A Writing Pilgrimage
Orchard House

A Writing Pilgrim Visits Orchard House

When Louisa May Alcott penned Little Women in the 1860s, she didn’t want to write the book. Her publisher had asked her for a book about little girls for little girls. Louisa, who grew up as a tomboy in an unconventional household, said she had no idea what to say about little girls…until she was reminded that she had three sisters. She finally agreed, and the rest is history. She wrote the manuscript in just a few months, and I doubt she ever could have dreamed the impact it would have.

Nearly 100 years later, in a small town in Illinois, a woman who loved Little Women as a child names two of her children after characters in the book. And now, after passing more than half a century of my own life, I have finally visited Orchard House and seen the desk where she wrote her classic story. Now a writer and attempting to embark on my own fiction career, visiting Orchard House is my version of Mecca.

We flew in to Albany and made our first literary stop in Amherst, home to both Emily Dickinson and later, Robert Frost. Emily came alive as much more than a fascinating recluse, but also as a woman who asserted her independence and whose poetry broke the rules of its day. She wrote on the backs of envelopes and other scraps of paper, making editing notes in the margins. A local newspaper published several of her poems, heavily edited and without her permission, much to her displeasure. We still know little about her, because most of her letters were destroyed at her request. We do know, though, that she drew inspiration from nature, often walking on her family’s land, connecting to God as she did so.

Later, we took the scenic route to Stow, traveling along the rolling hills. It’s still chilly there, so the trees are just starting to bud. The crocus flowers have emerged from the ground and have started to bloom. In a few more weeks northern Massachusetts will be alive with color, but even in its current, starker state, it invites the creative spirit to come alive.

When one visits Concord, history springs forth from every corner. From a window at the Old Manse, where Emerson lived for a time, his grandparents saw the first shots of the Revolution on the Old North Bridge. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, who also lived in (and was evicted from) the Old Manse, wrote on the window panes with her diamond ring, leaving their mark…it displeased the Ripley family who owned the house at the time, but not enough for them to replace the glass. For that we are thankful!

Orchard House has its own surprises. May Alcott, the sister on whom the character of Amy was based, had a successful career as a fine artist before dying young after the birth of a child. While living there, she drew figures in pencil all over the window trim, and the unorthodox parents didn’t scold her. Those drawing still exist, as do many of her paintings that grace the walls of the home.

The mark of the Transcendentalists lies everywhere. The ghosts of Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and others wander Concord to this day. Here, people fought passionately for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Not every venture was successful, as some of the Transcendentalists were notoriously impractical. The Alcotts, for example, nearly starved to death as a result of Bronson Alcott’s communal living experiment at Fruitlands. They intended to live off the land, but no one really knew how. Thoreau had the knowledge but kept his distance from Fruitlands, preferring to visit from time to time.

Visiting these homes and exploring my literary ancestry, I felt images and scenes fill my mind. I came home with a new armful of books to read and questions to ponder, hopefully restocking my writer’s well for new stories and ideas. The most interesting aspect of the trip came about as an “accident,” though. I had originally planned to travel alone. This was, after all, my Mecca and no one else’s. As the trip grew closer, my husband, who had had other plans for that weekend, asked if I would mind if he came along. I said no, as long as the purpose of the visit remained intact. He hasn’t read these books, although I did sit him down to watch Little Women to learn the story! In a rare twist, I did most of the talking on this trip while he listened.

In the end I understood how much of myself I keep to myself. He and I have spent six years together, and for the first time I cracked a door open to invite him into a part of my world that has heretofore been mostly a secret. This happened in the same week that I am interviewing editors to look at Change of Plans, with the intent of getting it out to an audience. Perhaps this trip was my declaration to “come out” more as a writer, to let go of my Dickinsonian tendencies. I hope so. I just know that in visiting some of my heroes, in hearing their joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, I am renewed and ready to write again.

Alcott Grave

Alcott Grave on "Authors' Ridge" of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

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