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Friday, March 21, 2008

RED LEAVES, YELLOW PAPER

My imaginary life in New England, more precisely in Concord, Massachusetts, can only be explained by the fact that I grew up as one more of the girls in the March family. Even if as Latin American I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, within a real family of my own, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, indulged me with a different kind of existence.

Novels create worlds in which we are allowed to live as long as our reading lasts. Some of those worlds linger in our psyches delighting us for a while to fade later. Others, instead, remain embedded in our memory and, as a lived experience they borrow its emotional quality. Literature and language are not innocent at the time of expressing a precise community and its values. Even in translation, Little Women didn’t fail its purpose of educating young girls in the values of freedom and self reliance. In the middle of twentieth century, Latin American families had no strategies to deal with wild rebellious girls wanting to be themselves. Louisa May Alcott did more for women in the world and on behalf of the American dream than any politician would do in the century to come.

Without a name, because the word Concord was not mentioned and less its historical role in the United States independence, this New England Victorian town became my inner promised land. I had no immigration fancies and no endearing links as later in life; I barely knew at that time about the existence of the United States as a different country than mine. I only craved for the love, solidarity and freedom which blossomed in that household ruled by an open minded mother. In the same emotional trip toward freedom, I took Jo as a role model, without knowing that writing was my call. She inspired me because she was boyish and temperamental. She loved books as I did. I was a reader; she was a writer, someone enabled to dream and to give dreams an entity through words. Jo was not my exclusive mirror of a future to come: many other Latin American women writers have reported the same enlightening experience.

Not only mothers and their education in freedom which nurtured literary minds were different in the magic town of Concord. Trees had red leaves during the fall and houses had garrets where Jo would hide to write. Yellow paper would become later in my mind another colored distinct mark of New England. Wannabe women writers used yellow legal pads to scribble her stories or letters, as in Daddy Long Legs, by Jean Webster, a novel in which the potential of women was also exalted in the scenery of the typical up state New York college.

If red leaves and yellow paper were a luscious novelty and garrets the place where dreams were dreamt in houses with a nook for each need, Concord had more to offer. I was not the only one to have benefited of the experience of a Concord family in the immediate pre and post Civil War era. The Argentine President Sarmiento, elected in 1868 while he was the Argentine ambassador to the United States, had close ties to Concord. Horace Mann and later his widow, Mary Mann, introduced Sarmiento in the knowledge of the American educational system and helped him to adapt it to Argentina. Sarmiento hired a set of brave and free American women school teachers and started in Argentina a public education program which was a national pride for almost a century and a model for other Latin American countries. Sarmiento had also met Emerson in Concord, and if none of the meeting was recorded, at least one of Emerson’s reflections remained as a mysterious legacy: “There is a great education in the snow.” Often quoted, the famous sentence still distils the quaint image of New England winters.

There is snow in the first Christmas at the beginning of Little Women; snow while Laurie, the boy next door, plays with a sled; and more snow freezing romantic love as a pledge until the end of childhood. New England’s nature became part of my memories. I listed the snow as well as the woods and flowers, narrow rivers and ponds I would later find in Thoreau and Emerson, with the unmistakable feeling that I had been there before.

Little Women, as the top of the iceberg of the rich Concord based literature, introduced the past century Latin American children into a larger American project. Little Women as the other Alcott’s stories, An Old Fashioned Girl, Little Men, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, Jack and Jill, and Jo’s Boys represented not only a program on how to build strong family ties but on how to organize an equally strong community around common ideals of freedom. Alcott’s education was also on what I didn’t know at the time was a constitutional right, the pursuit of happiness. Women were also invited to the feast and that permission made all the difference for girls like me. My childhood days were also Evita’s days, and I can assure many of her dreams were also based in these embedded images of American happiness as seen in the movies and cartoons. The model of Californian chalets she picked up to build her neighborhoods and towns for the poor comes out straight from a later version of the American Dream started in Concord. Little Women grew up with the new generations of women and, the lesson on freedom being learnt, nobody reads Alcott any more.

Concord’s light seems to have dimmed while a heavy anti-American feeling spreads these days everywhere in the world, including my country. Below the world’s anger for a supposed American imperialism invading Iraq lies the powerful envy for a country which has succeed to be the richest in the world. The one which on top of that has not sacrificed happiness to wealth but, on the contrary, created wealth to allow that happiness. Hippies rediscovered Thoreau in the 60’s, when the goal was to be free from repression and to reach a fulfilled life according to nature. Isn’t it time for the skeptic world in search for a better life to revisit good old literary Concord? The body has been taken care. Does now humankind dream of spiritual happiness? Has the new hour of Emerson come yet?

Alcott, long before writing Little Women, in love with her master, played under his window, dreaming to be the Bettina of the new American Goethe. But that’s another story of the inexhaustible Concord’s treasure.

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