“Blame it on Louisa”
February 17, 2013
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words from e e cummings
my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness
around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains
i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
-i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing
Reading from The Story of a Bad Boy, by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
This is the story of a bad boy. Well, not such a very bad, but a pretty bad boy; and I ought to know, for I am, or rather I was, that boy myself. I have no dark confessions to make. I call my story the story of a bad boy, partly to distinguish myself from those faultless young gentlemen who generally figure in narratives of this kind, and partly because I really was not a cherub. I may truthfully say I was an amiable, impulsive lad, blessed with fine digestive powers and no hypocrite. I didn’t want to be an angel and with the angels stand; I didn’t think missionary tracts were half so nice as Robinson Crusoe; and I didn’t send my little pocket-money to the natives of the Feejee Islands, but spent it royally in peppermint-drops and taffy candy. In short, I was a real human boy, such as you may meet anywhere in New England, and no more like the impossible boy in a storybook than a sound, juicy orange is like one that has been sucked dry.
A few chapters later, our narrator, who lived in Louisiana, is sent back East to attend school. It is 1848 and he was twelve years old, and he was terrified: He thought that the only houses were log cabins, and he was sure there were Indians running around scalping women and children, and that he would be hated by everyone because he wasn’t a Northerner. Here he tells about leaving New Orleans via the Mississippi River:
The name of our ship was the “A No. 1, fast-sailing packet Typhoon.” I learned afterwards that she sailed fast only in the newspaper advertisements. My father owned one quarter of the Typhoon, and that is why we happened to go in her. I tried to guess which quarter of the ship he owned, and finally concluded it must be the hind quarter–the cabin, in which we had the cosiest of state-rooms, with one round window in the roof, and two shelves or boxes nailed up against the wall to sleep in. There was a good deal of confusion on deck while we were getting under way. The captain shouted orders (to which nobody seemed to pay any attention) through a battered tin trumpet, and grew so red in the face that he reminded me of a scooped-out pumpkin with a lighted candle inside. He swore right and left at the sailors without the slightest regard for their feelings. They didn’t mind it a bit, however, but went on singing–
I considered them very jolly fellows, and so indeed they were. One weather-beaten tar in particular struck my fancy–a thick-set, jovial man, about fifty years of age, with twinkling blue eyes and a fringe of gray hair circling his head like a crown. As he took off his rain gear I observed that the top of his head was quite smooth and flat, as if somebody had sat down on him when he was very young. There was something noticeably hearty in this man’s bronzed face, a heartiness that seemed to extend to his loosely knotted neckerchief. But what completely won my good-will was a picture of enviable loveliness painted on his left arm. It was the head of a woman with the body of a fish. Her flowing hair was of livid green, and she held a pink comb in one hand. I never saw anything so beautiful. I determined to know that man. I think I would have given everything I owned to have had such a picture painted on my arm.
While I stood admiring this work of art, a fat wheezy steamtug, with the word AJAX in staring black letters on the paddlebox, came puffing up alongside the Typhoon. It was ridiculously small and conceited, compared with our stately ship. I speculated as to what it was going to do. In a few minutes we were lashed to the little monster, which gave a snort and a shriek, and commenced backing us out from the levee (wharf) with the greatest ease. I once saw an ant running away with a piece of cheese eight or ten times larger than itself. I could not help thinking of it, when I found the chubby, smoky-nosed tug-boat towing the Typhoon out into the Mississippi River. In the middle of the stream we swung round, the current caught us, and away we flew like a great winged bird. Only it didn’t seem as if we were moving. The shore, with the countless steamboats, the tangled rigging of the ships, and the long lines of warehouses, appeared to be gliding away from us.
My home was lost back there, in the fog on the shore that slipped further away from our ship, and the man with the painted arm, who I hoped would be my friend.
Sermon “Blame it on Louisa”
A month or two ago, Stacy Schiff , the author of several biographies, wrote a column for the New York Times, in which she talks about her work. Because I am trying to write a biography, I was disturbed and comforted in equal measure by Schiff’s revelation that she is living two lives – her own, and that of whoever she happens to be writing about, and only one of those lives makes sense; is divided into chapters that flow logically and smoothly. After entertaining the notion that writing about someone else’s life may be parasitic and pathological, Schiff confesses that it is also a vacation from one’s own life. In her words, it is “a hedge against inadequacy. There must be more to it all than this, you think as you unload the dishwasher again. And there is; while you are ostensibly feeding the kids you are really back in l8th-century Paris, except with Internet service.”
Somewhere in that description, we can see an attempt to perform a resurrection, but it is not entirely clear who is being brought back to life. The assumption is that it is the subject, but I think it is often an alternative self; one who can time travel – or one who can find some thread of continuity between who we once were and where we are today. Something in the person we are writing about awakens part of ourselves. I think this is particularly true when the subject is rooted in our own childhoods. My friend Rosemary was an editor before she became a minister. A quarter of a century ago when we met, in New York City, she was writing book reviews for the Times. Rosemary grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and went to Catholic school, and a few years ago wrote that she had always thought that it was her husband who had lured her into Unitarian Universalism – a religion unknown to her, but into which he had been born. “Lately, however,” she said, “I find I might have been mistaken. Rather, some of the seeds of my own progressive and activist faith might very well have been sown in the T.B. Blackstone branch of the Chicago Public Library. I was ten years old and looking for something to read one summer afternoon when I spied a book called Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and became bewitched by the March family. The more I think about it, the more it seems they were the seeds of my liberal faith.”
Can you imagine how great it would have been if conversions to Unitarianism followed for everyone who read Little Women? Obviously, that didn’t happen, but Alcott did change the world in other ways. She invented something new, called “the family story.” This category is not particularly well defined, yet is easily understood. There is more than one protagonist. There is no specific, obvious conflict – and therefore no real resolution. And instead of a tightly plotted story, we have episodes; movement that lurches people forward, or at least out into the world. In other words, these are stories that seem like real life.
That is, in fact, what most readers loved about Little Women: the girls seemed real — alive and engaging as people who complained a little, resisted a little, questioned things, and had feelings. The entire history of children’s books had been sanctimonious and dull, as Aldrich pointed out in his Story of a Bad Boy. Alcott’s Jo March – willful, angry, brave and proud – was Aldrich’s little sister in print by five years. She could not have been born without the bad boy paving the way; jettisoning the ideal in favor of the real. Authentic characters help us understand ourselves and the struggles around us. As Rosemary said, the backdrop of the Civil War was helpful as a way of understanding the tumult that marked her growing up in the 1960s.
The family story is a minor genre, a small part of realistic fiction that intrigues me because the two books generally mentioned along with Little Women as classics of the family story were also written by Unitarian women, one of whom happens to be the person whose life I am trying to pin to the page. This struck me as odd, and so I started researching. Here is a summary of my year’s work: the people writing for girls, the people writing for boys; the people promoting realism and those appealing to a sense of adventure – all of them were Unitarians. The preponderance of Unitarians was so heavy that it was easy to miss: they seemed like the norm. And this was not just a nineteenth century fluke: The Newbery Medal, awarded for achievement in children’s literature, started in 1922, and so far, conservatively, about 15% of the winners are UU. This may not sound like much, but this denomination is at best one quarter of one percent of the population. Other religious minorities, such as Quakers and Jews, are also disproportionately represented, but our denomination is not only vastly over-represented: it is the number one religious affiliation.
Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice once said. It makes one ask about the role of reading for children, and the effect of theological openness over the generations. Is reading always instructional? Or can children read the way adults do — for fun; as a source of entertainment? There is nothing like agreement on the answers to those questions, which bear relevance to issues of censorship at one end of the spectrum, and marketing, on the other. There is a lot in between! Many, many women credit Alcott with creating an empowering model for girls; for advancing an agenda that promoted female education and a social role for women that went beyond the home. But reality is more complicated.
Louisa May Alcott did not set out to write a book that would change girls’ lives. She wanted to change her own, and in the most common way possible: by becoming rich. Writing stories specifically for girls was the idea of a publisher who was eager to have volumes fly off the shelves as did William Taylor Adams’ books for boys. Adams, a devoted church school teacher at First Parish in Dorchester for many, many years, was almost single-handedly responsible for the invention of the adventure series books for boys. As a kid, he had devoured action and adventure tales. Their energy and excitement was contagious, and made him an enthusiastic reader, curious about the world. But Adams hated the fact that the bad guys were the only ones who had any life in them. He didn’t see why adventure stories couldn’t feature GOOD people with thrilling, or at least interesting, lives. He traveled all through Africa and Asia in order to feature excitement and adventure in his work. Adams is essentially a bridge figure between religious writing for children and popular fiction, reconciling two fields that most of the world saw as in strict opposition. The publishers loved him for it, and then started searching for someone who could do the same for girls. It worked beautifully. Louisa May Alcott published a blockbuster every year.
Her fifth included a scene in which an adult complains about the books the children are reading – full of slang, and featuring low lifes such as newsboys and boot blacks, and references to places no child should know about — courthouses and bars; these stories are a bad influence, she argues. After making it quite clear that the books in question are Adams’, Alcott exaggerates his style to the point that it just seems stupid. Aunt Jessie asks the boys, is it natural for lads from fifteen to eighteen to command ships, defeat pirates, outwit smugglers, and so cover themselves with glory, that Admiral Farragut invites them to dinner, saying, “Noble boy, you are an honor to your country!” Adams was stunned, and angrily defended himself in a manner that guaranteed his defeat, as he very rationally pointed out the disparity between what he actually wrote and how Alcott depicted it, while she, of course, made people laugh at his expense. Adams last public words on the matter betrayed emotion: “Ah Louise,” he wrote, “you are very smart and you have become very rich. Your success mocks that of the juvenile heroes you despise. Even the author of Dick Dauntless would not dare to write up a heroine who rose so rapidly from poverty and obscurity to riches and fame as you did, but in view of the wholesale perversion of the truth now pointed out, we must ask you to adopt the motto you recommend for others: “Be honest and you will be happy,” instead of the one you seem to have chosen: “Be smart and you will be rich.”
And famous, too. At least fifteen biographies of Alcott have been published. Visitors arrive at Orchard House by the busload, longing to see where Louisa lived. Most people have never even heard of Adams. I started feeling a bit sorry for him – a decent man subjected to public ridicule by someone claiming the moral high ground. But framing it personally, or even as a matter of fame, obscures other issues. Adams’ work was rapidly absorbed into the culture, and allowed adventure stories to be seen as acceptable. The whole idea was simply fun, and to empower children to see the world as potentially exciting. The characters were simply vehicles for a boy’s imagination. They were not meant to be realistic so much as inspiring – and Adams alluded to that with his comment about Dick Dauntless. Dick was the creation of Horatio Alger, a Unitarian minister most famous for churning out volume after volume of rags to riches stories. His formulaic books were based on work he did advocating for homeless children in New York City after he left the parish. Journalism funded this work, until Adams suggested instead that Alger publish hopeful stories for and about the children. Adams was defending a principle, but was blind to gender and social issues that made that principle seem ridiculous. Meanwhile, Alcott was giving her readers people. Not adventure. Not hope as an escape. Just complex people. The aunt criticizing the adventure books is married to a sea captain who is always away, and the eight cousins consist of one girl among seven boys. In fact, it really isn’t clear that Alcott was criticizing the books so much as she was lampooning the righteous woman, at home while her husband sailed to China. Louisa May Alcott wanted a personal freedom that contradicted the social order, but she did not want the social order challenged. She just wanted to succeed.
Across the pond, another Unitarian soon encountered some similar struggles. Beatrix Potter was an expert on mushrooms. She would have been a scientist if the men had allowed her in to the Naturalist’s Society. In 1884, she was just starting out with her microscopic watercolors of fungi and gnats. She was eighteen years old, and another eighteen years would pass before The Tale of Peter Rabbit appeared, her attempt to enter the world of science permanently set aside. In her diary, the young Potter recorded a very funny passage, which is also a commentary about who learns, and how, and whether the order of the universe is fixed, or fluid. She wrote: “There was another story in the paper a week or so since. A gentleman had a favourite cat whom he taught to sit at the dinner table where it behaved very well. He was in the habit of putting any scraps he left onto the cat’s plate. One day puss did not take his place punctually, but presently appeared with two mice, one of which it placed on its master’s plate, the other on its own.”
We belong to a religion with a deep tradition of defending and expanding freedom, and of embracing science. Evolutionary theory gave people confidence in natural growth; it made it easier to trust that children would learn, even while having fun. But even as freedom loosened the strictures on children, conflicts in our assumptions were exposed. Freedom was for boys, who were assumed to be white, which is interesting since the country had just fought to end slavery. Freedom meant adventure tales – going off to sea, exploring the wild west. Even as writers moved away from old morality tales, they reinforced a somewhat conservative and very individualistic social agenda, and the women noticed. And objected. But the publishers nurtured these divisions, which allowed whole new fields to develop. Marketing specific books to boys, or to girls, or to very young children, or to teens, meant making more money, and it also shaped the content of each market. A movement driven by freedom resulted in fragmentation. In studying the development of children’s literature in the 1870s, one could see the embryo of the 1970s identity politics.
It seems to me that church is the appropriate place to reassemble the pieces; to bring the wide world home, and have the small sketch of ourselves enlarged, so that our days are less finite, and we come to appreciate the myriad of different ways in which it is possible to lead a life. There is something universal in the experience of being alive; in suffering and in needing to express ourselves and make our own contribution; but we also crave particular stories, escapades and events that show us something that speaks directly to some secret place in our hearts. Reading may be an escape; a vacation from one’s own life. But it is also how we connect; how we come to understand that same life. The issues that trouble us most in life, such as how good and evil can both be happening at the same time, or why life isn’t fair or how we are supposed to know what to do – these are not questions we suddenly ask as adults. They plague us from our earliest days. Childhood is when we collect the fragments that we will forever be rearranging and using to shore us up for the work ahead. Even as we treasure the comfort borne of believing that everything will stay the same, we cannot breathe without knowing that we can change, that anything is possible, that there is more life out there, in the world beyond our windows.
Closing Words from Beatrix Potter
I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child. What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, balanced by knowledge and common-sense?