Louisa May Alcott's Unitarian legacy
Did 'Little Women' plant the seeds of my own Unitarian Universalism?
I will admit to knowing women who never liked Little Women, but I don’t know many of them. Most of my contemporaries recall their discovery of Alcott’s classic Civil War–era novel as a rite of passage. What I loved first was the story: four girls, poor but honorable, kind, and fair, struggle with life and love during the war while their father, a minister, serves as a chaplain to the Union Army. The book was earnest and optimistic, and its 1860s backdrop contained some fascinating parallels to the 1960s tumult in which I lived. Of the four March daughters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—every girl I knew was clear about who we wanted to be: Jo. Wild, willful, loving, honorable, and brave, Jo was a far cry from genteel Meg, vain Amy, and the sickly and tragic Beth. In the character of proud, enraged, and tender Jo, millions of girls saw themselves not only as they were, but as they hoped one day to become.
It would be decades before I knew or cared that the author of one of my favorite books was a Unitarian; that her father, Bronson Alcott, was a painfully idealistic Unitarian educator and activist; and that the Alcotts, from which the March family is so freely drawn, lived in one of the most intellectually and spiritually fertile communities in nineteenth-century America. Two recent books mine these details to good effect and reveal to us not only the gifts but also the pitfalls of liberal faith.
Of the two, the most gratifying is the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, March, by Geraldine Brooks. The central character in this luminous book, the absent father in Little Women, is based on Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson. Brooks has written an historical novel that seamlessly incorporates both the fictional world of the Marches as rendered by Alcott and the real world of pre–Civil War America, complete with Unitarian heroes Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and radical abolitionist John Brown.
From the moment readers first encounter Mr. March on a Virginia battlefield, they will be struck by the enormous gap between his idealistic visions and the reality of his life. Sitting under a tree, he pens a letter to his wife—the italicized portion—describing a scene in marked contrast to the actual spectacle before him:
Do you recall the marbled endpapers in the Spenser that I used to read to you on crisp fall evenings just such as this? If so, then you, my dearest one, can see the sky as I saw it here tonight, for the colors swirled across the heavens in just such a happy profusion.
And the blood that perfused the silted eddies of the boot-stirred river also formed a design that is not unlike those fine endpapers . . . But these lines, of course, I do not set down . . . I am thankful that she is not here, to see what I must see, to know what I come to know . . . I never promised I would write the truth.
And so March does not tell his wife of the death that surrounds him, of the wounded, drowning man he fails to save, the first of many failures in the Civil War chaplaincy he felt compelled to undertake. He does not write to her of his bitter memories of the plantation on which he finds himself, twenty years after he first visited it as a peddler. The novel allows us to know and experience all of the youthful March’s guilt as, for a time, he trades his hard principles for the ease of plantation life as a guest of Mr. Clement, the plantation’s seemingly genteel owner.
The prospect of a fully stocked library seduces this man of learning, and March stumbles into the Byzantine contradictions of slavery as he encounters Grace, the serene and elegant maid who convinces him to teach one of the enslaved children, Prudence, to read—in spite of the law that forbids such instruction. The cost to Grace is severe, indeed, and March flees the plantation shackled with the memory of his longing as well as her punishment. Before the book’s conclusion, March will find Grace again—both literally and figuratively.
But such grace will be a long time in coming. In between, John March will meet and marry Margaret Day, a neighbor of Emerson and Thoreau who, along with her brother, a Unitarian minister, is a conductor on the Underground Railroad. In a brilliant exchange that illuminates the tension of the times, March attends a dinner party at the Thoreau family home, to which two of Henry’s particular friends are invited: Margaret Day and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Margaret arrives late, explaining to her host that she was delayed by the arrival of “a package,” the code for an escaped slave being moved to freedom. A solemn Emerson cautions Margaret about the effect of her activism on her elderly father, who, Emerson says, would bear the brunt of her rash activity. Miss Day counters with the declaration that if more prominent people (like himself) were active, antislavery work would not be confined to young women and old men.
Emerson replies: “My dear Miss Day, a man can only extend his active attention to a certain finite amount of claims. Yet whenever I hear the black man spoken ill of, or whenever I see a Negro person mistreated, I always feel obliged to speak in his behalf. More than that I do not think it is presently in my power to do.” Day replies:
“Not in your power! You, who command great crowds at the Lyceum, who may write for any of a dozen eminent journals . . . to say that you can do no more is a sham! It is a disgrace! Worse, it is a lie!”
John March notes: “Who could have imagined this gently bred young woman to be so entirely bereft of the powers of self-government? I had never seen such an outburst.” Readers of Alcott will recognize Margaret’s dreadful temper in Jo, and will recall the scene in which Marmee—as Alcott’s novel refers to her—confesses to relying on her husband to help her hold her tongue and be a model for her daughters. And yet by the chapter’s end, the passion with which Margaret advocates for abolition is transformed into quite a different channel.
Even if the reader has never read Alcott’s work, March is a novel with the power to entrance. The author paints a portrait of John March as an earnest antislavery vegan moralist whose passion for global justice blinds him to the murky reality right under his nose. It is a reality that is complex, unjust, seductive—a reality in which he finds himself thoroughly complicit. On the plantation where he is sent during the war to teach school to the newly freed children, March encounters Ethan Canning, a lawyer from Illinois who has leased the plantation from the widow of a Confederate soldier. Canning’s idea is to grow much-needed cotton with the labor of free black people, but Canning is no idealist: “I don’t claim to be an evangel of abolition like you, Mr. March. I’m a businessman, simple as that. Yet we both have a role to play in the betterment of the Negro’s condition . . . I believe that the production of cotton and sugar by free labor must be both possible and profitable . . . for them as well as us. If we cannot prove our point, what future will these people have? A dark one, wouldn’t you say?” The future is dark indeed, as Canning’s experiment goes horribly wrong in the late days of the war.
Wounded and sick with fever, John March is sent to a Washington hospital where, in Part Two of the novel, he is met by Marmee, who narrates the story and glimpses at last her husband in all his vanity, piousness, and failure. The book’s final chapters, in both his voice and hers, present a powerful and elegant meditation on the enduring nature of marriage and the bonds uniting couples that are often stronger than love.
The novel’s signal weakness can be found in the predictability of its African American characters, who are never as complex as the whites in the book. Even the portrait of Grace, on which key portions of the book turn, is hampered by a sense of one-dimensionality that is altered only by her final appearance, where we get a glimpse of who she might have been. In spite of this, Geraldine Brooks has written a beautiful novel worthy of all the acclaim and attention it has received.
Somewhere between fiction and nonfiction rests Kit Bakke’s charming book, Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds. The author, a 1960s activist and a former member of Students for a Democratic Society, reflects on her childhood love of Little Women and her adult fascination with the woman who created this classic in an effort to understand the twists and turns of her own life. Bakke decides to defy the space-time continuum and write to Miss Alcott, imagining letters from the novelist in return. “Perhaps if you can restate your interests in a more coherent manner,” Miss Alcott begins, “I will endeavor to respond in an economical and truthful way.” Bakke replies:
Now my friends and I have lived through some of the same things you have: earning a living, coping with illness, trying to make sense of crazy families, trying to do good and be good—all that work you have done so well. We admire you particularly because you had to do it from a standing start. We, partly inspired by you and your wonderful Little Woman Jo March, had a running start.
In the twelve chapters that comprise this clever and compelling book, Bakke manages to write both a biography of Louisa May Alcott and the biography of reformers everywhere. She makes connections between the intensity of both eras and is comfortable in lifting up their respective excesses. Regrettably, she is woefully wrong in attributing Transcendentalism almost completely to the Universalist part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage. In the end, she comes down firmly on the side of building a meaningful life. Bakke writes, in her final letter to Alcott:
What I really like about you—and I hope I have learned from you—is that it is worth the trouble to work hard to make your life into something. . . . You have acted in the world as if you matter, as if you can make a difference. In your case, it turned out to be true—you have made a difference.
But a person never knows for sure. Your trick, your lesson, is just to start . . . that is what I will take with me into whatever future I have.
Perhaps sharing the stories of how we learned that we can make a difference in the world—testimonies of how we found our liberal faith—is as important as any “elevator speech” about what Unitarian Universalism means. In my case, as in Bakke’s, a nineteenth-century Unitarian woman helped teach me that lesson. Thank you, Louisa. Thank you, Jo.
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