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October 21, 2017

Louisa May Alcott: Bomb to Best-Seller

Louisa May Alcott was brought up by her father Bronson, and by the ideals of New England Transcendentalism, to be an abolitionist. When the North went to war, she volunteered as a nurse, and was assigned to a Washington hospital. She was 30 years old, but she had been such a tomboy in youth that her father could still get a laugh on the streets of Concord with his joke that he was proudly sending his only son to war. When she returned home, he continued to praise -- and patronize -- her, this time in a poem about "duty's faithful child."

Between the going and the returning there were only four weeks. Even those trained found battlefield nursing hard; for a high-strung, man-shy, village spinster, it was overwhelming. She was so bookish and naive that she packed her favourite games and Dickens novels for the men. In her first hour, a man in her care died; the only use she had for Dickens was to try to tell the story of David Copperfield to a man having his arm amputated without anesthetic. She got pneumonia, and then typhoid, and she returned home in nervous exhaustion. The mercury poisoning she got from her medications compounded her natural hypochondria, and she would spend much of her life in withdrawal, seeking relief in rest cures and milk diets and occultists.

Besides his idealism, the other inheritance Alcott had from her father was penury. Bronson Alcott was a philosopher, and his views on education and equality were a good draw at the chatauquas and on the lecture circuits of his time, but he was a madcap when it came to practical living. One of his typical dreams, a vegetarian commune called "Fruitlands," had to be abandoned it its first year; one of its many problems was Bronson's conclusion that the weeds in the cornfield had as much right to life as the corn, and that only above-ground vegetables should be grown, as potatoes and carrots were in unhealthy proximity to earthworms. These could not have been mainstream Transcendentalist beliefs, but they left the family with a lot to transcend. At an early age, Louisa May Alcott vowed that, though a woman, she would make both her own and her family's living -- and that she would do it by writing.

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In the end, the 35 books and hundreds of stories published by Duty's Faithful Child paid the bills, and then some. Most were either wholesome, sentimental tales of family life or, at the other extreme, over-the-top fantasies of passion and possession -- the kind of thing that her Little Women heroine peddled to "The Weekly Volcano." "I can write two a day," Alcott scoffed in a letter, "and keep house between times."

There may have been some scoffing when she began Little Women itself. The critics had panned her first novel, Moods, calling it melodramatic and unbelievable. At the urging of her father's publisher, she reluctantly turned to juvenile literature. She began an autobiographical novel which she initially called "The Pathetic Family," sarcastically assuring the publisher that she would now make her characters "as ordinary as possible." She had it done in 12 weeks, and from its first printing, on September 30th, 1868, it was a best-seller.

It was one of the first attempts in American literature to give adolescents, especially young women, any kind of voice or choice in their lives, and Alcott became a darling of the Suffragette movement. She believed in the cause, but she hated the attention, and spoke critically in her letters of "the young generation of autograph fiends" that were lionizing her. 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."

The publishing industry was -- and continues to be -- as uncomfortable with the women's liberation aspect of the novel as she was: the original two-volume set published in 1868 was entitled Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy; in the 1872 reprint, volume two was separately titled Little Women Wedded; in 1873, it was called Little Women Married; in 1875, it became Nice Wives; and a decade later it was Good Wives. A 1991 reprint tried, unsuccessfully, to end-run the issue, calling the whole thing Little Women: Four Funny Sisters.

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