Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott are quite possibly America’s most beloved 19th century female authors. They share more in common by being daughters of men who were both pillars of their communities and who valued education; they were both fiercely independent; both suffered deep personal tragedies; both lived in Massachusetts and reacted against society’s strictures for women. However, both are very different.
Dickinson’s poetry resists static interpretation; her use of idiosyncratic punctuation, words and images that convey multiple levels of meaning, and closing lines that often turn a poem’s meaning on its head create very personal and individual responses in the reader. Some poems have a universally agreed meaning; others unfold with each rereading. To read her work is to embrace uncertainty. This is compounded by the many myths and images of the poet that have proliferated over the years as a result of the portrayals of her by her niece Mattie Dickinson Bianchi and Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson’s mistress whose motives were far from altruistic. Was Emily Dickinson a meek, retiring woman in white, broken-hearted over a lost young love? Or was she a fiery, passionate woman ahead of her time? In addition to the poems’ multiple meanings, there also persists the question of which Emily Dickinson wrote them.
Alcott, on the other hand, is most famous for her classic Little Women, the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. She presents the reader with a family that on some level, we’d all like to have as our own. And as a precursor to other narratives that have multiple female characters (ie. Sex and the City and Girls), readers can easily identify with one of the sisters (however, I most closely identify with two, Amy and Jo). Even though Alcott is read all over the world by disparate readers, the novel, and the movies, provide a shared experience.
These two different ways of “reading” and “knowing” the authors shape the tours of their homes. Granted, there are many factors that play into a tour. There is the quality of the artifacts in the home based on how many belonged to the original family to how well they represent the time period if they don’t. What is shared with the public is determined by what organization puts on the tours and how they wish to present the people who lived there. What is shared is also determined by the type of tour chosen, and last, but not least, the personality and knowledge of the tour guide.
Our tour guide obviously loved and admired Emily Dickinson, and it was apparent that she had a long history working at the Homestead. She also had some very definite ideas about the poet, but I do not know if her ideas are part of the museum’s party line or are a reflection of her own beliefs. She explained at the beginning that she would “dispel the myths” about Emily Dickinson, but she dispelled them with didactic statements such as, “Emily Dickinson was NOT a recluse. She went to many social gatherings.” When asked about whether or not ED suffered from epilepsy as posited in Lyndall Gordon’s book Lives Like Loaded Guns, she brushed it off with a wave of her hand, “Emily did NOT have epilepsy. Her nephew did, but Emily did NOT! An author wrote that in some book, but doctors have shown that what she describes as epilepsy is NOT epilepsy. She has apparently written two good biographies before, so I don’t know how she got so off the rails with THAT book.” Why it is so bad to suggest that she might have been epileptic, our guide did not explain. She did not go into why ED had so much freedom to write nor why she was never expected to get married (both went against standards for women at that time). She stated that ED’s father supported and encouraged her education, but did not mention his ambivalence as ED once said, “my father bought me books, but begs me not to read them.” She also glossed over Austin Dickinson’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that tore the Dickinson family apart, and instead said, “It’s a good thing we had Mabel, otherwise ED would not be known to the world.” While there is a lot of truth to that, Todd is one of the major reasons why we have myths about ED. Also disconcerting was that she told us that ED was not published much in her lifetime was because the male editors found her work to be too “wild” and preferred her simpler nature poems. Throughout the tour she recited some poems to us, but instead of giving us the more complex ones, she read those that most likely would be found on a card in a Hallmark shop. She perpetuated Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s expectations.
It felt like rather than dispelling the myth about ED, she was set on maintaining her view (or the museum’s). Ideas were presented in black and white, and there was no room for contemplation and wonderment. It was like reading an ED poem with all of the dashes taken out–no pauses for reflection about what it all means.
The Orchard House was a different tour entirely. It probably helps that Louisa May Alcott’s life is not shrouded in myth and mystery, and Little Women is universally loved and understood. It also helps that my own expectations of how a tour should be did not clash with the tour guide’s. Our guide also did not carry the task of having to promote a certain image of Alcott. If the guides at the Homestead loved ED, their love paled in comparison to the women who worked at the Orchard House. It was palpable. Our guide was warm and thoroughly knowledgable about the house and all of the artifacts in it– the majority of which had belonged to the Alcott’s. She was visibly saddened when she revealed that Laurie and Mr. Laurence were made up; she displayed obvious pride in May’s artwork that was featured throughout the house. The Alcott’s joys were her joys; their sorrows, hers too. She carefully delineated which events in the novel happened in the house and which ones did not. If she didn’t know the answer to a question, she said so, and made sure to get the answer before the end of our visit. Understanding our interest in the house, she went out of her way to point out the smaller details–like the picture of Bronson Alcott sitting at the desk we were standing near. It brought history to life.
Because of her and the rest of the staffs openness, our tour was a much more gratifying experience, and I left with a greater appreciation of the Alcott family and their role in Concord, education, art, and literature.
Readers, what tours have you been on that have been especially enlightening?