Monday, November 29, 2010

Louisa May Alcott

Popular novelist Louisa May Alcott was born on this day in 1832, in Pennsylvania, though she lived for most of her life in New England. Orchard House, in Concord, MA, was the Alcott family home for many years and is maintained today as a museum. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a prominent intellectual of the day and other literary figures such as Henry David Thoreau. Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller were friends of the family.

However, Bronson Alcott was not particularly good at providing for his family, and Louisa went to work at an early age to help, serving as a teacher, governess, and seamstress in addition to some early writing. She wrote articles, stories, and poetry for the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines, publishing her first book of childrens' stories, Flower Fables, in 1849. She briefly served as a nurse during the Civil War, and in 1863 revised some of her letters home during that time, publishing them as Hospital Sketches. This was her first book to receive critical notice.

Five years later came the well-known and well-loved Little Women, which has never been out of print since. Three sequels followed, establishing Alcott as the wholesome author of uplifting tales for children. However, in the 1940s, literary sleuths Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern discovered several short stories and novels that Alcott had published under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. These tales were sensationalistic and somewhat lurid, a long way from the March sisters of Little Women, but Alcott has written most of them in the years before the acclaim of her childrens' novels, and the Barnard material had sold well, which was, after all, its purpose. Later novels for adults included Work (1873), which was also semi-autobiographical, and A Modern Mephistopheles (1873), which was much closer in tone to the Barnard stories and published anonymously.

Alcott herself said that she had written only one hymn, A little kingdom I possess. However, this poem about the life of Christ was set to music in Charles Hutchins' Carols Old and Carols New (1916) and has appeared in a few other collections since. I've chosen a more accessible tune for its possible use today.

O, the beautiful old story!
Of the little child that lay
In a manger on that morning,
When the stars sang in the day;
When the happy shepherds kneeling,
As before a holy shrine,
Bless’d God and the tender mother
For this life that was divine.

O, the pleasant, peaceful story!
Of the youth who grew so fair,
In his parents’ humble dwelling
Poverty and toil to share,
Till around him in the temple,
Marveling, the old men stood,
As through his wise innocency
Shone the meek boy’s angelhood.

O, the wonderful, true story!
Of the messenger from God,
Who among the poor and lowly,
Bravely and devoutly trod,
Working miracles of mercy,
Preaching peace, rebuking strife,
Blessing all the little children,
Lifting up the dead to life.

O, the sad and solemn story!
Of the cross, the crown, the spear,
Of the pardon, pain, and glory
That have made his Name so dear.
Christ's example let us follow,
Fearless, faithful to the end,
Walking in the sacred footsteps
Of our Brother, Savior, Friend.

Louisa May Alcott, 19th cent.; alt.
John Zundel, 1870 lists a few other Alcott texts that have appeared in hymnals, in spite of her own claim of a single hymn. As we have often seen, later generations choose their own hymns from the verse of the past.

Two Years Ago: John Haynes Holmes

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