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Louisa May Alcott is best known for her sentimental yet realistic depictions of nineteenth-century domestic life. Her ”Little Women” series attracted young and old readers alike and remains popular today. Alcott’s continuing popular appeal is generally attributed to her believable characterizations and simple, charming writing style, refected in her adage: ”Never use a long word when a short one will do as well.” in the late-twentieth century, scholars gave increased attention to Alcott’s works, with literary critics noting her prevalent feminist and psycho-sexual themes. Alcott scholar Madeleine B. Stern noted that ”today… [Alcott] is viewed as an experimenting, complex writer, and her work has become fertile ground for the exploration both of literary historians and psychohistorians.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Daughter of a Famous New England Family
Louisa May Alcott, the second of four daughters, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a noted New England transcendentalist philosopher and educator who worked only sporadically throughout Louisa May’s life. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, was descended from Judge Samuel Sewall (a former chief justice of Massachusetts infamous for his role in the Salem witch trials of 1692) and the noted abolitionist Colonel Joseph May. Although her family was poor, Alcott’s childhood was apparently happy. Taught by her father, Alcott was deeply influenced by his transcendentalist thought and experimental educational philosophies. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s personal library of classics and philosophy was available for use to the young Alcott. Also influential on Alcott was Henry David Thoreau, whose cabin she visited and who taught her botany. Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Julia Ward Howe were only a few of the Alcott family’s intellectually influential neighbors and friends.
Bronson Alcott founded several schools based on his controversial educational methods, but all of them failed, forcing Abigail and her daughters to undertake the financial support of the family. Later, Alcott often remarked that her entire career was inspired by her desire to compensate for her family’s early discomfort. Alcott taught school, took in sewing, and worked briefly as a domestic servant. At age sixteen she began writing, convinced that she could eventually earn enough money to alleviate the family’s poverty. In 1851, her first poem was published under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield, bringing Alcott little money but a great deal of confidence. It was during the ensuing years that Alcott published, as A. M. Barnard, a number of sensational serial stories in low-price magazines; the works were both popular and lucrative.
Civil War Nursing Experience
In 1862, Alcott traveled to Washington, D.C., to serve as a nurse to soldiers wounded in the U.S. Civil War. The Civil War remains the costliest war ever fought by the United States in terms of lives lost. More than 600,000 soldiers died in the conflict. Women played a major role in the care of wounded soldiers, and their volunteer work in hospitals during the war paved the way for women seeking to enter the nursing profession in future generations. Alcott’s time as a nurse was a short-lived experience, however, for she contracted typhoid within a month and nearly died. Her good health, undermined by the long illness and by mercury poisoning from her medication, was never fully recovered. Alcott later recounted her experiences as a nurse in her popular Hospital Sketches (1863). Her first novel, the ambitious Moods (1864), was pronounced immoral by critics, yet sold well, and its success encouraged Alcott to continue writing. In 1865, Alcott traveled through Europe as a companion to a wealthy invalid and wrote for periodicals. While abroad, she was offered the editorship of Merry’s Museum, an American journal featuring juvenile literature. She accepted the position and became the journal’s chief contributor.
Finding Fame in Family Stories
The turning point in Alcott’s career came with the publication of Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, the first part of which appeared in 1868. The project was initiated after Alcott’s editor suggested she pen a book for girls, a project for which Alcott expressed little interest. Without other inspiration, Alcott produced an idealized, autobiographical account of nineteenth-century family life, recasting the youth of herself and her sisters. The work was an immediate success and established Alcott as a major American author. She published four sequels to Little Women, entitled Good Wives (volume two of Little Women), Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys (1871), Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag (1872-82), and Jo’s Boys and How They Turned Out (1886). Alcott was regarded as a celebrity and was easily able to support her family with her earnings.
Life After Little Women
Although she had become a well-known and beloved author, Alcott continued living with her parents, never marrying, and churning out a string of successful novels. She apparently wrote a chapter a day as she hurried to finish the second part of Little Women and biographers speculate that her health suffered greatly from such periods of intense productivity. From 1875 onward, as her health deteriorated, Alcott primarily produced popular juvenile literature. Most of her later works, particularly Work: A Story of Experience (1873) and Rose in Bloom (1876), depict heroines who have acquired inner strength through personal hardship and achieved personal satisfaction through careers and without marriage. In general, these works, often auto biographical, provoked mixed reviews. Working until she could no longer hold a pen, Alcott died in March 1888, just two days after the death of her father.
Works in Literary Context
Many of Alcott’s contemporary popular women novelists have fallen out of print but she wrote in a widely-used fashion clearly identifiable to her readers. Often called sentimental or domestic fiction, novels such as Little Women centered on the spiritual and moral progress of young women toward adulthood and marriage and constituted perhaps the most popular genre of the era. Such works were usually overt in their Christian imagery and message: often the heroine was compelled to make difficult choices that challenged her moral purity. Other stories concerned the plight of women who sought to use their innate goodness to influence men, who held all social, economic, and political power. Popular and important examples of this tradition include Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide, World (1850) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851).
Although clearly writing in this tradition, Alcott often produced more complex narratives than many of her contemporaries because of her interest in the psycho-logical and economic independence of many of her heroines. Thus, Alcott’s work at times simultaneously championed and challenged dominant nineteenth-century beliefs about the proper behavior and social role of American women. For example, Jo March, the central character of Little Women, is heroic because of her determination to support herself as a writer despite the fact that popular portrayals of working women during the era often pictured them as socially deviant or lacking in the necessary qualities for motherhood. Many of Alcott’s most important characters, on the other hand, also seek to find happiness as wives, mothers, and working women. This complexity is likely a partial cause of her immediate popularity and a chief factor as to why Alcott remains in print while so many of her contemporaries have not.
Works in Critical Context
Alcott’s critical reputation has waxed and waned dramatically over the past century and a half. Her most famous novel, Little Women, was initially greeted widely as a welcome, moral tale for young readers. Early critics ignored the more subversive messages in the novel regarding women and work. By the early twentieth century, however, the rise of male-dominated American modernist literature, like that of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, relegated Alcott to the realm of children’s stories, seemingly unworthy of serious study. With the advent of the second feminist movement, Alcott’s works were revisited and since the 1960s, critics since have been divided over whether her writing represents an early call for women’s self-determination or whether her writing, especially in the character of Jo March, signals a capitulation to dominant ideas about womanhood. In 2006, for example, Susan Cheever wrote that Little Women, ”transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature.” Others, including Angela M. Estes and Kathleen Margaret Lant, find the conclusion of Little Women powerfully disappointing, as Alcott marries off the rebellious, ambitious Jo and has her open a school for boys. Estes and Lant call this decision to turn Jo away from independence a ”tragedy” and accuse Alcott of sacrificing her for a ”sufficiently traditional or comfortable narrative pattern.”
In recent years, critics have also rediscovered and become much more interested in the short works Alcott produced for sensational magazines prior to the publication of Little Women. This interest is often biographical in nature, often focusing on feminist plot-lines or the fact that such lurid stories revealed emotions repressed in her later works, rather than on the originality or quality of the hurriedly written stories themselves. That said, critic Gail K. Smith obliquely connects these sensational stories to themes apparent in Alcott’s better-known books, noting that, ”Nowhere is Alcott’s skillful reworking of gender and identity more apparent than in her stories in which women gain trust and devotion of their willing victims in order to outwit them and gain what they desire.”
- Cheever, Susan. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.
- Stern, Madeleine B., Myerson, Joel, and Daniel Shealy, eds. A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers by Louisa May Alcott. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1988.
- Estes, Angela M. and Kathleen Margaret Lant. ”Dismembering the Text: The Horror of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women A Children’s Literature (1989).
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