This week our friend Dr. Mardy tells a story about a woman born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 29, 1832. This woman spent most of her life in Boston and nearby Concord, growing up in the company of such luminaries as Emerson and Thoreau, both of whom were friends of her father, a pioneering-but-penniless educator (coincidentally, she shared a birthday with her father, who was born in Wolcott, Connecticut on Nov. 29, 1799).
From an early age, she was determined to become a writer, but she had to go to work early to help support her family. Her first book “Flower Fables” was published in 1854, but the sales were so dismal that she earned only about $35 in royalties. Many aspiring writers might have given up, but not this fiercely determined young woman. In an 1858 entry in her journal, she wrote:
“I…resolved to take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.”
After a brief attempt at teaching, she volunteered as a nurse in the Civil War, where she contracted typhoid fever, and never fully recovered. Her letters home were eventually published as “Hospital Sketches” in 1863, bringing her critical attention, but not much remuneration.
Her most famous work — which is regarded as an American literary classic — was an 1868 novel inspired by her own life experiences (the protagonist was largely autobiographical and the rest of the characters were based on her sisters and her mother).
Who is this woman?
In the early stages of human life, it was common for people to believe that the gods had preordained the entire course of their lives. This belief took firm hold in ancient Greece when three white-clothed figures known as the Moirai became a part of Greek mythology (they eventually became known in English as the Fates).
The Fates controlled every aspect of human life. According to Greek mythology, all human beings, and even the Greek Gods (with the possible exception of Zeus), had to submit to their designs. This worldview continued well into the Renaissance when the voice of Reason finally began to challenge its validity.
Nowadays, of course, the concept of a preordained destiny is considered laughable, but that ancient belief in the power of fate has been hard to kill off completely. Today, for example, many people still consult fortunetellers or astrologers. The remnants also routinely show up in the words of people who’ve experienced failure. Some give up, often saying resignedly, “Such is fate!” or “I guess it wasn’t in the stars.”
Others, like this week’s Mystery Woman, have such a determined resolution to succeed that they choose different words, like “taking Fate by the throat.” This week, spend a little time thinking about how the fickle finger of fate has played out in your life. Before doing anything, though, check out this week’s selection of quotations on the subject:
“I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act;
but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”
G. K. Chesterton
“To punish me for my contempt of authority,
Fate has made me an authority myself.”
“Whatever limits us, we call Fate.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Fate often enough will spare a man if his courage holds.”
“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, never to be undone.”
“The fates have a way of demanding of a man
that he suffer his greatest moments all by himself.”
“Fate isn’t one straight road…. There are forks in it, many different
routes to different ends. We have the free will to choose the path.”
“If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.”
“For man is man and master of his fate.”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
“What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines,
or rather indicates, his fate.”
Henry David Thoreau
This week’s mystery woman: If you guessed Louisa May Alcott. “Little Women,” you would be right.