The beloved 19th-century author Louisa May Alcott has always had a special connection to the Concord Free Public Library.
She and her family lived in numerous houses in Concord — including Orchard House, now a historical museum dedicated to her life and work — around the time of the library’s founding. She studied under the tutelage of family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who served as keynote speaker when the library held its opening ceremonies in 1873. And she and her father, Bronson Alcott, both donated works to the library’s Concord Authors Collection.
Alcott has also long been well-represented in the library’s William Munroe Special Collections department, which owns two manuscript chapters from “Little Women” and two from “Little Men,” novels she wrote while living at Orchard House.
Leslie Perrin Wilson, the special collections curator, had reason to believe those four chapters comprised the bulk of extant documentation reflecting Alcott’s writing process. Alcott had instructed her publisher to destroy any printer’s copies of her works still in progress after her death, and Alcott herself destroyed her own working copies of her manuscripts.
Then Wilson was contacted by rare books collector Marsha Malinowski of New York City, who passed on the shocking news that she had a client who possessed two more segments of original Alcott manuscripts.
They totaled 500 pages of text, including the last six chapters of Alcott’s 1875 novel “Eight Cousins” and chapters 5 through 24 of “Under the Lilacs,” published three years later, complete with printer’s edits.
Almost no one — not Wilson; not Joel Myerson, editor of published collections of Alcott’s letters and journals; not Jan Turnquist, longtime executive director of Orchard House — knew these manuscripts existed.
“When Leslie told me about this, a chill of excitement went up my spine,” recalled Turnquist. “This is an astonishing treasure. These pages afford deep insights into Louisa’s writing process. It’s akin to looking into her thoughts — like being part of an intimate conversation.”
Wilson, too, says the importance of this find cannot be overstated.
“This changes the story,” she said. “Suddenly we discovered that there’s a body of [Alcott] material out there that no one was aware of. This is incredibly dynamic material for research in terms of her writing process and how her works were edited. It opens up an area of scholarship that people didn’t previously know was available.”
Despite what appeared to be an astonishing opportunity to enhance the library’s collection in previously unimagined ways, the process of acquisition was by necessity painstaking.
A decision needed to be made by the trustees of the private corporation that funds special collections at the library to approve the expenditure. Though the corporation refuses to disclose the dollar amount, the decision wasn’t only about the expense, said Sherry Litwack, Library Corporation Trustees president.
The acquisition of materials for the library’s special collections, Litwack said, is about finding new pieces that “fit into the existing materials to tell a coherent story. It’s not about collecting treasures. We build our collection by finding pieces that help us tell a continuing story.”
Though the sellers’ identities will not be disclosed, per terms of the sale, Wilson is free to discuss the manuscripts’ provenance, which Malinowski described as “impeccable.” In 1929, the two manuscripts were acquired by a rare-book dealer who was best known for his scholarship on Balzac, Wilson said.
“He gave one manuscript segment to one of his daughters as a birthday gift and the other manuscript to his other daughter,” Wilson said. “We have the original handwritten notes with which he presented the gifts. They stayed in that family for decades and then were passed on to someone else who was a close friend to the family. That was the person who sought out Marsha Malinowski for help with the sale.”
Some degree of skepticism is always appropriate when approached about such a rare find, Wilson said. She is often dismissive of the so-called treasures that patrons tell her they have found on eBay, such as purportedly original Emerson manuscripts in the author’s own handwriting.
“But once Marsha sent me the images, I could see for myself that they were just what she had said they were. Still, we sought some outside expertise. A professional appraiser came to take a look, as did Myerson, who is a specialist in Alcott material.” Both examiners vouched for their authenticity, Wilson said.
Since finalizing the acquisition, Wilson has had the opportunity to pore over the new manuscripts herself in advance of any public access. “They are a reflection of the writing process and very typical of the printer’s manuscripts of that period. On the backs of the pages you can see Louisa May Alcott’s handwritten comments.”
The acquisition will soon be available for public viewing, and Wilson looks forward to the day when everyone — from acclaimed Alcott scholars to what she calls “pilgrims” who stop by the library to absorb the Alcott ambience — comes to take a look and to continue the centuries-old discussion about the Alcotts and their work.
Firsthand observation and interaction with primary texts will always beat online research, Wilson believes. “Once people are here in the library, they start making mental connections. They talk with each other; they talk with the staff. The human mind has the ability to make inferences and suggestions that are difficult to capture in a digital world, no matter how many keywords you use.”Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.