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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, July 3, 2005

Louisa May Alcott's Legacy Inspires Other Authors

The recent publication of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novels about the March family, Little Women, Little Men and Jo's Boys, as selections of the prestigious Library of America series makes official what women who love to read have always known. Louisa May Alcott is a "classic" American writer for children and adults.

However, women authors in general have a long way to go in receiving their deserved attention by the nation's literary establishment. So far, the Library of America has published authoritative editions of 62 male writers and only 12 of female writers.The oversight is most evident for the years preceding the Civil War. Where are the volumes dedicated to Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody and the "adult" novels of Louisa May Alcott?

And what about the editions for the female authors whom Nathaniel Hawthorne dismissed as the "scribbling women" of their day, names you would not recognize because their work is long out of print, though female critics have been telling us about these remarkable, self-sufficient writers for almost 30 years?

The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Marshall tells us she worked 20 years on this work, and it shows. I cannot remember when I have more enjoyed reading a book. In its pages the Peabody sisters come alive. From now on, Elizabeth Peabody must take her place as a major Transcendentalist, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and the other men.

New Englanders before the Civil War were loosening the bonds of the rigid Calvinism of their Puritan ancestors. Harvard College was educating ministers in the liberal Unitarian tradition, and deep thinkers, both men and women, were looking within themselves for spiritual truth.

Elizabeth Peabody was a pioneer in this Transcendentalist movement. She owed much to her mother, Eliza, a talented poet and master teacher, who believed that women should seek independence and not rely on men to provide for them.

Teaching was the only profession open to women at that time, though a few were seeking a livelihood as writers and artists. Elizabeth became a master teacher, and under the influence of the pioneering Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father, she preferred to converse with her students rather than have them learn by rote memorization.

Ultimately, Elizabeth Pea-body and the Transcendentalists believed that children are born good and possess knowledge of spiritual things that only need to be brought to the surface by a skilled teacher.

As for Elizabeth's sisters, Mary married the great educator Horace Mann, and Sophia became the "little dove" of Hawthorne. In contrast to their success, the three sons of the family, interestingly, were chronic ne'er-do-wells.

March by Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2005).

Brooks follows up her successful debut, Year of Wonders, with a historical novel centered on the character of Jo March's absent father in "Little Women."

This is historical fiction writing of the highest caliber. Brooks writes beautifully and skillfully develops the theme of what happens when idealism encounters the real world.

The character of Jo's father, based on Bronson Alcott, finds out that racism is not the exclusive property of the South. March, as Brooks calls him, butts heads against religious and racial intolerance as he tries to minister to the Union soldiers. It is his absent family that sustains him.

Brooks has written variations based on historical facts, but by no means limited to them. Her novel reminds me of Matthew Pearl's excellent recent novel, The Dante Club, about post-Civil War Boston. While reading the book, I was also listening to the audio version (BBC Audiobooks) narrated by Richard Easton, and I recommend it highly, also.

Mr. Emerson's Wife by Amy Belding Brown (St. Martin's, 2005).

Amy Brown works at the Alcott family's Orchard House museum in Concord, Mass. She has written a straightforward, engaging and well-researched historical novel based on the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson's second wife.

As is the case with all the remarkable women of these books, Lidian Emerson is an intelligent and independent woman. In fact, her marriage to Emerson is the attraction of two minds. Is this love? Probably not. However, before the novel ends, Lidian comes to learn love's meaning the hard way.

Louisa and the Country Bachelor: A Louisa May Alcott Mystery by Anna Mac-lean (Signet, 2005).

This is the second installment in a new mystery series based on the imagined sleuthing exploits of Louisa May Alcott before she became a famous writer. It is light and wholesome entertainment, and readers of Little Women will surely like it.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.