New blog post by Azelina Flint @Dont_forget_May "Recovering May Alcott Nieriker’s Life and Works"
This story starts with a letter. As I was sitting in the Houghton Library of Harvard University in the first year of my PhD, I was drawn to a beautifully calligraphed manuscript, inked in an elegant cursive hand. In the top left-hand corner of the page was a sentimental sketch of a little girl in a pinafore. Her hair fell about her head in perfect blonde ringlets, the type that you imagine all young girls to have sported in the nineteenth-century, but secretly know that most probably wouldn’t have been able to retain that level of neatness and doll-like perfection. Clutching a kitty to her chest, the child looked like she’d stepped out of the pages of a charming children’s story like Alice In Wonderland, or even Little Women. I was intrigued.
The letter was written by May Alcott, the youngest sister of famed young-adult novelist, Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, which celebrates its centenary this year. Louisa was the topic of my PhD thesis and the reason I was sitting in the Houghton Library—but I couldn’t resist distracting myself by turning to the exquisitely penned letter on the desk. For one, it was easier to read than Louisa’s manuscripts, which are a blur of spider-like scrawl, rendered more illegible by the fact that the author trained herself to be ambidextrous so she could meet her editorial deadlines. As I read the opening lines of the letter, I began to laugh. I’ll transcribe the letter’s opening, since manuscripts of the Houghton Library not owned by outside patrons are in the public domain:
I am not certain who “Kitty” is, but from the contents of the letter I am inclined to think that she was a pupil of May’s during her 1861 tenure as a teaching assistant at Sanborn’s school in Concord. The biographer, Madeleine B. Stern, describes May during this period as “drawing and boating, riding and flirting, and enjoying whist parties—as if Sumter had never fallen”. Although the provenance of the illustration is ascribed to this unknown “Kitty”, it is suspiciously close in style to the hand on the page and undeniably inked by the same pen. I’m not convinced May had no control over Kitty’s choice of subject. May was a drawing instructor at the time the illustration was penned and I suspect she directed her pupil with the design of this sketch, perhaps even assisting her with its execution.
Of course, the dutiful little girl in the illustration is the exact opposite of the author’s description of herself and that, to my mind, is no coincidence. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this letter was a sort “eureka moment” for me. Not everyone who has read Little Women knows that Alcott family patriarch, Bronson, (to whom this letter is addressed) was an avant-garde Transcendentalist philosopher—a complex man who was in many ways ahead of his time, but who also embodied myriad contradictions. Bronson was a father who took his family to live on an alternative community, “Fruitlands”, in rural Massachusetts in 1843: a Fruitarian commune that featured a resident nudist and compulsive swearer who probably suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. Yet, he was sufficiently conservative to disapprove of his twenty-one year old daughter riding alone and flirting with young men. An innovative educator, Bronson founded the Temple School in Boston, which featured lessons in sex-education and was eventually disbanded on account of the founder’s decision to admit a black student. But Bronson also propounded “complexion theory”—a disturbing pseudo-science that claimed that the moral natures of human beings could be deduced by their physical colouring. Of course, Bronson had a fair complexion and allied his serene temperament to his golden locks and clear blue eyes. His wife, Abigail May, was prone to temperamental outbursts, which were probably in some measure responses to her husband’s decision to abstain from all paid employment following the Fruitlands disaster, thereby transferring the burden of fiscal responsibility to the shoulders of his wife and four daughters. Nonetheless, Bronson allied Abigail’s temper with her dark complexion and Sephardic Jewish heritage (“May” is an English corruption of the Portuguese surname “Maies”) and referred to Abigail and Louisa May Alcott, who shared her mother’s colouring, as “Two devils … I am not quite divine enough to vanquish”.
Bronson is an infuriating figure. Perhaps the most infuriating thing about him is that few people challenged him outright. Louisa May Alcott’s journals demonstrate that she was under no illusion concerning the impracticality of her father’s philosophical schemes, going so far as to describe the “Transcendental club” as a “funny mixture of rabbis and weedy old ladies, the ‘oversoul’ and oysters”. Despite her reservations, Louisa was ever the dutiful daughter. She may have questioned the necessity of a Transcendentalist education, writing privately in her journal, “If they are philanthropists I should enjoy it, but speculation seems such a waste of time when there is so much real work crying to be done”, but she also part-funded the Concord School of Philosophy at her father’s behest in 1879.
May, on the other hand, is a completely different character. Her letter embodies the voice of an audacious young woman who is unwilling to exhibit even a tithe of respect for her father’s paternal authority. In fact, she laughs at him outright, flaunting her disobedience in his face. Outwardly deferring to her “beloved parent” by reading over his “moral lecture” twice, she then proceeds to immediately (and deliberately) disobey its contents. The only more disrespectful thing she could have done is to have thrown it in the trash. The illustration seems to add insult to injury. “Is this the kind of daughter you would like?” it seems to say, “Sorry I can’t oblige you, but here’s a picture to provide you with some solace. Of course, I had nothing to do with the design, so please don’t think I’m being catty.” Unlike her mother and sister before her, May doesn’t get angry. Even her father praised her “imperturbable temper” and “fine sense of honor and decorum” (although one wonders if he was swayed in this assessment by his daughter’s blonde hair and pale skin). The letter would suggest that her father simply isn’t important enough for her to get angry with. His presence is acknowledged affably enough, but May ignores him and follows her own path. This attitude is one that foreshadows the pattern of her life.
This letter was the beginning of a journey that I hope to continue for many years to come. When I returned to the Houghton Library in 2016 as the UK Fulbright American Studies Fellow, I further perused May’s correspondence and journals. I was only able to scratch the surface of this archive, but became enchanted with the exuberant personality I discovered on the pages. Perhaps the incident that stood out most to me was May’s spirited defence of an African model against the racist slurs of her Southern classmates at a life-class in Paris. This, and many more archival gems, are documented in my article about my research on May in Brief Encounters journal. Motivated to pursue a postdoctoral research project on May, I decided that the best way to discover more about her life and achievements was to organise an international conference, thus bringing together the small, but enthusiastic, body of scholars from both sides of the Atlantic who are interested in this lesser-known Alcott. As an AHRC “CHASE” funded doctoral candidate, I was fortunate enough to have access to a generous conference fund and received further support for a keynote speaker from my home institution, the University of East Anglia.
Since May was a vocal activist for both women’s education and the abolition of slavery, I felt it was essential that the event reach an audience beyond the ivory tower. Through working for the Brilliant Club , a UK charity that funds PhD students to tutor outstanding pupils from geographic areas where university access is historically low, I had come into contact with two outstanding secondary school pupils, Poppy Henson and Amelia Platt . Both girls had completed my course, “How to study a nineteenth-century poetess”, which considers how far school and university curricular should consider issues appertaining publication history, critical bias and socio-economic context when recovering lesser-known women. The essays I received from both girls were of the quality I would have expected from undergraduate students, and I was keen to connect them with researchers who were at the cutting edge of recovery scholarship. With the co-operation of their teacher, David Glenn, we successfully bid for support from Litcham School and the British Association for American Studies who sponsored us to take the girls to Paris for their first international conference. Committed to supporting these students in playing an active part in the event, I submitted a pitch to the C19 podcast series who responded enthusiastically by agreeing to air a series of interviews with our delegates, conducted by myself, Poppy and Amelia.
Paris was my location of choice because it was May’s home, in-between field trips to London and Rome, for the final decade of her life. Here she studied painting at the Académie Julian, being twice admitted to the Paris Salon in 1877 and 1879. As the only American woman to be accepted to the former exhibition, she managed to even eclipse her contemporary and friend, the acclaimed impressionist Mary Cassatt, whose retrospective we attended at the Musée Jacquemart-André on the first afternoon of the conference. Just months before she died of post-partum meningitis in 1879, May also published a manual, Studying Art Abroad, providing practical guidance for other expatriate women pursuing professional careers in painting. The work was polemical, railing against the double standards of the academy who barred women from accessing the nude, charged them double for receiving the same instruction as men and denied them admission to state-funded academies like the Beaux-Arts, as well the exclusive art cercles that served as venues for meeting potential dealers and clients. Although it received largely favourable reviews, the book still managed to ruffle the feathers of not a few male critics in both America and Paris. Université Paris Diderot 7 seemed the most appropriate venue for the event, since it was formed in response to the May ‘68 strikes calling for, among many other things, a reform to the nepotistic practices and huge pay gaps within French higher education. It was doubtless an institution of which May would have approved.
We were fortunate enough to attract many senior scholars in disciplines as wide-ranging as recovery scholarship, transnational studies, literary biography, art history and nineteenth-century literature. The joy of studying a figure like May is that she crossed paths with an eclectic range of historical figures, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin and Daniel Chester French, while experimenting with a range of media from book illustration to still life and portraiture, even crossing over into the realm of literary experimentation through penning an autobiographical travelogue and publishing numerous articles in the field of art criticism.
My initial encounter with the pen and ink drawing of the little girl and her cat was never far from my mind and Professor Lauren Hehmeyer’s paper, “‘Let the World Know You Are Alive’: The Idea of Genius and May Alcott Nieriker” was a particular joy for me to attend. Lauren discussed May’s radical approach to her artistic vocation and her belief that, as a woman, she too possessed the power to attain artistic genius. Audience members were provided with a fascinating outline of genius as a concept, as Lauren unpacked the nineteenth-century association of genius with male virility and sexual nonconformity. Closely associated with madness and temperamental instability, genius was deemed to be a dangerous aspiration for women who were encouraged to foster a modicum of “talent” as dilettantish hobbyists who dabbled in watercolours on Sunday afternoons. Not so with May. If the image of the dutiful daughter with her kitty was to be rejected, so was that of the lady painter.
After experiencing a lightning storm on the pass of Mount St Bernard, May triumphantly wrote home describing her immersion in the “immortal fire”. This was the same term that she used to characterise genius. May understood that a mountaintop experience was deemed to be essential for accessing the “sublime” and had no reservation in proclaiming her mystical revelation to the world. In announcing her genius, May, to some extent, distanced herself from her sister who rejected genius on account of its association with self-interestedness. If genius was attributed to Bronson Alcott then, for Louisa, in Lauren’s words, it was to be “admired, but not desired”. May embodies a curious contradiction in her relationship with her father. On the one hand, she rejects Bronson Alcott’s expectation that the Alcott women recognise and support his genius, but on the other she seizes Bronson’s concept of genius for herself. Her approach, then, is a daring usurpation of the male monopoly on genius as contingent upon female domestic labour. Lauren hypothesised that May married late, so that her domestic responsibilities would not curtail her career.
May’s daring claim to genius is complicated by the fact that she is often remembered as a copyist who was commended by the foundational art critic, John Ruskin, as the best Turner copyist available. Our keynote lecture, “‘The Pure Hope of Giving…Pleasure’: May Alcott, John Ruskin and the Moral Aesthetic”, delivered by Pulizer Prize winning biographer, John Matteson, considered whether May’s achievements as a copyist are worthy of commendation and study within the field of art criticism. John compellingly demonstrated that copyism for May served as a form of commentary and innovation, as she imposed her own unique stamp on the work of those who had come before her. Her preference for Turner was no coincidence. Turner was reintroduced to the audience as a “Transcendentalist painter”—one who focused on the emblematic qualities of nature, utilising the sun as a symbol of the Promethean power of the artist to aspire towards divinity; transforming the typological language of art into an expression of the artist’s inner spirit. Allegedly Turner’s last words were “The Sun is God”. Many of his paintings convey a determination to capture this godlike force and stare it in the face. In John’s view, it was this avowal of artistic transcendence that drew May to Turner, and it is her preoccupation with incandescence that led Ruskin to commend her art. Replicating Turner’s work served as an opportunity for May to usurp and expand Turner’s vision. In her copy of Lake Avernus: The Fates and the Golden Bough, displayed at the Concord New Public Library, May renders the sunlight even brighter than the original; the sweep of the trees more fluid and undulating. John hypothesised that May was attempting to grasp the golden bough for herself: a symbol of her favour from the gods as Turner’s rightful inheritor. At the beginning of her career as a lowly copyist, May prophesised future glory and commendation, foregrounding the sublime vision that was to lay the foundation for eventual artistic acclaim.
Although May’s premature death at the age of thirty-nine curtailed her upward ascent towards genius, her final painting, La Negresse, exceeded Turner’s evocative appeals against the injustice of slavery. Drawing an innovative comparison with Turner’s iconic Slave Ship, John argued that where Turner turns to the impersonal devise of pathetic fallacy to depict slavery’s disruption of the divine order, May draws the viewers’ attention to the affront on human dignity that slavery enacts. It is what is left unsaid in May’s painting that is most compelling. We know the subject is a slave girl, but are provided with little further information about her situation. What is her history? How much does she know about her family and heritage? Why is her garment falling about her shoulders? Has she been subject to an abusive master? As we look upon her averted gaze and the solemn expression of her face, a face that refuses to give up the secrets of its inner life, we are confronted with the negresse’s humanity—a humanity that has been alienated from our own experience. The sun casts its beams upon her forehead, infusing a luminous glow about her countenance. She too is destined for glory, for genius—but will she ever reach it? When I interviewed John after the conference he told me that, unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote “a bestseller that well-to-do white women could cry over in their parlours, but never act on”, May “makes us care in a more authentic way than a sentimental novelist”. May makes us care because she does not instruct us on how to feel. She presents us with a subject whose plight is undeniable, but whose experiences we can never fully enter into. Unlike Turner, she does not fall back on the complex machinery of allegorical symbolism to testify to the injustice of slavery, but instead draws attention to the fact that no amount of sympathy can enable us to enter into the experience of the enslaved person. Yet, despite this hard truth, the presence of this enslaved “other” is immanent and their suffering is real. It is out of this very disparity of experience that we are called to act.
The radical aspects of May’s art and lifestyle did not go unnoticed by her contemporaries. In her paper on the connections between May’s art and social activism, Amanda Burdan, Curator of the Brandywine River Museum, introduced us to a beautiful quote from Emerson’s obituary of May: “May was formed, by nature, for an ideal life toward art and social freedom, rather than toward philosophy or literature ... She desired a sphere and renown of her own.” The quote reminded me of Louisa May Alcott’s description of Emerson, the friend who she described as “the man who has helped me most by his life, his books, his society”, breaking the news of May’s death to Louisa in her journal:
I was alone when Mr Emerson came. Ernest sent [word] to him knowing I was feeble & hoping Mr E. would soften the blow. I found him looking at May’s portrait, pale & tearful with the paper in his hand. “My child, I wish I could prepare you, but alas, alas!” there his voice failed & he gave me the telegram.
… He was much moved and very tender. I shall remember gratefully the look, the grasp, the tears he gave me, & I am sure that hard moment was made bearable by the presence of this our best & tenderest friend.
May’s death devastated Louisa on account of the fact that her baby sister had been full of life, health and promise: newly married and on the verge of artistic acclaim. However, Amanda reminded us that Louisa had not always seen eye-to-eye with the other artist of the family. Stories such as “A Modern Cinderella” (1860) An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869) “Psyche’s Art” (1868) Shawl Straps (1895) and, of course, Little Women (1868) include female artists who are torn between duty and artistic ambition, and who are often reprimanded by their sisters for not placing domestic responsibility ahead of the pursuit of genius. This comes as no surprise. Louisa May Alcott made the decision to remain resident in the family home as the primary carer for her parents, right up until her father’s death two days before her own (eerily, Louisa and Bronson also shared the same birthday). None of Louisa’s sisters made comparable sacrifices for the family with the exception of Elizabeth Alcott who died of Scarlet Fever at the age of twenty-two after visiting an ailing German immigrant family with her mother who was employed as a poverty worker at the time.
Yet, Louisa’s place within the family as the main breadwinner was a consciously adopted role. She chose to fund May’s studies abroad and legally adopted the children of her sister, Anna, following her husband’s death in 1870. Despite this, Louisa at times resented both of her surviving sisters for the assistance she freely gave them, writing her journal in reference to Anna’s acquisition of a new home: “So she has her wish, and is happy. When shall I have mine? Ought to be contented with knowing I help both sisters with my brains. But I’m selfish, and want to go away and rest in Europe.” These sentiments are perhaps less expressions of jealousy than they are manifestations of Louisa’s own conflict between self-sacrifice and artistic individualism. It is not only characters that are based on May who experience this tension in Louisa’s fiction: in Little Women all of the March sisters do.
As the youngest of the Alcott sisters, May did not experience the same financial pressures as her elder siblings, nor was she subjected to the same exacting standards by her father. Bronson kept journals documenting the psychological development of each of his children, but inexplicably stopped with May—granting her unlimited license to develop independently with minimal intervention from her father. As such, May was unhampered by the guilt that dogged Louisa throughout her life concerning her worthiness as a daughter. Following the success of Little Women, May was able to pursue her studies in Europe with Louisa’s support. Amanda placed May’s work as an art student in Paris in the context of the wider milieu of expatriate women who flocked to the city in the 1870s. According to Amanda, May belonged to a coterie of “serious students”—women who wished to progress beyond the status of “lady painters”, but who were barred socially and economically from becoming professionals. These “serious students” retained their liminal statuses as aspiring artists to prolong the social freedom conditional to the role of apprentice—using their positions as satellites of the art world to influence the recognition of female achievement within the academy.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Amanda’s research were the links she drew with other lesser-known American female artists who were contemporaneous with May. In our roundtable discussion, “Teaching Recovered Texts”, Amanda gave a fascinating presentation on Rose Peckham who painted the most famous portrait of May, a copy of which can be seen at the Orchard House: Home of the Alcotts. Rose outlived May by many years, dying in 1922 at the age of eighty. Following the death of her husband, she became a driving force in the Providence Art Club, the third oldest art club in America, which, in Amanda’s words, “….expanded the scope of American women in the arts, gradually leading towards professionalism .” Amanda stressed how difficult it is to retrieve the work of lesser-known female painters like Rose. It was only through tracing Rose’s genealogy and tracking down her descendants that Amanda was table to retrieve a selection of her paintings. Some of these paintings were found buried in the basement of a Rhode Island cottage formerly owned by Rose, but had unfortunately been damaged by a nursery of raccoons. Historically, women’s art has not been has carefully preserved as men’s, on account of the scant attention it received during their lifetimes. This was, of course, compounded by the limited opportunities for exhibition and patronage available to women up until the twentieth-century. The failure to adequately preserve the work of many nineteenth-century women artists means that much remains hidden from the public view, leading to the common misperception that it is not worthy of being displayed.
Fortunately, Amanda and her colleagues have made many impressive efforts to increase the scholarly attention given to women’s art. Professor Amanda Dempsey, of UMASS Dartmouth College, spearheaded an initiative: “Making Her Mark: The Women Artists of the Providence Art Club” in 2017, empowering undergraduate students to research underrepresented artists—curating their own exhibition and catalogue for the public viewing. Such projects offer exciting opportunities to rethink the canon within the classroom, circulating the insights attained through academic study to the general public. I hope that hearing about such enterprises served as inspiring examples of what can be achieved through undergraduate study for my Brilliant Club scholars.
The challenges, obstacles and pitfalls of recovery was a central concern of the conference, illuminated through our study of May’s life-writing, as well as her art. The most significant of May’s unpublished works is her book-length travelogue, An Artist’s Holiday (187?). Professor Marlowe Daly-Galeano has been working on this text for a number of years and convened a roundtable on the work for Lewis-Clark State College in 2016. Marlowe introduced the audience to the narrative as the self-reflexive kunstlerroman of an artist who was keen to draw connections between her creative practice and transatlantic debates concerning education, literature and art history—thereby establishing the wider international significance of her artistic praxis. Where Louisa May Alcott’s travel letters are concerned with the habits of people and local life, May’s literary work is preoccupied with the power of architecture and art history to transform the individual’s perception of the world, especially the experiences of the traveller. An Artist’s Holiday is therefore an interesting foil to the critical work of Ruskin, although it incorporates more local colour and biographical anecdote than Modern Painters or The Stones of Venice.
Many of May’s travel sketches were vivid enough to be incorporated into Louisa May Alcott’s later short fiction. The unfinished novel fragment Diana and Persis (1879) is based May’s life abroad and incorporates numerous excerpts from her correspondence. This text has since been reprinted in Elaine Showalter’s anthology, Alternative Alcott. Literary exchange seems to have been frequent among these sisters, for a chapter of An Artist’s Holiday also appears in Louisa’s hand—although it is unclear whether she was acting as a transcriber or collaborator in this instance.
The uncertainties surrounding the attribution of the narrative, as well as the difficulties implicit in reproducing its eclectic structure (it is interspersed with a selection of May’s letters abroad) have rendered An Artist’s Holiday difficult to edit in a scholarly format. Nevertheless, Marlowe staked a persuasive claim for the text’s significance, arguing that the critical neglect of An Artist’s Holiday stems, in part, from scholarly discomfort with collaborative writing. May’s travelogue is a consciously intertextual narrative that attempts to connect the experiences of its author with those of other travellers and students, while simultaneously striving to educate US readers on the art and architecture of Europe. In Marlowe’s opinion, this most unusual manuscript reminds the reader that no text is composed by a “single, godlike artist” and that all literature is an embodiment of the “movement and exchange of ideas”. An Artist’s Holiday is a creative work that consciously incorporates the meta-narrative of its own composition into its structure. It is therefore something of a curio among nineteenth-century texts, but in the age of the “death of the author” these qualities only render it more worthy of further consideration.
Like Amanda, Marlowe is keen to link her research in recovery to her pedagogical practice and has convened seminars on An Artist’s Holiday with her undergraduate students, inviting them to transcribe passages of the text, while discussing the different ways it may be prepared for publication. The research-based teaching practice of many scholars at the conference has inspired me to bring recovery into my own work as a Futures Advocate at the University of East Anglia. This initiative employs UEA students to tutor pupils at local schools with the view of exposing them to a wide range of disciplines they can study at university. I am currently preparing a syllabus on lesser-known authors from the Norfolk area that will encourage students to design their own anthologies as a means of analysing the social, economic and historical factors that contribute to the preservation of texts and the canonisation of authors.
The outputs of this conference have been wide-ranging and I am pleased that it will make a contribution to pedagogy, as well as furthering scholarly interest in May. In addition to co-producing the podcast for C19, Poppy Henson and Amelia Platt have contributed reviews to American Studies Online and the Louisa May Alcott Society. The event has also been featured in Hyperallergic Magazine, Electric Literature and the blog of Parisian-based freelance writer, Jamie Lynne Burgess. This is only the beginning of many fruitful initiatives that will develop over the next few years. Lauren Hehmeyer and I will co-edit a collection of articles built out of presentations from the conference, while my co-organiser, Cecile Roudeau, is in the process of petitioning for the installation of a plaque commemorating May at the site of her Parisian home, 11 Rue Mansart. May’s contributions to art history, abolition, art criticism and travel writing deserve to be memorialised through as many different avenues as are available. In her own eclectic way, May was a genius: a genius who was ahead of her time and who died much too soon.