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Picture of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women; nineteenth century American Literature

September 30, 1868
Louisa May Alcott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Little Women, Coleridge, Utopia
by Steve King

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On 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:
    They preached vegetarianism everywhere and resisted all temptations of the flesh, contentedly eating apples and bread at well-spread tables, and much afflicting hospitable hostesses by denouncing their food and taking away their appetites, discussing the "horrors of shambles," the "incorporation of the brute in man," and "on elegant abstinence the sign of a pure soul." But, when the perplexed or offended ladies asked what they should eat, they got in reply a bill of fare consisting of "bowls of sunrise for breakfast," "solar seeds of the sphere," "dishes from Plutarch's chaste table," and other viands equally hard to find in any modern market....
Fruitlands lasted seven months. This is considerably less than the six years of Brook Farm-the other Transcendentalist experiment, at which Nathaniel Hawthorne briefly toiled-but a good deal longer than a similar dream held by Coleridge and Robert Southey seventy-five years earlier. Coleridge was in his early twenties and so Cambridge-bored that he had recently tried to enlist in the 1st Dragoons, under the name of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. The pantisocracy ("equal rule by all") which he and Southey planned was to be on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Their vision was of twelve couples on shared property, each pantisocrat toiling for three hours a day-this was Coleridge's estimate-and spending the remaining time in Nature, or in their well-stocked library. Whether this was asking too much of Coleridge or of Pennsylvania, the dream died, or rather lived only in poems such as "Pantisocracy," written by Coleridge in the heady, planning days:
    Hence, gloomy thoughts! no more my soul shall dwell
    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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Related authors:  Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Marco Polo, William Blake, William Wordsworth
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