Abigail May Alcott, the mother of Louisa, was the inspiration for one of the most beloved characters in American literature, Little Women's Marmee. Born in Boston in 1800 and raised without formal schooling, Abigail struggled to educate herself, worked to support her family, encouraged her daughters' careers, and dedicated herself to ensuring equal rights for women and to ending slavery. A gifted writer, she composed hundreds if not thousands of letters and kept a journal from the time she was ten. But because her daughter and husband burned some of her letters and journals after her death, in 1877, scholars have long assumed that Abigail's papers no longer exist. "Where will you get your information about Abigail?" one of Louisa's biographers asked me a few years ago as I began work on Marmee & Louisa, a biography of the Alcott mother and daughter. "There's nothing there."
It is true that in her seventies Abigail asked Louisa to destroy all her private papers, hoping to protect her family and especially her husband from embarrassing revelations about their private lives and unhappy marriage. Louisa attempted after her mother's death to fulfill Abigail's wish but found she could not bear to complete the task any more than she could burn all of her own letters and journals, as Louisa told at least one friend she wished to do. Meanwhile, Abigail's widower, Bronson Alcott, edited, rewrote, and did burn some of his late wife's papers. No one will ever know the contents of what he destroyed. But we can infer that it contained information even more intimate and troubling than what survives about his failure to support his family and his apparent indifference to their physical and emotional needs. Collections of Alcott papers contain numerous references to the alteration of family documents. "53 Destroyed. Letters 1861," a curator wrote in a volume of Abigail's original letters at Harvard's Houghton Library from which scores of pages were obviously cut out. Inside the volume's cover a descendant wrote, "Some letters have been destroyed by family, as unnecessary and unsuitable for others' inspection, reflecting hardship & troubles of personal nature. Many letters herein have been copied & are so marked in red pencil by A.B. Alcott, for use in the life of his wife he had planned to publish." The bound volumes that Bronson kept of his own letters are littered with curators' notations such as "numerous excisions ... some excisions ... numerous excisions."
And yet, despite all the Alcotts' efforts to purge the family record, thousands of Abigail's words, in hundreds of pages of letters and journals, remain in archival and private collections, mostly unpublished and unexamined. In exploring these collections while preparing this volume, I have been amazed at the amount of material that still exists in Abigail's hand. It is an unexpected trove and, as I discovered while writing Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother, a biographer's dream.
My Heart Is Boundless, the first compilation of Abigail's writings, is a sampling of her extant papers, meant to convey the spirit rather than the whole. Future investigations will no doubt unearth more of Abigail's private papers, just as works of her famous daughter continue to be discovered in attic trunks. Two letters from Abigail to a friend were discovered in the early twenty-first century in the house in western Maine to which she had mailed them in 1848. My Heart Is Boundless includes her letters, journal entries, and other miscellaneous papers, including a few recipes. Most of these documents are in the collections of Harvard and Cornell universities and Orchard House, the Alcott museum and educational center in Concord, Massachusetts. I also include portions of previously unknown family letters describing May and Alcott family life from the 1830s to the 1870s. Among the many subjects that possessed Abigail are mother-daughter relationships, childrearing, marriage and divorce, success, education, slavery and abolition, female suffrage, diet, health, cooking, housekeeping, male-female relationships, and death. In this collection I have arranged her papers chronologically by subject, so that an entry Abigail wrote during her sixties about her childhood appears in the childhood section. All available information about the date and place of composition is included in the text or explanatory notes.
Abigail encouraged Louisa to write and in many senses gave Louisa her voice. On the page Abigail herself comes across as theatrical, poignant, passionate, and often satirical. She seemed effortlessly to coin aphorisms, such as:
In this world of folly and fashion, a man's hat is the most essential part of his head.
Women should display more brains and less jewelry.
Wisdom must be fed and clothed, and neither the butcher nor tailor will take pay in aphorisms or hypotheses.
We are all part and parcel of this condition of things, and I for one am a restless fragment and can't find my niche.
Some flowers give out little or no odour, until crushed.
Indeed, some scholars consider Abigail "a better writer than her more famous daughter," according to the Alcott family biographer Madelon Bedell. That is for the reader to decide. Ironically, Abigail's celebrated husband, though a charismatic speaker, could not write a lucid sentence to save his life, according to many who knew him. As James Russell Lowell wrote of Bronson, "While he talks he is great but goes out like a taper / If you shut him up closely with pen, ink, and paper." Abigail, on the other hand, was fully herself with pen, ink, and paper, as I hope this collection will demonstrate.
One aim of My Heart Is Boundless is to answer the fundamental question, Who was Abigail May Alcott? To her four children she was "Marmee." To her husband she was a skilled housewife, excelling at domestic pursuits. To her daughter she was the person to whom Louisa felt closest in the world. Abigail gave Louisa her first journal, pushed her to write, and served as her mentor and muse. Louisa in turn pored over her mother's journals and private papers in writing her novels and stories, at Abigail's own insistence, and based many of those tales on Abigail's character and experiences. Abigail's actual words, many of them published here for the first time, illuminate the inner life of a remarkable nineteenth-century woman. I hope that My Heart Is Boundless will show Abigail May Alcott to be not just a mother, housewife, or even mentor to Louisa, but also an American writer and thinker who has too long been ignored.
Excerpt from a letter Abigail wrote while studying history, the sciences, and grammar with Abby and John Allyn, a schoolteacher and a minster in Duxbury, Massachusetts.
From Abigail, eighteen, to her parents
Duxbury, March 25, 1819
I cannot but think a further knowledge of myself and my situation will please you, my dear parents, and with this impulse, joined with that of ability to do it, I write you with pleasure ... My mind, character, and feelings are more under the control of reason than they have been. Under the constant direction of Miss Allyn my mind is cultivated and improved. She thinks the soil is not bad. This gives me assurance and excites me to action ...
We are at present ... reading Stewart's Essays, Miss Adams's History of New England, and Bonnycastle's Astronomy in the evening. In the morning I get a lesson in Historia Sacra and Grammar and read till dinner time in Miss Adam's History ... On Sunday we read Paley's Horae Paulinae with the Epistles in the Bible. We have finished his Evidences, which have enlarged my ideas of Christianity wonderfully ...
As regards the study of Latin, I do not know what your opinion is, but I should like it. ... The Doctor [minister] thought it would give me a more perfect knowledge of my own language, and enable me to detect errors which otherwise would pass unnoticed. Miss Allyn thought it an exercise for the mind, memory, and attention ... I have undertaken it, and have got as far as Cain and Abel in my Historia Sacra to parse. I continue a chapter in John, in the Latin testament, every Sunday, and am elated with my progress. I wrote to my brother [Rev. Samuel J. May] to say nothing of this, for if I should not succeed I should be mortified to have you know it. I wish my pride was subdued as regards this. I am not willing to be thought incapable of any thing ...
From My Heart Is Boundless, edited by Eve LaPlante. Copyright 2012 by Eve LaPlante. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.