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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott is best known for her children's novel Little Women (1868), but there are almost three hundred works in the Alcott canon. In much of this writing Alcott, who never married, ostensibly proposes that women's true work is found in marriage and family, yet her journals and letters illustrate the dichotomy between her own life and her fictional world. Compared with the lives of many of her heroines and contemporaries, Alcott's life was atypical.

Louisa was born in 1832 to Abigail May (Abba) and Amos Bronson Alcott. Her parents were closely tied to many important philosophical and social issues of the day—Transcendentalism, abolition, women's suffrage, and educational reform. Close family friends, including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and William Garrison, composed a virtual Who's Who of the time. Although the Alcott girls were exposed to great ideas and surrounded by books, the family was impoverished and often moved like vagabonds to smaller and smaller quarters, a consequence of Bronson's inability to provide financial support reliably. Louisa's impractical father was determined to implement his experimental teaching methods, but his efforts met with little success. After the dismal failure of his Utopian experiment in communal living at Fruitlands in 1843-1844, parodied in Louisa's "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873), the task of supporting the family largely fell to Abba, with help from her relatives and from Emerson. In 1858, the Alcotts purchased Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, with the help of Emerson and Abba's relatives, but the family struggled financially until Louisa's success with Little Women in 1868. At this time Louisa supplanted her father in the "unwomanly" role of family provider. Named "Duty's Faithful Child" by him, Louisa helped to support her family by repeatedly working at jobs she disliked—teacher, seamstress, and maid. These experiences became the raw material for much of her writing.

Alcott published her first work, a poem, in 1851, but not until the 1860s did she find success. Before the publication of Little Women, she had over eighty works published in periodicals as diverse as the prestigious Atlantic Monthly and the sensationalist Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Searching for her literary form while trying to support her family, she wrote poetry, fairy tales, short stories, domestic sketches, melodramatic plays, gothic thrillers, adult novels, and Civil War stories. Beginning in 1863 with the anonymous publication of "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," she wrote secret thrillers for several popular newspapers for five years. She clearly enjoyed writing these stories and told a reporter that her "natural ambition is for the lurid style," but she believed that it was not "natural" for a woman to write plays and stories full of bloodshed and for wronged women aggressively seeking revenge.

Alcott also did not want to be identified with the popular "scribbling" ladies of her time; she wanted to be identified with the great writers she had known since childhood. To that end, during the early 1860s, she worked on two adult novels, Moods (1864; revised edition 1882) and Work (1873), in which she struggled to define for women a role that relieved them of the rigid code of behavior prescribed in nineteenth-century New England. In these novels, she strove for a realistic middle ground between the heroines' vengeful disregard for convention found in her thrillers and the adherence to the idea of proper "True Womanhood" proposed in much of the popular literature of the day. In a radical departure for young women in nineteenth-century New England, both novels emphasize the growth their heroines must undergo to become intellectually and emotionally independent. In Alcott's vision of womanhood, only when a woman can stand alone and is not dependent on a man for fulfillment is she capable of finding happiness, whether married or not. Alcott had great difficulty in finding a publisher for Moods, and when it was originally published in 1864, it received generally poor reviews. Devastated, she wrote in her journal, "My next book shall have no ideas in it, only facts, and the people shall be as ordinary as possible." In 1882, after she had attained wealth and fame—as well as influence with publishers, who begged for her work—she revised and reissued Moods. Her perseverance with it testifies to her desire for recognition for work other than her literature for children.

One acceptable outlet for Alcott's need for independence and relief from family duties occurred during the Civil War. An avid abolitionist like her parents, Alcott was determined to join the nursing service, and although single women were not usually allowed to participate, her family and friends used their considerable influence to help her gain a post. In December 1862, she left for the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown. The work was grueling, conditions were deplorable, and after only a month Alcott contracted a severe cause of typhoid fever and had to be taken home to Concord. Although the treatment she received caused lifelong health problems, her war experience provided ideas for three anti-slavery stories published in 1863-1864: "M. L.," "My Contraband," and "An Hour." In these stories, published under her own name, Alcott broke with convention by creating heroines who reverse gender roles by acting to save men. She also tacitly supported inter-racial marriage, a sharp break with most abolitionist thinking.

Although Alcott found satisfaction in writing these stories, as she did her secret thrillers, she was still seeking a more reliable genre that would allow her to earn the money her family desperately needed. Again, the Civil War provided material. During her short stint as a nurse, she wrote letters to friends and family, and when her health improved, her family encouraged her to edit them for publication. Although she wasn't enthusiastic about the project, to her delight, Hospital Sketches (1863) was warmly received. This volume was significant to her writing career because she discovered a formula for realistic fiction that she would use later in much of her writing for young people, beginning with the loosely autobiographical March family of Little Women. She based the characters and some events on the lives of her family and friends but created an idealized family who enjoyed the stability her own early years lacked. In a period when middle-class fathers typically left home each day to work, her father's unconventional example of allowing his wife, daughters, and friends to support him would have been as difficult for readers to understand as it was for Louisa to accept. The universality of the characters and events she created and her emphasis on the importance of family, strong moral values, and shared social responsibilities help to explain why Little Women was an instant bestseller in 1868 and remains popular.

Cynthia Butos
Trinity College

In the Heath Anthology
My Contraband (1863)  [n.b., First published under the title "The Brothers"]

Other Works
Hospital Sketches (1863)
Moods (1863)
Little Women (1868)
Little Men (1871)
Transcendental Wild Oats (1873)
Work: A Story of Experience (1873)
A Modern Mephistopheles (1877)
Jo's Boys (1886)

Cultural Objects
Text fileThe Civil War Nurse
Text fileThe Massachusetts 54th

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A Guide to Research
An extensive list of resources, both web and hard copy.

Hospital Sketches
Three sketches from Alcott's turn as a nurse during the Civil War.

Louisa May Alcott
Biography, photos, paintings, and a bibliography.

The Louisa May Alcott Web
Links to primary materials, criticism, and photos.

The Margaret Fuller Society
An article by Christopher Fahy, "From Muse to Ceres: The Influence of Margaret Fuller's Philosophy on Louisa May Alcott's Diana and Persis."

Secondary Sources