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Getting Started

“An autobiography that leaves out the little things and enumerates only the big ones is no proper picture of the man’s life at all; his life consists of his feelings and his interests, with here and there an incident apparently big or little to hang the feelings on”
Mark Twain’s Autobiography, 1906

The lessons in this Smithsonian in Your Classroom introduce students to the life and work of an American author, Louisa May Alcott or Samuel Clemens, through four sources:
  • a portrait from the Smithsonian’s National portrait Gallery
  • a commemorative stamp from the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum
  • a piece of autobiographical writing
  • an abridged passage from a novel
We’ve treated the authors separately for the sake of adaptability. The materials may be used in a full unit on Little Women, Tom Sawyer, or Huckleberry Finn. A children’s biography (Cornelia Meigs’s Invincible Louisa or William Anderson’s River Boy, for example) might complement the autobiographical piece. Or you might adapt the lesson ideas to the study of another author.

For Alcott, we’ve selected entries in her girlhood journal and part of an early chapter of Little Women; for Clemens, his explanation of his white suit in Mark Twain’s Autobiography and part of the last chapter of Tom Sawyer, in which Huckleberry Finn has fled for the first time from the Widow Douglas’s civilizing influence. In a study of Alcott, it should become clear that Jo March is an autobiographical character. Clemens gave Tom Sawyer, rather than Huckleberry Finn, many of the outward circumstances of his own childhood, but students will perhaps see that there is a good deal of the author in Huck’s contrary position toward society, a contrariness that is central to the theme of Huckleberry Finn.

Reading either author, the students might also see—better yet—that their own lives and their own views can be the basis of creative writing.

Download the Lesson Plan


Web Sites

Mark Twain in His Times

This magnificent site by University of Virginia scholar Stephen Railton includes the complete texts of six books by Twain and lavishly illustrated contexts.

National Portrait Gallery

National Postal Museum

Orchard House – Home of the Alcotts

The official site of the Louisa May Alcott house includes a room-by-room tour, biographies of the Alcott family, and information on joining the Scrap-Baggers, a club for young enthusiasts.

Books for Teachers

Kaplan, Justin.Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Shealy, Daniel, ed.The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. University of Georgia Press, 1997.

Shealy, Daniel, and Joel Myerson, eds.The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Stern, Madeline B.Louisa May Alcott: A Biography. Northeastern University Press, 1999.

Ward, Geoffrey C., Ken Burns, and Dayton Duncan. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Books for Students

Ages 4–8

Brown, Don. American Boy: The Adventures of Mark Twain. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Collins, David R. Mark T-W-A-I-N! A Story about Samuel Clemens. Lerner Publications, 1993.

Gormley, Beatrice. Louisa May Alcott: Young Novelist (Childhood of Famous Americans Series). Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Ages 9–12

Aller, Susan Bivin. Beyond Little Women: A Story about Louisa May Alcott. Lerner Publications, 2004.

Anderson, William. River Boy: The Story of Mark Twain. HarperCollins, 2003.

Ditchfield, Christin. Louisa May Alcott: Author of Little Women. Scholastic, 2005.

Graves, Kerry A. Girlhood Diary of Louisa May Alcott, 1843–1846: Writings of a Young Author. Capstone Press, 2000.

Lasky, Kathryn. A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain. Harcourt, 1998.

Mason, Miriam E. Mark Twain: Young Writer (Childhood of Famous Americans Series).Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Meigs, Cornelia. Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women. Little Brown, 1995. Prince, April Jones. Who Was Mark Twain Penguin Putnam, 2004.

Required Materials

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Smithsonian in Your Classroom

Smithsonian in Your Classroom is produced by the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. Teachers may duplicate the materials for educational purposes.

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