December 4, 2010

Alcott: Foolish over her first-born

"Mothers are always foolish over their first-born," wrote Louisa May Alcott, referring to her first book. Flower Fables, as it was titled, was published on December 4, 1854. "An edition of sixteen hundred," she recorded in her journal a month later. "It has sold very well, and people seem to like it."

Flower Fables was based on fairy tales (including poetry) Alcott wrote as a teenager for Ellen, the daughter of her father's friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. The book was dedicated to young Ellen, much to Ellen's delight. It was published just in time for the Christmas market and, appropriately, Alcott made a gift of the first copy: she gave it to her mother, Abby May Alcott. "Whatever beauty is to be found in my little book is owing to your interest in and encouragement of my efforts from the first to last," she wrote to the elder Alcott. "I hope to pass in time from fairies and fables to men and realities." Alcott, later known as a novelist, was 21 years old when it was published. The book earned her $32.

From "The Flower's Lesson":

"Heed," said the mother rose," daughter mine,
Why shouldst thou seek for beauty not thine?
The Father hath made thee what thou now art;
And what he most loveth is a sweet, pure heart.
Then why dost thou take with such discontent
The loving gift which he to thee hath sent?
For the cool fresh dew will render thee far
More lovely and sweet than the brightest star;
They were made for Heaven, and can never come to shine
Like the fire-fly thou hast in that foolish breast of thine.
0 my foolish little bud, do listen to thy mother;
Care only for true beauty, and seek for no other.
There will be grief and trouble in that wilful little heart;
Unfold thy leaves, my daughter, and let the fly depart."
But the proud little bud would have her own will,
And folded the fire-fly more closely still;
Till the struggling insect tore open the vest
Of purple and green, that covered her breast.
When the sun came up, she saw with grief
The blooming of her sister bud leaf by leaf.
While she, once as fair and bright as the rest,
Hung her weary head down on her wounded breast.
Bright grew the sunshine, and the soft summer air
Was filled with the music of flowers singing there;
But faint grew the little bud with thirst and pain,
And longed for the cool dew; but now't was in vain.
Then bitterly she wept for her folly and pride,
As drooping she stood by her fair sister's side.
Then the rose mother leaned the weary little head
On her bosom to rest, and tenderly she said:
"Thou hast learned, my little bud, that, whatever may betide,
Thou canst win thyself no joy by passion or by pride.
The loving Father sends the sunshine and the shower,
That thou mayst become a perfect little flower..."

*Information for this post is largely from Harriet Reisen's Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, newly available in paperback.

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