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date: 05 December 2022

Alcott, Louisa Mayfree

Alcott, Louisa Mayfree

  • Angela M. Garcia


  • North American Literatures

Long recognized only for her children's books, Louisa May Alcott also wrote adult novels, Civil War hospital sketches, and at least fifty pieces of much-publicized “sensation” fiction, but her most popular legacy remains that curiously modern portrait of family life, Little Women (1868). Although the author mocked herself as providing mere “moral pap for the young,” her audience in America, and later worldwide, responded enthusiastically to its edifying and entertaining truths. Readers have remained absorbed by and even enamored with Alcott's story; by the end of the twentieth century, several million copies had been sold in dozens of translations, and film and television adaptations continue to be produced.

Beloved for her contributions to juvenile fiction, although not considered a serious writer by critical standards, Alcott was christened the “Children's Friend,” and her work was relegated for about a century to the low position given to sentimental or domestic subjects. In the late twentieth century, however, with the reissuing of her sensation fiction or “blood-and-thunder tales” in numerous collections, Alcott's reputation as a writer has grown. Feminist critics in particular, addressing the dichotomy between the seemingly polar genres in which she engaged—from domestic to lurid or Gothic fiction—a have examined Alcott's writing and life more closely and have found a complex figure whose stories are not so simple or conventional as once believed.

Alcott, born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, lived a life that often contradicted the sweet and wholesome quality some critics have identified as central to her most popular book. Her parentage itself combined the illustrious and radical, the philosophical and eccentric. Her mother, Abba May Alcott, was born to one of the most respectable families in Boston. She married Amos Bronson Alcott, who aligned himself firmly with the transcendentalists through deep lifelong friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and their families, friendships which Louisa, their second daughter, also enjoyed. In fact, she claimed Emerson as one of her major influences, and her first novel, Moods (1864, reworked for publication in 1882), features characters based on Emerson and Thoreau. Nathaniel Hawthorne was also a family friend.

Her family's financial insecurity shadowed Alcott's youth and would shape her life and career. In one instance, Bronson Alcott had the family embark on an experiment in rural communal living that lasted six months. In Fruitlands, with restricted vegan diets and cold-water baths, his disciple-like devotion left the family traumatized. This experience, combined with her father's other noble but financially unproductive endeavors—he taught in the progressive but ultimately failed Temple School and once returned from a western lecture tour with one dollar in his pocket—drove Louisa to seek financial independence for herself and financial security for the family, and she soon became her household's sole supporter.

Louisa May Alcott often referred to her fiction as her bread and butter, duly noting in her journals the money each article earned, what it bought (for example, a new carpet), and the bills it paid. This practical side kept Alcott conscientious about her writing's marketability, keenly aware not only of her sales figures but also of her audience. Furthermore, the necessary mercenary quality of Alcott's writing, and her consequent catering to popular demand in her moral children's literature, undercut her own sense of a serious critical quality, or greatness, to her work. At the same time as she maintained the persona of the “Children's Friend,” she disparaged domestic fiction and despaired over the lack of reception for her serious adult novels; she had worked on some of these for several years, yet they failed to garner positive reviews or comparable sales in her lifetime.

Before 1868 and the windfall that was Little Women, Alcott ventured into several genres, including short fiction, fairy tales and fantasies, and drama. With Hospital Sketches (1863), based on her short stint as a nurse for Civil War soldiers in Washington, D.C., she found her first book-length success. Her experience also left her chronically ill: the calomel (a mercury compound) prescribed for the typhoid she contracted there would slowly erode the author's health until her death, and nightmares from her battle with the illness ended up as material for the sensation stories Alcott produced for the next five years.

The Thrillers

The extensive quantity of Alcott's sensation fiction was first identified by Leona Rostenberg in 1943, and it was reprinted, mainly by Madeleine B. Stern, beginning in the 1970s. Since then, the Alcott oeuvre has undergone a process of radical re-vision.

The melodramatic stories Jo March writes and publishes to her pride and delight in Little Women, and then gives up in deference to her husband's wishes, were stories Alcott actually wrote by the dozens. Unknown to her popular audience, these brought in regular and substantial sums for the Alcott family, and certainly some self-respect for Alcott as a professional writer. Critics also indicate the cathartic possibilities of this type of writing as a psychic outlet, even finding in its melodrama and obsessions an expression of suppressed rage.

Mostly published anonymously or under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, the magnetic tales appeared in various ladies' or popular magazines. They tend to feature seduction, insanity, drug addiction, murder, power struggles, and illicit sexual encounters against exotic backgrounds. Their subjects reflect Alcott's deep-rooted theatrical interest, also documented in Little Women—the dark streak that drew her, stagestruck, toward the lurid. Her page-turners also exhibit high-flown language and incorporate nearly impossible coincidences.

The genre's virtual catalogue of deviance, which includes adultery, bigamy, transvestism, androgyny, and incest themes, has led scholars, especially since the 1970s, to reexamine this pulp fiction mainly in a feminist light, noting in these wild stories women's subversion of the power structure. Several of Alcott's heroines, seen by critics as a feminine challenge to gender stereotypes or expectations, manipulate as well as they are being manipulated. How Alcott's sensation fiction differs from other such work of the period, however, seems a topic left largely uninvestigated.

Critics' attention to this experimentation with the reverse side of domestic tranquility has both heightened Alcott's stature within the American canon and drawn attention to her politics—for instance, her dedicated work for social reform. Feminist scholars have emphasized her involvement in a sphere beyond the cozy home depicted in Little Women through Alcott's work for the abolitionist, suffrage, and temperance movements her parents also espoused, and they have highlighted her Civil War experience. Her Gothic stories, in addition to representing often sexualized feminine power, are seen as evidence for Alcott's forward-thinking views on themes based in race and gender issues, such as her beliefs in racial integration and egalitarian marriage. Finally, Work (1873), another adult novel, echoes Alcott's own experience in tracing Christie Devon's work history as servant, actress, companion, and seamstress; her thoughts of suicide; and finally her advocacy of women's rights.

Scholarship has moved full circle to the immense success of Little Women, drawn to reconcile the didacticism in it and her other “children's” novels with her often immoral adult fiction. Alcott added seven books to the successful series, including Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886), the latter completed a few years before her death.

Critics have also worked to analyze the secrets behind the persistent appeal of her classic. Recent articles and essays that apply feminist and postmodern criticism to Alcott's “sentimental” writing reread the novel as subversive and intertextual. Through its numerous allusions and ambiguity, the novel is said to allow for multiple readings, including social critique; thus, the text has been shown essentially to question conventional gender roles, particularly girls' and women's domesticity, even while it appears to further the principles of feminine duty and self-sacrifice.

Re-seeing Little Women

Alcott's moody tomboy heroine, Jo March, embodies a mass of contradictions, not the least of which is her girl/boy identity. Sharp-witted and self-castigating, she is most “herself” when at play with the adolescent boy next door, Laurie, and both refer to her as a boy. She longs for a boy's freedoms; cuts her hair, said to be her one beauty; and sells it to support the family. While Jo eschews all fashion and bewails her sister Meg's marriage as a betrayal of the much-adored circle of mother-and-sisterhood (a loss even comparable to her sister Beth's death), the father is notably and conveniently absent through much of the story; this chaplain/hero character has abandoned the family for the greater good of serving in the Civil War.

The authoritarian mother, Marmee, with her loving, cautionary words and gestures, is thus the central, idealized figure in the all-feminine circle and is responsible for much of the joy and all of the moral guidance for her four daughters in their happy home. When she leaves to nurse the father, there is a palpable void. In both Marmee's and Jo's cases, one might read the combination, interchangeability or fluidity of gender roles as an ideal for the creation of a truly whole individual in society, rather than as an advocation of androgyny, as some critics have suggested.

Despite the conspicuous absence of churchgoing, Christian virtues (seen in Little Women as practical) such as charity and good works predominate. The novel begins with the shabby-genteel Marches giving their Christmas breakfast to a poor family. The father has gone to help the soldiers. Their mother, Marmee, also advocates self-improvement. Her drive to help Jo gain self-control over her anger leaves its mark as—with Beth as her conscience and role model and Pilgrim's Progress as her Christian guide—Jo manages largely to overcome her temper, though not without a charming and very human series of pitfalls and consequent passionate repentance. In fact, all four sisters have weaknesses they must work to overcome, including vanity, timidity, and selfishness.

Although Marmee emphasizes their happiness and struggle toward goodness in spite of their financial problems, the family's poverty is realistically deplored, especially by the oldest and youngest daughters, Meg and Amy, ever drawn toward the fashionable. Meg and Jo must work as governess and companion, and they dislike it immensely, yet they find their wealthy employers no happier than they. In choosing to write and publish to earn money, Jo succeeds in a traditionally male role rather than in an acceptable female position, again subverting expectations for her gender.

Yet love and marriage seem to undo artistic ambition in the novel, as if the two cannot coexist. Romance and marriage, though a goal in the daughters' theatrics and soon a reality for Meg, are not at first an ostensible goal for Jo. She forthrightly refuses the marriage proposal of her best friend and neighbor, Laurie Laurence, the male insurgent into the feminine circle, but Jo is moved after her gentle sister Beth's death to accept that of German professor Friedrich “Fritz” Bhaer. (Alcott's refusal to marry her off to Laurie works as a sabotage in itself.) However, the professor keeps Jo from publishing any more of her sensational tales; the protagonist's submission is a problematic one for feminist critics. Alcott herself stopped writing sensation fiction for almost a decade after her runaway hit with Little Women and its sequels.

Balancing on this girl/woman edge or verge—the threshold that for Jo signifies a loss in individuality and independence along with the initiation into womanhood—became Alcott's special territory, and she, by public acclaim, its expert. Adolescence's threshold carries much fear and confusion in Little Women, as well as humor, but the daughters, at their mother's advice and at Jo's inclination, remain on the girlhood side as long as possible. Only Beth escapes growing up through her premature death, and even as the most domestic and angelic sister, she features in an unsentimentalized death scene and a turning point for the March family.

In frankness and innocence the sisters are most comfortable, but the title's word “women,” with all the changes it invokes, is writ large in their psyches. Though working always against her boyish nature to stifle her exuberance and temper, Jo nevertheless remains recognizable throughout the series. Even in Jo's Boys, as a matriarch at a college, having given up writing for storytelling and living through her boys' (foster as well as natural sons) travels and adventures, she retains a bit of her rumpled self, perhaps less wild but never completely chastened.

Critical Connections

The challenge for many Alcott scholars lies in finding common themes within two seemingly divergent strands of fiction. Actually, the Faust-inspired A Modern Mephistopheles (1877) marks Alcott's only known return to the shocker genre. It was written for the No Name Series, in which well-known authors each contributed an anonymous piece. The tale follows a love triangle and breeds speculation on the question of authorship and the hidden literary identity, topics central to Alcott's professional life.

Although no seductress, madhouse inmate, or opium eater, Alcott's assertive Jo wields feminine power and dodges society's narrow gender constraints as capably as any of Alcott's shocker heroines; as one critic contrasted the two, Jo plays daylight to the heroine's midnight. Yet complicated questions are raised in Little Women. Indeed, whether the goals of egalitarian marriage and creating art—two themes delineated in her novels—need be mutually exclusive for a woman is a question not easily answered either in Alcott's work or in her life. However, that these are suggested as viable ambitions for a young woman of the 1860s is in itself an achievement.

Life never exactly imitated art for Alcott. Even in a generous matriarchal role, Jo's character conveys the unease of having gained marriage and lost writing through the last of the series, Jo's Boys. Having allowed the vibrant, contentious tomboy to make an unconventional, even rebellious match for herself, and to sacrifice her art, the author herself chose to forgo marriage and children for the liberty to write. But her mother's death in late 1877 and the news of her younger sister May's death in Europe two years later dealt Alcott severe blows, as she battled slowly deteriorating health from mercury poisoning. May had designated her famous author sister to adopt her child, and so “Lulu” Nieriker spent ten years in Alcott's New England home until Alcott's death in 1888, at fifty-five.

The Work's Endurance

Behind the renewed interest in Alcott the woman writer, or Alcott the masked writer, lies the quiet avowal of Alcott as a professional at her craft. In her art, Alcott at her best brought her characters and scenes remarkably to life. Her work singularly animates nineteenth-century New England family life in a relevant, modern fashion, even as it introduces the necessarily contingent questions of woman's role and feminine power that remain pivotal in American society today. With the right to vote and the right and often the economic necessity to labor, more women enjoy the freedoms Alcott sought, yet they continue to identify with her frankly role-subverting, convention-defying Jo.

For Alcott and all her heroines, passivity, at least, is not a virtue. While they might also dream, they work toward their goals, professional and otherwise. After all, it is when Jo initiates, whether by writing and selling a story to the newspaper or by marching into the next-door mansion of the shy neighbor boy and his uncle, that she reaps the rewards. Where there is poverty, Jo and her family bring a family their breakfast. When Amy is hit at school as punishment, Marmee immediately withdraws her from the school. Alcott merged with Jo in that as a child she loved movement, loved to run; likewise, as an adult she found satisfaction in action, whether working toward abolition, suffrage, temperance, and women's rights, or in her work-deliriums, scribbling her forty books.

What lives and breathes most in Little Women is the unmistakable truth of Jo, who for all her conventionality and unconventionality bounds off the pages. Jo March in her vitality, hope, and despair has been compared to Huckleberry Finn in American literature; this quality of immediacy in all her fiction, wholesome or not, has become recognized as an Alcott trademark.

Selected Works

  • Hospital Sketches (1863)
  • Moods (1864)
  • Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, 2 vols. (1868–1869)
  • An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870)
  • Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (1871)
  • Work: A Story of Experience (1873)
  • Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill (1875)
  • Rose in Bloom: A Sequel to “Eight Cousins” (1876)
  • A Modern Mephistopheles (1877)
  • Jack and Jill: A Village Story (1880)
  • Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to Little Men (1886)
  • The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (1987)
  • The Journals of Louisa May Alcott (1989)
  • Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers (1995)

Further Reading

  • Anderson, William. The World of Louisa May Alcott: A First-Time Glimpse into the Life and Times of Louisa May Alcott, Author of Little Women. New York, 1995. Offers intriguing photographs of Alcott's homes, furnishings, and the Boston area; a visual gloss of her life and times.
  • Auerbach, Nina. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge, Mass., 1975. Includes a fascinating study comparing Little Women with Pride and Prejudice, and discusses Jo March's relationship to (male) history.
  • Bedell, Madelon. The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. New York, 1980. Provides extensive information on Alcott's parents, their radical thought, and their marriage.
  • Delamar, Gloria T. Louisa May Alcott and Little Women: Biography, Critique, Publications, Poems, Songs, and Contemporary Relevance. Jefferson, N.C., 1990. This collection is of particular interest for its song lyrics by Alcott and contemporary comments on the relevance of her classic.
  • Doyle, Christine. Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Brontë: Transatlantic Translations. Knoxville, Tenn., 2000. Establishes valuable biographical and thematic connections between two woman artists of the same period.
  • Eiselein, Gregory, and Anne K. Phillips, eds. The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn., 2001. Alphabetizes and synopsizes the people and places, books and themes for easy access.
  • Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Philadelphia, 1984. A detailed biography that analyzes Alcott's life in connection with her lesser-known works as well as the most popular.
  • Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Knoxville, Tenn., 1993. This contemporary textual analysis focuses on the wide variety of Alcott's work as subversive writing.
  • Saxton, Martha. Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott. Boston, 1977. An example of the psychoanalytical slant that some criticism took in the 1970s in liberally interpreting the life from the thrillers.
  • Stern, Madeleine, B., ed. Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott. Boston, 1984. Wide range of early book reviews and modern reappraisals of Alcott's work.
  • Stern, Madeleine B. Louisa May Alcott. New York, 1996. In a traditional biography originally published in 1950, the best-known Alcott critic traces the author's life through the places she inhabited.
  • Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. University, Ala., 1985. Addresses the Civil War context in which Alcott wrote and the contradictions inherent in the sentimental familial ideal versus the reality of the time.