Boston's Alcott Trail: Little Women Slept Here
Sunday, October 31, 2004
It's a crisp fall morning in Boston's Beacon Hill, and the Secret Service agents outside what is inevitably described as Sen. John F. Kerry's "elegant brick townhouse" are busy turning away the groupies and the just plain curious. "Is he home?" a German tourist plaintively asks of no one in particular, as another woman sneaks a snapshot by the presdiential candidate's front steps.
Me, I just walk on past. Kerry's house -- eh. The residence I'm looking for is far more intriguing.
Finally I spot it, at the opposite corner of Louisburg Square -- an equally stylish townhouse with a black painted door, floor-to-ceiling windows and a graceful wrought iron railing. I drop my guidebook and stare, for this is the house where Louisa May Alcott -- the author of "Little Women," one of the most popular and enduring novels of a family ever written -- died on March 6, 1888, at the age of 55.
And that's not all there is to see in this genteel, leafy enclave of cobblestone streets and brick sidewalks. Just around the corner are several of the rooming houses where Alcott and her sisters, Anna, Elizabeth and May, lived as children and young women.
You can't tour these houses -- they're all privately owned -- but the fact that they still exist, looking much as they did 150 years ago, is thrill enough. And in tracking them down, you find yourself walking the same narrow streets as Alcott and her sisters -- the real-life Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy of "Little Women." Trailing your hand on the same railings. Wandering past the same storefronts. Stepping off the same curbs, rounding the same corners.
It's enough to make you forget presidential politics entirely.
Fans of "Little Women" have always flocked to Orchard House, the lovingly restored home 16 miles northwest of Boston in Concord, Mass., where the Alcotts lived the longest. (Actually, not Beth. But more about that later.) The chance to see the room where Louisa wrote "Little Women," to inspect the books on her shelves, to peer out her window at a view that hasn't changed much in more than a century -- for Alcott fans, Orchard House is worth the trip in itself.
But what even die-hard followers might not know is that a surprising number of other Alcott homes remain in the Boston area. Three are in Concord and several are in the heart of Boston, in Beacon Hill. Visiting them is extraordinarily moving, not only putting Alcott's novels into context, but also providing a fascinating window into American daily life during the Civil War era.
Adding immeasurably to the enjoyment of the trip is that you can get to all the Alcott sites on foot and by public transportation, forcing you to slow down and approach things at a more civilized, 19th-century pace. From the Concord train station, it's a pleasant half-hour walk to Orchard House, down quiet streets lined with lilac bushes, low stone walls and Colonial-era houses.
A lovelier introduction to Alcott's world couldn't be imagined. You can visit the houses, make the pilgrimage to the author's grave, have lunch in town and be back at the depot in time to catch the train back to Boston -- where you can then head for Beacon Hill and see more Alcott abodes.
Seeing a favorite author's haunts is always enlightening, but it's especially so in the case of the complex, conflicted Alcott. You've got to love a writer who once referred to her own successful children's stories as "moral pap for the young." Even her mainstream stuff had an edge.
Yes, she had a sentimental streak, and she functioned within the constraints of her time, but she was no prig -- and she was nothing if not pragmatic. As the daughter of a well-meaning but idealistic philosopher who wasn't overly concerned with bringing home a paycheck, she had to be. To help support herself and her family -- her dotty father, long-suffering mother, sisters, nephews and niece -- she churned out lurid tales of passion and intrigue long before she became famous for more respectable fare. She was both dutiful daughter and rebellious schemer, respected novelist and closet pulp fiction writer.