On the road from Lexington to Concord, Massachusetts, midway between the welter of orange-striped traffic barrels on the outskirts and the boutiques and pricey restaurants downtown, two old wood-framed houses sit side by side. One of these, Orchard House, is famous as the place where Louisa May Alcott wrote some of her best-known books. The other, formerly known as “Hillside” and later renamed “The Wayside,” is less well known but at least as remarkable.
For three years (1845 – 48) this early eighteenth-century house was the home of young Louisa May Alcott and her family, serving as the real-life setting for many of the episodes Alcott later incorporated into Little Women. In 1852 the house was purchased by Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, who for a time were next-door neighbors to the Alcotts at Orchard House. Just over thirty years later the youngest Hawthorne, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, sold The Wayside to a Boston publisher and his wife Harriett [sic] Stone Lothrop, keen Hawthorne admirers who jumped at the chance to spend their summers in Hawthorne’s old house. Harriett Lothrop is better known as “Margaret Sidney,” the pseudonymous author of the Five Little Peppers books. At the time she and her husband (no relation to the Lathrops, despite the similar name) moved into The Wayside, the first volume in the series – The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew – was already a record-setting bestseller.
All this is the stuff of many a website and museum exhibit, and when I started working on this piece I intended to focus on the phenomenon of three successful novelists occupying the same house within the span of a few decades. But in reading a 1940 book about The Wayside by Harriett Lothrop’s daughter Margaret, I noticed a curious imbalance between Lothrop’s treatment of Hawthorne and her treatment of Alcott: heavy on the former, skimpy on the latter. Excerpts from Louisa May Alcott’s journal and letters, old newspaper stories and census records, and reports and archival materials of the National Park Service (which owns The Wayside today) deepened my impression that the relationship between the Lothrops and the Alcotts was complicated, if not downright hostile. Juicy stuff, indeed.
The late 1870s and 1880s were melancholy years for the Alcott family. Though it was now many years after her death, the family still mourned the loss of Elizabeth (“Beth”). Abba (“Marmee”) Alcott was dead as well, as were Abba May Alcott Nieriker (“Amy”); the husband of the oldest Alcott sister, Anna (“Meg”); and Bronson Alcott’s dearest friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both the elderly Bronson and his daughter Louisa were in declining health and spirits. The presence of Abba May’s infant daughter Lulu in the household brought joy to the adults, but also added to Louisa’s crushing burden of responsibility – the sort of burden that Harriett Lothrop assumed only relatively late in her life, and to a far lesser extent.
Harriett’s father, Sidney Stone, was an architect who designed public buildings and houses for wealthy New Haven clients. In 1860, when Harriett was fifteen, her father’s real estate holdings were valued at $16,500 and his personal wealth at $2,100. By contrast, here is how Louisa May Alcott described her circumstances at more or less the same age: “The trials of my life began about this time, and happy childhood ended. One of the most memorable days of my life is a certain gloomy November afternoon, when we had been holding a family council as to ways and means. In summer we lived much as the birds did, on our fruit and bread and milk; the sun was our fire, the sky our roof, and Nature’s plenty made us forget that such a thing as poverty existed.” Although Alcott doesn’t identify the precise year, the context strongly suggests that this family council prompted the family’s decision in November 1848 to leave The Wayside and move to Boston, where there was more opportunity for employment. Louisa went on to publish her first book at the age of twenty-two. At twenty-four, she wrote in her journal, “I have done what I planned – supported myself, written eight stories, taught four months, earned a hundred dollars, and sent money home.”
At twenty-five, Harriett Lothrop was five years away from submitting her first piece for publication and was still living in New Haven with her family, whose wealth, according to the 1870 census of that year, totaled $188,500. As a child Harriett longed to exchange her opulent home for a “little brown house” where she could enjoy all the imagined pleasures of rural poverty: “It was a great calamity to me that my father was a successful architect and not a poor man living in the country – I always settled things in my own mind, that we should live in a little brown house, quite old and run down, while we, the family, had to scratch for a living.” Having imagined the house, Harriett populated it with a family of three boys and two girls. “So the years passed, and I passed along with them, thinking and writing, and having awfully good times with all the creatures of my imagination, till, and I was as much surprised as any one, they simply had to get between book covers.” Lothrop’s jejune notion of “having awfully good times” with her imaginary friends well into adulthood is a world away from the many entries in Alcott’s journals in which she describes her writing as grueling hack work.
Louisa sold Orchard House in July 1884, during Harriett and Daniel Lothrop’s second summer in Concord. She spent portions of the next three summers in her sister Anna’s house less than a half-mile from The Wayside. Anna herself continued to live in the house until her death in 1893. It is almost inconceivable that in a town as small as Concord the paths of the Alcotts and the Lothrops would never have crossed, if only by chance. Yet in recounting her family’s time at The Wayside, Margaret Lothrop mentions no personal contact with the Alcotts whatsoever.
The Lothrops were on conspicuously good terms with other members of Concord’s intelligentsia. Margaret Lothrop writes that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian visited The Wayside soon after its purchase by the Lothrops and corresponded with them thereafter; and Hawthorne’s daughter Rose was a frequent visitor to the house. Julian and Rose’s aunt, Elizabeth Peabody, was also a friend of the family’s and attended meetings of the East Quarter Literary Circle at The Wayside. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter Ellen orchestrated Margaret Lothrop’s lavish fifth birthday party. Margaret also devotes several pages of her book to encounters with John Greenleaf Whittier and Oliver Wendell Holmes, despite the fact that her family’s friendships with them were based in Boston and had nothing to do with The Wayside. Though there’s no reason to believe that Daniel and Harriett Lothrop felt insecure about their place in Boston and Concord’s literary society, Margaret’s account of The Wayside nevertheless conveys a sense that Harriett, in particular, was something of a tuft-hunter, eager to associate herself with as many of the great and good as possible. How odd, then, that the only reference to any of Louisa’s kin that I’ve found in newspaper accounts of social events hosted by the Lothrops is the inclusion of her mother’s elderly cousin, Frederick May Holland, in a guest list from the summer of 1886.
Though the Lothrops bought several pieces of Hawthorne furniture from Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and proudly displayed a portrait of Nathaniel over the mantelpiece of his study at The Wayside, the National Park Service report on the contents of the house mentions nothing Alcott-related except for two busts of famous educators that might possibly have belonged to Bronson. In a house furnished with inscribed photographs of Lothrop friends Julia Ward Howe and Edward Everett Hale, portraits of Milton and Wagner and Erasmus, busts of Plato and Franklin, and even a mug bearing the image of Lord Robert Baden-Powell, Louisa’s absence is conspicuous.
Taken together, all this begins to look very much like a snub. But why would Harriett Lothrop, who devoted her entire literary career to writing for young people and was married to a children’s publisher, snub such a distinguished young-people’s author? Was the feeling perhaps reciprocal? To be continued…
In a smackdown between the Alcotts and the Lothrops, whose side would you be on?