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Alcott, Louisa May.

LETTER: Autograph letter signed, to Mrs. Williams.


Letter to an Old Family Friend
Alcott, Louisa May. Autograph letter signed, to Mrs. Herbert Williams. Boston; March 18, 1887.
8pp.; two leaves; 8½ x 11 inches;  rectos and versos; creased. With original envelope. In a specially made cloth slipcase.
A long, warm and touching letter from Alcott to an old friend of her parents, Mrs. Herbert Williams, née Lucy Bigelow (1797-1890). It remains unpublished. Alcott is responding to a letter from Williams, who either sent a letter to Alcott requesting news about her family, or had written to Alcott's mother, not realizing that she had died ten years previously. A remarkable letter, as Alcott did not write about herself later in life, and here she writes at length about herself and the members of all of her family, particularly her mother, Marmee. Alcott explains that she was suffering from writer's cramp, but it is clear that it was important to her to respond at length to Williams, who knew her parents before they were married. Alcott would have loved reading Williams's recollections of her parents and appreciated the spirit in which the letter was sent.
Alcott begins warmly, "Your letter gave me great pleasure, & I most gladly answer it with such facts as will satisfy your friendly interest" (p.1). She continues by providing information on everyone in the family, including her sisters Anna, Abby May and Elizabeth, and both of her parents.
Alcott writes about herself in the third person, explaining that although her health is poor, she takes pride in being the breadwinner of the family:
Louisa May is a literary spinster of 54, broken down by twenty years of over-work & able to do little now but take care of a dilapidated body. She takes comfort, however in the thought that her work, & the unexpected success which made it profitable, enabled her to render her family independent, help her sisters, & smooth the pathway to the grave of the dear old parents who had so nobly done their duty to their children. (pp.1-2)
Alcott's only surviving sister, Anna, is widowed and the mother of two sons "of 24 and 22, both well settled in business & a great comfort & pride to their good mother" (p.1). Alcott goes on to say that her sister Elizabeth - the model for the character Beth in Little Women - died when she was 23 years old. She also reports on the death of her youngest sister Abby May, who was
an artist of great promise, full of energy, hope and talent. She studied abroad, & married there a Swiss gentleman named Earnest [Ernst] Nieriker, & after two years of happy wedded life died at the birth of her only child, seven years ago. She named the baby for me & gave her to me to educate. A lovely girl is our little May inheriting her parents' gift of art & music, health & beauty & at age seven is a blooming lassie, a joy to us all, & I hope to be a comfort to her father when I return her to him (pp.2-3)  
Alcott's father, at 87 years old, was weakened after a bout with apoplexy five years earlier, had difficulty speaking and partial paralysis (Alcott explains that "he still retains his mind, loves his books, enjoys his friends, & sits serenely waiting for the summons to a new life as a Christian philosopher should," p.2). She goes on to share her father's reaction to receiving Williams's letter:
He seemed dimly to remember your name & some of the events you speak of, but smiled & nodded & looked up when we read "Abby May" and '"Mr. Alcott," and enjoyed the little joke about Miss May's not marrying. He wished to be remembered to you, & was much surprised to learn how smart you were at your great age. "She can write, but ah me, I can't!" he sighed as he saw your handsome letter. (pp.3-4)
Mrs. Williams would have been 90 years old at the time of writing. The reference to "Abby May and Mr. Alcott" is to Louisa May Alcott's parents, who would have been courting during the time that Williams knew them.
Alcott also describes the death of her mother, ten years earlier. Curiously, Alcott lists her mother's death as being on Sunday November 25, 1886, when she actually died on November 25, 1877. Alcott shares some of her mother's qualities, "our dear 'Marmee' was our earthly Providence while her strength lasted; always brave and cheerful, putting her hand to any useful work; interested in all the great reforms, one of the early abolitionists, the first woman advocate Women's Suffrage, & always ready to help in Temperance work, charity and health matters." (pp. 5-6).
Alcott also sends an update about her Uncle S.J. May and his family, and that he is "still loved & honored wherever known & leaves a memory behind better than millions" (p.8).
In closing, Alcott tells Williams how much she enjoyed receiving her letter: "I wish mother were here to enjoy the glimpse into the past that you give us. In her name let me thank you for it, & for the image of the young old lady dreaming in her chair of those so dear to me" (p.8).
The Alcott's and the Williams's became friends when they were neighbors in Brooklyn, Connecticut, in the 1820s-1830s. Both couples moved out of the town in 1836. Herbert Williams was a member of the Brooklyn Congregational Church; when the church needed a new Unitarian minister, Williams traveled to Boston and invited Samuel J. May to come lead it. May would have been a familiar figure in Brooklyn, as he had been a guest pastor at that church in 1821. May had an interest in educational reform - this lead to a state-wide conference on the subject to be held in Brooklyn - and William Alcott, of Brooklyn, invited his cousin Amos Bronson Alcott to the town to share his own ideas on education with May.
Bronson Alcott came to Brooklyn and stayed with the Mays at their parsonage. At the time, May's sister, Abby, was living in the house, attending to her sister-in-law after the latter's difficult childbirth. Alcott and May were immediately fond of each other, though their courtship did not advance until 1828, when Alcott and May both moved to Boston. May's reason for moving to Boston was to assist Alcott in a school he established there. A personal and professional relationship grew, and they were married in 1830.
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