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Alcott family’s legacy lives on in Concord

At Orchard House, rooms look much like they did when the Alcotts lived here; (above, right) Alcott’s portrait. At Orchard House, rooms look much like they did when the Alcotts lived here; (above, right) Alcott’s portrait. (John Kennard)
By Melissa Hart
Globe Correspondent / March 28, 2010

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CONCORD — Louisa May Alcott inspired me to be the woman I am today.

While my peers read angst-ridden Judy Blume novels, I pored over “Little Women’’ and “An Old-Fashioned Girl.’’ I loved fiercely independent Jo and her volatile sister Amy, and sweet-natured Polly from the latter novel, who eschewed makeup and flirting in favor of sledding downhill with the neighborhood boys. Under their influence, I became ambitious and self-reliant. But it didn’t occur to me to credit Alcott with shaping my life as a writer until I visited Orchard House, the sweet little Concord two-story which, in the 1800s, housed her family for two decades.

My husband, never having read Alcott’s books, gamely agreed to an hourlong guided tour through the simple home in which “Little Women’’ is set. “She must be an important writer if they’ve preserved her house,’’ he speculated as we strolled with our toddler down Lexington Road beside centuries-old houses and a pub that served as a meeting place for rebels on the eve of the American Revolution. We passed the Concord Historical Museum and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, then walked along fields once frequented by my heroine.

A tidy garden leads up to Orchard House. Built in the 18th century, it contains a rich collection of photographs and paintings, first-edition books, and furniture owned by a family that quietly helped to define American education, art, and literature in the 19th century.

My husband entertained our daughter outside while I watched a short documentary on the Alcotts in a small room, its walls covered with sketches of people who had visited the family. When Alcott’s younger sister May — Amy in her books — showed artistic talent as a child, her parents allowed her to draw on the walls.

After the film, the tour guide led a small group of us through a low door that reminded us how much shorter people were then. In the kitchen, we learned that Alcott’s father, Bronson, had purchased 12 acres in 1857 and joined two structures to create the home. The guide pointed out the soapstone sink, which Louisa bought for her mother from her earnings, and related the author’s quote now immortalized on aprons and magnets in the gift shop: “Housekeeping ain’t no joke.’’

We moved into the dining room, where I gazed at the piano and the only known picture of Alcott’s sister Beth, who died at 22. A formidable portrait of Alcott hangs on the opposite wall, painted after she had contracted typhoid fever as a nurse in the Civil War. Her sunken cheeks and grim mouth testify to a cure worse than the disease — mercury poisoning.

Our guide pointed out the family china and the table where Alcott and her sisters dined on apples and unleavened graham bread with their vegetarian parents while sharing excerpts from the journals that Bronson insisted they keep.

We stood in the parlor and tried to envision the wedding of Alcott’s older sister Anna and John Bridge Pratt (Meg and John in “Little Women’’). If photos reveal the couple to be stodgier and thicker of chin than previously imagined, no matter. Our guide described the wedding so lavishly that I could almost see the beaming newlyweds, and a tearful Alcott in the background.

“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,’’ she once wrote. Which she did, making $250 a year as a governess when her father made $100 as a teacher, and embracing her role as breadwinner. Her father rewarded her with a granite desk situated between two windows in an upstairs bedroom.

“Exactly where I’d put my desk,’’ I whispered to my husband as we examined a sample of Alcott’s handwriting — unintelligible, just like my own rough drafts. I admired the range of May’s artwork on the walls. A simple depiction of an Eastern screech owl on the mantle is paired in contrast with the lush, sophisticated “Still Life With Owl,’’ May painted after her sister sent her abroad to study art.

May earned little fame as an artist, though she studied with J.M.W. Turner, the famous British landscape painter, and one of her canvases appeared in the 1877 Paris Salon.

Louisa and May learned diligence and patience for craft from an early age. Bronson’s framed “Order of Indoor Duties for Children’’ hanging on his bedroom wall speaks of a patriarch who kept his family to a strict schedule of study and labor that began at 5 each morning.

“Louisa had to sew every afternoon,’’ our guide explained. She related Bronson’s request for “prompt, cheerful, unquestioning obedience’’ from his daughters. The tween touring beside us shot her parents a look of horror.

In Bronson’s study, we learned that he was largely responsible for introducing physical education and music into American schools. Pictures of luminaries adorned the walls; Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were frequent visitors. Alcott adored them both, and their transcendental philosophy informs her novels and essays.

Perhaps her family’s self-reliance, along with their particular brand of feminism, keeps her work feeling relevant after 140 years. Various editions of her novels line shelf after shelf in Orchard House’s museum shop just off the kitchen. Numerous biographies explore her life and writing.

I didn’t get a chance to ask the girl from our tour whether Alcott’s books still mattered to young readers. But in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery I received my answer. On Authors’ Ridge, two miles north of Orchard House, we paid our respects at the graves of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau before moving toward the Alcott family plot marked by a surprisingly ornate stone towering over six plain markers.

On this day, Alcott’s grave bore a red geranium and a lily in a vase. Under a pebble, I found a note penned in a child’s hand. It read simply, “Thank you.’’

Melissa Hart can be reached at melissah@uoregon.edu.

If You Go

Orchard House
399 Lexington Road, Concord

978-369-4118

www.louisamayalcott.org

Shown by guided tour only, the house is open daily, except for major holidays. Tickets for the day’s tours go on sale at opening on a first-come basis. Adults $9, children ages 6-17 $5, under 6 free.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Bedford Street, Concord

www.concordma.gov/pages/ concordma_cemetery/sleepy

A block from Monument Square and open daily. Free.