Sunday, July 12, 2015

Memoir Club Classic: Beth Spencer on Louisa May Alcott's ‘Transcendental Wild Oats’

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

6.00 - 9.00 PM

The Randwick Literary Institute,
60 Clovelly Road, Randwick 2031

Illustration: Flora Smith (from Joan Howard, The Story of Louisa May Alcott)

Louisa May Alcott, Transcendental Wild Oats (1873): 
About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away. An easterly storm was coming up and the yellow stacks were sure to be ruined. Then Sister Hope (Abba) [Louisa's mother], gathered her forces. Three little girls, one boy (Timon’s son)... and herself, harnessed to clothes-baskets and Russia-linen sheets, were the only teams she could command; but with these poor appliances the indomitable woman got in the grain and saved food for her young, with the instinct and energy of a mother-bird with a brood of hungry nestlings to feed.

This month’s Memoir Club Classic presents award-winning author Beth Spencer in conversation about Louisa May Alcott’s satirical essay Transcendental Wild Oats, which charts her family's involvement with the utopian community Fruitlands in New England in the 1840s, when Alcott was a child.

This humorous and provocative memoir gives us a world far from the ‘shabby gentility’ of the Marches in Little Women and Good Wives, Alcott's immensely popular and influential fiction. A copy of the essay can be found here:

The majority of Alcott’s biographers present Little Women as ‘Louisa’s own story just as it happened’, ‘written from the heart exactly as it occurred’, and Alcott herself encouraged the blurring of the boundaries between life and fiction.

In life, her Transcendentalist father concentrated on philosophy (in a circle including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau), while her mother and later Alcott herself struggled to support the family, surviving one season on bread, apples and water. In Little Women she rescued her family and made them respectable (dispatching Mr March off to war so Marmee could legitimately run the show).

Transcendental Wild Oats sits in a crack between Alcott’s earlier and highly criticised works (which often question whether marriage provides emotional safety for women) and the canonised ones (with the famous dictum, to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman’).

Do join us for Beth Spencer’s fascinating exploration of Louisa May Alcott’s humorous yet biting evocation of a world ruled by men, even those men who are some of the most ‘enlightened’ of their time.

Beth Spencers most recent book is Vagabondage (UWAP, 2014), a verse memoir about a year she lived in a campervan. Beth also writes fiction, personal essays and opinion pieces and has been awarded several prizes and fellowships. At her website you can get a free ebook of a memoir essay ‘The True Story of an Escape Artist’ (originally in Family Pictures, ed. Beth Yahp).

Beth Spencer has an abiding love for Jo March and her creator, and wrote a thesis on her many years ago: ‘Louisa May Alcott: the lost work, the later work, and the life’.
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was an American novelist described by Henry James as ‘the Thackeray, the Trollope of the nursery and the schoolroom. She is best known for her novel Little Women and its sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys. As well as wholesome stories for children, in her earlier years Alcott also wrote passionate, fiery novels and sensational stories under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard.

An abolitionist and feminist, Alcott and her family were part of the Underground Railroad that helped fugitive slaves escape to the American North.

When: last Tuesday of every month.

Time: 6.00 - 9.00 PM (come for a cuppa and help us set up at 5.30 PM - please remember to bring your own cup!)

Where: The Randwick Literary Institute, 60 Clovelly Road, Randwick 2031. Tel: 02-9398 5203 (for directions and venue info). Street parking available. Clovelly bus 339 on the doorstep. For how to get there, see:

What: A communal space to meet other writers and readers and converse about all things to do with reading and writing memoir. We are interested in all kinds of life stories and in different ways of telling them. The genre of life writing and the possibilities of expanding and reworking the genre is exciting to us. Therefore we have a somewhat open and inclusive approach to what makes a memoir, and we hope you do too! Here is a space to connect with others and share ideas, questions and just hang out. Each meeting will start off with a talk, conversation or discussion about a particular topic or book, sometimes with a guest speaker or facilitator, then we move to an informal gathering and catch up.

Donation: $15 at the door for hall hire, refreshments and speakers.

Food: $15 for a plate of delicious vegetarian finger food (different each meeting). Ring or text to book a plate: 0450 907 422.

Future Speakers: Rosie Scott (August), Members Night of Readings (October)

mem·oir /ˈmemˌwär/
Noun. A historical account or biography written from personal knowledge. An autobiography or a written account of one's memory of certain events or people.