On Storms, Fathers and Daughters

©Rebecca Norris Webb, Unafraid of Storms, 2019, Rush County, Indiana, from the work-in-progress, Night Calls.

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”—Louisa May Alcott, from the book, Little Women.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about fathers and daughters, while working on the book dummy for Night Calls—about my kind and supportive 99-year-old country doctor father—a photo-text book in which all the text pieces are addressed to him, in the spirit of an extended conversation or series of epistolary prose poems. Recently I saw Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. In that darkened Cape Cod movie theater, I was transported back to my childhood, remembering the feel of my older sister’s worn, hand-me-down copy—with its olive cover and drawing of the four March sisters. I was eight, around the time Dad quietly took me aside and said, “Becky, you can be anything you want to be.” Jo March was the first woman writer I’d ever come across, and a window of possibility opened. After watching Gerwig’s Little Women, I reread the New York Times obituary of Louisa May Alcott, who died in 1888. Growing up in Concord, Massachusetts., Alcott, besides being an Abolitionist and early feminist, was one of the few women Transcendentalists, an idealistic philosophical and social movement that counted Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, among its ranks.

The lives of Amos Bronson and Louisa May were deeply intertwined—sometimes bewilderingly so. She was born on her father’s birthday, November 29, and, sadly, died of a stroke within 40 hours of his death. A more complicated picture of their relationship comes into focus in the twinned biography, Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson, which in 2008 won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. (Matteson said his own daughter’s fascination with the Alcotts inspired him to write the book.) The Alcott father-daughter relationship was loving, but far from easy. Her father was an idealist and a dreamer, time and again sending the family into financial ruin (they moved some 25 times in Louisa’s childhood, often just steps ahead of the creditors). Louisa—with her seemingly tireless work ethic and creative drive (she taught herself to write ambidextrously, so she could write continuously for hours)—was by far the more productive and pragmatic of the pair, eventually supporting the family for years by having the business savvy to retain the copyright of Little Women, a perennial best seller. Ultimately, they both became 19th century luminaries. But would Louisa have become the writer she was without the freedom to roam the library of Emerson—a close friend of her father’s—or without the burden of poverty to overcome? Could it be that sometimes inspiration is as complicated as love?

In my relationship with my father, he’s long been the pragmatic one (he told me he’d once dreamed of being a poet or an explorer, that is, before he turned 17, and his father died of lung cancer). Is my father’s groundedness partly why I could become the daydreamer and bookmaker that I am today? That said, I know I’m very much my father’s daughter in at least two ways. First, we share a deep love of landscape—first the rolling countryside of rural Indiana, then the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. Like him, I also have a passion for looking closely, both at the natural world as well as its inhabitants, but looking at both from a compassionate distance. For in our darkest times, doesn’t someone among us have to feel for a pulse? Doesn’t someone among us have to feel for the words?—Rebecca Norris Webb, January 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: