "American Jezebel," she said. LaPlante will be giving her talk at the bookstore Friday, Jan. 11, at 7 p.m. For more information, call the bookstore at 802-362-2200.


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