58 Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

Eleftheria Tsirakoglou

Introduction

Best known as an author of juvenile literature, Louisa May Alcott had a prolific career with more than three hundred stories and articles in periodicals being published. She also produced twenty-eight books including poems, novels and collections of short stories. One of the best-selling authors of the nineteenth-century, Alcott experimented with various forms of writing, particularly the domestic novel, war tales, temperance fiction and the thriller.

Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on November 29th, 1832. She was the second of four daughters of Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), an autodidact philosopher, abolitionist and teacher, and Abigail May (1800-1877), a descendant of a noted Bostonian family. As a child Alcott spent much time travelling due to her father’s idealist principles. Parts of her childhood were spent in Boston, where her father had founded Temple School, thus applying his radical teaching principles. While at Boston, Bronson had also become involved in The Transcendental club’s meetings and became acquainted with Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), among others. Transcendentalism was a movement that had developed in opposition to the idea that society was corrupting the behavior of people and was in need of reform. Alcott therefore became involved in an environment of progressive thinking in early childhood. Bronson’s transcendental philosophy dictated the family’s next move. On June 1st, 1843 the Alcott family set off for Harvard, Massachusetts, and established an agrarian commune there, called Fruitlands. While at Fruitlands, the family embarked on an agrarian lifestyle by planting fruit and vegetables. The utopian experiment soon failed, however, leaving the family on the brink of poverty. Alcott herself was in a somewhat distressed condition too, as she reported in her private diary. She later provided an account of her experience at Fruitlands in “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873) depicting the male figure as relying on his philosophy in order to cope with everyday affairs, and the female one as running all errands in order to make ends meet.

In the fall of 1844 the Alcotts relocated to Concord, Massachussetts, having purchased a house on Lexington Road, and it was there that Alcott spent the happiest time of her life. During this period, Alcott enjoyed the company of Thoreau and Emerson whose dicta on self-reliance and reform would have an impact on her work, as evidenced by Alcott’s Little Men (1871) and Rose in Bloom (1876). Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) were also part of the Alcott family’s circle of acquaintances.

The Alcott family soon returned to Boston where Alcott’s penchant for writing started to unleash. Alcott contributed articles and short stories to the periodicals of the time. It was in 1854, however, when Alcott published her first book Flower Fables. In 1860 “Love and Self-Love,” Alcott’s first tale for The Atlantic, saw print.

In early January 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, Alcott volunteered her services at the Union Hotel hospital in Georgetown, D.C. where she offered help with care for those wounded at the battlefields of Virginia. While at the hospital, Alcott herself soon got ill with typhoid fever and returned to Massachusetts in late January. Nevertheless, the letters Alcott had sent to her family from the hospital provided the material for Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, an array of stories narrated from the point of view of Tribulation Periwinkle. Hospital Sketches was published in book form by James Redpath in late 1863 and constituted Alcott’s first big success.

In 1876, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, Alcott published the volume Silver Pitchers: and Independence. A Centennial Love Story in Roberts Brothers. Alcott’s work ties in logically with the temperance movement that had emerged between 1830 and 1850 and could be broadly defined as a movement against the consumption of alcoholic beverages. It also represented women’s first attempt to assume a more active role in the social sphere. Alcott joined other female authors, such as Lydia Howard Huntely Sigourney, Caroline Hyde Butler (Laing), Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who employed the trope of female domestic influence in their works as a means to achieve social change. The major point of these stories was to prove that life can be enjoyed just as well without the consumption of distilled beverages. It is within this problematic that Alcott’s Silver Pitchers: and Independence. A Centennial Love Story lies. This story is about a group of girls who advocate that women ought to “use our youth, our beauty, our influence for something nobler than merely pleasing men’s eyes” (Alcott). As Priscilla, one of the girls in the story, emphatically points out: “We can’t preach and pray in streets and bar-rooms, but we may at home, and in our own little world show that we want to use out influence for good” (Alcott). The implication in Alcott’s work is clear: temperance societies could exist and prosper.

Alcott scholarship has developed considerably since the mid-1970s, when Madeline Stern collected the then unknown Alcott thrillers, thus uncovering intricate yet significant aspects of the American writer’s work. “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” (1862), “A Marble Woman: or, The Mysterious Model” (1865), “V.V.; or, Plots and Counterplots” (1865) and “Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power” (1866) are some of Alcott’s best-known thrillers. Written between 1862 and 1867, Alcott’s lurid cliff-hangers were published anonymously or under the pen name A. M. Barnard in newspapers in New York and Boston. Alcott’s pseudonymous thrillers celebrate the child-bride theme, the themes of revenge, madness, violence, opium addiction as well as murder, thus registering Alcott’s fascination with the Gothic romance. Alcott experiments with the “female gothic” style initiated by Ann Radcliffe in the eighteen century, in her portrayal of powerful women who are animated by the urge for revenge or other dark instincts; this becomes mostly apparent in “Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power,” “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” “La Belle Bayadère” and “A Long Fatal Love Chase.” Alcott’s “V.V.; or, Plots and Counterplots” warrants scholarly attention too. Part of its significance lies in its ability to blend the detective and the domestic novel by introducing the first investigator in American women’s writing. Alcott’s investigator, Antoine Duprés, presumably patterned on Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, uncovers and restores illicit behavior within the domestic space, a pattern taken up by Anne Katharine Green (1846-1935) and Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958).

Last but not least, attention should be paid to Alcott’s Little Women (1868-9). Little Women, Alcott’s most famous work, features a family of four daughters, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy, and chronicles their growing into adult womanhood and coping with their personal dilemmas. The novel ends with the sisters happily married, with the exception of Beth. It problematizes, however, the idea that marriage ought to be the sole aim for women or that women should be confined within the domestic sphere. The character of Jo, in particular, resists the Victorian norms for female behavior by combining work with family as well as having the freedom to pursue a career in writing. Jo’s opposition to stereotypical nineteenth-century femininity has formed the subject of scholarly criticism and earned Alcott widespread popularity and critical acclaim.

Now a famous writer, Alcott continued to produce novels and short stories including Little Men (1871), Jo’s Boys (1886), Work: A Story of Experience (1873) and A Modern Mephistopheles (1877). However, her life was not a long one, for Alcott died of ill health at the age of 55 on March 6th, 1888.

References

Camfield, Gregg. “The Sentimental and Domestic Traditions, 1865–1900.” A Companion to American Fiction 1865-1914. Ed. Robert Paul Lamb and G. R. Thompson. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 53-76. Print.

Myerson, Joel, and Daniel Shealy. “Introduction.” Louisa May Alcott: The Inheritance. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. vii-xli. Print.

Nickerson, Ross Catherine. The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1998. Print.

Stern, Madeleine. “Introduction.” Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers. Ed. Madeleine Stern. Boston: U of Northeastern P, 1995. ix- xxix. Print.

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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature by Eleftheria Tsirakoglou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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