Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 3, 2015

Pedestals and Ponds

I grew up in the 1950’s in a pretty house in a pretty town where we learned not to speak about heartache. As I became an adult, a revelation was how much had been hidden in other houses, too. I became a writer not to shame my family or the neighbors or blow up facades. I carried with me beauty along with hurt, and wanted to find ways to put them side by side. I looked for models in books I’d loved. I remembered the generosity and moral striving in Little Women, but when I learned about the real issues of the woman who wrote that novel and the family she based her fictional world upon, I cared about them even more. I felt sad that Louisa May Alcott thought she couldn’t tell the whole truth, or at least the sort of truth we find in novels. I wrote my book for young readers, Becoming Little Woman: Louisa May at Fruitlands, to tell more about the hard year when Louisa was twelve that might have turned her into a writer. Trouble is often inspiration. I wrote Little Woman in Blue to address some of the rivalry as well as love between the Alcott sisters.


We live in a more open era than the one I grew up in. Icons get pulled down and broken. Stuffing gets strewn, as much of it should. But sometimes I wish people would take more breaths and second looks. I just read a recent New Yorker article called “Pond Scum,” taking down Henry David Thoreau. Yeah, he wasn’t perfect. But did I ever think so? Even when I read (okay, let’s put “read” in quotes) Walden in high school, I had my doubts about him. My teacher might have told us that he brought his laundry to his mother. I might not want to have lunch with him, but he wrote good lines about bluebirds and woodchucks, and I’m happy that he was who he was. I’ve always preferred Ralph Waldo Emerson’s rolling sentences and admire his generosity to the Alcotts; but as a husband? First off, he asked his wife to change her name from Lydia to Lydian as more poetic, which it might be, but…. Let’s face it. Having heroes is a dangerous business.

Can we get rid of both pedestals and knocking them down? We don’t need to let all walls tumble to suggest everything that happens inside houses with freshly painted shutters and swept steps. Can we understand that no one is all they appear to be, and be ready to learn more? Can we enjoy a memoir that isn’t built around smashed vases and broken goblets and novels in which small revelations come with tea and scones?


We can visit graves understanding that these were humans, both imperfect and wise. Here’s Thoreau’s small stone at Sleepy Hollow in Concord and Emerson’s quartz memorial, with gifts of pens. These men made other people want to look around and inside, think and write, and maybe that’s enough.




  1. Hi, Jeannine,
    I’ve recently moved to Amherst from Concord, where I was a guide at Orchard House, speaker at Thoreau Society Annual Gatherings, etc. Just want to tell you I’m glad you’ve posted this. The New Yorker article was so absurdly disconnected from the real Thoreau and his influence.
    As a former school librarian, I’ve been familiar with your books for children for a while. I hope we’ll meet each other now that I live here (though sadly, I’ve missed your Little Woman in Blue book talks so far).

    • Polly, thanks so much for writing. Thoreau is easily one of my top ten men in history, but also nobody needs to be knocked down with a tabloid approach that assumes someone is either a star or in some kind of gutter.

      I hope we meet, too; sure we have lots to talk about! I’m talking at Jones Library Nov. 17, so please introduce yourself if you can make that.

  2. People are so much more interesting when you remove them from the pedestal and explore the muddy areas. For goodness sake, life is messy and so are people! I see no purpose in striking down someone just for sake of doing it (as with taking Thoreau down a few notches–heck, it’s his quirkiness that makes him such a fascinating character). Amy Belding Brown wrote such a compelling story about Emerson as a husband with “Mr. Emerson’s Wife” thus opening my eyes to the real issues confronting women in their quest for equality. I remember reading about St. Bernadette Soubirous and how she longed to read “real” accounts of the saints, not the sanctified versions. Real people teach real lessons to us seekers.

    • I love what you say here, Susan. And thank you for reminding me of my feelings reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife. I think Thoreau’s quirkiness was always more evident, and I was more a fan girl of Emerson, reading the essays with all the underlinings I made in college, and then he was such a savior to the Alcotts and others, showing up at times of need and distress. Amy Belding Brown opened my eyes, and I squirmed sometimes, but … agree that people are complicated, none of us are perfect, and such richness in all humans is ours to explore. Thanks for writing.

  3. I have long wondered at this need to put people into hero/villain categories, to reduce them to good/bad or yes/no. A person can be a great artist AND a bad husband; a brilliant scientist AND an arrogant person who was hard to get along with; an important statesman AND a misogynist; etc.

  4. If only more people thought like you, Jenn. We know people are complicated — yet so many people want to think all or nothing, which really seems neither true nor helpful in understanding each other. Thanks for your welcome perspective.

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