February 21, 2018
Little Women, Coleridge, UtopiaOn this day in 1868 Louisa May Alcott's Little Women was published. It was an immediate best seller, bringing the thirty-five-year-old Alcott a cult following of teenage girls and a hero status which she grew to regret. In her letters she scorned "the young generation of autograph fiends" that were lionizing her, and when she left for Europe, she took precautions: "Don't give anyone my address," she wrote her publisher, "I don't want the young ladies' notes." But the book -- in all, three-dozen books and hundreds of stories -- made good the vow she had made to herself early on: that, though a woman, she would make both her own and her parents' living, and that she would do it by writing.
This vow was made necessary by her father, the Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, being a madcap for schemes of high ideal and low pay-communal farms, lecture tours, schools of philosophy. Its fulfillment required that Alcott set aside her aspirations for serious writing and turn her eye to the market: "I plod away," she wrote in her journal during the Little Women days, "though I don't really enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it."
Her journals give other glimpses of Alcott's independent and doubtful outlook. "Very sweet and pretty," she wrote of her sister and her husband in their honeymoon cottage, "but I'd rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe." Scattered among her wholesome tales of family life and, at the other extreme, her over-the-top fantasies of passion and possession, are other styles, not calculated for profit. One such is "Transcendental Wild Oats," her gently humorous account of communal life at Fruitlands, her father's agricultural utopia:
On joys that were! No more endure to weigh
The shame and anguish of the evil day,
Wisely forgetful! O'er the ocean swell
Sublime of Hope I seek the cottag'd dell
Where Virtue calm with careless step may stray;
And, dancing to the moon-light roundelay,
The Wizard passions weave an holy spell! ...
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