Recently, I visited the home of Louisa May Alcott, Orchard House, in Concord MA. We are beholden to the Alcott descendants who provided authentic furnishings, pictures, and artifacts. There is a pristine, pretty green cloth with gilt lily on spine, edition of her uncommon novel Moods which set my bookseller’s heart aflutter.
I genuinely respect the tour guides and other personnel who preserve this historic site. I was uncomfortable, however, with the story as told. The tour began in the barren kitchen, where the guide told us the Alcott family lived in Orchard House for 20 years, which was remarkable considering they had lived in 20 different places before that. The modest house didn’t even have a foundation; one has since been added, and the house enlarged. The tour continued through the nicely furnished drawing room etc, and two nicely furnished upstairs bedrooms.
No mention was made of the Alcott family history of penury and hunger; the children were malnourished. Paterfamilias Bronson Alcott was an idealist without practical skills. The family was assisted many times by their wealthy friends Emerson and Hawthorne. No acknowledgment was made that Louisa May Alcott provided the support for Orchard House with the children’s book that made her rich and famous. The nice things in the home were paid for by Louisa.
The guide mentioned Louisa was “moody” and had an apartment in the city to indulge her “moods.” In fact, she had an apartment for writing and privacy, which she earned and deserved. The tour ended in a pleasant library sitting room, where all manner of posthumous glory was bestowed upon Bronson Alcott, who after all had the ability to appear in a photograph with the leading writers of his time. (They genuinely admired him, and found it unfortunate that he was quite incapable of writing his ideas into something readable.)
It must be stressed that Louisa May Alcott wrote for money to support her family, because her father never did. Her father made her a rustic plank of a desk to write magazine stories; she bought herself a proper desk when she could. The bedroom of her sister May, the artist, was left in a barren condition to show all the pencil drawings with which May had embellished the woodwork and walls. That’s a room that conveys the lives of underprivileged children whose talent lifts them up in the world.
We have an embarrassment of riches in American and English literature. We consume wonderful novels like they’re popcorn. Let’s remember when we can that these works of art didn’t grow like flowers. They were wrought from not only talent but strength of character.