A framed print of Norman Rockwell’s Jo Writing in the Attic hangs in a prominent corner of our little home library, and not far from it, on a nearby bookshelf, rests an old abridged edition of Little Women, my childhood introduction to Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel.
I recall my first experience with the story more than 40 years ago. Draped across my dad’s recliner, my growing legs slung over the armrest and my sock-clad feet dangling well above the living-room carpet, I was transported to Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1860s and became an invisible houseguest at Orchard House and an unseen companion in the trials and tribulations of its resident family.
All the expected scenes tugged at my youthful heartstrings, including Beth’s early death and Jo’s romantic rejection of Laurie. I learned, maybe for the first time, what it was to be moved to tears by the power of a story, and what it meant to experience reading as an immersive, even embodied, experience. But perhaps no scene affected me more viscerally, or left me more stricken, than the account of Amy’s vengeful destruction of Jo’s fledgling novel.
“What! My little book I was so fond of, and worked over, and meant to finish before Father got home? Have you really burned it?” Jo wails furiously following Amy’s confession, and I remember personalizing the bitterness of her every word. By age nine or ten, I’d already begun penning my own little poems and stories, and indignation over the enormity of Jo’s loss kept me awake nearly half the night.
Recently, after seeing Greta Gerwig’s gorgeously textured film adaptation of Alcott’s novel, I pulled out my old Golden Illustrated Classic edition of Little Women and revisited its dusty pages. How many years had it been since I’d cracked its torn and faded spine? Fingertips brushing old illustrations long since burnished in my psyche, I searched in vain for one that seemed to be missing. Where was the one of Jo draped in a chair, long legs dangling over the arm, a novel in one hand, and an apple in another?
After leafing through the book several times, I realized the precise image I had in mind had only ever existed in my imagination, shaped into an enduring mental picture by the scene below:
“Jo! Jo! Where are you?” cried Meg, at the foot of the garret stairs.
“Here,” answered a husky voice from above; and running up, Meg found her sister eating apples and crying over The Heir of Redclyffe.
This was Jo’s favorite refuge, and here she loved to retire with half a dozen russets and a nice book.
The power of language! As a child reader, I’d so identified with Jo’s pleasure in solitary reading and been so absorbed in the March family drama, I’d conflated my own cozy reading position in my dad’s recliner with that of Jo’s in this scene. Then I’d melded the two into such a vivid mental image, I’d mistakenly recalled it, all these years later, as an actual illustration on one of the book’s pages. Boundaries of time and place had, in a sense, fallen away, and I’d become “at one” with the story.
“The author and reader ‘know’ each other; they meet on the bridge of words,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, and this also has become an enduring picture in my imagination: my child-reader-self and Louisa May Alcott clasping kindred hands on the bridge of her creativity, though by the late 1970s, when I first “met” her, Alcott had been gone from this world for nearly a century.
Now, as a grown woman, and as a writer myself, I stand, in a sense, on the other side of that fanciful bridge, and though I’m distant from Alcott in talent, I’m motivated by a desire to reproduce the literary connection I once shared with her. I long to clasp hands with my readers and fellowship with them on the bridges of essays and poems and stories, spanning boundaries, if not of time, then of space and experience.
Although the act of writing is a solitary one, as portrayed in Rockwell’s painting, where only a pair of intrepid mice keep Jo company while she scribbles in the Orchard House attic, the product of writing is more than a vehicle of self-expression; it’s a means of communion, a space a writer makes ready for her reader-guests. It’s a way, I believe, those of us with a writerly bent can uniquely respond to the biblical call to hospitality. Like the Apostle Paul in his letter to Philemon, our readers ask that we “prepare a guest room” for them, and with care and attention, we do.
Greta Gerwig seemed to key into this aspect of the creative impulse in a December 2019 press interview. Prior to the Little Women motion picture premiere, the director and screenwriter said this about what she hoped viewers would take away from her film: “I hope that they feel warm inside, like that feeling you get when you want to crawl inside a movie and live inside it. I hope that they feel like that. I hope that they feel hugged.”
Not all creative works are meant to make us feel warm or hugged, of course, nor should they. I’m thinking here of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, as just one example. They elicit very opposite, but no less soul-stirring, sensations from Little Women. But Gerwig’s answer, I think, conveys sensibilities that seem to be common among artists of all stripes, including writers: the perception of their completed work as a kind of habitation, as an invitation into tangible experience, evocative of particular feelings. With skill of craft, writers construct a “home” for guests, and they invite their readers inside.
When I sit down to write, I sometimes think about the sensory nature of real-life hospitality, about the things I do to make my home a space of welcome. I may light a scented candle and prepare a home-cooked meal. I may play soft music, plump the cushions, rearrange the chairs, and thoughtfully set the table. Time and care of preparation, no matter how humble, always seem to invite deeper communication. An atmosphere of welcome relaxes mutual defenses, and over a simple meal, I find that my guests and I make more than mere small talk; we broach ultimate things.
Is this, perhaps, what Gerwig had in mind? Although her film neither glosses over serious subjects, nor handles them tritely, she clearly hopes that her viewers will engage Little Women’s weighty themes—such as those of female agency and the meaning of art—in the context of a created beauty that both beckons and enfolds. Louisa May Alcott, in her own way, seemed to have hoped the same.
“The artist works with the beauty of matter, the reality of things; the discoveries of the senses, all five of them,” L’Engle muses in A Circle of Quiet, the first of her Crosswick’s Journals.
When I read these words, I’m reminded that all art is incarnational, and that readers are neither stirred nor saved by abstractions. As Christians, we believe that the second person of the Trinity was enfleshed, given a bodily form, and that he is constructing a church, a kingdom habitation. It’s in the context of that kingdom’s beauty that we commune both with him and with one another.
I think too about the sensory nature of the sacraments Christ left us: water running over scalps or beading on bare skin, matzos or wafers melting on our tongues, blood-red liquid slipping down our throats. Ensconced in these tactile experiences, we relax our defenses, we open our souls to ultimate things. Whether in a simple chapel or a soaring cathedral, the atmosphere of a Christian church service becomes a work of art that invites us in, a book that enfolds us in its pages. Boundaries of time and place seem to fall away, and we become “at one” with Christ’s story. As I once did with Alcott, we meet the Creator on the bridge of his creation.
How can all of this inform our own work as writers who are Christians? Like Gerwig, and like Alcott before her, we have weighty themes we want to convey, but like them—and ultimately like Christ—we must first construct the bridge, ready the guest room, prepare the meal, and set the table. We must practice hospitality. And when we do, who knows what miracles might happen? Perhaps, as the writer of Hebrews suggests, we may even find ourselves entertaining angels.
Image by Norman Rockwell