Carroll yard sale yields letters by Louisa May Alcott One missive is dated Feb. 3, 1865

February 14, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Contributing Writer

It is the dream of every collector who haunts yard sales or roadside bookstores to pull off a coup by discovering a forgotten Modigliani painting under an old framed calendar or a rare volume of a signed work by Edgar Allan Poe discarded in a box of old Popular Mechanics magazines.

For Baltimorean Ron Flood, that stroke of collector's lightning struck him last Saturday at a yard sale near Westminster, when tucked among the pages of a book he bought he found two letters written by Louisa May Alcott.

For Mr. Flood, 33, the discovery was simply wonderful. "I never expected anything like this," he said.

Mr. Flood's weekends are filled with traveling back roads and looking for yard sales and auctions.

"I just get in the car and drive. Last Saturday, I decided to go toward Taneytown when I saw this cardboard sign near Westminster, so I turned off Route 140 and followed [the signs] to this barn behind a house. I couldn't find it again if I had to," he said with a laugh.

It was a typical yard sale with household goods, bicycles and old lawn mowers, he said, except for the books.

"I love books," he said, "and I saw a suitcase of books and the price was marked $5. I briefly looked at the contents, thought it looked interesting, paid the man and put them in my car."

It was only when he returned to his home in Northwest Baltimore that he learned he had something very exciting in the battered, 1930s-era cardboard suitcase.

Most of the books were romantic railroad station novels of the 1920s; an 1850 edition of "The Task"; a book of poems by William Cowper; "The Elemental Treatise on Astronomy," sans cover and published in 1837; an 1898 edition of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"; and "The Alcotts in Harvard," published in 1902. The contents numbered 22 books.

Thumbing through the Alcott book, Mr. Flood found a couple of letters between the pages. Reading them, he realized the letter writer was Louisa May Alcott, author of the American classic "Little Women."

The first letter is addressed to "My Dear Miss Lawrence" and was written Feb. 3, 1865, from Alcott's home in Concord, Mass. The second letter, written in a spidery hand, carries no date and is addressed to "Mrs. Clark."

The author of "The Alcotts in Harvard" is Ann Maria Lawrence Clark, and it appears that the addressees are for the same person, a childhood friend of Alcott's.

How the book found its way to Westminster is a mystery.

Mr. Flood was startled that evening while watching "Jeopardy!" on television, when one of the questions was about Louisa May Alcott.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I'm not real familiar with her work but have heard of 'Little Women.' I kind of took it as a sign of something."

According to Teresa Johanson, the proprietor of Kelmscott Bookshop, rare book dealers on West 25th Street in Baltimore, the letters are most interesting.

"The warmth of Louisa May Alcott's personality shines through the letters," she said. "They are really very personal."

Mrs. Johanson also is of the opinion that the recipients of the correspondence, Miss Lawrence and later Mrs. Clark, are the same person.

"It's quite possible that Mrs. Clark's book was a lifelong project because one of the letters addresses that directly."

In answering a question about a long-ago party, Alcott wrote:

"I do not remember the party as we had so many, but it sounds very Alcotty especially the Indian girl."

In her book, Clark writes of the party: "But Louisa was the star of the evening. Her mother had stained her face, arms, neck and ankles to the ruddy hue of an Indian girl; her dress seemed made of feathers, feathers, too, crowned her head. . . . Once according to her own recollection, she sang the then popular song, 'Wild roved an Indian girl, bright Alfarata.' "

Alcott ends the letter with a bittersweet farewell.

"Wishing it success I am very truly your old playmate."

Mrs. Johanson thinks the "it" may refer to Clark's book.

In the first letter, which is engraved with an "A" and written in a firm, yet delicate feminine script, Louisa Alcott offers distinct childhood memories to her friend.

The value of the letters can be substantial, Mrs. Johanson said. "For manuscript letters," she said, "the value can be $200 per page and as high as $500."

"The Alcotts in Harvard," she said, is not a rare book and was probably published by a vanity publisher.

Further research before giving Mr. Flood an absolute appraisal is necessary, she said.

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