Alcott, Louisa May 1832-1888

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Louisa May Alcott


(Also wrote under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard and Flora Fairfield) American adult and juvenile novelist, short-story writer, poet, essayist, and playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of Alcott's career through 2004. For further information on her life and works, see CLR, Volumes 1 and 38.


Alcott's stories of nineteenth-century domestic life include what is widely regarded as the quintessential women's novel and one of the classics of children's literature—Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (1868-1869). This two-volume novel, detailing the lives of the March family, has remained popular for over a century, though many observers consider Little Women the exclusive province of female readers. In describing the lives of her "Little Women," Alcott championed self-improvement through both intro-spection and hard work; as each of the March girls matures, she learns to recognize her strengths and works toward correcting such faults as temper, selfishness, and vanity. During her lifetime, Alcott spoke publicly on feminist causes, including suffrage, equal pay, and women's right to education. As a prolific professional author, she also set an important precedent, demonstrating the viability of fiction-writing as a career for women.


The second of four daughters, Alcott was born November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and lived most of her life in Concord, Massachusetts. Both of her parents strongly influenced her education and the development of her social and political views. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a Transcendentalist philosopher and an educational reformer whose idealistic projects tended to take precedence over his familial and financial responsibilities. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, shared her husband's Transcendental ideals but sometimes objected to the failure of this way of life to provide for her family's practical needs. Amos was frequently absent as he traveled the world spreading his philosophical precepts, leaving the family severely impoverished. Abigail Alcott assumed the role of family financial manager, and she and her daughters pursued practical employment. Louisa, for example, taught school, took in sewing, and worked briefly as a domestic servant; her early experience of poverty and her observation of her father's financial instability may have contributed to her strong desire to achieve a steady income through her writing. She began writing at age sixteen, and in 1851 her first poem was published in Peterson's Magazine under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield. She subsequently published a number of serial stories under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, providing her family with a relatively steady and significant source of income. In 1862 Alcott traveled to Washington, D.C., to serve as a nurse to soldiers wounded in the American Civil War. Although she was forced to return home after she contracted typhoid fever—the treatment for which resulted in mercury poisoning and permanent damage to her health—the brief experience provided material for the book that would become her first major literary success, Hospital Sketches (1863). This Civil War memoir was followed by her first novel, Moods (1865), which sold well despite charges that it was immoral. Encouraged by the prospect of financial stability, Alcott agreed to assume the editorship of a girls' magazine titled Merry's Museum, for which she composed satires, poems, and advice columns. At the request of her publishers, she also agreed to write a novel for girls, and the publication of her semi-autobiographical novel Little Women proved to be the defining moment of her career. The success of the novel made Alcott famous, and she was now easily able to support her family with her earnings. Biographers have noted, however, that this success proved to be a mixed blessing for Alcott, who felt restricted by demands for more books written in a similarly domestic style. She nevertheless accommodated the interests of her readers with three sequels to Little Women: Good Wives (1869; volume two of Little Women), Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (1871), and Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out (1886). Alcott was a staunch supporter of both Abolition and women's suffrage. Although her frail health kept her from being as active as she would have liked, she consistently supported and encouraged others' efforts, corresponding and meeting regularly with prominent suffragists and Abolitionists, and by directly addressing the issues in her fiction and nonfiction. Alcott continued to write juvenile fiction during her later years, although her productivity sharply declined as a result of her failing health. In addition to writing, she devoted her last years to the care of her father and her young niece Lulu, whose mother (Alcott's sister May) had died as a result of complications in childbirth. Alcott died on March 6, 1888, just two days after her father's death. They were buried in the Alcott family plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.


Alcott's literary career can primarily be divided into three periods. The first phase, spanning the 1840s to the late 1860s, is characterized by Alcott's lurid, sensational short stories which were published anony-mously and pseudonymously in various New England periodicals. Many of these tales feature a mysterious, vengeful woman bent on manipulation and destruction. The publication of Moods inaugurated Alcott's most profitable and popular period. The story of a young woman who makes significant errors in life choices by following the whims of her moods rather than using informed judgment, Moods is unique among novels of the period for its discussion of divorce as a viable option for unhappy couples. During this period, Alcott began the chronicles of the March family, for which she is best known. Having achieved moderate success with Flower Fables (1855), Hospital Sketches, and essays and short stories submitted to juvenile magazines, Alcott's first attempt at children's literature, Little Women, became the work that defined the third phase of Alcott's career. The Little Women books, which were the most successful series of their time, illustrate the struggles between adolescence and maturity, but they also represent a prominent theme in much of Alcott's fiction: the conflict experienced by women who must choose between individuality and the bonds of family responsibilities and social traditions. The March family is poor and their father is absent, yet on the advice of their mother, the girls resolve to be happy and pattern their lives after Christian from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, who must overcome many obstacles on his journey to Heaven. Beth dies of scarlet fever (as did Alcott's sister Lizzie), and the other girls mature into women and eventually marry. Jo, the tomboy and individualist in the family—widely believed to be patterned after Alcott herself—marries Dr. Bhaer, an educator, and the two start their own school for boys in Little Men and its sequel, Jo's Boys.

The positive depiction of hard work and simple living abound in the Little Women series as well as in Alcott's other works for children. In An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Polly Milton, a young girl from a modest farm, travels to the city to visit her friend Fanny Shaw. Although Polly's simple, unsophisticated ways at first amuse the Shaw family, her earnest honesty, humbleness, and hard work ultimately impresses them, and coupled with the Shaws' loss of financial standing, Polly's lessons change their outlook on what is important in life. In Eight Cousins; or The Aunt-Hill (1875), the protagonist Rose is a fourteen-year-old girl who must move in with relatives after the death of her father. She moves to the Aunt-Hill, where her six aunts live with their families, a total of seven children—all boys. Rose is brought up in a nontraditional style similar to Alcott's own upbringing and the lives of many of her protagonists. Rose in Bloom (1876), the sequel to Eight Cousins, focuses on Rose as a young lady and the decisions she must make concerning matrimony and her future. From 1875 onward, as her health deteriorated, Alcott primarily produced works of juvenile literature, though none ever reached the international popularity of Little Women. However, in the late twentieth century, many of Alcott's previously unpublished or out-of-print novels, poems, and short stories were released in new editions—such as A Long Fatal Love Chase (1995), The Inheritance (1997), The Quiet Little Woman: A Christmas Story (1999), and The Poems of Louisa May Alcott (2000)—prompting new critical reappraisals of Alcott's canon.


During Alcott's lifetime, her stories for children were widely regarded as American classics. The early twentieth century, however, witnessed a decline in the critical assessment of Alcott's works, with some denouncing the moralizing tone of her fiction. What had once been interpreted as the charm and innocence of the March girls, in particular, was later seen as overly sentimental. For several decades into the twentieth century, the sentimentality of Alcott's work was assessed by scholars as her support for the prevailing ideology of separate spheres of social activity for men and women. With the rise of feminist criticism and women's studies, however, Alcott's works for both children and adults have been the subject of critical reexamination, with much discussion surrounding the nature of her views on the role of women in the family and society. Part of the challenge of interpreting Little Women and other stories in Alcott's oeuvre is their status as childhood classics; several academics have attempted to analyze the stories' enduring popularity and resonance. Scholars have argued that Little Women affects critics emotionally because of their adolescent connection to the story, thus coloring scholarly interpretations of the work. In exploring the depth and nature of Alcott's feminist views, critics have turned to her early thrillers, which were not collected until 1975. For years, commentators have assumed that the thrillers, published pseudonymously, were written solely for financial gain and represented Alcott's compromising of her artistic principles. More recently, however, some feminist scholars have suggested that the thrillers reveal a repressed rage and possibly a truer representation of Alcott's strong feelings about the unjust status of women than may be present in her children's works.


Flower Fables (short stories) 1855

Hospital Sketches (short stories) 1863

On Picket Duty and Other Tales (short stories) 1864

The Rose Family: A Fairy Tale (novella) 1864

Moods (novel) 1865; revised edition, 1882

Morning-Glories and Other Stories (short stories) 1867; enlarged edition, 1868

The Mysterious Key and What It Opened (novella) 1867

Louisa M. Alcott's Proverb Stories (juvenile short stories) 1868

Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. 2 vols. (juvenile novel) 1868-1869

An Old-Fashioned Girl (juvenile novel) 1870

Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (juvenile novel) 1871

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag: My Boys, Etc. (juvenile short stories) 1872

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag: Shawl-Straps, Etc. (juvenile short stories) 1872

Work: A Story of Experience (novella) 1873

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag: Cupid and Chow-Chow, Etc. (juvenile short stories) 1874

Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill (juvenile novel) 1875

Rose in Bloom: A Sequel to "Eight Cousins" (juvenile novel) 1876

Silver Pitchers: And Independence, A Centennial Love Story (short stories, poetry, and essays) 1876

A Modern Mephistopheles [published anonymously] (novel) 1877

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag: My Girls, Etc. (juvenile short stories) 1878

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag: Jimmy's Cruise in the Pinafore, Etc. (juvenile short stories) 1879

Spinning-Wheel Stories (juvenile short stories) 1884

Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to "Little Men" (juvenile novel) 1886

Lulu's Library, Volume I: A Christmas Dream (juvenile short stories) 1886

Lulu's Library, Volume II: The Frost King (juvenile short stories) 1887

Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals [edited by Ednah D. Cheney] (correspondence and journals) 1889

Lulu's Library, Volume III: Recollections (juvenile short stories and essays) 1889

Comic Tragedies Written by "Jo" and "Meg" and Acted by the "Little Women" (plays) 1893

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott [edited by Madeleine B. Stern] (novels) 1975

Louisa's Wonder Book: An Unknown Alcott Juvenile [edited by Madeleine B. Stern] (juvenile short stories) 1975

The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott [edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy] (correspondence) 1987

Alternative Alcott [edited by Elaine Showalter] (short stories, novellas, and essays) 1988

A Long Fatal Love Chase [edited by Kent Bicknell] (novel) 1995

The Inheritance [edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy] (novel) 1997

The Quiet Little Woman: A Christmas Story (juvenile short stories) 1999

The Early Stories of Louisa May Alcott, 1852-1860 (short stories) 2000

The Poems of Louisa May Alcott (poetry) 2000

The Girlhood Diary of Louisa May Alcott, 1843-1846 [edited by Kerry A. Graves] (journal) 2001

The Brownie and the Princess and Other Stories (juvenile short stories) 2004

∗Includes the short-story collections Kitty's Class Day, Aunt Kipp, and Psyche's Art.


Christine Doyle (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Doyle, Christine. "Louisa May Alcott: New Texts and Contexts." Children's Literature 27 (1999): 211-17.

[In the following essay, Doyle appraises recent studies about Alcott, new collections of Alcott's work, and rediscovered manuscripts, arguing that these "newer" additions to Alcott's canon "provide intriguing new perspectives for consideration by modern readers and critics."]

Louisa May Alcott in the twentieth century may remind one of the Energizer bunny: she keeps going and going—and going. Spurred on by the collections of Alcott's sensation fiction uncovered and published under the direction of Madeleine Stern beginning in 1975 (a new "omnibus" volume containing all the recently uncovered short stories, Louisa May Alcott Unmasked, was published by Northeastern University Press in 1995), interest in what else the author of Little Women wrote continues more than a hundred years after her death in 1888. Two adult novels, Work and Moods, were reprinted in 1977 and 1991, respectively, after being out of print for decades. Volumes of Alcott's letters and journals more complete than Ednah Dow Cheney's Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (1889) had included appeared in 1987 and 1989. Neither popular nor scholarly interest in Alcott's work shows any signs of abating; although Little Women remains Alcott's one true masterpiece for most scholars, several newly available works demonstrate anew her considerable talent and her wide-ranging interests, providing ever more glosses on her classic novel and her phenomenal career.

Considering the newest publications first demonstrates just how many ways there are of looking at Louisa May Alcott. The New York Public Library uses An Intimate Anthology to showcase some of its fascinating collection of photographs, illustrations, and manuscripts featuring Alcott, her work, and her Concord home. The volume reprints some generally available materials, such as Hospital Sketches, "Transcendental Wild Oats," letters, journal entries, and two sensation stories, but also some much less accessible materials, including five poems and several recollections of Alcott from around the turn of the century. The many photographs, manuscripts, and illustrations in this handsome volume tantalize enough to make one consider a trip to New York to view the collection in person.

Sarah Elbert's intriguing Louisa May Alcott on Race, Sex, and Slavery draws together four of Alcott's Civil War stories and an 1864 article from the Commonwealth in which Alcott discusses letters from "several members of one of the colored regiments" (41) who had been taught rudimentary literacy by female volunteers while they were encamped at Readville. She frames the letters with her own commentary on the soldiers' courage and more particularly on their eagerness for education: she praises their courage in entering "the double battle they must fight against treason and ignorance" (44). The volume concludes with a chapter from the United States Sanitary Commission report, also published in 1864, delineating conditions among the freed men and women in what were essentially Civil War refugee camps. As Elbert demonstrates, Alcott drew liberally from such reports for her own Civil War stories. That the collection includes a children's story, "Nelly's Hospital," testifies to the fact that critics increasingly are looking at the larger context of Alcott's whole career and the interconnections between her works in several genres for several audiences—a concept for which Elizabeth Keyser's Whispers in the Dark (1993) must be acknowledged as a ground-breaking model.

Because two of the stories, "M. L." and "My Contraband," have been reprinted elsewhere recently, the most important value of this particular collection lies in Elbert's provocative but well-grounded introduction. Issues of "race, sex, and slavery" come together most forcefully around considerations of miscegenation or "amalgamation"; Elbert convincingly demonstrates the threat that public fear of sexually mixing the races posed to the abolitionist movement and how that fear was used against abolitionists. Her application of the "gendered bodies" work of critics such as Lora Romero and Nancy Bentley to the stories in the collection (several of which do have cross-racial sexual implications) makes for fascinating reading, as does the less controversial but equally interesting examination of Alcott's propensity for using her fiction as a social project.

Two works of Alcott juvenilia have surfaced or resurfaced in recent years, the first thanks to Juliet McMaster and her students in a course called "Classics of Children's Literature," the second due to a fortunate find by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy at Harvard's Houghton Library. Norna; or, The Witch's Curse is a melodrama written by Alcott (with at least some contributions from her sister Anna) at about age fifteen and immortalized as the Christmas theatrical in Little Women. McMaster's students have previously published juvenile works by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë , and Lady Wortley Montagu; they prepare and edit text, write introductions and textual notes, and illustrate the volumes they undertake.

Norna is a story of disguise, murder, and vengeance, the latter with the assistance of the title character, a witch. Alcott's interest in the Gothic romance (is the "castle of Rodolpho" a take-off on Radcliffe's Udolpho?), as well as her knowledge of Shakespeare, are evident in the plot, characters, and trappings of the play. Norna herself, a witch working to bring a remorseless murderer to justice, may foreshadow Alcott's lifelong interest in powerful female characters, at least one of whom, Jean Muir of Behind a Mask, is repeatedly referred to as a witch. Also of interest here are the collaborative nature of the playwriting, although there is only Anna's word on what she wrote ("the love part," [5]), and the commentary on the intricacies of performing the plays, particularly when only Louisa and Anna could be depended upon, and the other two sisters only occasionally prevailed upon, to perform.

No doubt McMasters's series is an exciting and worthwhile enterprise for burgeoning scholars, but sometimes the scholars' inexperience works against them. The introduction, for example, paints a picture of Alcott's life with only the broadest strokes, makes factual errors, and does not seem to be aware of Alcott's immersion in sensation fiction during the 1860s. The two illustrators do not seem to have been able to decide whether the play is a lush melodrama or a cartoon; in their art, it wavers back and forth between the two. The endnotes repeatedly refer to parallels to Marlowe's Dr. Faustus when one of the great obsessions of Alcott's literary life was not Marlowe's but Goethe's version of the tale. It seems that many of these limitations could have been avoided by a stronger editorial hand, possibly one with more background in Alcott studies than the students could be expected to have. (Why, for example, did someone not notice that this is a work of Alcott "at about fifteen" in the preface and at sixteen on the last page?) Notable for the high quality of their contributions to the volume are Erika Rothwell, whose essay connects Norna to Alcott's other works in some fine and insightful ways, and Michael Londry for his textual history, a well-researched and informative appendix. Alcott scholars may find little new here, especially since the larger volume from which the play is taken, Comic Tragedies, is generally accessible though out of print, but the project itself is certainly a worthy undertaking.

Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy came across The Inheritance —which a note in Alcott's hand called "my first novel written at seventeen"—while working on The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott at the Houghton Library. The media hype about the book was and is off-putting: Dutton's dust cover recounts an incident from Little Women that is clearly a fictionalized reference to Moods, her first published novel, but says "Here at last [The Inheritance ] is the book 'Jo' wrote"; the television movie broadcast when the book first appeared Americanizes the tale and ultimately bears little resemblance to Alcott's text beyond the title. Once one gets past these annoyances, however, the book itself is an interesting piece of juvenilia.

For one thing, it provides early evidence of Alcott's fascination with Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, published just two years before Alcott wrote The Inheritance and always one of her favorite books. The plot concerns a young woman who functions as a governess to the youngest daughter of a wealthy English family, a beautiful but proud rival for an older lord's affections, revealing tableaux along the way and an inheritance that comes along just in time to turn all the tables at the end. Perhaps Alcott was reading Wuthering Heights as well: Edith Adelon's "status incongruence" (Peterson 15) results from the fact that she was originally picked up as an orphan in Italy and brought to the family "as a playmate" (10) by the now-deceased Lord Hamilton; when the novel opens, she is neither quite a member of the family nor a servant.

Unresolved attitudes toward class issues, to which neither Alcott nor Brontë was a stranger, complicate the point of view in this novel; despite clear indications that Edith is as noble as any of the wealthy Hamiltons, even more so than cousin Ida, and despite sacrificing her inheritance twice—first to protect a downtrodden young man and then to protect and be a part of the family she loves—Edith still cannot accept Lord Hamilton's marriage proposal until she has been proved to be of the proper social class. Alcott may have been a democrat, but she was also a New Englander.

Finally, although the language of the text is heavily melodramatic and sentimental, advertising its author's immaturity, the character of Edith intrigues the reader as an early version of the active Alcott heroine. She is noble, self-sacrificing, and self-effacing, and she sings like an angel (rumor has it that her mother was an Italian opera singer), but it is she who climbs over a cliff to rescue her charge, Amy, when she falls while the Hamiltons and their friend Lord Percy are on an outing. In another episode, she proves a formidable horsewoman when the jealous Ida whips her horse, sending it racing wildly toward a stone wall. In some respects, Edith seems to be Jo and Beth March combined, a telling characterization in view of those two sisters' closeness in Little Women but a bit odd when combined into one character as it is here. Alcott apparently never tried to publish The Inheritance, which even a cursory reading would pronounce a wise choice, but the fact that she preserved the manuscript probably indicates a lasting affection for her "firstborn," an affection that the modern reader, if not expecting too much of a seventeen-year-old, can share.

Certainly, and not unexpectedly, the most complex and best written of the new Alcott novels is the most mature work, A Long Fatal Love Chase, another manuscript that sat gathering dust for years at the Houghton Library before being offered on the rare books market and purchased by the New Hampshire educator and collector Kent Bicknell. Alcott wrote Love Chase after returning from her first trip to Europe in 1866, probably intending it for anonymous publication, but "[publisher James R.] Elliott would not have it, saying it was too long & too sensational!"(Journals 153, September 1866). Manuscript markings and another manuscript at the Houghton entitled "Fair Rosamond" indicate that Alcott attempted to revise the story, but it was never published until 1995. Alcott used its original title ("A Modern Mephistopheles" ) for another work in 1877.

The Love Chase is certainly long, covering nearly all of Europe that Alcott had seen on her 1865-66 journey, and it is certainly sensational—in a twentieth-century, as well as a nineteenth-century, sense. The far-ranging plot features gambling, attempted bigamy, a custody battle, an obsessed stalker, the imprisonment of our heroine in a madhouse, and struggles with priestly celibacy. (In a stroke of genius, the New York Times had Stephen King review the novel when it appeared.) Alcott proves herself a master of intertextuality in this work, playing with references to "Fair Rosamond," The Tempest, Faust, and Jane Eyre, among others. The book begins with eighteen-year-old Rosamond Vivian, who lives alone with her invalid grandfather on an island off the coast of England, lamenting from her window seat, "I'd gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom" (3). Almost immediately, Philip Tempest, who looks a great deal like a picture of Mephistopheles that the Vivians just happen to have hanging in their hallway, appears at the door, ready to make Rosamond's wish come true. Tempest soon becomes as much Rochester as Satan; perhaps Alcott's point is that they much resemble one another, particularly when it comes to manipulating human hearts—Hawthorne's (and to a large extent, Alcott's) unpardonable sin.

After a month's blissful courtship, Tempest brings Rosamond to tears as he explains to her how he has found her a position as a companion, far away from where he will be, then finally confesses that he wishes her to be his companion—reminiscent of the proposal scene in Jane Eyre. Tempest "marries" Rosamond with the help of a phony cleric, since he already has a wife (though not locked in an attic). It takes Rosamond a year to uncover Tempest's secret, but when she does, she flees, and he pursues her all over Europe. When he inadvertently kills her at the end, he fatally stabs himself over her corpse, declaring, "Mine first—mine last—mine even in the grave!" (242).

Although first and foremost an unabashed page-turner, Love Chase also encompasses some of Alcott's most pervasive literary themes. Early on, Rosamond has a plaintive conversation with Tempest delineating the societal limitations on women's self-reliance. When Rosamond later flees from Tempest, she is forced to explore these limited options one by one: she sews, she becomes a nurse-companion for a time, she pretends to be a nun (and typical of Alcott, the real actress portrayed in the novel, Madame Honorine, is a kind and helpful character), and she ultimately relies on family—her husband's ex-wife and son, ironically—for support. The fact that Tempest ultimately destroys her may merely further the sensational plot or it may be one of Alcott's more pessimistic commentaries on women and nineteenth-century culture.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, Rosamond is another active heroine, similar to her only slightly younger "sister" Jo March. She takes daring walks on parapets, climbs across rooftops, cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy, all to escape her pursuer. When Tempest has her imprisoned in a madhouse, her worst suffering stems from idleness, for all books and writing materials are forbidden to her.

Readers who find Alcott's attitudes toward sexual passion problematic in other works will find this one especially intriguing. Although Rosamond professes to be so in love with her husband that it is difficult to leave him and harder to forget him despite overwhelming evidence that he is both a liar and a murderer, there are no indications of children after a year of marriage and no particular indications of intimacy between them. On the other hand, some of the scenes between Rosamond and Father Ignatius, a priest who befriends her during her stay in the convent, are highly charged with sexual energy. When Ignatius helps Rosamond to escape Tempest by rowing her across a river to a safe haven, she comments that he should be a knight, not a priest, whereupon he declares that he "will be, for an hour," removes his cassock, and throws it into the bottom of the boat, vehemently ordering it to "Lie there, detested thing!" (141). Although Rosamond and Ignatius maintain a chaste relationship even as their love for one another increases, and although Alcott seems to borrow from Faust the idea that, like Faust and Gretchen, they can take joy in knowing they will be reunited after death for eternity, one must wonder at the seething but unfulfilled passion in this novel.

Finally, though it may seem odd, it is also fitting that a "new" Louisa May Alcott novel should briefly appear on the New York Times' best-seller list in 1995, a novel that is at once modern and Victorian, typical of Alcott's serious themes but also an example of the kind of work she threw herself into in the 1860s in order to keep her family solvent. Portions of the proceeds from the book are going to Orchard House, the Alcotts' Concord home, and to the descendants of Fred Pratt, the nephew Alcott adopted before her death in order that he might have the power to retain future rights to her works. Louisa May Alcott's writing continues to support her home and family, even as it continues to provide intriguing new perspectives for consideration by modern readers and critics.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Little, 1989.

Peterson, Jeanne. "The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence." Victorian Studies 14 (1970): 7-23.



Sheryl A. Englund (essay date September 1998)

SOURCE: Englund, Sheryl A. "Reading the Author in Little Women: A Biography of a Book." American Transcendental Quarterly 12, no. 3 (September 1998): 198-219.

[In the following essay, Englund offers a critical overview of the publication history of Little Women, noting how both nineteenth-century and modern audiences frequently interpret the novel as an autobiographical work, commonly identifying Alcott as the "Jo" character.]


Despite my rather bookish tendencies, I don't as a rule expect to see representations of nineteenth-century print texts when I go to the movies. Consequently, one evening in early 1995, I was caught off guard when an intriguing depiction of a familiar textual object flickered onto the screen in Gillian Arm-strong's film version of Little Women (December 1994). A fleeting shot in the film makes the current literary status of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868-69) vividly concrete. In a climatic moment in the film, the camera moves from the proud young author, Jo (Winona Ryder), excitedly ripping open the brown paper on the proofs of her first major publica-tion, to a close-up of the novel's substantial title page: "LITTLE WOMEN / A NOVEL / BY / JOSEPHINE MARCH / JAMES T. FIELDS, PUBLISHERS / NEW YORK."

This depiction of Little Women 's "first edition" is a revealing piece of poetic license. Although the film's proofs imply that the resulting book will be an impressively heavy volume, the actual first edition of the first volume of Little Women (October 1868) is, in fact, a rather unimposing book—a mere 6-1/2″ × 4-7/16″ and 342 pages—and James T. Fields was not its publisher; instead, the novel was published by the less distinguished firm Roberts Brothers. Further-more, both publishers operated out of Boston, the most influential Northeastern literary publishing center in nineteenth-century America—not New York City. It is possible, I imagine, that the film's research consultant mistakenly remembered only the high-profile James T. Fields among nineteenth-century Boston publishers. However, given the additional error—the film's strange relocation of Fields, one of mid-nineteenth-century Boston's most eminent literary figures, to New York—it seems more likely that the film's mis-attribution of publisher represents an implicit attempt to link Louisa May Alcott to Fields' list of elite canonical authors, which included such figures as Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau, and to raise Alcott's cultural capital further by associating her work with today's literary publishing industry in New York City.

The title page's imprint, "James T. Fields, Publishers," raised another red flag for me: Fields actually published only in partnership. He was senior partner of his firm beginning in 1864, but he was never the sole owner of a publishing firm. Fields held part interest in the prestigious Ticknor and Fields firm through 1868 and published as Fields, Osgood and Co. during the years in which Little Women appeared, from 1868 until his retirement in 1871 (Tryon and Charvat xxii-xxiii). In Armstrong's film, however, the firm becomes his entirely and resonates with Fields' influence and power as an arbiter of literary merit. As editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Fields often mentored promising young writers—including, over the course of some years, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Sarah Orne Jewett—and aspiring authors sought invitations to his literary salon, but Fields in no way nurtured or endorsed Alcott's writing. Alcott actually came into contact with Fields primarily as a country cousin to his wife, Annie Fields (Brodhead 80-81, 87). In contrast to the milieu of belles lettres emerging on the East Coast at the time—represented, for example, by the young Henry James—Alcott was relatively provincial, domestic and, of course, a woman. Fields' often-quoted advice to the young Alcott supports this interpretation of Alcott's literary status among her contemporaries: "Stick to your teaching; you can't write" (qtd. by Alcott in her journal for May 1862; [The Journals of Louisa May Alcott ] 109).

Regarding the film's implication that the novel would have been more rightly published in New York: many contemporary publishing firms have certainly come to an analogous conclusion. Houghton Mifflin, a descendent of Ticknor and Fields, was founded and is still based in Boston, although the firm carried on business in a branch office in New York City from the 1880s (Ballou 306-07); over the past few decades, however, the firm has gradually moved most of its editorial operations to New York, in essence transforming the Boston location into a regional branch office. Even Little, Brown & Co. (successor to Roberts Brothers), which for years stayed in Boston and printed many books of regional interest, moved the remaining half of its adult trade editors to New York in November 1992. Similarly, the film's shift to New York deregionalizes Alcott. It is a bid to link Little Women to the current source of most literary publishing in the United States, the modern seat of American cultural and economic authority. The title page's omission of a date—when the first volume of the novel actually bore the date "1868"—furthers the project of universalizing and, at the same time, modernizing a novel that is essentially specific to its place and time.

The title page that appears in Armstrong's film, then, is historically inaccurate, but clearly strategic. In the past twenty years, Alcott and Little Women have increasingly found powerful advocates in academia, such as Judith Fetterley, Joel Myerson, and Elaine Showalter. Little Women is in print in several footnoted scholarly editions, and excerpts frequently appear on undergraduate literature and history syllabi. The film depicts the book in conformity with its new canonical status: the proofs themselves are physically imposing, manifesting the cultural size of the work for its readers, and the title page bears the imprint of a noted nineteenth-century literary publisher. Nevertheless (arguing from the admittedly anecdotal evidence of a theater audience made up—almost to the man—of women), Armstrong's Little Women, with Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as Marmee, is also undeniably a "chick flick": not terribly surprising for a novel that was initially, and until quite recently, marketed solely as a genre-defining "girl's book." While we might question how successful a trade-off it is for a "women's film" to deregionalize and dehistoricize Alcott in order to authorize her as a canonical writer, the film nevertheless manages to appeal to multiple audiences with its depiction of Little Women. When I viewed the film, I joined one audience for Alcott's narrative; by writing this article, I participate in another, different—but by no means entirely independent—audience. Alcott "the girl's author" and Alcott "the academic's author" represent two seemingly divergent authorial images, through which a diverse readership has invested Alcott and Little Women with continuing prominence in the literary and popular marketplace.

Nonetheless, despite the significant factual errors that I have pointed out, the film's proofs of the novel actually underscore Armstrong's continuity with past critical treatments of Alcott. I have so far deliberately neglected to mention the film's most obvious change to the title page. The fictional author-character, Jose-phine March, replaces Louisa May Alcott as the novel's author. In essence, the film's scene is predicated upon a slippage between historical author and fictional author. As we shall see, Armstrong's film version of Little Women reinscribes a well-established and continuing understanding of the novel. It is one expression of a notably inflexible reading of Little Women, which to the present day colors both popular and academic discussions of Louisa May Alcott, and which finds material expression in the design and production of print editions of Little Women.


From Little Women 's first appearance, readers have insisted—with varying degrees of sophistication—that Alcott "is" Jo, and that Alcott's "best" work is primarily autobiographical. Nineteenth-century children's fan letters to Alcott and early reviews of the novel, for example, often conflate Jo with Alcott or otherwise position the novel within the genre of autobiography. This reading survives in a wide variety of contexts and across time. Recent scholarly publications maintain an unquestioned focus on Alcott's historical identity and its relationship to her writing. The discourse of the autobiographical so common in the interpretation of her fiction is, I contend, the pivot of Louisa May Alcott's literary celebrity, however that celebrity is delineated and understood at any given historical moment.

The incessant repetition in Alcott's day of an autobiographical reading of Little Women, coupled with historical readers' inflexible demand for a single type of Alcott literary production, accomplished the cultural work of building an extraordinarily stable image of Alcott as Jo, an image that quickly came to define Alcott's literary celebrity. Alcott's audiences went well beyond merely asking that she continue to produce work of a domestic style similar to Little Women, however. As strikingly illustrated by Armstrong's 1994 film, the autobiographical reading of Little Women actually pulls the historical Alcott into her own fictional world with a depiction of the physical book within an enactment of the novel. Historical audiences, and their descendants who reiterate the reading, not only require that Alcott write in a manner characteristic of "Alcott" (however that Alcott is constructed), but also that Alcott's writing and life resemble the fictional character Jo's.

The trajectory of this reading is easily traceable: once readers uncover autobiographical elements of the novel, Jo blurs with the historical Alcott, both of whom then elide with audience expectations for an Alcott book. Finally, the autobiographical understanding of Alcott is inflected in a material manifestation of Little Women. This article will explore some of the ways in which elements of Little Women 's production or, more informally, the way the book is "packaged," have come to represent the scope and nature of Alcott's celebrity. As Richard Brodhead points out in Cultures of Letters, the 1860s were a time of transition in the literary marketplace, an active period during which many new forms of authorship and markets for books developed. The market was ripe for Alcott in 1868; the demand for secular juvenile books, especially novels for adolescent girls, and the extreme genre specialization of authors were new, even within the span of a few years in Alcott's own career. Nevertheless, the newness of a market does not imply its flexibility, as the ongoing autobiographical discourse surrounding Alcott indicates.

Alcott laid the groundwork for the interpretative pattern that I have described by drawing on her adolescent experience of writing to inform the character of a young writer. Despite the novel's participation in building its own reading, however, Roberts Brothers' promotional practices and, especially, readers' intense emotional investment with Little Women carried the shared cultural image of Alcott well beyond the historical Alcott's direct influence. I certainly do not mean to deny that Alcott's source material for Little Women was often autobiographical; to the contrary, that fact has been amply supported by Alcott herself in her book prefaces, journal, and letters,1 by Alcott's contemporaries, and by most historians and scholars. Nevertheless, readers' preoccupation with the autobiographical element of Alcott's work itself demands interpretation. Decoding romans à clef like Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall (1854), which were popular in the mid-nineteenth century, undoubtedly demands a thorough familiarity with the history behind the fiction, but reading Little Women as a roman à clef is an undertaking destined for failure. Alcott's clear resemblance to Jo nonetheless seems to entice some readers of Little Women to seek out a broader biographical basis for the novel, which the text both gratifies and disappoints. The crucial—and simple—elision, however, is to read Jo as a stand-in for Alcott. I would argue, in fact, that Alcott's relationship to the female author-character of her book is particularly overdetermined in part because the resemblance is so overt: readers scarcely need to know anything about Louisa May Alcott or the Alcott family to produce a version of the autobiographical reading.

Consequently, I want only to highlight a few parallels between the Alcott family and Little Women —those that readers actively engaged in shoring up an autobiographical reading of the novel most often note—and then to explore a few significant deviations that befuddle any effort to read Little Women as a roman à clef, differences that when an autobiographical reading is in place, are often framed as "curiosities" or "aberrations" in the novel's narrative. Readers who mean to connect the Alcott family with the fictional Marches often first find an obvious structural parallel between the two families: both families had four daughters, with the third dying in early adulthood. Alcott based Meg on her older sister, Anna Alcott Pratt, and (of course) Jo paralleled Alcott in the family structure. Gentle Elizabeth Sewall Alcott was Little Women 's Beth, and Abba May Alcott Nieriker (called May), who drew the inept illustrations used in the first edition of Part I of Little Women, was the original of the artistic aspirant Amy. Jo's writing career, as I have suggested, permits a nearly effortless slippage from the fictional to the "real" author; some contemporary reviewers and many modern scholars, particularly since the academic popularization of Alcott's sensational fiction, mention Jo's publication in storypapers to authorize the conflation. Another easy analogy compares the absent, penniless scholar-father of Little Women to Louisa May Alcott's father, Amos Bronson Alcott, one of Concord's transcendentalists whose unworldly improvidence was legendary.2

Many obvious breaks with Alcott's autobiographical source material trouble readers who assume a strict correspondence between Jo and Alcott, but one of the most consistently disturbing to generations of readers has been the lack of a marriage plot in Alcott's own life. In her letters and journals, Alcott questioned the wisdom of the plot-line that created this significant divergence between herself and Jo. In a letter of 20 March 1869 to Elizabeth Powell, written a few weeks before the publication of the second part of Little Women, Alcott complains:

A sequel will be out early in April, & like all sequels will probably disappoint or disgust most readers, for publishers wont let authors finish up as they like but insist on having people married off in a wholesale manner which much afflicts me. "Jo" should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didnt dare to refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her.

  (Letters [The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott ] 124-25)

In this letter, Alcott blames the novel's romantic conclusion on the expectations of a network of the novel's readers, including (she suggests) her editor at Roberts Brothers, Thomas Niles, Jr. At various times, Alcott expressed a debt to at least two "real" Lauries—Alfred Whitman, who in the mid-1850s boarded with Anna Alcott Pratt and her husband, and Ladislas Wisniewski, a Polish youth whom she met while traveling as a companion in Europe in 1865 (Letters xxviii)—but, clearly, there was no wealthy and generous next-door neighbor and potential heterosexual love interest for Alcott. The rumpled, bearish academic, Professor Bhaer, whom Alcott calls a "funny match," has provoked mixed reactions from readers,3 but he at least foils a reading of Little Women as a roman à clef.

Throughout her career, Alcott's life was the subject of the scrutiny of a legion of young readers and, perhaps more significantly, the adults who bought them books. As the letter to Elizabeth Powell indicates, Alcott attracted fans, even at a very early stage of the celebrity that Little Women and books like it would garner for her. Throughout Alcott's career, the demands of her young readers would continue to shape her work. But as the letter also implies, Alcott's long-time publishing firm, Roberts Brothers, represented by her supportive editor, Thomas Niles, was responsive to and responsible for channeling and stimulating much of this reader demand.

It was Niles who had first extended the frequently quoted invitation to write Little Women, which Alcott tersely reported in her journal: "Niles, partner of Roberts asked me to write a girls book. Said I'd try" (Journals 158). Roberts Brothers published Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in the first half of October 1868. The volume had good success, but nothing really out of the ordinary, with sales of about 5000 copies between its publication and the publication of Part II of Little Women in April 1869 (Myerson and Shealy 69). Reviews were friendly, but not exceptionally enthusiastic. While the Nation, for example, called the book "an agreeable little story," it criticized the novel's lack of "atmosphere" and May Alcott's amateurish illustrations (rev. 22 Oct. 1868). Despite this modest outcome, the firm wisely elected to follow up with Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, Part Second in April 1869. The second part of the novel was a great success, selling about 18,000 copies in 1869 alone. This success, of course, also stimulated interest in the first volume of the novel, which sold an additional 14,500 copies between April and December of 1869 (Myerson and Shealy 69). The Alcott family's financial problems were largely over after the publication of Part II of the novel. By the end of 1871, the two volumes together had sold nearly 90,000 copies (Myerson and Shealy 69). More significantly, Little Women has proven itself to be one of the rare popular novels that maintains its popularity. Since its moment of publication, Little Women has never been out of print.


In the 130 years since Little Women 's first publication, new editions of the novel have been common-place, but not nearly as ubiquitous as an autobiographical paradigm for understanding the text. Such a reading has remained a constant feature of discussions of Little Women, despite the novel's diverse communities of readers, crossing boundaries of time, age, education, and gender. In August 1869, an anonymous reviewer in Harper's New Monthly Magazine rather coyly observed, "Autobiographies, if genuine, are generally interesting, and it is shrewdly suspected that Joe's [sic] experience as an author photographs some of Miss Alcott's own literary mistakes and misadventures." Louisa May Alcott's family source material was no great secret to contemporary readers, but nineteenth-century interest in that loosely autobiographical material returns without fail, like the Harper's review of the novel, to Jo's identity as Alcott—and Alcott's identity as Jo. Since patterns of reading and marketing Little Women that were established during Alcott's lifetime persist to shape more recent responses to Alcott's work, professional reviewers, young female fans, representatives of Roberts Brothers, and Alcott herself all collaborated in the authorship of a particular understanding of Little Women, an understanding that—as we will see—both describes and circumscribes Alcott's authorship and becomes concrete in the physical forms of Alcott's books.

While journalists and adolescent girls were certainly not the only communities of readers for Little Women in the 1860s and 1870s, published book reviews and fan letters are convenient records of two of the novel's most influential audiences. A few of the reviews of Little Women printed in American periodicals in 1868 and 1869 explicitly equated Alcott and Jo; for example, the Nation's review of the second part of Little Women sounds a note similar to the Harper's review, which ran a few months later, when it begins, "Miss Alcott's literary success seems to be very like that achieved by her favorite, 'Jo,' in this pleasant little story" (rev. 20 May 1869). These professional readers found the parallel between Alcott and Jo central enough to their analysis of the novel to include it in their generally very brief reviews. Juvenile readers often more literally confused Alcott and Jo. Alcott corresponded for several years with the five Lukens sisters, particularly with Maggie Lukens, a devoted fan and aspiring professional writer. At one time, the sisters expressed the disappointment of their "friends" with a photograph that Alcott had sent (253). Alcott protested:

Why people will think Jo small when she is described as tall I dont see; & why insist that she must be young when she is said to be 30 at the end of the book? After seeing the photograph it is hardly necessary to say that Jo & L. M. A. are not one.

                                   (Letters 185)

Of course, Alcott often contradicted this avowal in her own private and public writings, and in the same letter, in fact, says that she can "sympathize with the disappointment of your friends" (Letters 185). Younger and more naive readers than the Lukenses—the oldest Lukens sister would have been close to twenty at the time of this exchange with Alcott—sometimes completely failed to understand Jo as a fictional character. A child's fan letter featured in the front advertising matter in the first edition of Little Men, for instance, exhibits this degree of slippage between Alcott and Jo. The letter, dated 12 March 1870 and reproduced in a full-page advertisement for Little Women, effuses:

Dear Jo, or Miss Alcott,—We have all been reading Little Women, and we liked it so much I could not help wanting to write to you. We think youare perfectly splendid; I like you better every time I read it. We were all so disappointed about your not marrying Laurie; I cried over that part,—I could not help it. We all liked Laurie ever so much, and almost killed ourselves laughing over the funny things you and he said….

I do wish you would send me a picture of you. I hope your health is better.

               (Little Men 1. qtd. in Sicherman 253)

In this letter, "Nelly" slips back and forth between "Jo, or Miss Alcott" or, more to the point, recognizes no distinction between the two, expressing chagrin over the novel's marriage plot and well-wishes for Alcott's precarious health in one enthusiastic breath.

The advertisement that uses "Nelly's" letter includes a statement claiming, "The following verbatim copy of a letter from a 'little woman' is a specimen of many which enthusiasm for her book has dictated to the author of Little Women. " Regardless, Thomas Niles (or possibly another at Roberts Brothers) selected this letter—or created it out-of-hand—as part of a publicity campaign that consistently encouraged Nelly's sort of confusion. Niles continued the tactic in many types of marketing throughout Alcott's career. In her own correspondence with Niles and others, Alcott occasionally called herself "Jo," and Thomas Niles would respond in kind in letters, but Niles also referred to Alcott as Jo in correspondence with others in the book trade, including reviewers. For example, in a 7 June 1871 letter responding to Richard R. Bowker's review of Little Men in the New York Evening Mail, Thomas Niles writes, "Dear Sir[,] I can't resist telling you that one of the first things 'Jo' did after her arrival was to read your flattering notice of her new book" (Kilgour 102).

Niles also commonly suggested titles for Alcott's works, including the title Little Women (Letters 119nl), with Alcott's full endorsement. Roberts Brothers published six volumes of Alcott's short fiction for children between 1872 and 1882 in a series called Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag, for instance, and it is reasonable to assume that Niles formulated the Scrap-Bag title and series to capitalize on the success of Little Women and Little Men, inciting audience interest in both Alcott and the novels' heroine by conflating the two, and reusing some of Alcott's periodical short fiction in the bargain. In fact, Alcott had written Niles in 1870 while she was traveling in Europe to suggest a similar project: a collection of "short stories old and new for Christmas…. We could call them, 'Jo March's Necessity Stories'" (Letters 145), so Alcott's approval of this line of marketing seems likely. Niles continued to build Alcott's celebrity by fostering the confusion between Alcott and Jo even after Alcott's death in 1888. In 1893, Roberts Brothers printed Comic Tragedies Written by "Jo" and "Meg" and Acted by the "Little Women" a collection of the Alcott's family's home theatricals, under the supervision of Anna Alcott Pratt, who signed her preface "Meg."4

As much of this suggests, Louisa May Alcott participated, however conflictedly, in the consolidation of her authorial image as the young, unconventional Jo. Despite her insistence to the Lukens "that Jo & L. M. A. are not one" (Letters 185), at another time, she wrote to the sisters:

Perhaps some of these summers we may see a band of pilgrims coming up to our door, & then the three old March girls & the five young Lukens ditto will sit in a bunch & spin yarns.

                                       (Letters 177)

Here, Alcott inserts the Lukens into the allegorical Pilgrim's Progress of the novel's first part. Little Women 's first chapter, "Playing Pilgrims," finds the young March sisters agreeing to strive for moral self-improvement, but in this version, their "celestial city" is to meet their adult selves, "the three old March girls": the real-life Alcott sisters, with Alcott as Jo. Similarly, years after her first success as an author, Alcott annotated her early journals (which she had been conditioned from childhood to recognize as community documents) with short marginalia drawing parallels between herself and Jo. For example, to an 1855 journal entry in which the young Alcott describes writing and eating apples during a spring rain shower, the older Alcott adds, "Jo in the garret.—L. M. A." (Journals 73), and to an 1858 passage about Elizabeth Alcott's illness with scarlet fever, Alcott later remarked, "Jo and Beth.—L. M. A." (Journals 88). The fact that Alcott added these annotations rather late in her career suggests Alcott's ultimate accommodation to the conflation between herself and Jo, as well as the growing solidity of this expression of her literary celebrity. Finally, one of the most convincing signs of Alcott's contribution to an increasingly inflexible construction of her authorship was her continuing, and nearly exclusive, production of novels and short fiction in what she called "the Little Women style" (Letters 235) after the success of Little Women.

After her death, the autobiographical discourse of Louisa May Alcott's celebrity continued to expand, no longer limited by Alcott's physical presence. Readings of Alcott's work that made Alcott the subject of her own fictions continued and intensified, abetted and authorized by the publication, in periodicals and newspapers of the 1880s and 1890s, of numerous short, biographical obituaries and reminiscences of family friends and, later, faithful childhood readers of Alcott. A typical example, "Why Miss Alcott Still Lives," rehearses a strain that it assumes readers will recognize:

Miss Alcott, as all the world knows, grew to her noble womanhood in a home which surpassed in quaintness anything which she would or could describe…. When she wrote of the March family she merely described life as she knew it.

However, the biographical writings of Ednah D. Cheney—a widely-read early Alcott critic, Bronson Alcott's former student, and friend of the Alcott family—were ultimately more influential owing, I believe, to their timeliness, apparent comprehensiveness, and ability to address multiple communities of Alcott's readers.

Cheney published a brief biography for Alcott's juvenile readership, Louisa May Alcott: The Children's Friend (Boston: Prang, 1888), only a few months after Alcott's death in March 1888. Within a year, Cheney also compiled and published with Alcott's publisher, Roberts Brothers, a more comprehensive biography that interweaves biographical narrative with selections of Alcott's letters and journals in Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (1889), a work that would stand as the most complete collection of Alcott's personal writings until the late 1980s, when Myerson, Shealy, and Stern published Alcott's Selected Letters (1987) and Journals (1989). In the two biographies, Cheney stresses Alcott's domestic ties and the autobiographical elements of her writing. For example, in the introduction to Her Life, Letters, and Journals, Cheney writes:

Of no author can it be more truly said than of Louisa Alcott that her works are a revelation of herself. She rarely sought for the material of her stories in old chronicles, or foreign adventures. Her capital was her own life and experiences and those of others directly about her.


The Children's Friend shares this perspective on Alcott's work, but it distills its ideological content into a scant forty pages of text in large print, supplemented with many excerpts from Alcott's books, and another fifteen pages of verse by Louisa May and Bronson Alcott. One of Cheney's most important projects in The Children's Friend is to establish that Alcott's juvenile domestic fiction is, quite literally, real—that is, autobiographical. Cheney begins the biography with a brief, rosy description of Alcott's childhood, then writes:

And now, dear children, before I tell you how Little Women and all the books you love so much were written, I want you to realize how fully Miss Alcott had known almost all that she has described…. Scarcely an adventure in her stories but is painted from life, altered in time and place, but still revealing the history of some real person.

                                            (10, 13)

The rest of Cheney's narrative is devoted to tracing specific events in Alcott's life and reading them onto episodes in Alcott's various juvenile novels and stories. One example among many is an instance where Cheney notes that Alcott was at times plagued by her fans' intrusions and immediately concludes that the episode from Jo's Boys describing Josephine March's adoring public was a "description of … this success, as well as of the somewhat oppressive attentions which were poured upon" Alcott (29).

Like Armstrong's film, Cheney's biographies each frame their autobiographical readings of Alcott for specifically defined audiences. The more complex language and historical perspective and sober, unillustrated packaging of Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals suggest that it was aimed at an adult readership. More specifically, the text often appeals to American readers' nationalistic or regional pride in Alcott's depiction of New England domesticity, even as it simultaneously affirms the universality of her fiction. The final chapter ends, for example, by celebrating Alcott's worldwide popularity in translation, and concludes that Alcott deserves "the lasting gratitude of her country" (289). The Children's Friend, in contrast, is clearly marked as a children's book, both in tone (the author generally addresses her readers as "dear children") and in its horizontal, heavily-illustrated format. This biography's well-known frontispiece, by Lizabeth B. Comins, who illustrated some of Alcott's novels in the 1870s and 1880s, offers a fascinating visual depiction of the primarily juvenile audience that the publisher imagined for the book. The most striking element of the frontispiece is the crowd of young people clustered around Alcott, who is seated in the foreground reading from Little Women. Like the conclusion of Her Life, Letters, and Journals, the artist makes some nods to Alcott's international readership in translation—she represents some girls in Dutch, or possibly Quaker or Amish, costumes—although all the children represented are white Americans or Western Europeans. The children in the foreground are the most differentiated; they are primarily girls and young women, joined by a few older boys. Androgynous children in nightgowns fade away to the page's edge. The illustration emphasizes Alcott's massive, widespread, and very young reading public, with the heavily-female audience literally stretching into the distance. The dominant effect of the image is staring eyes, all directed at Alcott, suggesting a voyeuristic and demanding audience. The idealized depiction of the reader, who is recognizably Alcott, but a placid, lovely, and above all young Alcott—no older than twenty-five, although Alcott was closer to thirty-five when she wrote Little Women and fifty-five when she died—visually repeats the market's conflation of Alcott with Jo, the eternal teenager, reading novels in a tree or garret. Cheney's biographies express an image of Alcott that was already deeply entrenched by the end of her career, and emphasize the role of diverse and competing audiences in the cultural work of promoting Alcott's celebrity shortly after her death.5


In "The Life and Times of Charlotte Temple: The Biography of a Book," Cathy Davidson argues:

One Charlotte Temple could be repackaged in myriad ways in order to appeal to different kinds of readers and to perform different kinds of cultural work. Moreover, the external packaging of the novel … served also to direct the reader as to how she or he might assess the text therein…. In short, although one may not be able to judge a book by its cover, one can read what a given cover signifies.


A book's morphology—that is, the book as a material artifact; its binding style and cover design, and also its illustrations, paper stock, and typeface— serves publishers as a marketing tool, which they can design to appeal to the self-image and vanities, income, reading style, and literacy level of the targeted group of readers. As Davidson suggests, a book's "cover" can cut its readers from the pack, and then serve those readers as an interpretive guide. We need look no further than the glossy paperback romances in any grocery check-out line to realize that the reader who selects a short romance novel embellished with red tongues of flame expects (and will get) a different reading experience than the reader who chooses a long historical bound in timorous pastels. Davidson, however, places most of the agency firmly with the publisher; the packaging manipulates readers in their choices of books and interpretations of texts. (The reader with the skinny, red-bound romance, for example, thinks, "This—whatever the novel actually contains—is sexy.")

While the publishing firm's role in book design is certainly important, some additional (and perhaps even counter-intuitive) ways of understanding the evolution of a text's packaging are worth considering. I believe that the contents of a work can encourage certain patterns of reading and, even further, that readership demands, in the form of common—or much publicized—patterns of reading, may force interpretation on unexceptional packaging, and shape the direction of future packaging. Close comparison of the morphology of several different editions of Little Women reveals a clear material manifestation of the patterns of reading and marketing that I have thus far described.

In their first editions, Part I and Part II of Little Women were packaged scarcely differently from adult novels: a small, but standard, size with a dark cloth binding and endpapers. These unremarkable bindings contained more illustrations than would commonly appear in adult fiction in the United States, however. Part I and Part II each include a frontispiece and three inserted plates. The illustrations for Part I are visibly the work of a novice, which is noteworthy since they were drawn by May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott's youngest sister. The amateurish drawings depict two-dimensional figures with disproportionately large heads, long torsos and short, stout limbs. As I noted earlier, the illustrations were mentioned unfavorably in the Nation's review of Little Women, Part I:

The letterpress is accompanied by four or five indifferently executed illustrations, in which Miss May Alcott betrays … a want of anatomical knowledge, and that indifference to or non-recognition of the subtle beauty of the lines of the female figure which so generally marks women artists.

                              (rev. 22 Oct. 1868)

The response to May Alcott's illustrations was sufficiently negative to impel Roberts Brothers to hire the well-known Boston artist Hammatt Billings, who often worked for the firm, as illustrator for the second part of the novel (Kilgour 8-9; Shealy 70). Neverthe-less, the title page of Part I advertises its illustrator—May Alcott's name appears immediately below Louisa May Alcott's on the title page—while Part II's title page merely states, "With Illustrations," the latter form continuing in Little, Brown & Co.'s standard one-volume edition until the book's copyright expired. The original title page's emphasis of May Alcott's illustrations and the precise artistic failings that critics lambasted in fact reinforced an autobiographical interpretation of the novel by providing the novel's first readers with further evidence of the truth of the March family story. If Little Women portrays Amy as something of a dilettante, who fancies herself a Michelangelo as she decorates ceramics, then the amateurish illustrations of Part I merely encourage readers to connect May with the anagrammatic Amy. By the same token, May's graceful acquiescence to the professional illustrator, Billings, mirrors Amy's decision after studying art in Europe: "Talent isn't genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won't be a common-place dauber, so I don't intend to try any more" (Little Women II: 240).

The slippage between Little Women 's packaging and the novel's frequently noted autobiographical sources continued in other forms in later editions, after May Alcott's illustrations had been replaced. One example is the frontispiece that appears in Roberts Brothers' (and later Little, Brown & Co.'s) largest selling single edition of Little Women, recorded in Roberts Brothers' costbooks as the "one-volume, trade edition," an edition that sold more than 425,000 copies between 1881 and 1909 (Myerson and Shealy 69). The frontispiece of this long-running edition depicts the Alcotts' Orchard House in Concord, but is titled merely "Home of the Little Women." The Orchard House (which Louisa May Alcott tartly dubbed "Apple Slump") was the Alcott family's home base from July 1858 to November 1877 (Delamar 245), so Alcott was in her mid-twenties when the family first acquired the house. Although Alcott wrote Little Women at Orchard House, she equally often chose to live and work alone in apartments or hotels in Boston, and Elizabeth Sewall Alcott had died in March 1858, before the family ever lived in Orchard House. Anna Alcott Pratt and May Alcott Nieriker both lived in Orchard House at times during the Alcotts' ownership, but the house can in no way be described as the childhood home of the four young Alcott sisters or the site of those biographical events detailed in Little Women. Nevertheless, when the Concord Woman's Club purchased, renovated, and eventually opened the Orchard House as a museum in 1912, they also presented the house as "Home of the Little Women," complete with furnishings calculated to evoke the characters of Little Women. Louisa's "mood pillow," for example, like the bolster with which Jo would "barricade" herself when she grumpily wished to have the sofa to herself, and Elizabeth's melodeon, close cousin to little Beth March's treasured piano, both find a place at the Orchard House museum. As Patricia West observes, "The domestic trials of the fictional Jo March provided a better basis for a universally appealing 'shrine' than could the actual unmarried, pro-suffrage, working woman, Louisa May Alcott" (461). Upon the museum's opening in May 1912, a Boston newspaper proclaimed that the Orchard House museum provided "conclusive and definitive proof that, after all, the story [of Little Women ] was true, and not made up out of the author's head" (qtd. in West 463). The museum continues to feature tours and special events with guides in period costume; one of the museum's slide programs is titled "Little Women : Fact and Fiction" (Delamar 247). The frontispiece and the Orchard House museum accomplish similar cultural work. Like Charlotte's "real" grave, which Davidson describes in "The Life and Times of Charlotte Temple" (168), the Orchard House museum provides a physical and symbolic locus for fictional events, allowing readers to play "pilgrims' progress" with the March sisters as they go on pilgrimage to the Alcott shrine. This complicated and even ritualistic negotiation cannot, as Davidson implies in her biography of Charlotte Temple, be reduced to a sort of stratagem on the part of the publisher to sell books. Instead, elements of book design work with readers to create, support, and sustain a way of reading.

Just as some of the earliest editions of Little Women inscribe in their morphology an autobiographical reading of the text, modern editions of Little Women respond to the impulse set in motion by these earlier editions, reinscribing in their diverse packaging various expressions of the timeworn confusion between Alcott and the content and appearance of her work. My visits to several large, national chain bookstores in Austin (Bookstop, Barnes and Noble, and Border's) revealed dozens of different editions of Little Women. By choosing to shelve each of the numerous editions in either the children's section or under "A" in the literature section, however, the bookstores implicitly distinguish among the editions by their relative physical positions in the store. Of course, editions that rub shoulders on the same shelf can vary wildly in packaging and even text. Many major publishers, for instance, offer posh illustrated juvenile editions of Little Women with text that is expurgated, abridged, or both, while the children's section also houses the Knopf Everyman's Library "Children's Classics" series boxed gift set of Little Women and Little Men, with text scrupulously set from the novels' first editions. Not surprisingly, the editions representing the adult, "literary" Alcott are far more uniform in both design and editorial matters. Like the Everyman's Library edition, the Penguin Classics edition, with an introduction by Elaine Showalter, uses the text of Little Women 's first edition; the Penguin, however, trumpets its textual editing in a pagelong "A Note on the Text," whereas the Everyman merely notes the fact on the copyright page. Such scholarly apparatus, including frequent endnotes—often excessive, but scholarly in tone—and an austere but immediately recognizable binding style mark the Penguin and other "college editions."

To close this short biography of the material Little Women, let me stroll back to the children's section of the store. As part of the 1994 marketing blitz for Gillian Armstrong's film version of Little Women, Columbia Pictures contracted with Laurie Lawlor, writer of juvenile historical fiction such as Addie across the Prairie, to adapt into novel form Robin Swicord's screenplay of Alcott's novel. Motion pictures as diverse as Grease, Philadelphia, and most recently, Titanic have been accompanied by cheap paperback "novelizations" of the screenplay, targeted at filmgoers eager to recreate the experience of the film. The novelization of Armstrong's Little Women is unusual, though, as it represents a renovelization of a novel that already exists: Alcott's novel inspired a film, which in turn inspired a new novel. More accurately, the film could be said to have occasioned two different novels. Columbia Pictures evidently sold mass market and trade rights to the screenplay separately, so Lawlor created two discrete novelizations to appear in different forms and to appeal to distinct markets. These novelizations, both sporting covers with the same film still of Claire Danes (Beth), Winona Ryder (Jo), Trini Alvarado (Meg), and Kirsten Dunst (young Amy) are shelved adjacent to one another in the children's section at local bookstores. One is a more typical mass market film novelization. This small, poorly-bound paperback from Minstrel Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, retails for $3.99. The front cover proclaims—above the title—Now a major motion picture from Columbia Pictures starring / WINONA RYDER," and further stresses, "With 8 pages of photographs from the movie." The book's size, typography, and pink spine and back cover is evocative of juvenile romance novels, such as the Sweet Valley High series, marketed for the "junior" market of adolescent girls. The other book, bearing a Newmarket Press imprint, is a glossy trade hardback with dust jacket priced at $15.95. Although the jacket design, including the ornate title art borrowed from the film's posters, is nearly identical to that of the Minstrel Books novelization, the colors are more muted (burgundy title instead of red and gold, blue-gray back cover instead of pink), and the cover lacks the overt advertisements for the film. Instead, the jacket copy suggests that the "42 full-color photographs from the film" included in this picture book will make "a wonderful momento of the breath-taking production that has now recast this heartwarming story for a whole new generation." In general, the cloth edition seems designed for display or gift use, with large color photographs on nearly every page, while the paperback appears intended for quick consumption by a juvenile audience.

Both novelizations are based on the screenplay, and as such, are rewritten and "modernized," abridged, and rearranged. But the texts even vary somewhat from one another, with the more elaborate photo edition featuring sixteen chapters and the shorter paperback only thirteen. The illustrated trade edition generally stays closer to the film script, while the mass market paperback adds explanatory and contextual material, while further compressing the plot. The copyright page of the paperback includes the following standard disclaimer,

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events of locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental….

but then, paradoxically, describes Louisa May Alcott and Little Women at the book's end as follows: "The book was based on her own childhood experiences. In it Alcott depicted herself as Jo and re-created the lively spirits of her three sisters in Meg, Beth, and Amy." Throughout, the paperback ties events in the novelization more explicitly to Alcott. In the scene preceding the Gardiners' dance, where Jo first meets Laurie, both works describe Amy's discovery of a pair of hand-me-down boots for Meg to wear, but while the photo edition merely says that they are "too tight but perfectly charming" (15), the paperback asserts, "They're from one of the Emerson girls" (23), referring to the relationship between the Bronson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson families. The final scene in both novelizations is Jo's acceptance of Professor Bhaer's marriage proposal, but while the hardcover edition reports that the couple walked "to her family's house," the paperback actually describes and locates the March family's house—"the three-story brown clapboard house on the corner of Hawthorne and Lexington roads"—an unambiguous description of the Alcotts' Orchard House in Concord.


The audience with which I viewed Armstrong's film laughed outright when Beth (Claire Danes) mourned Jo's decision to cut and sell her hair by delivering the novel's familiar line, "Oh, Jo, your only beauty!" Winona Ryder's perky and entirely too pretty Jo contrasts markedly with the novel's description of a plain, rather horsy Jo, as well as with the earliest known photographic portrait of Louisa May Alcott, taken in the mid-1850s when Alcott was about twenty. This compelling daguerreotype is by far the most commonly used image of Alcott, although she sat for many other portraits, busts, engravings, and bas-reliefs in later life. The image shows a somber young woman with thick dark hair parted severely in the center, wearing a simple voile-collared dark dress and gazing fixedly into the camera with deep-set, shadowed eyes. The portrait captures Alcott some fifteen years before she wrote Little Women : young and intense, as Jo is described during her period of theatricals and sensational writing. The photograph appears as the only picture of Alcott in an early book-length collection of Alcott's letters, Little Women: Letters from the House of Alcott (1914), as well as in many more recent print settings, including on the cover of the 1995 paperback reprint of The Selected Letters, among the illustrations in all editions of The Selected Letters, as the enlarged cover detail and frontispiece of the 1996 reprint of Madeleine Stern's Louisa May Alcott: A Biography, and superimposed over an illustration of the March sisters in the attic on the cover of The Lost Stories of Louisa May Alcott, Author of Little Women (1995). The 1850s portrait of Alcott was even featured in a 1996 CBS television report describing the film prospects for Alcott's recently published "new" novel, A Long Fatal Love Chase (New York: Random, 1995).

I believe that this daguerreotype is a popular and much reproduced image of Alcott because it effaces Alcott's differences from the teenage Jo, easing a conflation of the two "authors." Like Winona Ryder in the film who, as Jo, literally "writes" Little Women, it depicts a version of Alcott that, over many years, has allowed readers to blur the historical author into her fictional character. The apparent youth of Louisa May Alcott and other similarities to the well-loved character, Jo, have yielded lasting formulations of authorial celebrity, fixing a single and unchanging image of Alcott in the public sphere—but an image that has allowed remarkable flexibility in the cultural uses of Alcott's celebrity. Little Women has been and remains an important text, particularly for women readers: a text that has unquestionably informed nineteenth- and twentieth-century constructions of white, middle-class femininity. Gillian Armstrong's film version of Little Women reasserted the novel's prominence, and translated the text for new audiences. The film suggests Little Women as a canonical work, and simultaneously, Little Women as a sentimental juvenile romance. Modern readers can choose among these interpretations (and dozens of others) as they choose among editions of the novel ranging from a Penguin to a cheap novelization, but the voyeuristic quality of the reading is the same, and remains marked by negotiations in a concrete literary market at a particular, identifiable historical moment. My biography of Little Women illustrates the continuity of an American reading tradition, set in motion by Little Women 's earliest reviewers and readers, and circling persistently around the reading, packaging, and marketing equation: "Louisa May Alcott = Jo."


1. Alcott perceived the first volume of the novel—of which she said, "we really lived most of it" (Journals 166)—to be more of a historical narrative than the second volume, which projected as-yet largely unlived careers, travel, marriages, and children for the characters created in the first part. As she worked on Little Women, Pt. II in November 1868, Alcott reflected, "As I can launch into the future, my fancy has more play" (Journals 167).

2. One obvious explanation for the autobiographical interest in Alcott is that it may stem from historical readers' curiosity about Louisa May Alcott's father and the family's practice of transcendentalism. This argument collapses, however, when confronted with Little Women, a domestic drama notable for its absent patriarch. After the success of Little Women, Bronson Alcott often made speaking appearances under the bannerhead, "the Father of the Little Women" (Stern 189). The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, for instance, reproduces an 1875 poster advertising one of Bronson Alcott's "Conversations," which notes in a small face, "Dr. Brunson [sic] Alcott / the concord sage and gifted sire of," and exclaims in much larger letters, "LOUISA M. ALCOTT! / Authoress of Little Women, etc." (Letters 172-73). Nevertheless, the text of the novel itself provides astonishingly little to gratify an interest in Bronson Alcott or his unorthodox experiments in communal living, veganism, and the like. After the publication of Little Women, however, Louisa May Alcott did publish a humorous description of Bronson Alcott's "Fruitlands" experiment in "Transcendental Wild Oats," The Independent 18 Dec. 1873.

3. In her analysis of Little Women's various reading communities, "Reading Little Women: The Many Lives of a Text," Barbara Sicherman notes many readers' preference for Laurie and disappointment with Bhaer as a partner for the beloved Jo, and argues that Little Women's unsatisfactory romantic plot actually authorizes active reader response to the novel. Sicherman also observes some readers' satisfaction with Bhaer and the novel's ending: "The crucial point is that the choice is [Jo's], its quirkiness another sign of her much-prized individuality." See Sicherman 250-51.

4. As part of an argument tracing middle-class girl readers' process of identification with Little Women, Sicherman mentions the conflation of Alcott and Jo and briefly notes a few instances of the slippage, particularly in the marketing of Alcott's writing (252-53). Sicherman refers to Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag and Comic Tragedies in this context. She also remarks that in 1870, around the time that he would have created the Scrap-Bag series, Niles had urged Alcott to compile two collections of letters with title references to Jo, although neither book was ever published (Sicherman 253 and 419n46).

5. In the century since Cheney's publications, the methodologies with which literary critics have approached Little Women have, of course, varied widely, but those readings that attempt, however minimally, to contextualize or historicize the novel continue to employ many of the same autobiographical terms used by earlier audiences. The vestiges of an understanding of Alcott produced in an earlier historical moment remain so strong that even the disclosure of a whole new and disparate body of Alcott's writing, her early sensational stories, has not altered the authorial image consolidated by the original publication of Little Women. See my chapter on Little Women in "'An excellent likeness of the Author': Gender and Personality in the Nineteenth-Century Literary Marketplace" (diss., University of Texas, 1997) for analysis of several modern instances of an autobiographical reading of the novel ("The Consequences of a Reading" 136-45).

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, with Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1989.

―――――――. Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1871.

―――――――. Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. 2 vols. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1868-69.

―――――――. The Lost Stories of Louisa May Alcott, Author of Little Women. Ed. Madeleine B. Stern and Daniel Shealy. New York: Citadel-Carol, 1995. [Rpt. of From Jo March's Attic (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1993).]

―――――――. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, with Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1987.

Ballou, Ellen B. The Building of the House: Houghton Mifflin's Formative Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Bonstelle, Jessie and Marian DeForest, eds. Little Women: Letters from the House of Alcott. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1914.

Brodhead, Richard H. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Cheney, Ednah D. Louisa May Alcott: The Children's Friend. Boston: Prang, 1888.

―――――――. Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1890.

Davidson, Cathy N. "The Life and Times of Charlotte Temple: The Biography of a Book." Reading in America: Literature and Social History. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 157-79.

―――――――. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Delamar, Gloria T. Louisa May Alcott and "Little Women": Biography, Critique, Publications, Poems, Songs and Contemporary Relevance. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990.

Kilgour, Raymond L. Messrs. Roberts Brothers Publishers. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1952.

Lawlor, Laurie. Little Women. From the screenplay by Robin Swicord. New York: Minstrel, 1994.

―――――――. Little Women. From the screenplay by Robin Swicord. New York: Newmarket, 1994.

Rev. of Little Women [Pt. I], Nation 22 Oct. 1868: 335.

Rev. of Little Women, Pt. II, Harper's New Monthly Magazine Aug. 1869: 455-56.

Rev. of Little Women, Pt. II, Nation 20 May 1869: 400.

Myerson, Joel, and Daniel Shealy. "The Sales of Louisa May Alcott's Books." Harvard Library Bulletin n.s. 1.1 (1990): 47-86.

Shealy, Daniel Lester. "The Author-Publisher Relationships of Louisa May Alcott." Diss. U of South Carolina, 1985.

Sicherman, Barbara. "Reading Little Women: The Many Lives of a Text." U.S. History as Women's History: New Feminist Essays. Eds. Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1995. 245-66.

Stern, Madeleine B. Louisa May Alcott: A Biography. 1950. New York: Random, 1996.

Tryon, Warren S. and William Charvat, eds. The Cost Books of Ticknor and Fields and Their Predecessors, 1832-1858. New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1949.

West, Patricia. "Gender Politics and the 'Invention of Tradition': The Museumization of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House." Gender and History 6 (1994): 456-67.

"Why Miss Alcott Still Lives." New York Times Saturday Review 18 Jan. 1902: 40.

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Ken Parille (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Parille, Ken. "'Wake Up, and Be a Man': Little Women, Laurie, and the Ethic of Submission." Children's Literature 29 (2001): 34-51.

[In the following essay, Parille notes how Little Women has become an integral text for modern feminist scholars of nineteenth-century literature, but argues that the novel's male protagonist, Laurie, has been virtually ignored by critics, thus limiting the scholarship on relevant gender issues in Little Women.]

Justice has never been done to the sweetest and most attractive side of her nature—her real love for boys, which sprang from the boy nature that was hers in so marked a degree.

                               —Alfred Whitman

During the past twenty-five years, Little Women has been at the center of the feminist project of reading texts by nineteenth-century American women. A primary reason for the extensive interest in Alcott's novel is its discussion of the cultural spaces women occupied, or were excluded from, during the mid and late nineteenth century. Although critics have disagreed about whether the novel "seeks a new vision of women's subjectivity and space" or argues for a "repressive domesticity," it nevertheless offers us a complicated and compelling picture of Alcott and her culture's understanding of girls and women (Murphy 564). Yet an important story within Little Women remains largely untreated in recent criticism, one that will affect our understanding of the novel's exploration of gender: that of the male protagonist, Laurie. Although critics have done important work by drawing our attention to Alcott's exploration of patriarchal structures and their effect on girls and women, they have not looked in any detail at her concurrent examination of their effect on boys and men.

In many ways, Laurie's story is similar to that of many mid- and late-nineteenth-century middle-class young men. Like the struggles of the March girls, his struggle and ultimate submission to cultural expectations for young men narrate a typical confrontation with the limitations of gender roles. Throughout Little Women, Laurie is subjected to a version of what critics often describe as the "ethic of submission," an ethic usually deemed relevant only to girls' and women's lives because only they were expected to submit to patriarchal authority: "American women," Jane Tompkins argues, "simply could not … [rebel] against the conditions of their lives for they lacked the material means of escape or opposition. They had to stay put and submit" (Designs 161). For Tompkins and many critics after her, this ethic meant that girls and women were expected to conform to very narrow roles (dutiful daughter, caring mother, obedient wife), in contrast to boys and men, who were free from such limitations.1

In Alcott scholarship, the view of submission as a gendered phenomenon goes back to critics such as Nina Auerbach, Judith Fetterley, and Patricia Spacks, who, in her landmark work The Female Imagination, takes Jo at her word when she says "Boys always have a capital time," forgetting that the narrator and even Jo herself realize that this is often not the case (100).2 Although critics have begun to question this gendered understanding of submission as it applies to men's and boys' lives, in Alcott studies it still remains a prevalent assumption; Jo's story is seen as a paradigmatic example of this ethic, while the ways in which Laurie's story parallels hers are neglected. Only Elizabeth Keyser and Anne Dalke have noted that Little Women dramatizes Laurie's struggle with patriarchal expectations. Keyser observes that Laurie "exemplifies … the masculine plight," yet she does not explore at any length what "the masculine plight" is, how Laurie represents this plight, and what cultural beliefs shape it (Whispers 66-67).3 Dalke mentions that Laurie's narrative parallels the girls', but she does not examine this similarity or discuss its significance (573).4 Critics need to see that Laurie's experience, like those of the March girls, is at every point conditioned by the kinds of patriarchal and materialist pressures that affected girls' lives. As Rita Felski has pointed out, the ideologies that animate culture should "be understood as a complex formation of beliefs, structures, and representations which shapes and permeates the subjective sense of self of both men and women" (27). The specific ideologies are, of course, historically contingent and differ based on factors such as race, class, and gender; Laurie, for example, is allowed and encouraged to attend college, but Jo is not. For boys, though, the pressure to live up to the standards and achievements of other males (especially the pressure to succeed in the market) has, in some sense, always circumscribed their field of possibilities, as it circumscribes Laurie's.

Using studies of masculinity in America during the nineteenth century by Michael Kimmel, Anthony Rotundo, Judy Hilkey, and Joe Dubbert, I will examine Laurie's capitulation to patriarchal and materialist pressures in the form of his grandfather's desire that he become a merchant and the way in which Amy March functions as the grandfather's agent. By repeatedly questioning his masculinity, Amy shames Laurie into acting in accord with his grandfather's wishes. Once we understand Laurie's story in this way—as submission brought about by shame—we can then revise the conventional critical position that the "feminine quality of self-denial" is "the novel's … message" (Gaard 5).5 In order to understand more fully what Alcott and Little Women have to say about gender, we must recover Alcott's narrative of masculine self-denial.

Perhaps critics have not explored the parallels between Laurie's and the March girls' narratives because in letters and journals Alcott often idealized boyhood and set it in opposition to her life as a girl and a woman, a life filled with disappointments and restrictions. The joy and freedom she could not imagine for herself, she imagined as the province of boys. In October 1860, for instance, Alcott saw the Prince of Wales while he was on a tour through the United States. "Boys are always jolly," she mused, "even princes" (Journals [The Journals of Louisa May Alcott ] 100). Possibly in part because of such idealizations, critics believe that Jo articulates a truth about boyhood when she says that "boys always have a capital time." But in Little Women, Laurie's story shows us that Alcott's ideas about the lives of boys are much more complex; the text rarely makes any idealizing claims about boyhood. Laurie is definitely not "always jolly," and, puzzled that he could be wealthy and sad, Jo exclaims, "Theodore Laurence, you ought to be the happiest boy in the world" (52). Laurie's unhappiness results from his place in a world of men and the concurrent pressure of proving himself a man to the novel's characters. According to Michael Kimmel, this pressure is a defining feature of American masculinity in the nineteenth century (ix), the era that the historian Joe Dubbert calls "the masculine century" (13).

Gilded Age success manuals for young men published around the time of Little Women often depict a boy's life as fraught with anxiety. They present him as prone to worrying and suffering from "dissatisfaction with … [his] destiny" and "spells of melancholy" (cited in Hilkey 76). Similarly, Alcott introduces us to Laurie as a lonely, frustrated young man. Unlike the nurturing domestic circle of the March girls and their mother, Laurie's world is an isolated male enclave composed of his grandfather and his tutor, John Brooke, both of whom are grooming him for a life he does not want; during a game called "rigmarole," Brooke even relates a thinly veiled allegory of Laurie's submission and his role in it. As a knight, Brooke must "tame and train" Laurie, "a fine, but unbroken colt" who is a "pet of the king's," Laurie's grandfather (127). Although Laurie eventually goes to work for his grandfather, he desperately wants "to enjoy myself in my own way": "I'm to be a famous musician myself, and all creation is to rush to hear me; and I'm never to be bothered about money or business, but just enjoy myself, and live for what I like" (29, 142). In spite of these fantasies, Laurie knows that his future involves a different kind of "capital time" than the one Jo thinks boys always have, namely, one devoted to "money and business." As Dubbert observes, men "were expected to cash in on … opportunities to maximize their gains and minimize their losses" and not, as Laurie says, "live for what [they] like" (15). His grandfather fears that Laurie wants to pursue a materially unproductive and therefore unmasculine career: "His music isn't bad, but I hope he will do as well in more important things" (55). What is important for his grandfather is that Laurie do well in business, as he had done.

It seems likely that Laurie's desire to be a musician and not a merchant would have met with a stern response not only from his grandfather but from many parents. Antebellum conduct books and Gilded Age success manuals never acknowledged art as a viable career for middle-class young men. Rather, these manuals endorsed typical pre-industrial occupations, such as farmer, craftsman, and shopkeeper (Hilkey 110). Even the boys' fiction of the period rarely portrayed artistic occupations as possible careers for middle-class boys. Vocations such as musician—and the arts in general—were thought of as "less manly" because, as entertainment, they were outside the rigors of the marketplace. "Aesthetic contributions" to culture, Dubbert notes, were devalued compared to the contributions of businessmen and "men of action" (30-31). William Dean Howells, a contemporary of Alcott, learned to his dismay that a career in the arts was seen as a "female" vocation: "To pursue his interests," Rotundo observes, "he had to divide himself into male and female halves that could only flourish in different social realms" (170). In an 1878 manual, Success in Life and How to Secure It; or Elements of Manhood and Their Culture, William Owen expresses a typical position on the value of the arts, one that echoes Laurie's grandfather's desire that Laurie do "well in more important things": "Let poets and preachers, [and] artists … bestow more time on material matters … and let our schools and colleges remember to make men—stalwart, invincible men" (cited in Hilkey 109).6

Norms of masculinity, as Kimmel and others have argued, are often created and enforced through the pressures placed on boys and men to enact certain behaviors, behaviors which usually either explicitly or implicitly involve capital.7 Throughout the nineteenth century, boys like Laurie were often expected to enter their father's business:

I ought to be satisfied to please grandfather, and I do try, but it's working against the grain, you see, and comes hard. He wants me to be an India merchant, as he was, and I'd rather be shot; I hate tea, and silk, and spices…. Going to college ought to satisfy him, for if I give him four years he ought to let me off from the business; but he's set, and I've got to do just as he did, unless I break away and please myself, as my father did.


But this dream of breaking away, Alcott says, is difficult for both sexes to realize; pleasing oneself, to use one of her favorite phrases, is an "air castle" that must be abandoned by little men and women alike. Here, as elsewhere, Alcott dramatizes a central claim of many critics who study masculinity: culture has its designs on male fulfillment (Dubbert 1-11; Kimmel 1-10). So, like many young men, Laurie is not free to pursue the career he wants, for it would be "working against the grain" of cultural expectations.

Dubbert's and Hilkey's discussions of advice literature for young men shows that manliness was synonymous with success in the market. A boy knew that he would never be viewed as a man unless he was fiscally productive (Dubbert 27-28; Hilkey 142-46); as success manuals repeatedly announced, "character was capital" (Hilkey 126). That a career as an artist would be counterproductive has already been forecast in the story of Laurie's father, a musician who "please[d him]self" and ran away, only to end up dead (144). The narrator never tells us how and why he dies, but the implication is that his death results from his career choice; had he become an India merchant—as Laurie's grandfather surely would have wanted—a different outcome is easy to imagine. Though still only a young man, Laurie has been initiated into the male world of negotiation. He trades four years of his life in order to escape becoming an India merchant—a bargain that does not pay off.

Although many men likely fantasized about "breaking away," the pressure placed on them to succeed in business meant that most could not and did not. In reaction to pressure and violence directed at him by his grandfather, Laurie tells Jo he wants to run away to Washington. "What fun you'd have!" Jo replies. "I wish I could run off, too…. If I was a boy, we'd run away together, and have a capital time; but as I'm a miserable girl, I must be proper, and stay at home. Don't tempt me, Teddy, it's a crazy plan" (212-13). In spite of the romance of escape, she believes that Laurie's interests are best served by remaining, so she orchestrates a truce to keep him at home. Critics tend to take Jo's comment as reiterating a cultural truth: boys can run away, but girls must submit. Ann Murphy, for instance, claims that "as a boy, Jo would be … able to … 'run away [with Laurie] and have a capital time,'" even though the text tells us in no uncertain terms that Laurie cannot (577). Running away is not an option for him, as it often was not for middle- and upper-class young men. They typically were not the ones who went out west in search of gold or to sea in search of whales (Kimmel 63). Rather, they grew up to raise families and hold respectable middle-class positions; as Rotundo observes, parents discouraged a "bold and daring code" for boys and young men and instead endorsed "the cautious, abstemious ethic of the clerk" (43).8 Alcott herself often wished to run away, but she learned through her father, as Laurie learns through Jo (and later Amy), to embrace the doctrine of duty, labor, and submission; in a journal entry of August 1850, Alcott said of teaching, "School is hard work, and I feel as though I should like to run away from it. But … [I] do my best" (63). Although contemporary readers must have identified with Jo and Laurie's desire to escape, they most likely agreed with Jo and Alcott that a boy must "do [his] duty" (145).

John Crowley has argued that Laurie wants to run away in order to escape domesticity, a claim that echoes much critical work characterizing male escape fantasies as longings to be free from women.9 Novels such as Moby-Dick and Cooper's Leather-stocking tales were canonized by critics who felt that these texts advocated an ideal American manhood by celebrating the protagonist's flight from "feminizing" civilization, his refusal to submit to domesticity. Feminists rightly criticized these critics' endorsement of the flight trope as misogynist, yet they repeated the earlier critical mistake of assuming that domesticity was, invariably, the crucial problem for men, the sole aspect of their daily lives from which they wanted to escape. Although it is true that escape fantasies could be driven by an urge to reject what some men felt as the confines of domesticity, recent scholarship on masculinity has drawn our attention to the ways in which men have constantly fantasized about escaping the pressures of the market, the space Thoreau called "a site of humiliation." It is more accurate and helpful to see Laurie's desire for flight as representing the anxiety many boys and men felt trying to live up to ideal male behaviors. And Jo tells Laurie's grandfather that his resistance is not to domesticity but to business: "He won't [run away] unless he is very much worried, and only threatens it sometimes, when he gets tired of studying" for college and preparing for his career (215).

Crowley goes on to suggest that Laurie has an "impulse to escape the civilizing force of" domesticity because he is "completely surrounded by the woman's sphere" (393, 394). Yet it is male vocation and violence he wants to flee.10 In the early part of the novel, and by implication for many years before the action of the text begins, Laurie has been completely surrounded by men: Mr. Laurence "keeps his grandson shut up when he isn't riding or walking with his tutor, and makes him study dreadful hard" (21). The narrator describes Laurie's "sphere" in quite bleak terms: "it seemed a lonely, lifeless sort of house; for no children frolicked on the lawn, no motherly face ever smiled at the windows, and few people went in and out, except the old gentleman and his grandson" (47). Quite the opposite of wanting to escape domesticity, he years for it, saying to Jo:

"I beg your pardon for being so rude, but sometimes you forget to put down the curtain at the window where the flowers are; and, when the lamps are lighted, it's like looking at a picture to see the fire, and you all around the table with your mother; her face is right opposite, and it looks so sweet behind the flowers, I can't help watching it. I haven't got any mother, you know"; and Laurie poked the fire to hide a little twitching of the lips that he could not control.


The picture Laurie draws here evokes the conventional domestic tableaux of so many Victorian novels and prints, an image that encodes the values of do-mesticity: children gathered around their mother in a scene lit by the glow of a fire. Later, Laurie again imagines his place in the domestic realm using another visual genre, the landscape: "'Here's a landscape!' thought Laurie…. It was rather a pretty little picture; for the sisters sat together in the shady nook, with sun and shadow flickering over them…. A shadow passed over the boy's face as he watched them, feeling that he ought to go, because uninvited…. 'May I come in, please?'" (139). Far from escaping domesticity, Laurie knows that his life will be intimately involved with it. Though some men and boys could and did flee what these images represented (Kimmel 44), escape into solitude (best represented by the misanthropic nomadism of Daniel Boone) or into male community (Moby-Dick) was a notion of male possibility more fantastic than real.11 Alcott shows such masculine worlds as unsatisfying ideals and instead advocates a notion of male behavior that was more generally endorsed. Writing shortly before Little Women was published, the popular lecturer and conduct book author Josiah Holland summed up what middle-class culture expected of its boys: "One of the first things a young man should do is to see that he is acting his part in society … you can have no influence unless you are social…. The revenge which society takes upon the man who isolates himself, is as terrible as it is inevitable" (63-69). To be "social," then, meant to play a part in societal structures such as marriage, domesticity, and the market. To embrace these structures was the conventional expectation for young men.12

In a crucial and often-cited scene in Little Women, Mr. Bhaer convinces Jo to give up her dream of being a "sensational" writer. The scene begins with Jo's defense of sensation stories, but after listening to Bhaer's attack on such "trash," she feels "horribly ashamed" (356). The shame Jo feels from seeing herself through, as she calls it, his "moral spectacles" (356) causes her to throw all her "lurid" stories into the stove. Though these stories are profitable and give her the opportunity to experience imaginatively a life she is denied, Jo must stop writing them because such a profession is incompatible with the way in which the novel conceives of "womanhood" (356). Thus Mr. Bhaer acts as a kind of enforcer for the text's values, shaming Jo into sacrificing her desires. But rarely referred to are the scenes in which Amy, acting like Mr. Bhaer, shames Laurie into giving up his dreams of life as an artist, and the moment in which Laurie, echoing Jo's destruction, destroys his own manuscripts. The striking resemblance between these scenes suggests that Alcott wants to draw our attention to the similar sacrifices that boys and girls must make in order to fit into narrowly defined adult roles.13

In order to make Laurie into a man, Amy constantly reminds him of his distance from cultural ideals of masculinity.14 Elaine Showalter observes that Jo's German husband, Mr. Bhaer, is "unconfined by American codes of masculinity" (xxvii), but she misses the way in which Alcott shows us how Laurie, as an American boy, is all too confined by such codes. Amy sees it as her job to awaken the sleeping "young knight" from his boyish illusions and bring him into conformity with these norms.15 She even concludes her sermon by promising, "I won't lecture any more, for I know you'll wake up, and" (411). As Jo's "lurid" literary aspirations are in conflict with the way the text imagines her as a woman, so too are Laurie's boyish artistic dreams incompatible with the way it imagines him as a man.

An essential part of Amy's shaming of Laurie involves renaming him; as his friends had called him "Dora" to emphasize his failure to measure up to their standards of masculinity, Amy calls him "Lazy Laurence" to feminize him by emphasizing how unindustrious, and therefore unmanly, he seems to her. Laurie's new name comes from Maria Edgeworth's didactic story "Lazy Lawrence," published in a popular collection called the Parent's Assistant.16 The tale features two boys, Jem, a model of masculine ambition, and Lawrence, a model of idleness. Like Laurie, Lawrence dreams, dismisses ambition, and enjoys "amusements," but eventually he converts to the ways of industry. As Anthony Rotundo observes, one of the key "deficiencies of character that [was] thought to cause failure … was laziness. Again and again we have heard men exhort one another to 'industry,' 'persistence,' 'hard work.' … Each of these popular phrases stood not only as an exhortation to positive behavior, but as a warning against negative behavior" (179). Amy's appeal to Laurie to be industrious, then, represents a typical exhortation to be successful, but also a warning to him that if he continues on his present course he will be perceived as a failure. Like a success manual come to life, Amy attempts, as H. A. Lewis attempted with his Hidden Treasures, to "awaken dormant energies in One Person who otherwise might have failed" (cited in Hilkey 75).17

Though the name "Lazy Laurence" implicitly feminizes him, Amy tries to make her assault on Laurie's masculinity explicit: "instead of being the man you might and ought to be, you are only—" (408). But before she can finish, Laurie interrupts her. He likely believes that she would conclude with "a girl" or "a woman," and in fact she soon says, "Aren't you ashamed of a hand like that? It's as soft and white as a woman's, and looks as if it never did anything but wear Jouvin's best gloves" (408). A physical sign of manliness is roughness, typically visible in a hand that has been shaped by labor; Daniel Boone's nineteenth-century biographer, Timothy Flint, for example, railed against men who lacked the "manly hardihood" of the pioneers, calling them "effeminate spirits, the men of soft hands" (cited in Kimmel 61). Laurie's job as an India merchant, even if it would not literally rough up his hands, would be a job that made something happen, that would make a man out of him. Laurie is beginning to realize that he cannot become the kind of man that his culture and Amy demand if he continues to pursue his "effeminate" art.

Amy uses her art to further convince Laurie that he has yet to act "manfully." She shows Laurie "a rough sketch of [him] taming a horse; hat and coat were off, and every line of the active figure, resolute face, and commanding attitude, was full of energy and meaning…. [In] the rider's breezy hair and erect attitude, there was a suggestion of suddenly arrested motion, of strength, courage" (411). The image contains numerous codes of the "real man" as Amy and the novel conceive of him: active, resolute, in command, and sexually powerful.18 Amy's sexualized image is like those offered in success manuals, in which writers often connect success and sexual potency: William Owen, for example, argues that "Unless man can erect himself,… how poor a thing is man" (cited in Hilkey 149). Amy's "suggestion of suddenly arrested motion," too, is typical; according to Hilkey, the manual writers believed that "only the virile could succeed, and then only by holding their inner powers in reserve for use at just the right moment" (149).19 Even the kind of sketch Amy draws encodes manliness; it is "rough," in contrast to Laurie's "soft" feminine hands. She tells him that this picture represents him "as you were" and then compares it to a picture that could have been an illustration of Edgeworth's "Lazy Lawrence." But it is clear that Laurie never was such a man. Amy makes this claim in order to shame him by calling his virility into question. As she had used Edgeworth's story as a model for Laurie's life, here she uses her drawing to teach him "a little lesson."

When Amy says to Laurie, "instead of being the man you might and ought to be, you are only—," he concludes for her with "Saint Laurence on a gridiron" (408). The narrator tells us that this insertion "blandly finish[es] the sentence," but Laurie's invocation of one of the most famous Christian martyrs should not be so easily dismissed. That Laurie should see himself as Saint Laurence, a martyr who was burned to death, implies that he recognizes the renunciation of his "boyish passions" as a metaphorical death. The process of converting lazy Laurie into a man, the process that Amy begins, he concludes with a literal act of destruction—he destroys his manuscripts: "He grew more and more discontent with his desultory life, began to long for some real and earnest work … then suddenly he tore up his music-sheets one by one" (422).

Laurie's destruction of his manuscripts and the fiery death of his patron saint both implicitly refer to Jo's similar act of martyrdom: the extinguishing of her writerly self by burning her sensational tales. And it is crucial to realize that Amy's shaming of Laurie immediately precedes the destruction of his music. Playing on the fears that, as Kimmel notes, have "haunted" American men, fears "that they are not powerful … or successful enough" (8), she repeatedly calls Laurie's masculinity into question and invokes Edgeworth's "Lazy Lawrence" to rewrite his life to coincide with that script, a script whose ending he provides by following its narrative of idleness to industry: "I won't be a humbug any longer" (422).

But Laurie knows that simply destroying the manuscripts is not enough. The best way to prove to Amy and his grandfather that he is not a "humbug" is to do what men do: get a job. As critics have shown, male identity in the nineteenth century was intimately connected to work, and Laurie knows that if he fails to work he will be seen as unmasculine, as weak and feminine. He sends Amy a note addressed to "Mentor" from "Telemachus" in order to acknowledge the success of her "little lesson": "'Lazy Laurence' has gone to his grandpa, like the best of boys" (412). Although Laurie literally goes to see his grandfather, the metaphorical "going" is most important. He has finally left his boyhood "air castles" and submitted to his grandfather. Like "the best of boys" he embraces the values of the patriarchy and abandons idle dreams in favor of "earnest work." The boy who earlier said he never wanted to be "bothered about money or business" now exclaims, "I'm going into business with a devotion that shall delight grandpa, and prove to him that I'm not spoilt. I need something of the sort to keep me steady. I … mean to work like a man" (457). This is perhaps the novel's most compact formulation of the cultural connection between masculinity and material productivity: to be a man is to work. Acting as Mentor, Amy is (to adapt the title of Edgeworth's collection) the "culture's assistant"; that is, she enforces its codes of masculinity. As Mentor educates Telemachus, she teaches Laurie that he can prove himself a man by putting his boyhood dreams behind him. And given Amy's use of Edgeworth's text in enforcing these codes—a use Laurie acknowledges when he says "'Lazy Laurence' has gone to his grandpa"—it is difficult to understand Beverly Clark's claims that Laurie can rebel "against prescribed texts" (81). In fact, "Lazy Lawrence" acts as the master narrative for Laurie's story, his conversion from idleness to industry. Rather than rebel against this "prescribed text," Laurie accepts its dictates and decides to "work like a man."20

Amy thinks she is preparing Laurie to be a man so that he will be a suitable partner for Jo, but the novel has already told us that this pairing is not a possibility (411). Instead, she prepares him to fill the narrowly prescribed categories of middle-class husband, father, and businessman, the roles he ends up playing in her life.21 As a young woman named Mollie Clark said to her suitor in the year Little Women was published, "I often think it is so different for men from what it is with us women. Love is our life[,] our reality, business yours" (cited in Rotundo 168). This perception, Rotundo argues, "was constantly reinforced by the people who made up a man's social world," just as Amy, Jo, and his grandfather reinforce it for Laurie (168). When Laurie marries Amy, he submits to convention, becoming a husband and accepting the reality of a life of business. Many critics have suggested that Jo's marriage to Mr. Bhaer is a kind of punishment. Rather than marry the erotic young Laurie, she ends up with the asexual older man.22 Yet Laurie's marriage to Amy—the most traditional of all the March girls—instead of Jo could similarly be seen as a punishment. But, of course, Amy's conventionality is the point. His marriage to her signifies that he has proved his manhood to the novel's characters. He accepts convention by embracing domesticity and business.23

In an essay that imagines the relevance of Little Women in the twenty-first century, Christy Minadeo sees Alcott's novel as valuable only for what it can tell us about girls' experiences, in particular their struggles with cultural limitations. "The trajectory of girls' lives," she argues, "remains carefully defined, and that is why Little Women remains relevant to contemporary readers" (200). But Laurie is conspicuously absent from her gaze. When she mentions him, it is only in passing; he is not the subject of a single paragraph. To talk about Little Women and gender without including Laurie denies him, Alcott, and us his story. Alcott certainly could have written a very different narrative, one in which Laurie's life was more like Huck Finn's than Jo's. He could have "always had a capital time," perhaps even running away to the capital as he wanted. But like many boys and young men, Laurie was not Huck Finn.24 He couldn't "light out" for the territory because there was another kind of "capital time" awaiting him: life as a merchant. The parallel between Laurie's and Jo's submission makes it clear that he is as crucial to Little Women 's exploration of gender as the March girls. As a novel about Laurie's and the March girls' submission, then, Little Women remains relevant to us as a story of how both boys and girls confront cultural limitations.


The author would like to thank Stephen Railton, Marion Rust, and the readers at Children's Literature for their valuable suggestions on earlier versions of this essay.

1. See also Joanne Dobson's reference to "the cultural ethos of feminine 'obedience' and 'subordination'" (Introduction xiv).

2. Ann Murphy's "The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in Little Women" represents a more recent and influential example of scholarship on gender and the novel that fails to take Laurie into account. Her claims about "female subjectivity" and "sisters' pilgrimage" are based on assumptions that male subjectivity and male pilgrimage always have a fundamentally different structure. This assumption, however, misrepresents Laurie's life as the novel portrays it. Her argument that the text is about the "cultural limitations imposed on female development" (565), though certainly true in one sense, seems incomplete because it erases the way in which Laurie's development is impeded by similar limitations; the text repeatedly shows us how his tutor, grandfather, Amy, and Jo seek to control his development. Like Murphy, many critics who have examined the figure of the artist in the novel either ignore or dismiss Laurie, who, as a musician, deals with many of the same problems that Jo faces. (See, e.g., Fetterley's "Alcott's Civil War" and B. Clark, 95.) The inclusion of Laurie's story would compromise the force of such arguments by making the novel appear less exclusively concerned with feminist issues. Murphy and others have missed the point that the novel is about the ways in which cultural forces shape girls' and boys' lives; the structures and beliefs that condition subjectivity are even more pervasive than many critics have realized.

3. See also Keyser's Little Women: A Family Romance, 42-44, for a discussion of Jo, Laurie, and gender roles.

4. Anne Dalke's "'The House-Band'" is one of two articles devoted to male characters in the book. Dalke examines the reciprocal process of education between males and females in order to counter Nina Auerbach's claim that the novel is about the "autonomous development of women" (571). In her extensive bibliography of Little Women scholarship, Ann Murphy does not include Dalke's article, probably because it does not address traditional feminist concerns (562-63). Jan Susina's "Men in Little Women," the only article in the recent collection Little Women and the Feminist Imagination (1999) that focuses on male characters, takes a dismissive view of Laurie. Calling him an "awful character," an "unrealistic figure," an "eternal boy," a "token male," and not "a real boy," Susina sees Laurie as a mistake: "I certainly don't want to be Laurie" (169). Following earlier critics, he thinks of Laurie as an undifferentiated "fifth sister," but this erases the complexity of Laurie's life and negates Alcott's interest in how his life dramatizes problems that many boys faced. Other critics have also expressed a negative view of Laurie; Fetterley, for example, says, "If anything, Laurie is Jo's inferior" ("Alcott's Civil War" 381). But Alcott saw herself as a staunch defender of boys from a culture that she felt often neglected and mistreated them; see, e.g., her introduction to "My Boys," published in the first volume of Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag.

5. Because of its failure to look at male characters in the text, Greta Gaard's "'Self-denial was all the fashion'" distorts many of the novel's claims. Gaard correctly notes that "child-rearing manuals [in the nineteenth century] … emphasized its [anger's] channeling in boys, but its complete absence in girls" (3), yet the connection of this absence to "the feminine quality of self-denial" that she argues is "the novel's … message" is misleading (5). Although Laurie expresses his anger toward his grandfather, he also must eventually repress it and deny himself; the "dwarfing" and "diminution" of female subjectivity that she talks about equally applies to him (7). In Little Men, Jo makes sure her boys know that the "quality of self-denial" is essential to their lives; she tells them, "we will plant self-denial … and make it grow" (46).

6. See also Colleen Reardon's valuable discussion of Laurie and music, 80-82.

7. We Boys, an anonymous novel brought out by Alcott's publishers, Roberts Brothers, dramatizes this expectation. The narrator discusses the occupations of his and his best friend's fathers: "My father is [a] cashier … and I do think a cashier's is the stupidest business!" (7). But in the epilogue we learn that both boys—now men—have the same jobs as their fathers. "Training of Boys," an article in the Mother's Journal and Family Visitant, says that when a young boy imitates his father's employment, "labor becomes insensibly incorporated among his thoughts" (182). See Rotundo, 37, for a discussion about boys "imitating" their fathers' profession. See Zimet, 38, for a brief examination of this idea in textbooks of the period.

8. In an article that appeared in Putnam's Magazine shortly after Little Women was published, Rebecca Harding Davis describes how "the majority of young men … hop[e] … to become a good citizen, husband, and father … [and go] into business" (343).

9. See, e.g., the discussions of Melville and Twain in Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel and Judith Fetterley's reading of "Rip Van Winkle" (Resisting 1-11). Fetterley correctly notes that Rip's escape is motivated by a rejection of his wife, but she misses how it involves a desire to reject the pressures of work; as the narrator says, Rip wants "to escape from the labour of the farm and clamour of his wife" (32).

10. Violence often serves as a mechanism to enforce male submission. In order to create an environment in which the failure to submit has definite consequences, Laurie's grandfather uses violence. Though Jo does not think much of the grandfather's threat, Laurie, who has experienced violence in a way that Jo has not (he "thrashed" boys who had called him Dora), feels differently: "he privately thought she would have good reason to be a trifle afraid of the old gentleman, if she met him in some of his moods" (51). His grandfather "lectured and pummeled" Laurie when he refused to answer a question: "I've been shaken, and I won't bear it! … if it had been anyone else I'd have— … I'll allow no man to shake me" (211). Laurie's response to this violence is typical; he desires to inflict violence himself: "I'll thrash him with my own hands" (214). But, of course, Laurie can't do this, so he just "bears it."

11. Stories about Boone were immensely popular in the nineteenth century. He was celebrated in part because of his strident dismissal of materialism. Although this rejection seems to place him in opposition to the more conventional pro-market attitude (an opposition that Laurie shares in the first part of the novel), it is likely that his popularity derived from the fact that he offered men an imaginative rejection of the forces that so dominated their lives.

12. Holland's comments here represent the stance toward male submission advocated by fellow conduct manual writers Rufus Clark, Daniel Eddy, W. W. Everts, Harvey Newcomb, and others.

13. A similarity between Jo and Laurie that many critics have noted is their androgyny. Yet to see Laurie primarily as androgynous is to ignore the way he is also figured as one of the period's most conventional boy types: the bad boy. Alcott's narrator articulates what could stand as the quintessential definition of the bad boy: "Being only a 'glorious human boy,' of course he frolicked and flirted, grew dandified, aquatic, sentimental or gymnastic … talked slang, and more than once came perilously near suspension and expulsion. But as high spirits and the love of fun were the causes of these pranks, he always managed to save himself by frank confession, honorable atonement, or the irresistible power of persuasion which he possessed in perfection. In fact, he rather prided himself on his narrow escapes, and liked to thrill the girls with graphic accounts of his triumphs" (238-9). Such a description could easily be of Tom Sawyer or Tom Bailey, the hero of Thomas Bailey Aldrich's Story of a Bad Boy (1870), whose narrator describes his young self as "an amiable, impulsive lad, blessed with fine digestive powers and no hypocrite…. In short, I was a real human boy" (7-8). Like the "mischievous Laurie," the bad boy commits pranks yet is always forgiven. Tom Sawyer, for example, continually misbehaves, yet his Aunt Polly "ain't got the heart to lash him, somehow" (10). The March girls call Laurie a "bad boy" (207, 213), but like Aunt Polly, feel "that it was impossible to frown upon him" (210). Laurie's theatricality, too, identifies him as a literary predecessor to Tom Sawyer. Laurie uses the kind of mock romantic posturing that characterizes bad boys like Sawyer, who goes to Becky Thatcher's house, lies underneath what he thinks to be her window, and revels in the fantasies of a wounded lover—all of which echo Laurie underneath Meg's window: "Laurie … seemed suddenly possessed with a melodramatic fit, for he fell down upon one knee in the snow, beat his breast, tore his hair, and clasped his hand imploringly … and when Meg told him to behave himself … he wrung imaginary tears out of his handkerchief, and staggered round the corner as if in utter despair" (225). Ignoring these similarities, Susina claims that Laurie is more like the "good boy" Sid Sawyer than his brother Tom (164). In his "Little Women and the Boy-Book," Crowley likewise overlooks such parallels.

14. Educational writers often endorsed shame as an effective method of discipline for boys. In "Discipline: School Government," published in The American Journal of Education, the author says, "An appeal to a boy's sense of shame, or to his manliness, may often be made with success" (Hamill 128). He refers to an incident in which he was able to get a boy to take an exam simply by saying, "Albert, I want you to be a man, and … pass your examination" (129).

15. In this chapter Amy and the narrator share a discourse that connects boyhood to dreaming and manhood to waking from these dreams. This shared language suggests how Amy acts as a voice for the novel's values. In a letter to Alfred Whitman, a childhood friend on whom Laurie was partially based, Alcott said that "there was always something very brave & beautiful to me in the sight of a boy when he first 'wakes up' & … resolves to carry [life] nobly to the end through all disappointments" (Letters 51).

16. Amy's use of Edgeworth as a moral authority puts her in good company; the most influential nineteenth-century American educator, Horace Mann, said that "Edgeworth was 'universally acknowledged' to be the foremost writer on education since Locke" (cited in Kett 113). Alcott's father, the transcendentalist and educator Bronson Alcott, also had his students read Edgeworth.

17. As Hilkey points out, success and failure were gendered: "the equation that linked manhood with success was built upon a corollary equation that linked the feminine with failure" (155). Thus Amy's attack on Laurie participates in a conventional gendered discourse, one that, as conduct and success manuals show, was often directed against young men.

18. Amy's emphasis on physical strength and its connection with character is echoed in advice and success manuals published during and after the Civil War. The historian Joseph Kett says of Daniel Eddy (author of The Young Man's Friend, 1865) that he "was so convinced of the challenge facing young men in the late 1860s that … [he called] for physical culture [and] he lapsed into rhetorical declarations of the value of force and energy" much like those in the narrator's description of Amy's drawing (163).

19. For a detailed discussion of this sexualized discourse in success manuals, see Hilkey, 146-51.

20. Clark also argues that "other males" can rebel "against prescribed texts" (81). Yet the other men in the novel—Brooke, the tutor and conventional husband, Laurie's grandfather, the typical business man, and Mr. Bhaer, the wise and gentle father—are fully in line with conventional expectations for middle-class men (81). Laurie even romanticizes his own act of not rebelling by figuring it in terms of one of the period's most valorized "prescribed texts," heroic self-sacrifice: "the boy said to himself, with resolve to make the sacrifice cheerfully, 'I'll let my castle go, and stay with the dear old gentleman while he needs me, for I am all he has'" (146). He mitigates his loss by figuring himself as the suffering hero in his grandfather's narrative, the story that replaces his "castle," his dream to be a musician.

21. It is curious that although Laurie is wealthy, he and Amy believe strongly that he must work. But as Francis Gund wrote in 1837, "Business is the very soul of an American: he pursues it, not as a means of procuring for himself and his family the necessary comforts of life, but as the fountain of all human felicity" (cited in Kimmel 24). Like Amy, success manual authors worried about the boy who already had wealth: they felt that he was likely to lead a life of "emasculated idleness and laziness" (cited in Hilkey 91).

22. See, e.g., Spacks, Female Imagination, 101.

23. When Laurie appears in the later two novels of the March family trilogy, Little Men and Jo's Boys, he becomes like many fathers in nineteenth-century novels: an often absent provider. In Little Men, he makes a brief but telling comment about his vocation, a topic on which the text otherwise remains almost silent: "I get desperately tired of business" (191).

24. Murphy invokes Huck Finn as a point of contrast to the lives of the March girls, saying that Huck "may very well be a metaphor for white, middle-class male America" (567). But if Huck is a metaphor, it is only for the dreams of middle-class American men who wanted to escape the pressure and responsibility of their work, but, like Laurie, were expected to accept their role. Though Little Women presents a much more representative look at the cultural truths about boys and escape fantasies than do other texts (especially Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), for the last twenty-five years Huck Finn and Moby-Dick have been used by critics as representative of male experiences, concerns, and possibilities in the mid- and late nineteenth century. Critics have compared these texts to women's fictions in order to illuminate the restrictions placed on women in light of the autonomy given to Huck and Ishmael. Yet the experiences that both these texts chronicle have limited relevance to the lives of many middle-class mid-nineteenth-century boys and men. For some of the many comparisons with Moby-Dick, for example, see Tompkins, Afterword, 586, 593, and Designs, 147; Dobson, Hidden Hand, 239; Harris, 19th-Century American Women's Novels, 20; Baym, Woman's Fiction, 14; Ammons, "Stowe's Dream," 157; Auerbach, Communities, 8.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.

――――――. Little Men. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1872.

――――――. Little Women. New York: Penguin, 1989.

――――――. "My Boys." In Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag. Vol. 1. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1872.

――――――. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.

Aldrich, Thomas Bailey. The Story of a Bad Boy. Boston, 1870.

Ammons, Elizabeth. "Stowe's Dream of the Mother-Savior: Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Women Writers before the 1920s." In New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986, Pp. 155-95.

Auerbach, Nina. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Clark, Beverly Lyon. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Little Woman." Children's Literature 17 (1989): 81-97.

Clark, Rufus W. Lectures on the Formation of Character: Temptations and Mission of Young Men. Boston, 1853.

Crowley, John W. "Little Women and the Boy-Book." New England Quarterly 58 (1985): 384-99.

Dalke, Anne. "'The House-Band': The Education of Men in Little Women." College English 47 (1985): 571-78.

Davis, Rebecca Harding. "Men's Rights." In A Rebecca Harding Davis Reader. Ed. Jean Pfaelzer. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. Pp. 343-61.

Dobson, Joanne. "The Hidden Hand: Subversion of Cultural Ideology in Three Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels." American Quarterly 38 (1986): 223-42.

――――――. Introduction to The Hidden Hand, by E. D. E. N. Southworth. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988. Pp. xi-xli.

Dubbert, Joe L. A Man's Place: Masculinity in Transition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

Eddy, Daniel C. The Young Man's Friend. Boston, 1855.

――――――. The Young Man's Friend. Rev. ed. New York, 1865.

Everts, W. W. Manhood: Its Duties and Responsibilities. New York, 1854.

Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Fetterley, Judith. "Little Women: Alcott's Civil War." Feminist Studies 5 (1979): 369-83.

――――――. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion Books, 1960.

Gaard, Greta. "'Self-denial was all the fashion': Repressing Anger in Little Women." Papers on Language and Literature 27 (1991): 3-19.

Hamill, Samuel E. "Discipline: School Government." American Journal of Education. 1 (1856): 123-33.

Harris, Susan K. 19th-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretive Strategies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Hilkey, Judy. Character Is Capital: Success Manuals and Manhood in Gilded Age America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Irving, Washington. The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Kett, Joseph. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

Keyser, Elizabeth. Little Women: A Family Romance. New York: Twayne, 1999.

――――――. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

Kimmel, Michael S. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Minadeo, Christy. "Little Women in the 21st Century." In Images of the Child. Ed. Harry Eiss. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994.

Murphy, Ann. "The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in Little Women." Signs 15 (1990): 562-85.

Newcomb, Harvey. How to Be a Man: A Book for Boys. Boston, 1850.

Reardon, Colleen. "Music as Leitmotif in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women." Children's Literature 24 (1996): 74-85.

Rotundo, E. Anthony. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Showalter, Elaine. Introduction to Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. New York: Penguin, 1989. Pp. vii-xxviii.

Spacks, Patricia. The Female Imagination. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Susina, Jan. "Men and Little Women: Notes of a Resisting (Male) Reader." In Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays. ed. Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark. New York: Garland, 1999. Pp. 161-72.

Titcomb, Timothy. [Josiah Holland] Letters to Young People. New York, 1863.

Tompkins, Jane. Afterword to The Wide, Wide World, by Susan Warner. New York: Feminist Press, 1987. Pp. 584-608.

――――――. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

"Training of Boys." The Mother's Journal and Family Visitant. 10 (1845): 181-84.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

We Boys. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1876.

Zimet, Sara Goodman. "Little Boy Lost." Teachers College Record 72 (1970): 31-40.

Karen Sands-O'Connor (essay date March 2001)

SOURCE: Sands-O'Connor, Karen. "Why Jo Didn't Marry Laurie: Louisa May Alcott and The Heir of Redclyffe."1American Transcendental Quarterly 15, no. 1 (March 2001): 23-41.

[In the following essay, Sands-O'Connor discusses how Little Women was influenced by Alcott's reading of Charlotte Mary Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe.]

I enjoy romancing to suit myself … I hope it is good drill for fancy and language, for I can do it fast, and Mr. [Frank] L[eslie] says my tales are so 'dramatic, vivid, and full of plot,' they are just what he wants.

    (Louisa May Alcott, [The Journals of Louisa May Alcott ] 109)

Louisa May Alcott is now well-known for "romancing" in the blood-and-thunder thrillers that she wrote before the monetary success of Little Women (1868) made such work unnecessary. Her ability to plot and vividly dramatize so quickly was certainly aided by her voracious reading throughout her life; Madeleine Stern suggests that Alcott worked deftly to "combine threads of her own experience with the threads of the books she had read and interweave them into a fabric of her own creating" (The Hidden Louisa xiv-xv). But even critics who discuss at length Alcott's credit to previous literature in her thrillers fall silent when it comes to Alcott's best-known work, Little Women. Many seem to take Alcott at her word that she and her sisters had "really lived most of it" (Journals 166), even though this was a comment made about the first half of the novel only. In the second half of the novel, Alcott wrote that, "I can launch into the future, my fancy has more play" (Journals 167). In fact, her fancy had considerable play in both halves of the novel, particularly where the hero of the story, Laurie Laurence, was concerned; and as with her thrillers, Alcott turned to the novels she had read as a source for her imagination. One of these novels was Charlotte Mary Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe (1853).

Almost everyone who has read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women can remember the scene, early in the book, where Meg finds Jo "eating apples and crying over the 'Heir of Redclyffe,' wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa" in the garret (29). Jo's penchant for novels, and apples, and garrets is part of what made Alcott's character vividly alive to so many generations of readers, many of whom could empathize with the ability to become involved in the lives of "book-people." But the characters in Charlotte Mary Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe were not just any book-people, and Alcott's choice for Jo's reading had great significance. The title character of Yonge's book, Sir Guy Morville, is a handsome, young, wealthy, idealized hero who befriends a family with four children, eventually marrying the daughter who is popularly referred to as "silly little Amy" (HOR [The Heir of Redclyffe] 13). Jo, in Alcott's book, is found reading Sir Guy's story at the beginning of the chapter titled "The Laurence Boy." This is only the first of many links between Sir Guy and Theodore (Laurie) Laurence, Jo's handsome, young, wealthy next-door neighbor; Alcott's Laurie could have been an American relative of Sir Guy. The parallels are crucial, as Alcott's choice of role-model ultimately results in one of the most memorable rejections in all of children's literature: Jo refuses Laurie's proposal of marriage, throwing him into the arms of the only remaining March sister—silly little Amy.

This theory is, of course, a radical viewpoint that Alcott's own writings reject. In fact, in 1868 she devoted a whole essay (titled variously "My Polish Boy" in The Youth's Companion and "My Boys" in Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag ) to the subject of Ladislas Wisniewski, a young Polish man she had met abroad. The essay ends with the words, "Laddie was the original of Laurie, as far as a pale pen-and-ink sketch could embody a living, loving boy" ("My Boys" 342). A couple of months later, Alcott added in a letter to Alfred Whitman, "I put you into my story as one of the best & dearest lads I ever knew! 'Laurie' is you & my Polish boy 'jintly'" (Letters of LMA 120). Most of the critics have since taken Alcott's words at face value2 although Sheryl Englund warns against "an unquestioned focus on Alcott's historical identity and its relationship to her writing" ("Reading the Author" 202); and Ann Douglas, in her 1980 "Introduction" to the reissue of Ednah D. Cheney's 1889 Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals does note in passing that "Alcott settled for sprightly, careless, slangy children's versions of the domestic fiction of … Yonge" (xxv). However, Douglas draws no specific comparisons, and I have found nothing else in the body of critical literature which takes this notion any further. Overall, the weight of opinion is decidedly on Ladislas Wisniewski's side.

Certainly, there are reasons to trust Alcott's prescribed vision of Ladislas-as-Laurie. Alcott never seriously described anyone other than Wisniewski as a "romance" (Journals of LMA 145). In addition, Wisniewski had Laurie's musical talent ("My Boys" 330) and love of practical jokes ("My Boys" 337). But there are not enough details in any of Alcott's accounts or in extant materials to bring the parallel between Laurie and Ladislas fully to life, and it should be noted that "My Boys" was written after the publication of Little Women ; Alcott's journals and letters written during the time of their friendship reveal far less detail about Wisniewski. The two could be "one-in-the-same," but the Ladislas myth could be just that—a myth, created by Alcott out of a partial truth for a reading public who sent, "Letter after letter … inquiring about Laurie" (Stern 186). Was Alcott trustworthy enough on the subject of her most famous hero to be believed?

Up until this point, the answer would appear to be an unquestionable yes. But there are a number of problems with blind acceptance of Alcott's version. First, there is the lack of evidence, as noted above. Second, most of the models for the other characters existed as a part of Louisa's childhood, at least in part, and not her adult years; Alcott was thirty-two when she met Wisniewski. Third, even those critics who subscribe to the Ladislas-as-Laurie theory generally agree that Alcott tended to be circumspect about her relationships, particularly those with males. Cornelia Meigs, in Invincible Louisa (1933), wrote that "Louisa Alcott had lovers during her varied life" but "who they were and just what she thought of them are secrets of her own which prying eyes have no right to investigate, not even in the name of her cherished fame" (136). Martha Saxton, eschewing commentary on the morality of "spying," wrote simply, "Sexuality—indeed, most physical expression—went unexpressed in the Alcott family" (LMA: A Modern Biography 165). In the final analysis, it is doubtful that any "living, loving boy" suited her tastes enough to become the model for the hero of her book. Despite her self-professed fondness for boys in general (Letters 120), she never became close enough to any one of them to marry (or even have a long-term relationship). Although some suggest that her identification with boys indicates her cross-gendered tendencies (see Octavia Cowan, in her "Introduction" to Alcott's A Modern Mephistopheles, or Elizabeth Keyser in Whispers in the Dark 125), I would argue that there is a different (or at least an additional) reason, having to do with Alcott's tastes in reading—including (perhaps especially) her reading of Yonge's Heir of Redclyffe. In novels, not in life, Alcott found her heroes. In The Heir of Redclyffe, Alcott found her Laurie.

Little Women was written at a time when Alcott had already been disillusioned about her ability to write her own ideas freely, without subjection to market forces. Her first major work, Moods, was published in 1865 to shocked reviews from the critics. Apparently, Alcott's view that marital separation should be condoned when love no longer existed grated on Victorian sensibilities. As Sarah Elbert points out in her "Introduction to Moods, " "Conventional fiction in the nineteenth century reflected the commonplace belief in a married woman's exclusive dedication to family life and service to her loved ones" (xvi). Henry James's review in the North American underlines this view when he writes that Sylvia, the main character, "might have lived along happily enough, we conceive, masquerading with her gentle husband in the fashion of old days, if Warwick had not come back" (Moods 222). Alcott raged in her journal, "My next book shall have no ideas in it, only facts, and the people shall be as ordinary as possible, then critics will say its [sic] all right" (Journals 140). Alcott wanted to be, not just a writer, but a respected writer, one that the critics would approve.

She also wanted to be a published writer, at all costs, and she found that often what she valued was not considered saleable by her editors. Moods, for ex-ample, went quickly out of print. When it was finally reprinted, in 1882, Alcott changed the ending so that Sylvia and her husband reconciled, and reference to a biracial relationship was removed. This kind of editing had already been accomplished when converting her Hospital Sketches to book form in 1868; the publisher requested she remove references to rebel soldiers. Alcott did this in order to see her book in print, adding the sarcastic comment in her journal, "Anything to suit customers" (Journals 164). Her publisher at the time was the firm of Roberts Brothers, who would soon ask her to write a girls' book. By the time Alcott began work on Little Women, she knew what the critics wanted, she knew what the editors wanted, and she knew what she wanted: "to realize my dream of supporting the family and being perfectly independent" (162). The one characteristic all parties had in common was the desire for a successful novel, one which conformed with Victorian values. Alcott had written Moods with Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in mind (Elbert, "Introduction to Moods " xxviii-xxix), creating an equally moody heroine but giving her the power to reject her unhappy circumstances. She would achieve greater success in Little Women, partly because she linked her characters with another novel, the morally and financially successful The Heir of Redclyffe.

Although none of Alcott's journals or letters refers directly to any of Yonge's novels, there is little doubt that she read The Heir of Redclyffe. In addition to the evidence provided by Jo March's own reading of the novel, other proofs exist as well. Alcott's stories provide at least two other clues. In the 1887 story "Pansies," first published in St. Nicholas Magazine, one of the three main characters mentions the novels of Charlotte Yonge: "I love dear Miss Yonge, with her nice, large families, and their trials, and their pious ways, and pleasant homes full of brothers and sisters, and good fathers and mothers. I'm never tired of them" (A Garland for Girls 81-82). This character, a girl named Eva, is offering another novel by Yonge, The Daisy Chain (1856), to her friend, but she speaks of Yonge's novels in the plural. Certainly The Heir of Redclyffe fits the description given by Eva; the novel tells the story of the Edmonstone family, primarily that of the four children and their two cousins. All the characters struggle with various trials, and often turn successfully to religion to find solutions. In addition to the fact that the novel fits Alcott's given framework, The Heir of Redclyffe was "immensely popular" according to Foster and Simons and had an "extraordinarily wide-ranging contemporary audience" (What Katy Read 62; see also Mare and Percival, The World of Charlotte Mary Yonge 136). Thus it seems unlikely that Alcott, an avid reader, would have passed the novel over. Neither would she have failed to notice the book's popularity—a possible factor in her decision to use The Heir of Redclyffe as a model for her own book.

But a second, less direct, piece of evidence also exists that Alcott had read Heir of Redclyffe prior to writing Little Women. It is well-established that Alcott read widely in the area of German romantic literature (Krummacher, Goethe, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Bremer, and Eckermann are among the German authors Madeleine Stern suggests Alcott read in LMA: A Biography). One of the authors that Alcott admired was a German short-story writer named Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. Fouqué was best known for "Undine," the story of a mermaid who marries a human in order to gain an immortal soul. "Undine" was the most-frequently translated of Fouqué's works, and many collections of the author's stories were titled after that story alone. When Jo March ruminates over what to do with her Christmas dollar in the first chapter of Little Women, however, she mentions another of the German romantic's stories. Jo proclaims she will buy "Undine and Sintram" (2; emphasis added). Sintram is not the human that Undine marries, but in fact the title character in an entirely different tale by Fouqué, "Sintram and His Companions."

Alcott had certainly read this story,3 based on an engraving by Dürer ("Ritter, Tod und Teufel"—"Knight, Death and Devil"—first printed in 1513), and called it a "beautiful old story" (Jo's Boys 130). She even underlines the importance of this story to the readers of Little Women ; the New Testament and Undine and Sintram are the only two specified Christmas presents which Jo receives in Little Women, both from Marmee. This is not the first time that these two books had been paired in literary circles; an earlier author thought of the story of Sintram as "a book to be put next to her Bible" (Dennis, "Introduction" xiv). In fact, this author used Sintram as a model for one of her own novel's heroes, calling the earlier story a "spiritual romance … of purity and nobleness" and comparing Sintram with Galahad ("Introduction" xv). Alcott's fellow admirer of "Sintram and His Companions" is none other than Charlotte Yonge.

Alcott's specific mention of "Sintram" as Jo's desired reading can be directly linked to Yonge's novel, since the story is a model for The Heir of Redclyffe and is mentioned frequently throughout the book. Sir Guy Morville, Yonge's hero, is consciously aware of his similarity to Sintram, a knight haunted by devils and the specter of death, and speaks of it frequently. Guy's cousin Laura comments,

Nothing has affected him so much as Sintram … I never saw anything like it. He took it up by chance, and stood reading it while all those strange expressions began to flit over his face, and at last he fairly cried over it so much, that he was obliged to fly out of the room. How often he has read it I cannot tell; I believe he has bought one for himself, and it is as if the engraving had a fascination for him; he stands looking at it as if he was in a dream.


"Sintram" here, both story and character, is assumed as prior knowledge. Even Dürer's engraving, which is often reproduced with Fouqué's story, is not specified. A reader of The Heir of Redclyffe—such as Jo March—who had not read "Sintram and His Companions" would be at a loss to understand the significance of this passage.

But this passage from The Heir of Redclyffe is not the only reference to Fouqué's tale. Sir Guy himself continues to make parallels to the story, particularly as he becomes more and more attracted to another of his female cousins, Amy Edmonstone. When he at last becomes engaged to her, he tells her how he thinks about her: "To feel that I had your love to keep me safe, to know that you watched for me, prayed for me, were my own, my Verena—oh, Amy!" (189). The "Verena" he refers to is Sintram's saint-like mother who lives in a convent to escape the wickedness of the court of Guy's father. Verena floats somewhere above Sintram's problems, guiding him to the right decisions and helping him avoid danger and, at last, the curse of those who haunted him. Similarly, Amy becomes a vision for Guy during a long period of separation and trial that follows. By her very image (not even her presence!), Amy guides Guy to the right decisions and helps him escape the "curse" he feels he has been under. Heaven is the reward for both Sintram and Sir Guy, as both die (Guy after only a few weeks of marriage). Foreshadowing this event, Guy tells Amy, "your words are still with me—'Sintram conquered his doom,'—and it was by following death!" (284). None of these references are ever explained completely, if they are explained at all. And because "Sintram" is such an integral part of the plot of The Heir of Redclyffe, it would make any avid reader, including Jo March, long to acquire a copy of the tale. Jo's desire to own "Sintram" is thus further proof that Alcott was intimately familiar with both the Fouqué stories and Yonge's novel at the time she wrote Little Women.

Because of this prior knowledge, Alcott's placement of The Heir of Redclyffe at the beginning of the chapter titled "The Laurence Boy" can scarcely be thought of as coincidental. Alcott deliberately set out to recreate Guy Morville after an American fashion, both because Sir Guy was ideologically akin to Alcott herself and because Yonge's novel had attained the popularity Alcott so desperately desired. Alcott presents the informed reader with several clues as to Laurie's true "ancestry." Such close parallels would indicate, then, Alcott's own view of her character as well as dictating the ultimate outcome of Laurie's life as described in the confines of Little Women —a point I shall return to later.

The similarities between Guy and Laurie are, at times, almost too obvious for anyone who knew both books (and this would include at least some proportion of Alcott's contemporary reading audience4). They are particularly strong early on in Alcott's novel, when Laurie is first introduced. Both Laurie and Guy are orphans, both live(d) with their paternal grandfathers, and both have a similar tragic story regarding the relationship of their parents and paternal grandfathers. Compare the following two passages about the fathers of Guy and Laurie:

… He [Guy's father] was only nineteen when he made a runaway marriage with a girl of sixteen, the sister of a violin player, who was at that time in fashion. His father was very much offended, and there was much dreadfully violent conduct on each side. At last, the young man was driven to seek a reconciliation. He brought his wife to Moorworth, and rode to Redclyffe, to have an interview with his father. Unhappily, [old] Sir Guy … refused to see him.

                                          (HOR 8)

… Laurie's father married an Italian lady, a musician, which displeased the old man, who is very proud. The lady was good and lovely and accomplished, but he did not like her, and never saw his son after he married.

                             (LW [Little Women ] 70)

Although the typically feminist Alcott allows the mother to have her own career, rather than be simply the musician's sister, the two elopements could be otherwise interchanged without making a difference to either novel.

Guy and Laurie not only have similar backgrounds, they have similar character attributes. From their mothers, both Guy and Laurie have inherited a talent for music, particularly piano playing, which they are encouraged to hide. Laurie's grandfather cuts off Jo's praise of his playing (LW 70); Guy's cousin Philip warns Amy against mentioning Guy's ability, saying, "I would not advise you to make much of this talent in public; it is too much a badge of his descent" (HOR 33). They also share the same major character flaw: their hot tempers, which in both cases inhibits their progress in love. Guy's explosion over an accusation made by Philip results in the forced break in his engagement to Amy (HOR 205). Jo's refusal of Laurie is approved by her mother, who suggests that their "hot tempers and strong wills" (LW 400) would ruin any partnership they might attempt.

Alcott continued the parallels between Guy and Laurie in terms of Laurie's relationship with and to the March family. The Edmonstones seem to be financially better off than the Marches, but are nonetheless not wealthy. Guy is produced early on as a suitable marital match when Charles, the invalid son of the family, suggests that his sister Laura should fall head over heels in love with him, adding, "no hero ever failed to fall in love with his guardian's beautiful daughter" (HOR 14). In fact, it is Guy's money that later allows him to become engaged to Amy, while his cousin Philip's lack of it has the opposite effect on the Edmonstone's view of a match with Laura. Laurie is similarly proposed as a match for the eldest daughter of the March family. Some gossips note that, "It would be a grand thing" (LW 109) for Meg to marry money, in the form of the Laurence boy. Even though these early suggestions come to nothing, Guy and Laurie both eventually become official members of the families that guided them through their respective adolescences.

Both mothers, Heir's Mrs. Edmonstone and Little Women 's Marmee, act as conscious guides for the young heirs. Guy makes regular confessions to Mrs. Edmonstone, which she encourages. These confessions deal with Guy's faults in a serious but kind manner by Mrs. Edmonstone. When at one point he suggests he is "encroaching too much on your kindness to come here and trouble you with my confessions" (HOR 49), Mrs. Edmonstone replies, "Remember how we agreed that you should come to me like one of my own children" (HOR 49). Similarly, Laurie must confess his wrongs to Mrs. March and not his grandfather (LW 259; 300). Laurie seems to receive more severity from Mrs. March, who comments on one of his pranks by saying, "I shall sift the matter to the bottom, and put a stop to such pranks at once" (LW 258). In spite of Mrs. March's gravity, however, Laurie looks to her in much the same way that Guy looks to Mrs. Edmonstone. He calls Mrs. March, "Madam Mother" (LW 196), doing her favors just as Guy does for Mrs. Edmonstone. In addition, Laurie sends Mrs. March a flower every day as a token of his affection (LW 147), echoing the way in which Guy treats Mrs. Edmonstone as "his first and only love" (HOR 155). In both books, the mothers extend their maternal role outside their own family to the heroes, proud to be called "mother" by these young men even before marriage makes this title more than honorary.

Similar backgrounds, similar adolescences: surely this is enough to suggest that Alcott modelled Laurie, not after any real person, but after Guy Morville? Perhaps. The real key, however, is found by looking at the love relationships of both heroes, relationships that at first glance seem very different. Guy Morville's first love—except for Mrs. Edmonstone, of course—is the second daughter of the Edmonstone family, Amy. Laurie's first love is Jo March—only later does he switch his affections to his Amy. It is important to note, however, that Laurie renounces his love for Jo quite completely; he tells Jo, "Amy and you change places in my heart, that's all. I think it was meant to be so … it took a hard lesson to show me my mistake. For it was one, Jo" (LW 530). This "mistake" was one that Alcott's readers would never forgive. It was also one that Alcott herself seems to have had some personal misgivings about. In the original manuscript version of Little Women, Alcott follows Jo's final and firm refusal speech with this surprising line: "Then he caught her in his arms and kissed her passionately" (Little Women ms). The line is emphatically crossed out. Clearly, Alcott desired for Jo to have a romantic life—but as her obliteration of the kiss indicates, a connection with the story's hero was not possible.

In fact, Laurie and Amy's marriage was the correct ending for Alcott's book, not because Alcott was a feminist as many critics suggest5 but because she was a romantic. Both she and her autobiographical character, Jo March, were raised on the sentimental and pseudo-chivalric novels of the early nineteenth century. These novels dictated that the ideal hero—whether he be Guy Morville or Ivanhoe or John of Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World—never marry the flawed heroine. Occasionally the heroine is allowed to "reform" her petty faults, such as Ellen Montgomery does in The Wide, Wide World, but only in such cases where she is the most unflawed female character in the book to begin with. In Little Women, however, there is no question that Laurie has a better option than Jo. Jo is well aware of the rules of the game, having read so many novels herself. In her rejection she tells Laurie, "you'll get over this after a while, and find some lovely, accomplished girl, who will adore you, and make a fine mistress for your fine house" (LW 440). This is the proper end for the ideal hero; it is the end that Guy Morville had, and the one that Alcott cannot help but provide for her hero.

In fact, Laurie receives exactly Guy Morville's reward. Amy Edmonstone and Amy March are, like Guy and Laurie, literary cousins to each other, particularly in their young womanhood and at the time of their marriage (times when Guy's and Laurie's lives also most closely parallel each other). Amy March, at one point in the story, is Brigid Brophy's definition of "the peroxided, girl-doll gold-digger" ("Sentimentality" 95)—a role which, ironically, in 1879, May Alcott herself criticized, faulting authors "who commonly represent the indiscreet, husband-hunting, title-seeking butterfly as the typical American girl abroad" ("Studying Art Abroad" 49). But Amy March actually undergoes a complete personality change in order for Alcott to bring her more in line with Amy Edmonstone's standards. Amy March, following Jo's rejection of Laurie, suddenly begins to sound more and more like Amy Edmonstone.

Little Women was written in two parts, the first ending with Meg's engagement to John Brooke, and the second (originally entitled Good Wives ) telling the story of three of the girls' marriages (and Beth's death). When Alcott wrote the first half, she did not intend to write a sequel; she found her own story "dull" (Journals of LMA 166) and assumed others would as well. In the original twenty-three chapters, Alcott draws a picture of Amy March as a "niminypiminy chit" (LW 3) "too particular and prim" (4), "an affected little goose" (4), "an important person—in her own opinion at least" (5), and even, in Amy's own estimation, "a selfish girl" (10). While the other three March sisters work hard at repairing their faults, Amy changes very little during this first half. Early on in the story, she burns her sister Jo's book manuscript out of spite (LW 94). Nearer to Meg's engagement, Amy continues in this manner by throwing a tantrum when required to go to Aunt March's house to avoid catching Beth's scarlet fever. Alcott records that she "rebelled outright, and passionately declared that she had rather have the fever than go to Aunt March" (220). When finally convinced to go, she does not spend her time learning to be more like unselfish Beth. Instead, she covets her rich Aunt March's jewelry, commenting to the maid, "I wish she'd let us have them [the jewelry] now. Pro-cras-ti-nation is not agreeable" (239). Only upon discovering that good behavior might win her part of her share of the jewelry early does Amy become instantly angelic. This Amy is not at all similar to Amy Edmonstone in The Heir of Redclyffe, who, though "silly," is also sweet and generous, particularly with her invalid brother Charles. Although all three Edmonstone sisters are said to be "slaves" (14) to Charles's invalid whims, it is Amy that he singles out as "all the comfort I have left me in life" (92). In the first half of Little Women, Amy March is based on a living, loving girl—not on a book character. Alcott called the first half of her novel, "simple and true, for we really lived most of it" (Journals of LMA 166).

Following the remarkable success of the first twenty-three chapters, Alcott was asked to write a sequel to Little Women, a task she looked forward to with somewhat more gusto; in her journal, she wrote, "as I can launch into the future, my fancy has more play. Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman's life. I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please any one" (Journals of LMA 167). Critics have taken this to mean that she won't allow romance to make Jo a wife; Sarah Elbert, for example, claims that Alcott "has her heroine reject any 'silliness' from the start" (A Hunger for Home 162), and even goes so far as to say that Jo's conjecture of a possible future romance is really just her way of shutting off further conversation with Laurie. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that romance wouldn't allow Alcott to make Jo a wife, rather than the other way around. Alcott's tastes in novels—and the failure of her own first novel Moods —made her favor an ending to Little Women more in line with traditional romances. Jo refused Laurie so he could find a more suitable wife, and since the beginning of the second half of Little Women, Alcott had been creating the suitable wife in the character of Amy March. She got her direction in examining typical female characters, such as Heir's Amy Edmonstone.

Throughout The Heir of Redclyffe, Amy Edmonstone is the model heroine. Although both she and her older sister are pretty—at one point, Guy declines to rank one above the other in beauty (HOR 108)—Amy has an important quality that Laura is lacking: a placidness which is generally attributed to her empty head. When Laura calls Amy spineless, brother Charles ar-gues Amy's case by saying, "I had rather she had no bones at all, than that they stuck out and ran into me. There are plenty of angles already in the world, without sharpening hers" (HOR 13). Amy Edmonstone calls herself stupid (HOR 93), but it is her contrast to intellectual, sharp-angled Laura which makes her attractive to most of the men in the book (she is her brother's and her father's favorite, as well as Guy's of course). She has earned this place. Elizabeth Helsinger writes in The Woman Question that

[h]usbands, sons, and brothers should expect to find in woman an inspiring figure of purity and selflessness—ministering within the family sphere—and should feel toward her the reverence which her other-worldly perfection demands.


This is Amy Edmonstone's place exactly, a woman of childlike innocence for all to admire. Although she is the first sister to marry, she is called "Little Amy" right up to the point of her engagement, and there is a sense of the childlike about her:

Little Amy's instinct was to believe the best, and do as she was bidden, and there was a quietness and confidence in the tone of her mind which gave a sort of serenity of its own even to suspense. A thankful, happy sensation that all was well, mamma said so; and Guy was there, had taken possession of her, and she did not agitate herself to know how or why, for mamma had told her to put herself to sleep … Amabel Edmonstone was wrapped in a sleep dreamless and tranquil as an infant's.


Obedience, combined with beauty and an absence of intellectual prowess, make Amy Edmonstone the heroine that Guy desires and deserves.

Amy March, in Alcott's book, has changed from the spoiled brat readers originally met to become strikingly similar to Amy Edmonstone. In the first chapter of Good Wives, titled "Gossip" and designed to bring readers up to speed on the three previous years, readers learn that Amy "gave her mornings to duty" (LW 295) in the form of providing companionship to Aunt March. Amy has taken over Jo's old role as caretaker to the elderly woman because Aunt March prefers Amy's company. Later, Amy earns a trip to Europe by being "more docile" (LW 375) than Jo, who, as Amy herself puts it, goes, "through the world with your elbows out and your nose in the air, and call it independence" (318). Jo, like Laura Edmonstone, is all angles while Amy is more malleable, much to her advantage. Obedience is, as in Yonge's book, an enviable quality in a young lady—or at least one that is more greatly rewarded.

Beauty is another such quality. Although most of "Gossip" concerns Meg's preparations for her upcoming marriage to John Brooke, there are two other brief mentions of Amy in the chapter. While she had been too young in the book's first half to join the older girls and Laurie on their outings, Amy has now become the most popular March girl with Laurie's college friends. She "became quite a belle among them; for her ladyship early felt and learned to use the gift of fascination with which she was endowed" (296). The final mention of her only refers to her looks: she ties "a picturesque hat over her picturesque curls" (302) on her way to picking up more flowers for the wedding day. Although Alcott does comment at a later point that Amy was "not beautiful" (308), she belies this fact by referring to Amy constantly in terms of how she appears—even when discussing Amy's artistic ability, Alcott writes, "she had resolved to be an attractive and accomplished woman, even if she never became a great artist" (316). Amy's priorities are clear: self-beauty before artistic accomplishment, or rather, self as artistic accomplishment.

Amy March, unlike Amy Edmonstone, has a reasonable amount of sense; it seems that Alcott balked at portraying the youngest March as stupid. Elizabeth Helsinger, who discusses the attributes necessary for the heroine in Victorian fiction, suggests this is an acceptable departure from the traditional woman; "reviewers of heroines … do debate what personal and intellectual qualities" (The Woman Question 81) these females should have. However, Alcott makes interesting editorial decisions that encourage an idea of the childlike in Amy. Despite her considerable knowledge of art and culture, Amy March nonetheless appears as innocent and naive as Amy Edmonstone. One example of this can be found in the chapter "Our Foreign Correspondent," where Amy writes to her family about her experiences in Europe. In a passage that details Amy's first view of England, Alcott writes:

I was in a rapture all the way. So was Flo; and we kept bouncing from one side to the other, trying to see everything while we were whisking along at the rate of sixty miles an hour…. This is the way we went on: Amy, flying up,—'Oh, that must be Kenilworth, that gray place among the trees!' Flo, darting to my window,—'How sweet! We must go there some time, won't we, papa?' Uncle, calmly admiring his boots,—'No, my dear, not unless you want beer; that's a brewery.'


Interestingly, this passage was added to the manuscript version; in the original, Amy follows the discussion of English countryside colors (present in the published version) with a sedate description of how, "when I caught a glimpse of Warwick castle, I felt as if my dream really was coming true" ("Our Foreign Correspondent" manuscript version). Alcott's original depiction of Amy in this chapter is much more mature; Amy speaks of flirting and going to the theater as a regular occurrence, and also has her first proposal, from the Captain Lennox who is mentioned as sending Amy flowers in the published version. It is unclear whether Alcott made the changes from manuscript to published version on her own initiative or because of publisher suggestion; however, the manner in which she changed Amy's character certainly brings her more in line with Amy Edmonstone's innocence.

By the time Laurie meets Amy in Nice (Laurie having been rejected by Jo), Amy has lost more of her intellectual aplomb. Amy describes her ability to speak French prior to her foreign trip as "Pretty well, thanks to Aunt March, who lets me talk to Esther [the French maid] as often as I like" (363). When Amy meets Laurie in Nice, she uses a French phrase and Alcott as narrator adds drily, "her French … had improved in quantity, if not in quality, since she came abroad" (457). By this point, however, Laurie is "feeling an odd sort of pleasure in having 'little Amy' order him about" (465). Suddenly, Amy March has been transformed into "little Amy," an uncanny echo of The Heir of Redclyffe. Grace and Theodore Hovet write that, in this metamorphosis of Amy's character, "Alcott … [is] stressing how reasonable it is for Amy March to consciously fake and deliberately perform the role of transparency" ("Tableaux Vivants" 337). Alcott needed Amy March to be the same sort of decorative heroine as Amy Edmonstone, so she could reward Laurie, and here the revision of Amy from demanding, spoiled child to acceptable prize is complete.

Like Sir Guy, Laurie needs a time of separation from his Amy, but following this brief period, he returns to her in Vevey, Switzerland, where they become engaged and then travel on honeymoon to the Italian lakes. In Yonge's book, the couple is already married when they reach the continent, but their honeymoon trip focuses on first the Swiss and then the Italian lakes. Alcott chooses different lakes from Yonge (ones she had visited while on her own European tour in 1865), but otherwise, the marital trips coincide.

Following Amy and Laurie's return from Europe, Alcott underlines their similarity to Sir Guy Morville and Lady Amy Morville in two ways. First, she indicates their status by their nicknames for each other: they call each other "my lady" (544) and "my lord" (545). But second, and more specific to a comparison with Yonge's book, Alcott gives Amy and Laurie the same mission in life as Yonge gave to Amy and Guy Morville. Sir Guy Morville has two desires; one is to spread his largess to the worthy population that depended on him, and the other is to make his cousins' road to marriage easy by providing them with the financial means to wed. In the first case, Guy determines to clean up Coombe Priory and establish a proper school on his estate (282-84) in order to raise up the working poor. Amy, upon learning his will, implemented his wishes because, "she knew it was Guy's work, and a charge he had given her—a great proof of his confidence—and she did all that was required of her very well" (497). As to the second goal of Sir Guy, providing his cousins Philip and Laura with the means to get married, he and Amy see themselves as the couple's benefactors from the first day they learn of the secret engagement: "Guy launched out into more schemes for facilitating their marriage than ever he had made for himself, and the walk ended with extensive castle building on Philip's account" (426). Although Amy is somewhat shocked at the couple's initial secrecy, this conversation makes her "become much less displeased" (426), and soon she is the couple's best advocate, arguing forgiveness of Philip and Laura to her parents. She also refuses to stand in the way of Philip becoming Sir Philip after Guy's death, rejecting the idea of trying to keep the money and property for herself. "The first thing that came into my head," Amy says, "… was, that it was just what he wished, that … you should take care of Redclyffe" (529). Sir Guy and Lady Amy use their positions of power and wealth to benefit those around them, in a way very much befitting to their station in life.

Fifteen years later and a continent away, the couple closest to Louisa May Alcott's ideal of nobility has the same two goals as Sir Guy and Lady Amy: to do good for the deserving poor, including Amy's sister Jo and her impoverished lover. Laurie comments to Amy, "I wish we could do something for that capital old Professor [Jo's husband-to-be]. Couldn't we invent a rich relation, who shall obligingly die out there in Germany, and leave him a tidy little fortune?" (LW 546). They go on to help the new couple establish a school (later, in Jo's Boys, Laurence College) by which Jo and her husband make their living.

This beneficence is just the sort of work that Amy and Laurie plan for. They want to help the deserving poor. Just like Sir Guy, who refuses to leave his drunken uncle money in his will, because "it would only be a temptation" (HOR 462), Laurie wants to help the "better" sort of poor person. Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book The Battle for Christmas, writes that Laurie's and Sir Guy's attitudes were common among the wealthier people at the middle of the century. Although they wanted to continue the feudal-like relationship between rich and poor, the wealthy were concerned that "the actual poor … were a sea of anonymous proletarian faces, and … were as likely to respond to acts of token generosity with embarrassment or hostility as with the requisite display of hearty gratitude" (146). Thus, the creation of the category of the "deserving poor" included children and Laurie's "decayed gentlemen." Laurie tells Amy, "I must say, I like to serve a decayed gentleman better than a blarneying beggar" (547), and Amy agrees with him. Amy Laurence has now become the very soul of Amy Edmonstone, agreeing with her husband unquestioningly. The reading audience is lulled into forgetting her past nature when Alcott has the once-spoiled Amy say, in a complete turn-around of character, "How delightful it is to be able to help others, isn't it? That was always one of my dreams, to have the power of giving freely" (547). This speech comes from the same person whose fondest wish was once "to be an artist, and go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and be the best artist in the whole world" (179). From a purely selfish and ambitious nature, Amy has become completely selfless and devoted to her husband and her charity work. This change would never have been necessary if Alcott didn't need a perfect bride-prize for her ideal hero, Theodore Laurence.

Louisa May Alcott wrote in an 1886 letter that she took "many heroes and heroines from real life" and that "I read no modern fiction. It seems poor stuff when one can have the best of the old writers" (Letters 296). This letter, written to a teacher (Viola Price) and her students, was one of many that, in the later years of her fame, Alcott felt compelled to write. An adoring public hung on every word, in much the same way that people today follow celebrity interviews or fan magazines. Unfortunately for critical studies of Alcott's work, her early biographers were among these adoring fans, and soon Alcott's words became gospel. But Alcott did read modern writers, including Charlotte Yonge; and when "real life heroes and heroines" had not caught up to her characters, as was the case with Little Women, Alcott borrowed heavily from other people's inventions. Having based her initial characterization of Theodore Laurence on Sir Guy Morville in The Heir of Redclyffe, Alcott continued to follow through with this idea, particularly in the second half of the book. And although generations of readers "were all so disappointed over [Jo's] not marrying Laurie" ("The Response of Nineteenth-Century Audiences" 324), Alcott could make Jo have no other response. Jo was, like Laura Edmonstone, the sharp-angled sister, and not a suitable wife. With Meg married to John Brooke and Beth slowly dying, Alcott had only one other opportunity to keep Theodore Laurence in the March family—marrying him to Amy. Knowing her readership would never accept a complete change in Jo's character—or perhaps not being able to accept it herself—she began to re-create Amy March into the image of Sir Guy's bride, Amy Edmonstone. By the end of the book, this has been accomplished. As Laurie tells Jo, when he brings Amy home as his bride, "You both got into your right places" (530): right, that is, for the structure of Alcott's novel. Amy needed to be the bride, because she represented the good-girl character and Jo the flawed one.

Alcott knew from the stressful experience of Moods that only happy marriages were acceptable in women's fiction, and she had accepted that "difficult" heroines needed steady, fatherly spouses rather than "ideal" types such as Theodore Laurence. Jo March married, not her fascinating next-door neighbor, but a kindly old professor. Unlike Sylvia Yule in Moods, Jo is happy with the match. Even though Laurie wishes Professor Bhaer "was a little younger and a good deal richer" (LW 496), Jo "thought poverty was a beautiful thing" (LW 498) and "couldn't help loving [Bhaer] if [he] were seventy!" (LW 520). Their wedding is not described, but the marriage of sharp-angled Laura Edmonstone to her older cousin Philip Morville is detailed in words that could apply to either nuptials: "It was not such a wedding as the last. There was … no such air of freshness, youth, and peace" (HOR 591). Laura and Jo must leave youth and passionate matches to their younger sisters. Alcott claims at the end of Little Women that "Jo was a very happy woman" (LW 526), but the Bhaers would never have the idyllic marriage of the Laurences. Poverty and struggle would affect the couple throughout the sequels to Little Women, much as they affected Louisa May Alcott herself.

Years later, when May Alcott (the supposed real-life model for Amy March) finally married a wealthy Swiss businessman, Louisa May Alcott accepted for herself and May what she had once a accepted for Jo and Amy: "How different our lives are just now!—I so lonely, sad, and sick, she so happy, well and blest. She always had the cream of things, and deserved it. My time is yet to come somewhere else, when I am ready for it" (Journals 209). Alcott knew the right place for a flawed character—and in her most famous novel, Little Women, her characters got just what they deserved.


1. The author would like to thank the Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Massachusetts, for access to various critical, biographical, and manuscript materials.

2. This includes Alcott scholars throughout the last century. Ednah Cheney in Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (1889) takes Alcott's diary as her source; Katharine Susan Anthony posits two more sources, both boys from Alcott's childhood, in her biography, Louisa May Alcott (1938) but finally concludes, "Laurie was really Ladislas Wisniewski" (163); Marjorie Worthington in Miss Alcott of Concord (1958) indexes Laurie as an alternate persona for Wisniewski (330), suggesting only Louisa May Alcott herself as another Laurie source; even more "scholarly" biographers such as Madeleine Stern (in the 1950 Louisa May Alcott: A Biography) and Sarah Elbert (in the more recent—1984—A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women) seem to take the characterization of Ladislas Wisniewski as Laurie as a rhetorical point.

3. Although the story of "Sintram and His Companions" is not detailed in Little Women, Alcott gives a thorough description of the tale in Jo's Boys, in the chapter "Last Words" (cf. 130-32). Later in the book, another of Fouqué's stories is mentioned, "Aslauga's Knight." Because Alcott's character specifies that "Aslauga's Knight" is the third story in the book (345), it is possible that Alcott owned the collection translated from the German by F. E. Bunnett which was entitled Undine and Other Tales. "Sintram" is the fourth story in this collection. A different edition, also translated by Bunnett, titled Undine and Sintram can be found (NY: Hurst and Publishers), but this version contains only the two stories of the book's title.

4. The overlap in readership between Alcott's book and Yonge's is perhaps not directly traceable, but both the actual and the intended audience for both books were similar. Yonge's book, according to Foster and Simons, was "Obviously popular with those readers to whom it was most directly addressed—middle-class girls of Anglican affiliation—[but] it also drew a public from a multiplicity of sources" (What Katy Read 62) including, as they note, literary gentleman. Little Women not only reached girls, but also, as Charles Strickland notes, "those reviewers who deigned to take notice of a children's book" (70). One of those reviewers was a prominent literary gentleman, Henry James, the novelist. In addition, both books were wildly popular, going through several editions within a few years of publication. Heir had reached 17 editions by the year of Little Women's publication, according to Barbara Dennis ("Introduction" to The Heir of Redclyffe vii). Madeleine Stern points out that the first four editions of Little Women sold out in the six months following publication (LMA: A Biography 184). Some overlap in audience between the two books is thereby more than probable.

5. See Elizabeth Keyser's Whispers in the Dark, for example; Keyser writes, "Rather than abandoning a radical feminist critique for the creation of exemplary female characters, Alcott enables a critique of the exemplars themselves" (xiv). Sarah Elbert, in A Hunger for Home, agrees, writing, "Louisa never questioned the value of domesticity; instead, she challenged the price ordinarily extracted from women like herself" (150). Amy March does not seem, however, to pay the price that these critics suggest; she is re-made by Alcott into a character who wants the domestic life. For a critical viewpoint that differs from Keyser's and Elbert's, see Anne Scott MacLeod's "The Caddie Woodlawn Syndrome"; here, MacLeod writes, "While in some respects [Alcott's] views were advanced, even feminist … in her children's books at least, Alcott generally upheld the conventional tenets of nineteenth-century womanhood. The portraits of admirable women and children are immensely (and consciously) instructive as models of conventional ideals" (108; emphasis added).

Works Cited

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Alcott, Louisa May. "Heartache." Unpublished manuscript version. Concord, MA: Concord Free Public Library.

―――――――. Jo's Boys. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1886.

―――――――. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Eds. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1989.

―――――――. Little Women. 1868. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1880.

―――――――. "My Boys." Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag. 1873. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1929.

―――――――. Moods. 1865. Ed. Sarah Elbert. London: Rutgers UP, 1991.

―――――――. "Our Foreign Correspondent." Unpublished manuscript version. Concord, MA: Concord Free Public Library.

―――――――. "Pansies." A Garland for Girls. 1887. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1980.

―――――――. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. Eds. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1995.

Anthony, Katherine Susan. Louisa May Alcott. New York: Knopf, 1938.

Auerbach, Nina. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978.

Brophy, Brigid. "Sentimentality and Louisa May Alcott." Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Cheney, Ednah Dow. Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals. 1889. Introduction by Ann Douglas. New York: Chelsea House, 1980.

Cowan, Octavia. "Introduction." A Modern Mephistopheles. Louisa May Alcott. 1877. New York: Bantam, 1987.

Dennis, Barbara. "Introduction." The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte Yonge. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1984.

Englund, Sheryl A. "Reading the Author in Little Women: The Biography of a Book." ATQ (American Transcendental Quarterly) New Series 12.3 (Sept. 1998): 199-219.

Foster, Shirley and Judy Simons. What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of 'Classic' Stories for Girls. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Fouqué, Friedrich de la Motte. Undine. Trans. F. E. Bunnett. Rahway, NJ: Mershon. n.d.

Helsinger, Elizabeth K., Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder. The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883; Volume III, Literary Issues. New York: Garland, 1983.

Hovet, Grace Ann and Theodore R. Hovet. "Tableaux Vivants: Masculine Vision and Feminine Reflections in Novels by Warner, Alcott, Stowe and Wharton." ATQ (American Transcendental Quarterly) 7.4 (Dec. 1993): 335-56.

Johnston, Norma. Louisa May: The World and Works of Louisa May Alcott. New York: Beech Tree, 1995.

Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1993.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. "The Caddie Woodlawn Syndrome: American Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century." A Century of Childhood, 1820-1920. Eds. Mary Lynn Stevens Heininger, Karin Calvert, Barbara Finkelstein, Kathy Vandell, Anne Scott MacLeod and Harvey Green. Rochester, NY: The Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, 1984. 97-120.

Mare, Margaret and Alicia C. Percival. Victorian Best-Seller: The World of Charlotte Mary Yonge. London: George G. Harrap, 1948.

Meigs, Cornelia. Invincible Louisa. 1933. New York: Scholastic, 1975.

Nieriker, May Alcott. Concord Sketches: Consisting of Twelve Photographs from Original Drawings by May Alcott. Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1869.

―――――――. Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1879.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday. New York: Random House, 1996.

Saxton, Martha. Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1995.

Stern, Madeleine. Louisa May Alcott: A Biography. 1950. New York: Random House, 1996.

Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. University, AL: U of Alabama P, 1985.

Worthington, Marjorie. Miss Alcott of Concord. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Yonge, Charlotte. The Heir of Redclyffe. 1853. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Jean Bethke Elshtain (essay date 29 July 2002)

SOURCE: Elshtain, Jean Bethke. "Little Modern Women: Louisa May Alcott's Unrecognizable Heroines." Weekly Standard 7, no. 44 (29 July 2002): 31-4.

[In the following essay, Elshtain comments that the story of the female protagonists in Little Women is constructed as a literary response to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.]

Of all the benighted customs of the past, none is viewed with more condescension in these enlightened days than the practice of purging offensive passages from literary classics. We get the word "bowdlerize" from the English physician Thomas Bowdler, whose 1818 edition of Shakespeare omitted "those words and expressions … which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family."

Yet the truth is that we have developed our own ways of pushing out of sight and out of mind messages in old works that don't comport with our comfortable assumptions. Hollywood's handling of Little Women is a case in point.

Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel about the March sisters remains a favorite with serious young readers, but a far wider audience knows it only through a succession of movies. And all these cinematic retellings short-change Alcott. Where Bowdler merely left the racy bits out of his otherwise intact Shakespeare, the movies rip the heart out of Alcott's work—which is her moral message.

To appreciate the extent of the revision, it is necessary to see the central place Alcott gave to explicitly Christian ethics. For Little Women is constructed almost as a commentary on the most famous and influential evangelical literary work ever written in English, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

Open a copy of Little Women and right after the title page you will find (unless yours is one of the current editions that omits it) Alcott's "Preface," twelve lines of verse. They state that the purpose of her book is to inspire its readers to be Pilgrims, that they may prize / The world which is to come, and so be wise; / For little tripping maids may follow God / Along the ways which saintly feet have trod. And these verses, it says, are "Adapted from John Bunyan."

Bunyan's classic similarly begins with an "Author's Apology for his Book," a statement of purpose in verse. First published in 1678, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come was an immediate success and remained hugely popular for two centuries, shaping the sensibilities and moral formation of generations of Protestant boys and girls in Britain and America. The work of an English tinker and lay preacher who was imprisoned more than twelve years for his nonconformist preaching, it is a powerful religious allegory and potent tale of spiritual heroism, alive with vivid imagery and written in a quaint and colorful style.

Through the story, the reader suffers the travails of the protagonist, Christian, as he journeys from his birthplace, the City of Destruction, to the Celestial City. Along the way, he nearly sinks in the Slough of Despond, weighed down by the Burden on his back; he resists the blandishments of Mr. Worldly Wiseman; finds his way to the Cross, where he sheds his Burden of sin; rests at House Beautiful, which is guarded by two lions; goes through the Valley of Humiliation, where he meets the foul fiend Apollyon; gets arrested with his companion, Faithful, at Vanity Fair (for refusing to buy anything); watches Faithful, sentenced to be burned at the stake, carried up into heaven; is caught by the Giant Despair and locked in Doubting Castle; passes through the Delectable Mountains; and finally, with his new companion Hopeful, enters the Celestial City.

Bunyan's exciting story was part of the air Louisa May Alcott breathed. And it was part of the air her readers breathed. They would have needed no prompting to register the allusions to Pilgrim's Progress in such chapter headings as "Burdens," "Beth Finds the Place Beautiful," "Amy's Valley of Humiliation," "Jo Meets Apollyon," "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair," "Little Faithful," and "Pleasant Meadows."

Even so, Alcott made her use of Bunyan explicit. In the first chapter of Little Women —entitled "Playing Pilgrims"—Mrs. March (whom the girls call "Marmee") reminds her daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, how as little girls they used to play a game they called "Pilgrim's Progress." "Nothing delighted you more," Marmee says, "than to have me tie my piece-bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks, and rolls of paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the house-top, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City."

"What fun it was, especially going by the lions, fighting Apollyon, and passing through the Valley where the hobgoblins were," says Jo. The girls reminisce and confess their shortcomings, one after the other, and Marmee reminds them: "We are never too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before father comes home."

As Jo summarizes it: "We were in the Slough of Despond to-night, and mother came and pulled us out as Help did in the book. We ought to have our roll of directions, like Christian. What shall we do about that?"

The "roll of directions" to which Jo refers is the "Parchment Roll" that Bunyan's pilgrim carries. Given to him by Evangelist, this roll contains instructions for his journey. Where will the March girls find their instructions? Marmee tells them: "Look under your pillows, Christmas morning, and you will find your guidebook."

They do look, and what each girl finds is a small leatherbound book—one crimson, one green, one blue, and one dove-colored. The book is "that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey." While this wording may mystify some modern readers, Alcott's contemporaries did not need it spelled out that the best life ever lived was that of Jesus, and the books that recount it are the four Gospels. What Marmee gives to her daughters as their life guide is the life of Christ.

Thus, by Chapter 2 the stage is set for a narrative that recounts not only the domestic adventures of four high-spirited sisters but also the everyday moral education of a Christian household. The girls will refer to their "little books," directly and indirectly, throughout the story. Alcott suggests that, in doing her duty, each of the March girls becomes her best self, though each sees her way toward the twin goals of goodness and happiness differently. Chapter 4, "Burdens," opens with Meg's lament: "Oh dear, how hard it does seem to take up our packs and go on." The doomed Beth, whose early death is the novel's unfolding tragedy, remarks to Jo (in Chapter 5, "Being Neighborly"), "I was thinking about our 'Pilgrim's Progress,' … How we got out of the Slough and through the Wicket Gate by resolving to be good, and up the steep hill, by trying; and that maybe the house over there, full of splendid things, is going to be our Palace Beautiful."

The house in question is the magnificent Laurence mansion next door, heretofore closed to the March girls, but shimmering with possibility since the arrival of fearful Mr. Laurence's attractive grandson Laurie. Whereas Bunyan's allegory always gestures to something beyond itself, Little Women brings the quest down to earth, as the rich neighbor's mansion becomes Palace Beautiful. Beth yearns for access partly because of the house's fine piano, but she is afraid of Mr. Laurence. Unlike the courageous Jo, Beth finds it "very hard to get pass the lions."

If one obstacle is old Mr. Laurence, another is the March family's poverty, which makes the girls "shy of accepting favors which they could not return." Other challenges are inward. In Chapter 8, "Jo Meets Apollyon," the monster is no longer Bunyan's Destroyer (much less the beastly angel of the bottomless pit from the Book of Revelation), but Jo's hot temper, which helps her to attain mastery over others but also dominates Jo herself. Jo wails to Marmee, "Oh mother! what shall I do?"

Marmee tells her to watch, to pray, never to tire of trying, and never to think the task impossible. Jo reads her little book, resolves not to let the sun set on her anger, and goes to apologize to the one she has hurt. Chapter 9 finds Meg in Vanity Fair, spending a fortnight with some frivolous, worldly friends who frizz her hair and give her champagne to drink. Needless to say, she rues the visit nearly as soon as she has tarried.

Louisa Alcott picked up her love of Bunyan from her redoubtable, eccentric father Bronson Alcott, a philosopher, educator, and friend of the Transcendentalists. It is unsurprising, then, that her fictional March sisters should be taught to think of themselves as pilgrims. But they are only "playing" pilgrims. Bunyan's bracing allegory of salvation by faith in Christ has been domesticated. The one truly Bunyanesque pilgrim in the March family, Beth, is the least adventurous and is made to die young—in a death scene loaded with references to Pilgrim's Progress. Jo, more complex and boyish, yearns to leave home, to write, and to do many shocking things, but is enfolded back into domesticity at the end of the book when she marries and takes up what we might now call progressive education (another enthusiasm of Bronson Alcott's). With her husband, Jo founds "a good, happy, home-like school" that will use "the Socratic method of education on modern youth."

If Alcott somewhat domesticates Bunyan, Hollywood handles him in the three film versions of Little Women, made in 1933, 1949, and 1994, by simply dropping the pilgrimage theme. The sole reference to Bunyan in any of the movies pops up in the earliest of them, directed by the great George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo. In an opening scene that is close to the spirit of Alcott's first chapter, each of the March sisters recites her weaknesses (in a tight close-up shot), as Marmee reminds the girls of their Pilgrim's Progress game, adding, "You have real burdens now."

A bit of melodramatic and overdrawn moralizing creeps into the scene, but the prayers and invocations seem heartfelt enough. Later, we see Jo and Meg bargaining with God not to take "Bethie," or at least not to take her too soon.

At one point, the hymn "Abide with Me" is sung. When Meg and Mr. Brooke marry, their vows are solemnized "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," with "life everlasting" beckoning down the road. Ordinary Christian piety has not been excised altogether.

By 1949, the fifteen-year-old Jo is played by the much-too-old June Allyson, who romps and bellows her way through the story, shouting "Christopher Columbus!" and "Oh, bilge!" at every turn. (To be sure, these deliberately Dickensian turns of phrase belong to Jo in the book—which contains in Chapter 10 references to the enormous popularity of Dickens's Pickwick Papers—but they grate in the film because so much of the text's Dickensian texture is missing.) Jo is appropriately mannish—"I'm the man of the family now Pop is away"—but inappropriately garish. In fact, she is a quintessential tomboy, a way of being female that did not become commonplace in America until the mid-twentieth century.

June Allyson's Jo rails against the stiff formalities of society. Jo vows she will "never marry." But she does. When she finally starts writing about the familiar—her family and the "simple beautiful things I know and understand"—she gains not only a career but a spouse in the learned émigré, Professor Bhaer. The old world bends its knee to the new. Bhaer is an experienced, mature man, not a headstrong romantic youth like Laurie, compared with whom Jo is a tough-minded realist. God is conspicuous by His absence throughout.

By 1994, with a female director, Gillian Armstrong, Little Women has acquired a feminist gloss. The characters are not so much developed as hinted at. Marmee (played by Susan Sarandon) carries the ideological burden, proclaiming the need for young girls to have physical exercise, to engage the world, to chafe against convention, to stop injustice, and so on. Such themes are present in Alcott—who was, after all, Bronson Alcott's daughter—but in the Armstrong movie they dominate the narrative.

Marmee says vaguely spiritual things. She tells Jo (Winona Ryder), for example, to go forth and "embrace your liberty," a piece of pop-sentimentality that Alcott would have found unintelligible. Jo is more winsome and fragile in appearance, and far less tomboyish, than her predecessors; she does less galumphing and leaping over fences, and utters many fewer Christopher Columbus's, than in 1933 or 1949. Jo's ardor about writing is laced with feminine finesse. When her novel—Little Women in this version, rather than My Beth, as in Alcott and the other films—is complete, Jo ties it with twine, then tucks a long-stemmed flower under the string.

A single, vague Bunyan allusion survives in the 1994 script, when Jo tells Laurie she wants to fight "the lions of injustice." But Bunyan's metaphysical lions—the temptations that would turn a pilgrim away from the path of faith—are reduced to practical obstacles, to social conditions blocking the road to earthly justice. God gets two nods—one a mordant comment by Beth that she will die if God, presumably cruel and capricious, wants her to, as "nothing will stop Him"; the other the girls' father's greeting to the faithful cook and housekeeper, "God bless you, Hannah," when he comes home wounded from the Civil War.

The 1994 film is altogether innocent of any Puritan notion of duty or self-denial. The March girls' lives, far from being a Christian pilgrimage, are a search for happiness and identity stripped of faithfulness to any person save self and any group save family. Society is primarily a repressive force, stuffy and stultifying, in part because it encourages vain matches for money rather than marrying for love.

One could argue, of course, that the director had no choice. As America enters the twenty-first century, the Bunyanesque framework of Alcott's book has ceased to have meaning for the general audience. It simply could not survive the decay of cultural literacy and the entertainment agenda of the Hollywood dream factory. A modern film version of Little Women can bear only a thin, sentimental resemblance to Alcott's classic. Lacking memory of either the text or the sensibility of Pilgrim's Progress, we are by now so thoroughly separated from Alcott's literary and religious heritage that few can speak her language any more. No bowdlerizer is needed. The moral dimension of Little Women, far from being purged as offensive, is simply ignored—discounted, as if it weren't there or were only incidental.


Lydia A. Schultz (essay date fall 2002)

SOURCE: Schultz, Lydia A. "'Work with a Purpose': Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl and the American Work Ethic." College Literature 29, no. 4 (fall 2002): 26-46.

[In the following essay, Schultz explores how An Old-Fashioned Girl functions as Alcott's vision of "a free, healthy, hard-working citizenry that will work to build the independent community of America."]

At the conclusion of her second novel for children, An Old-Fashioned Girl, Louisa May Alcott creates the anticipated happy endings for her characters, complete with two marriages. This conclusion, though, provides a uniquely American definition of happiness and reveals Alcott's social philosophies and values. The heroine Polly Milton marries not the wealthy, gentlemanly Mr. Sydney (who shares much with Jane Austen's reformed Mr. Darcy), but instead chooses to marry her true love, Tom Shaw, son of a failed businessman. Tom is trying to improve his lot in life by hard work, something he earlier would have found ludicrous. When he finally confesses his love for Polly and finds it returned, he says to her: "I wish, oh, Polly, how I wish I had a half of the money I've wasted to make you comfortable now" (Alcott 1996, 344). Polly (unlike Austen's Elizabeth Bennett) shows Alcott's values, claiming she wants no such inherited wealth: instead, she cries, "Never mind, I don't want it. I'd rather have less and know you earned it all yourself" (344).

Readers familiar with British novels by Jane Austen or even the less conservative Charlotte Brontë will quickly see that these words would never—could never—be uttered by one of their heroines. Alcott's goals as a writer, especially in her writing for children, differed wildly from these British writers. Nor is she simply employing "a rhetoric of subversion that seeks to circumvent the traditional values of nineteenth-century American patriarchal culture" as critic Susan Naomi Bernstein suggests (1993, 28). Instead, she is trying to teach what she believes American children need to learn to become productive and healthy members of their society as she thinks it ought to be. In her children's books, her vision of that society is somewhat mixed, because in part she harkens back to the "good old days" when people had better values and in part looks forward with a reformer's enthusiastic zeal. Yet these conflicted views are consistent with Alcott's familial and social experiences. As a result, An Old-Fashioned Girl captures and displays Alcott's quintessentially American perspective on work.


Alcott's interest in educating young people and teaching philosophical values about work grows naturally from her life experiences. During her childhood, her family frequently lived in intense, if somewhat genteel poverty. While single, her father Bronson Alcott moved from being a Yankee peddler on a southern US circuit to becoming a popular speaker on education and philosophy in Boston and its environs. There he met the socially connected Abigail May, whose extended family included the Sewalls and the Quincys. Louisa and her sisters' childhoods served as a grand experiment for Bronson's educational theories, which focused on answering the questions of children and on providing children with chances to learn from observation and experience. While for a time Bronson ran and taught at schools implementing his theories, he eventually lost so many pupils due to his controversially open attitudes toward religion, race, and human sexuality that he could not afford to keep his schools open. After that time, he never worked successfully at any "paying" job. The family instead lived on the generosity of extended family and friends, and often on the paid employment of his wife and daughters.

So while Louisa grew up and was educated according to Bronson's educational philosophies, she also endured the practical needs that her family faced in light of their poverty. True, she had access to many of the now-famous people of the era: her neighbors in Concord included the Emersons, the Hawthornes, Thoreau, and a host of others. She had even lived with her family in the failed communal Fruitlands farm, which like Brook Farm tried to implement aspects of transcendental philosophy into daily life. But in her childhood she often faced deprivation, with inadequate food, heat, and clothing. Ironically, coupled with the limitations of poverty was the freedom granted by Bronson and Abigail's parenting style, which was open to allowing their daughters to explore their own ways of contributing to their society.

In part, that openness was simply prudent. Alcott had seen how her mother had to become the primary financial support for the family during and after the Fruitlands experiment. In "Transcendental Wild Oats," Alcott's thinly veiled satire based on her family's own experiences at Fruitlands, Alcott's mother, in the form of the character Sister Hope, becomes the true head of the household by taking on all the practical work that the men in the community neglect. As Sandra Harbert Petrulionis observes in her analysis of this tale, "Instead of a female victim, she [Alcott] creates a female victor whose authority derives from male submission—quite a radical revision of the sentimental form" (1995, 77). In addition to her role at Fruitlands, Alcott's mother also took on various types of paid work to support her family, including running an "intelligence bureau" or a placement service for working women (Stern 1996, viii).

As an adult, then, Alcott develops attitudes toward work which grow out of wanting to provide financial support for her family. In her journal entries, she catalogues her various attempts to earn money: by teaching, by physical labor, and by writing. For example, in her notes for 1851, she records that she had worked as a governess, a seamstress, and a servant. As a governess and teacher, Alcott tried to implement her father's theories about education. As a servant or "second girl," she felt oppressed and underpaid: she observes that she did "try it for a month, but [got] starved & frozen & [gave] it up" (1997, 65). For each of her jobs and for all of her writing, she recorded in detail the pay that she received, sometimes on a monthly basis and sometimes as an annual recap. These journal entries also reveal her evolving and somewhat complex view of work. Initially, she sees her work, whichever sort, as a practical means to a necessary end—she works for money to support herself and to attempt to alleviate her family's debts. She acknowledges the tensions she feels: for example, she notes on December 18th of 1856 that she has resumed working as a governess and that "It is hard work, but I can do it, and am glad to sit in a large, fine room part of each day, after my sky-parlor, which has nothing pretty in it, and only the gray tower and the blue sky outside as I sit at the window writing. I love luxury, but freedom and independence better" (81-82). Work provides that opportunity for such "freedom and independence," even if in only a limited fashion. She saw her limited opportunities as tests of her character, but tests which she consistently passed.

As she garnered somewhat more success as a writer of sensational tales, Alcott also began to see herself as the primary provider for her parents and sisters. Her notations become more specific as to which people she supports and which items of comfort she supplies. For example, in 1859 she notes, "I have done more than I hoped. Supported myself, helped May, and sent something home. Not borrowed a penny, and had only five dollars given me" (1997, 94). In 1860 she observes that she "Got a carpet with my $50, and wild Louisa's head kept the feet of the family warm" (98) and that, when paid for another tale, she "Paid bills, and began to simmer another" (100). Frequently, she sent money to her parents or paid for repairs to their house: for example, she notes that "Carpenters shingled the roof & made some other repairs for which I paid" (100). While she is earning enough to rationalize paying for vacations for herself and her sister, she fears the specter of debt enough to return to work, saying, "I dread debt more than the devil!" (158). During this whole period, then, Alcott's goal was "to realize my dream of supporting the family and being perfectly independent" (162).

After the success of Little Women in 1868, however, Alcott's philosophy about work necessarily shifted. Initially, she has the reaction that many experience after earning their way out of poverty: "Paid up all the debts, thank the Lord!—every penny that money can pay,—and now I feel as if I could die in peace. My dream is beginning to come true; and if my head holds out I'll do all I once hoped to do" (1997, 171). She seems less driven to write, noting that during 1869 she wrote "nothing but a tale for Fuller 'An Old-Fashioned Girl' " (172). While she begins to enjoy some of her new found wealth, she also keeps sight of her self-imposed role as family breadwinner. When her brother-in-law, John Pratt, dies, Alcott notes that she "Began to write a new book, Little Men, that John's death may not leave A[nne] and the dear little boys in want…. In writing and thinking of the little lads, to whom I must be a father now, I found comfort for my sorrow" (177). Alcott implies here that in assuming the role of breadwinner, she is taking on a male role, that of the "father," even though in her own experience her father was not the money-earning parent.1 Gradually, though, Alcott realizes that she will never again experience the economic need that she had in her earlier life. She sees that she has accomplished her goals of financial comfort, of becoming "perfectly independent."

Yet she still feels the need to continue her writing and her work. Her journal entries show that she attempts to define a different set of purposes in her work, given her economic security. Her journal reflects this shift in perception by how she records her income and money issues: now she limits herself to annual explanations and to a listing of her investments, rather than the earlier, detailed catalogue. She finds a new purpose for her work in her audience, an audience increasingly noticeable since publishers are seeking her out because of her popularity with readers. So she obliges these various constituencies, by doing new writing or by recycling older works as the demand arises. She also takes on a role appropriate to her middle-class values—that of the benefactress:

Gave C. M. $100,—a thank-offering for my success. I also like to help the class of 'silent poor' to which we belonged for so many years,— needy, but respectable, and forgotten because too proud to beg. Work difficult to find for such people, and life made very hard for want of a little money to ease the necessary needs.

                                  (Alcott 1997, 187)

She can now help others as her family had been helped. Alcott, then, rationalizes her continued writing, at least in part because she sees it as her way to contribute not only to her family, but also to her ever-expanding community.


While literary critics have discussed autobiographical and psychological elements in Little Women and have looked at how Alcott discusses work in her writings for adults, very few have looked beyond those texts or at how Alcott's other novels for children encompass the same complexities as her works for adults. Not surprisingly, however, Alcott does embed her values and thoughts about work into An Old-Fashioned Girl. This novel, like Little Women, is composed of two primary sections: the first half presents the main characters as adolescents, while the second half returns to the same scene and characters six years later, in their early adulthood. Readers "learn" the lessons that Alcott wants to teach by following the appropriately named character of Polly Milton through her "education."

When fourteen-year-old Polly Milton enters the novel, she also enters a far more cosmopolitan world. Polly has gone to visit a friend she met the previous summer, Fanny Shaw.2 While Alcott is certainly drawing on the familiar motif of the "city mouse and country mouse," she employs the pattern to teach her young readers about values and behavior. The city-dweller Fanny has already assumed the manners and attitudes of adulthood in her class: Alcott describes her as having a

fringe of fuzz round her forehead and a wavy lock streaming down her back; likewise, her scarlet and black suit, with its big sash, little pannier, bright buttons, points, rosettes—and heaven knows what. There was a locket on her neck, earrings tinkling in her ears, watch and chains at her belt, and several rings on a pair of hands that would have been improved by soap and water.

                                (Alcott 1996, 8)

This depiction captures the dilemma: Fanny looks fashionable, but her dirty hands reveal her still to be a child. Her hair and clothing do not create an attractive picture; instead, they overwhelm with too many details, with "heaven knows what." Such an outfit prevents its wearer from accomplishing much work or play—such a preoccupation with her appearance has already prevented Fanny from venturing forth in the rain to meet Polly at the train station. Polly, by contrast, is described as a "fresh-faced little girl" (4) wearing a "simple blue merino frock, stout boots, and short hair" (8). Polly laughs at Fanny's insistence that they are now young ladies and instead tells Fanny, "My mother likes me to dress simply, and I don't mind. I shouldn't know what to do rigged up as you are. Don't you ever forget to lift your sash and fix those puffy things when you sit down?" (9).

This contrast provides us with Alcott's initial lesson. Young people in their teens should be seen as children, not as adults. Dressed as children, they can be comfortable as well as active. In addition, children should listen to their parents, who in turn should take an active role in instructing their children how to behave. Polly finds an ally in the older Mrs. Shaw. Fanny's grandmother, who delivers this message directly in case we didn't reach the conclusion on our own:

In my day, children of fourteen and fifteen didn't dress in the height of fashion, go to parties, as nearly like those of grown people as it's possible to make them, lead idle, giddy, unhealthy lives, and get blasé at twenty. We were little folks till eighteen or so, worked and studied, dressed and played like children, honored our parents, and our days were much longer in the land than now, it seems to me.

                               (Alcott 1996, 12)

Alcott pointedly alludes to the biblical commandment to honor one's parents because it is so apparent that such honor is not a focus in the Shaws' social world.

Alcott's technique draws much more from the way in which Bronson Alcott taught than from the "[e]ssentially moralistic 'girls' story,… designed to bridge the gap between the schoolroom and the drawing room, to recommend docility, marriage, and obedience rather than autonomy or adventure" (Showalter 1991, 50). The entire novel is constructed around teaching readers how to observe people, how to analyze situations, and how to behave. As children read this novel, they join the narrator in following Polly as she observes and judges the characters. Polly additionally serves as a teacher to the other characters in the novel. With them, readers learn that the way in which American people of all classes and genders relate to work determines whether we are to admire them or not. Alcott teaches that work shapes people and develops their identities.

The adult role models that the young Polly finds in the Shaw household generally fail to measure up to Polly's own family. The male head of this household, Mr. Shaw, first appears as a "busy-looking gentleman" (Alcott 1996, 10) who pays too little attention to his family because he is "so intent on getting rich that he had no time to enjoy what he already possessed" (36). He can see that Polly differs from his own children, but he is unable to pinpoint exactly how or why they differ. For example, when Polly returns from a surreptitious sledding expedition (discovered by Tom), Mr. Shaw comments on Polly's healthy appearance and says, "I wish you'd get a color like this, Fanny" (39). Yet he takes no action to encourage Fanny to forego the ways of fashion and society to behave more actively. Mr. Shaw additionally welcomes Polly when she begins meeting him on his walk home, and finds himself looking forward to her company. But he fails to see that his relationship to work is at the root of his problematic relationship with his children. As the narrator explains,

Poor Mr. Shaw had been so busy getting rich that he had not found time to teach his children to love him. He was more at leisure now, and as his boy and girls grew up, he missed something. Polly was unconsciously showing him what it was, and making child-love so sweet that he felt he could not do without it anymore, yet didn't quite know how to win the confidence of the children, who had always found him busy, indifferent, and absentminded.

                            (Alcott 1996, 51)

At this stage, Mr. Shaw exemplifies what Max Weber describes about men who pursue capitalism under the guise of the Protestant work ethic:

[T]he summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudaemonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.

                               (Weber 1958, 53)

With his economic needs met, Mr. Shaw begins to recognize the emotional emptiness of his life. Even though she is a child, Polly identifies the source of Mr. Shaw's problem and takes the initial steps in rebuilding the familial relationships between father and children by encouraging them all to show affection toward each other and by having Fanny take over the walks with Mr. Shaw.

Alcott's scathing view of how her society defines "success" in work becomes clearest in the later parts of the novel. Not only does she have Mr. Shaw face and survive bankruptcy, but she also shows that he becomes a better father and person as a result of it. His son Tom comes to respect him in a way that he never could before. After being told about the bankruptcy, Tom tells Polly: "Everything has been against him, and he has fought all alone to stand the pressure, but it's too much for him and he's given in. It's an honorable failure, mind you, and no one can say a word against him. I'd like to see 'em try it!" (Alcott 1996, 273). For the first time, Mr. Shaw shares his feelings and troubles with his children, and he gains the warm and loving relationship that he has yearned for. As the narrator observes, when his daughter Fanny enters, "Mr. Shaw looked up, and seeing in his daughter's face something that never had been there before, put his arm about her and leaned his tired head against her as if, when least expected, he had found the consolation he most needed" (280). Mr. Shaw begins to remember that money is only that, but that his family's love and support are far more important. He takes his failure in stride, and tells his son that "It is only beginning again … and having worked his way up once, he feels as if he could again" (315). In his economic failure, then, Mr. Shaw appears to embrace a modified version of Weber's Protestant work ethic, one in which he finds value in both useful employment and in his family, and in return, he serves as a better role model for his children.

Alcott's depiction of Fanny's mother, the younger Mrs. Shaw, reveals what sort of life is lead by a "typical" woman of the economic middle to upper class. She is described as a "pale, nervous woman" (Alcott 1996, 10) who dresses nicely but who fails to be emotionally warm: Polly notices that when Fanny's little sister Maud runs to her mother, "she gathered up her lustrous silk and pushed the little girl away" (114) because Maud's hands are dirty. Mrs. Shaw is shown to be shallow as well as distant in the earlier sections of the novel; the narrator implies that we are to judge her more harshly than Mr. Shaw, in part because she has encouraged and facilitated Fanny's premature adult behavior. Her reliance on wealth and social status to define herself becomes clear in the second half of the novel. When the adult Polly returns to the city to work as a music teacher, Mrs. Shaw is willing to have Maud take lessons with Polly, but she "privately resolv[ed] that Maud should be finished off by the most fashionable master in the city" (135). In addition, she is relieved that Polly has arranged another place to live, because "It was all very well to patronize the little music teacher, but it was not so pleasant to have her settled in the family"(135). She obviously finds "work" for women such as Polly as somehow distasteful and unpleasant.

Unlike Mr. Shaw, Mrs. Shaw collapses as a result of the bankruptcy. Because she has lived as a semi-invalid for years, she cannot rise to the occasion as her daughters do. When her daughters go to comfort her husband, Mrs. Shaw is noticeably absent, upstairs in an exhausted sleep. When Polly notices the absence, Alcott teaches the lesson: "Polly, thinking of feeble, selfish Mrs. Shaw, asleep upstairs, saw with sudden clarity what a wife should be to her husband—a helpmeet, not a burden" (1996, 281). Her solitary saving grace appears in the only "work" she does: in the love and affection that she shows to her son Tom. But Alcott makes this work, though praised, appear so limited that we question how we are to "read" it: Mrs. Shaw is described as being the "one person [who] always welcomed and clung to him with the strongest affection of a very feeble nature" (299). Implied in the praise is the stronger criticism of a woman so unused to activity or practical behavior that this love for her son is the most that she is capable of doing in her "feeble" state.

In the original Shaw household, we meet only one adult completely worthy of our respect—the older Mrs. Shaw, who appears in the first half of the novel. She is an unabashedly old-fashioned woman who shares Alcott's attitudes about child rearing. (As adult readers, we might question how successful her views were, given the rare visits she receives from her own son, even though she lives in his house.) While the older Mrs. Shaw has never been a part of the traditionally working class, she values and respects the work that women and men of her class can do.3 She embodies the values of charity and purposeful living, even though she finds herself living in a home that cannot "see" her point of view, given her daughter-in-law's focus on social status and her son's excessive attention to business. Polly, though, immediately respects the older woman's wisdom and listens to her stories. Because she knows the history of the region, Polly can appreciate the import of tales about meeting Lafayette (Alcott 1996, 102). We know we are to like this woman because Polly finds comfort in her presence, and behaves in the appropriate fashion—she shows affection and respect for the elderly. But we also learn that Polly has been taught such reverence for older people: she explains to the Shaw children that "My mother says we ought to be kind and patient and respectful to all old folks just because they are old, and I always mean to be" (112). Polly's speech attracts some expected resistance, but she has at least one convert—Tom finds comfort from his grandmother in the years that follow until her death, and turns toward caring for his mother thereafter.

Like most adolescents and young adults, though, Polly primarily spends her time with her peers. Polly's role as a guide to the reader, then, more fully focuses on the world of people closer to her own age. Aware of the role of such peer pressures, Alcott teaches her readers through Polly's example how to approach and respond to the attempted influences of others.

The young Polly at first looks to Fanny as her mentor about "city" ways. But that changes promptly: Polly finds the theatre show that she attends with Fanny to be embarrassing (Alcott 1996, 15). Her visit to Fanny's school doesn't go much better: the girls gossip about a classmate who eloped with her music teacher (19), show their ignorance at their lessons (20), and play at the "adult" game of flirtation (23). Polly can feel the contrast to the atmosphere at her own home:

[B]efore a week was gone she was heartily sick of all this as a healthy person would be who attempted to live on confectionery. Fanny liked it because she was used to it, and had never known anything better, but Polly had, and often felt like a little wood bird shut up in a gilded cage…. She was not wise enough to know where the trouble lay; she did not attempt to say which of the two lives was the right one; she only knew which she liked best and supposed it was merely another of her "old-fashioned" ways.

                                 (Alcott 1996, 33)

Alcott helps readers to see what is wrong: this environment of wealth without work or purpose turns girls and women into emotionless, unfeeling "wood birds," trapped in the "gilded cage" of wealth, turning them into objects to be observed, not feeling, living women.

To illustrate the ludicrous level that such behaviors have led to, Alcott even shows Maud, Fanny's six-year-old sister, engaging in precocious flirtation with her mother's encouragement. Polly is aghast at the artificiality of such behavior: "Polly had been taught that it [love] was a very serious and sacred thing, and according to her notions, it was far more improper to flirt with one boy than to coast with a dozen" (1996, 43). In Polly's world, emotions such as love are to be sincerely felt, and people expect content and meaning behind the behavior of others.

Polly's wholesome attitude is just that—whole and complete—in part because she refuses to become a "wood bird" in that "gilded cage." She tries to behave in her own fashion as much as she can, without violating the values of her hosts. She serves as an example of what a healthy girl of fourteen can be: she works hard to teach the Shaw children how to make molasses candy (Alcott 1996, 22), busies herself with sewing doll clothes (49-50), helps Tom with his Latin (54), and makes holiday gifts for her family (74). This "work" is training for a healthy adulthood: Alcott's narrator asserts that

Little things of this sort are especially good work for little people; a kind little thought, an unselfish little act, a cheery little word, are so sweet and comfortable that no one can fail to feel their beauty and love the giver, no matter how small they are…. She [Polly] made sunshine for herself as well as others.

                                  (Alcott 1996, 50)

While Polly has some moments in which she bows to the pressures around her, such as in her purchase of "bronze boots" (46), for the most part she chooses to follow her conscience that values work over appearance.

When we next see the Shaw children, in their young adulthood, we learn what has resulted from their economically privileged, but emotionally empty childhoods. As a young woman, Fanny finds life devoid of meaning. She tells Polly: "I'm so tired of everybody and everything, it seems sometimes as if I should die of ennui" (Alcott 1996, 151). While she scoffs at Polly's advice that a little poverty would do her good, Fanny does accurately analyze why she feels so: "I'm dead sick of parties and flirtations, trying to out-dress my neighbors, and going the same round year after year, like a squirrel in a cage" (151). She has grown dissatisfied with the entrapment of her class and gender, at least in part because she began to be an adult at too early an age. Her family and experiences have not prepared her for any occupation beyond being yet another woman enclosed by a cage.

Fanny attempts to find a purpose as her grandmother had done, by tackling the work of philanthropy, but instead demonstrates that women of her social group generally lack the skills needed to be effective. Fanny's charitable sewing circle "sent in less work than any of the others" (Alcott 1996, 197) and made inappropriate clothes that "would hardly survive one washing" (198). Alcott indicates that many of these women are incompetent in direct proportion to their hostile views of work. Trix, shown to be petty in childhood and heartless to her suitors in adulthood, says coldly: "Well I'm sick of hearing about beggars. I believe half of them are humbugs, and if we let them alone, they'd go to work and take care of themselves. There's altogether too much fuss made about charity. I do wish we could be left in peace" (200). The adult Polly at this point chooses to follow the advice of her new mentor, Miss Mills, and chastises these privileged young women for their attitudes. She trumpets the cause of the working poor, saying "We all complain about bad servants, most as much as if we were housekeepers ourselves, but it never occurs to us to try to mend the matter by getting up a better spirit between mistress and maid" (203). She even indirectly praises a remote cousin present in the room for behaving as "good" wealthy women can and should, because in her home servants are "taught good habits, books are put where they can get them, sensible amusements are planned for them sometimes, and they soon feel that they are not considered mere scrubs, to do as much work as possible, but helpers in the family who are loved and respected in proportion to their faithfulness" (202-03). Alcott is not advocating overthrowing the class system: she hardly echoes her contemporary Friedrich Engels, who would have seen this situation as an example of when "… the stronger treads the weaker under foot, and … the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains" (37). Instead, Alcott's tone through Polly smacks of classism and condescension. Yet even if her voice is patronizing, Alcott is advocating work of some sort for all people, appropriate to their class and situation. As Polly educates Fanny and her friends about their duties to the working poor, Alcott teaches her young readers the same lesson.

Polly also finds the adult Tom lacking. The narrator reintroduces him as a "young gentleman who was carefully examining his luxuriant crop of decidedly auburn hair as he lounged with both elbows on the chimney piece" (Alcott 1996, 133). As a young man of leisure, Tom has become vainly preoccupied with his appearance. Even Polly notices that he is "the picture of a complacent dandy, from the topmost curl of his auburn hair to the tips of his aristocratic boots" (146). While Tom does attend college, his behavior there is seen in stark contrast to that of Polly's brother Will. Will clearly appreciates the sacrifice that Polly is making by supporting herself so that her "share of the family income" (134) can help pay his expenses. Tom, on the other hand, views college merely as an extension of his social life. The narrator directly draws the contrast:

They [Will and Tom] were very good friends, but led entirely different lives, Will being a "dig" and Tom a "bird," or in plain English, one was a hard student and the other a jolly young gentleman…. So Shaw let Milton alone, and he got on very well in his own way, doggedly sticking to his books and resisting all temptations but those of certain libraries, athletic games, and such inexpensive pleasures as were within his means, for this benighted youth had not yet discovered that college nowadays is a place in which to "skylark," not to study.

                                (Alcott, 1996, 181)

Like Polly, Will works hard and lives within his means. Without that work ethic, Tom finds himself constantly in trouble at school, to such an extent that he ends up being expelled. In addition, because he has so absorbed his sense of privilege, he has little sense of money and finds himself deeply in debt. And just in case we still feel inclined to discount and to forgive Tom these failings, he is engaged to Trix, the worst example their class has to offer as a young woman.

That Polly stands in stark contrast to her two friends cannot be lost on even Alcott's juvenile readers. When Polly enters the adult world as a music teacher, the narrator draws our attention to who she has become:

Polly had grown up, but she had no more style now than in the days of the round hat and rough coat, for she was all in gray, like a young Quakeress, with no ornament but a blue bow at the throat and another in the hair. Yet the plain suit became her excellently, and one never thought of the dress, looking at the active figure that wore it, for the freedom of her childhood gave to Polly that good gift, health, and every movement was full of the vigor, grace, and ease which nothing else can so surely bestow.

                                 (Alcott 1996, 137)

Alcott insures that we understand just how important to adult Polly her experiences as a child were. She also lives simply and within her means. Her room at Miss Mills' boarding house was "a very humble little room, but Polly had done her best to make it pleasant, and it already had a homelike look, with the cheery fire and the household pets chirping and purring confidingly on the rug" (149). This simplicity appeals to the twelve-year-old Maud, who craves an emotionally loving home, but Fanny "saw many traces of what seemed like poverty to her" (150).

Alcott does not sugarcoat the realities of work for her young readers. In a chapter entitled "Lessons," Alcott tells us that "The novelty soon wore off, and though she [Polly] thought she was prepared for drudgery, she found it very tedious to go on doing the same thing day after day" (1996, 153). Work is not always easy or fun, especially for a young woman like Polly, who discovers "that working for a living shuts a good many doors in one's face even in democratic America" (154). But just as Polly begins to feel overwhelmed by self-pity, Miss Mills tells her of the plight of a seventeen-year-old orphan, Jane, who "has tried all sorts of poorly paid work, couldn't live on it decently, got discouraged, sick, frightened, and could see no refuge from the big, bad world" (165) and who has attempted suicide. Jane typifies the problems in society that Engels observes: "Who guarantees that willingness to work shall suffice to obtain work, that uprightness, industry, thrift, and the rest of the virtues recommended by the bourgeoisie are really his road to happiness?" (1993, 38). Polly learns an important "lesson": that "her own troubles looked so small and foolish beside the stern hardships which had nearly had so tragical an end that she felt heartily ashamed of herself" (Alcott 1996, 166). As Joyce W. Warren observes, "if a woman had sufficient education and the correct manners, she could find a post as a teacher, a governess, or a paid or unpaid companion. Otherwise, her choices included prostitution, work at subsistence wages, or humble dependency as an unpaid servant in the home of a relative" (1998, 148). Alcott here is acknowledging that goodness alone is not the key to success or self-sufficiency. But unlike Engels, she views the solutions on a small, personal scale, with the intervention of individuals helping each other. Thus, because Polly, unlike Jane, has skills and a community of supportive friends, she can at least succeed in her attempt to support herself and to provide an education for her brother. And in turn, Polly intervenes to help get Jane work through her own circle of acquaintances.

But to keep Polly from being too good to be true, Alcott shows her being tempted to escape her situation. She accepts an invitation from Fanny and Tom to join them at the opera as a temporary escape from her workday world. There she engages with Tom and the wealthy Mr. Sydney in a flirtation that "was such a very mild imitation of the fashionable thing that Trix & Co. would not have recognized it" (1996, 220). Mr. Sydney is perhaps the only man of her peers that Polly truly respects. During her childhood visit, she likes him because "My mother says a real gentleman is as polite to a little girl as to a woman, so I like Mr. Sydney best because he was kind to me" (24). After the night at the opera, Mr. Sydney begins to consider Polly as a potential wife; he even arranges to join her as she walks to her pupils' homes. Polly recognizes the shift that is occurring and imagines how her life as his wife could be, with "plenty of money, quantities of friends, all sorts of pleasures, and no work, no poverty, no cold shoulders or patched boots" (250). But, in the end, she admits to herself that she doesn't love him and resolves, as the chapter title suggests, to "nip in the bud" the romance that was beginning. Work is hard, escape would be nice, but being emotionally honest is ultimately more important to Polly.

That focus on sincere emotional connections to others enables Polly to help Fanny and Tom become healthy adults. Fanny learns of other ways to be an adult woman by visiting with Polly and her artistic circle of friends, a visit directly parallel to Polly's visit to Fanny's sewing circle. As Polly tells Fanny, "If ever a girl needed work, it's you! … I wish you'd go at something, then you'd find how much talent and energy you really have" (Alcott 1996, 236). As the first part of this instruction, Polly tells the story of her landlady, Miss Mills, who was poor until she was fifty, then used her inheritance to help the poor but respectable people around her. Polly then takes Fanny to her friends' home, where we meet her proto-feminist circle: Becky, the sculptor; Bess, the engraver; Kate, the author. These women form a collective—of resources, talent, and friendship—of a sort that Fanny has never experienced with women in her social world:

Fanny had been to many elegant lunches, but never enjoyed one more than that droll picnic in the studio, for there was a freedom about it that was charming, an artistic flavor to everything, and such a spirit of goodwill and gaiety that she felt at home at once. As they ate the others talked and she listened, finding it as interesting as any romance to hear these young women discuss their plans, ambitions, successes, and defeats…. They were girls still, full of spirits, fun and youth, but below the light-heartedness each cherished a purpose, which seemed to ennoble her womanhood, to give her a certain power, a sustaining satisfaction, a daily stimulus that led her on to daily effort and in time to some success in circumstance or character, which was worth all the patience, hope, and labor of her life.

                              (Alcott 1996, 243-44)

Fanny admires these women, who are good in part because they have a purpose. Again, Alcott stacks the deck to a certain extent: they are artistic women, who feel a talent motivating their work. They are not locked into a factory-working, wage laborer's life. But through them Fanny begins to see other possibilities beyond being trapped in her gilded cage.

Polly's advice and guidance become even more important to Fanny and Tom after Mr. Shaw's bankruptcy. She teaches Fanny how, with work, old clothes can be taken apart and remade into new. She also makes Fanny understand that selling an unused expensive gown is just simply practical and not something to be embarrassed by: "Kings and queens sell their jewels when times are hard or they get turned off their thrones and no one thinks it anything amiss, so why need you?" (Alcott 1996, 292). Given Mrs. Shaw's invalidism, Fanny takes on running the reduced household. She also attracts the attention of Mr. Sydney, whom she loves "whether he was rich or poor" (327), and the narrator tells us that

If Fanny wanted to show him what she could do toward making a pleasant home, she certainly succeeded better than she suspected, for in spite of many failures and discouragements behind the scenes, the little house became a most attractive place, to Mr. Sydney at least, for he was more the housefriend than ever and seemed determined to prove that change of fortune made no difference to him.

                               (Alcott 1996, 329)

As Polly earlier suggested, poverty has improved Fanny. Now she has a purpose, work that she not only can do, but can do well. She has risen to the occasion in a way that her mother fails to do. And in the end, it is Fanny's work that gains her the respect and love of her future husband, Mr. Sydney.

Tom also benefits from Polly's guidance after his father's bankruptcy. Tom now appreciates how wasteful he has been; not just of money, but also of time and opportunity. He acknowledges to Polly that he has no idea what he should do, saying, "Wish I'd learned a trade and something to fall back upon" (Alcott 1996, 301). When he explains that he wants to leave town and is willing to do any kind of honest work, Polly thinks of Ned, her other brother who has ventured West to make his way in business. Polly suggests that "If you really mean work, I know you could…. I wish you could be with Ned, you'd get on together, I'm sure, and he'd be so glad to do anything he could" (314). Tom, like his father, has benefitted emotionally from the downturn in status: he sees Trix for the shallow woman she is when she breaks off the engagement after the bankruptcy, and he speculates that "Perhaps this smashup was sent to introduce me to my own father" (315).

Like Fanny, Tom improves further as a result of hard work. The narrator tells us that "Tom, who ha[d] been born and bred in the most conceited city in New England, needed just the healthy, hearty, social influences of the West to widen his views and make a man of him" (Alcott 1996, 319). Work does more than simply expand Tom's outlook; when he returns, he has dramatically changed in how he carries himself. We are told that

there was a brisk, genial, free-and-easy air about him, suggestive of a stirring, out-of-doors life with people who kept their eyes wide open and were not very particular what they did with their arms and legs. The rough-and-ready traveling suit, stout boots, brown face, and manly beard changed him so much that Polly could find scarcely a trace of elegant Tom Shaw in the hearty-looking young man who stood with one foot on a chair while he talked business to his father in a sensible way, which delighted the old gentleman.

                              (Alcott 1996, 335-36)

Tom has become the healthy, practical, hardworking male equivalent of Polly. This passage shows that work has stripped away the veneers of status and class, and has replaced them with actual knowledge and accomplishment—something far worthier of approval and pride than inherited wealth and class. We as readers know that Tom is now truly worthy of Polly's love and that together they will conquer all that they face in love and life.


Alcott's philosophy about work derives in part from her time and place. In many ways, her views on work are consistent with Weber's Protestant ethic insofar as she sees work as necessarily shaping people and giving them purpose. Yet in some ways, the novelist takes her views further than Weber. As Joyce W. Warren notes, Alcott was "one of the few mainstream nineteenth-century American women writers who articulated the need for work as a lifelong means of independence for women" (1998, 156). Both of these aspects, though, are too narrow to encompass what Alcott is attempting in An Old-Fashioned Girl. She attempts to take capitalism back to its Protestant roots and to help her readers to see work as "… the necessary, natural, and honest condition of human existence" (Takaki 1979, 73). She wants her book to provide readers with a coherent vision of what role work should play in the lives of all Americans, regardless of their gender, class, or age. Alcott's characters, both male and female, illustrate by example specifically how and why work is so important.

Not surprisingly, Alcott's writing exhibits many of the attitudes toward work that Weber describes in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For Weber, the ideal model of the Protestant work ethic is found in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. Weber describes the Yankee or American attitude by saying:

Franklin's moral attitudes are coloured with utilitarianism. Honesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues. A logical deduction from this would be that where, for instance, the appearance of honesty serves the same purpose, that would suffice, and an unnecessary surplus of this virtue would evidently appear to Franklin's eyes as unproductive waste.

                                 (Weber 1958, 52)

Weber further defines the ideal American "capitalistic entrepreneur" as one who:

avoids ostentation and unnecessary expenditure, as well as conscious enjoyment of his power, and is embarrassed by the outward signs of the social recognition which he receives…. It is, namely, by no means exceptional, but rather the rule, for him to have a sort of modesty which is essentially more honest than the reserve which Franklin so shrewdly recommends. He gets nothing out of his wealth for himself, except the irrational sense of having done his job well.

                                 (Weber 1958, 71)

Weber ties these economic principles back to the religious aspects of Protestantism,

For the wonderfully purposeful organization and arrangement of this cosmos is, according both to the revelation of the Bible and to natural intuition, evidently designed by God to serve the utility of the human race. This makes labour in the service of impersonal social usefulness appear to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by Him.

                              (Weber 1958, 109)

Therefore, Weber sees the problems inherent in this work ethic not in the acquisition of wealth, but in the

relaxation in the security of possession, the enjoyment of wealth with the consequence of idleness and the temptations of the flesh, above all of distraction from the pursuit of a righteous life. In fact, it is only because possession involves this danger of relaxation that it is objectionable at all…. Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will.

                                  (Weber 1958, 157)

While in An Old-Fashioned Girl Alcott employs many aspects of the Protestant ethic which Weber describes, she modifies them to fit her own outlook. Alcott would not be satisfied with a mere appearance of honesty, because for her the religious aspects of the work ethic are still very much in the foreground. She does advocate work as a utilitarian service to society and hence to God, but she does not emphasize the acquisition of wealth; in fact, she almost sees wealth as a difficulty to overcome in her goal to find meaningful work. And while she certainly chastises the characters who are given to indolence and luxury, Alcott does not shun all leisure and enjoyment: in fact, she advocates what she sees as healthy recreation, both for children and adults. She also emphasizes the need to build strong, sincere emotional connections between people.

In educating children about her philosophy, Alcott links work to her ideas of Christian activism and charity. She wants to teach children to "see" people who are less fortunate as human beings worthy of attention and help. Drawing on her religious attitudes sets Alcott apart from her contemporary Friedrich Engels. Engels clearly disapproves of the charitable approach to helping others; he condemns philanthropists, saying:

As though you rendered the proletarians a service in first sucking out their very lifeblood and then practising your self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy upon them, placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them! Charity degrades him who gives more than him who takes; charity which treads the down-trodden still deeper in the dust, which demands that the last that remains to him, his very claim to manhood, shall first beg for mercy before your mercy deigns to press, in the shape of an alms, the brand of degradation upon his brow.

                                  (Engels 1993, 283)

In part, Engels's appeal here to "manhood" may explain why Joyce Warren praises Alcott's focus on women. Alcott is writing of a woman's world, in which gender is not an impediment to giving or receiving charity. Alcott's personal experiences train her to see charity—both as a donor and as a recipient—as appropriate for both men and women.

In part this difference in perspective arises from the fact that Alcott draws her radicalism from a completely different source than Engels; she is basing her philosophy on her experiences in Concord and Fruitland, which were rooted in the radical Christian theologies prevalent in that era. These revivalistic, evangelical Christian movements shared some overlapping tendencies. First, many drew heavily from women for their converts. Women in these religious groups found new "psychological and social space" that al-lowed them to "participate in affairs outside of the home, assume responsibility, and perfect leadership skills" (Hudson and Corrigan 1999, 154). The primary religious movement that Alcott was exposed to, Transcendentalism, further extended such inclusive philosophy. The Transcendentalists asserted that "The individual soul is linked to God, and through the gift of intuition—instinct, imagination, insight—the soul can penetrate beyond the outer shell of life and consummate union with God by participating in the life of the 'oversoul'" (176). Transcendentalists saw value in all people, regardless of their class, race, or gender. These views, coupled with the overt utopianism of Brook Farm and Fruitlands, shaped Alcott's ideas of charity.

Her charity is not the handout that Engels describes. Rather, she advocates a modified version of Emerson's ideal of self-reliance. People should be charitable by giving those who need a helping hand a start; for example, Polly helps Jane get sewing work and Polly's brother Ned gives Tom a job. Such assistance for Alcott is not exclusively economic either—when Polly takes Fanny to meet her "working" friends, she is trying to help Fanny find purpose in life. For Alcott, charity is inextricably intertwined with her ideas of work: because people benefit from useful employment, whether or not for pay, we should all do our best to enable them find it.

These merged views, then, of practical charity and useful work, are at the heart of Alcott's lesson for her juvenile readers. She wants them to see that useful work, as she has defined it, makes children and adults physically healthier. Polly's childhood mirrors the positive aspects of Alcott's own. The children in Alcott's novels are not working at hazardous jobs, in mines or in factories: as critic Jean Fagan Yellin points out, Alcott's later writing about working people seems out of step with the industrialization that was then the main source of employment for poor, often immigrant workers (1980, 535-36). Instead, Alcott envisions a world in which American children play actively and work at learning practical skills so that they can become healthy adults. She believes that by living simply—in food, dress, and housing—all Americans can distinguish needs from desires, an idea which echoes Puritan values.

But Alcott modifies the views of those earlier Puritans by finding that work also strengthens people psychologically. According to Alcott, men and women gain healthy attitudes and outlooks by doing work, because such employment (whether for pay or for charity) provides purpose and meaning in their lives. Alcott practiced what she preached: when she was most down-hearted about one sister's marriage and another's death, she volunteered to work as a nurse with the Union forces during the Civil War. Because Alcott found meaningful work personally beneficial, she writes fictions which show work as preventing ennui among the wealthy and as creating self-reliance for the poor. These visions mesh well with the American ideals of being independent and self-made.

Alcott's uniqueness, though, derives not from her advocacy of hard work, but from her definition of success. Yellin, in discussing Alcott's adult novel Work, notes that "She develops her characters through self-denial, in nineteenth-century America a pattern for women seen as properly complementary to the aggressive self-interest fostered among males. But in Alcott's book not only women, but men, too, must learn to suffer and to sacrifice" (1980, 534). This observation is equally valid for An Old-Fashioned Girl. For Alcott, success is derived by a person's reaching a sense of self, arising from his or her ability to appreciate the work and sacrifice of others and the willingness to make personal sacrifices.

As a result of becoming healthy in both body and spirit, Alcott's characters also gain community through their work. Family relationships are stronger, in part because Alcott sees people who work as being more emotionally aware and honest. Doing work enables people to appreciate what others do or have done, for themselves and for others. So, for example, because Will appreciates Polly's work for the chance it gives him, he works hard at college and becomes a minister. Ned's hard work enables Tom to become a healthy American man, who can therefore return as a hardworking man able to appreciate Polly. This sort of work builds connections between people: it leads them to treat others with respect and thereby link them in a web of emotional support. In Alcott's vision, even if classes continue to exist, American society will thrive if all people seek purposeful work and learn to respect each other for doing it.

While Alcott may not have found her writing for children worthy of praise, Elaine Showalter believes that "Alcott habitually underestimated and denigrated her own work" (1988, xlii). Alcott's vision encompasses her conflicted feelings about American society: while her own work experiences did not always create her "utopian dream" (xxxvii), her novel does portray her hope for the future generations. While her contemporary critics sometimes find her characters too preachy and unrealistic,4 the children of her day did not. Her popularity attests to the palatability of both the characters and the message of finding freedom through meaningful work. In the end, Alcott does imagine an ideal America in this novel, but her ideal tries to modify the concepts of the past with a vision of the future. So rather than using "a rhetoric of subversion that seeks to circumvent the traditional values of nineteenth-century American patriarchal culture" as critic Susan Naomi Bernstein suggests (1993, 28), Alcott openly advocates in An Old-Fashioned Girl a reformation in the spirit of the original American idealists: she wants to foster a free, healthy, hard-working citizenry that will work to build the independent community of America.


1. A variety of critics have addressed Alcott's issues with gender politics and patriarchy in her other works; for example, see Bernstein on Little Women (1993), Da Gue on Work, and Petrulionis on "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1995).

2. Note that these characters are NOT cousins, in spite of the assertion to the contrary on the cover of the current Puffin edition of the novel. If they had been first cousin, the older Mrs. Shaw would have been Polly's grandmother as well or the younger Mrs. Shaw would have been her aunt. The plot makes clear that neither relationship exists.

3. Critics such as Peter Stoneley find this depiction troubling, with this character at the heart of Alcott's "uncertain and incomplete effort to address shifts in class definition: even as she seeks a radical redress of social inequity, she longs to reunite with the well-modulated conservatism of Beacon Hill" (1999, 31-32). To me, the depiction is somewhat more complex, as she represents how her daughter-in-law should behave.

4. See the range of contemporary responses in Zehr (1987).

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. 1997. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Assoc. Ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

―――――――. 1996. An Old-Fashioned Girl. 1870. Reprint. New York: Puffin Books.

Bernstein, Susan Naomi. 1993. "Writing and Little Women: Alcott's Rhetoric of Subversion." American Transcendental Quarterly 7.1: 25-43.

Engels, Friedrich. 1993. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Trans. Florence Kelley-Wischnewetsky. 1846. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hudson, Winthrop S., and Corrigan, John. 1999. Religion in America: An Historical Account of the Development of American Religious Life. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Petrulionis, Sandra Harbert. 1995. "By the Light of Her Mother's Lamp: Woman's Work Versus Man's Philosophy in Louisa May Alcott's 'Transcendental Wild Oats.'" Studies in the American Renaissance: 69-81.

Showalter, Elaine. 1991. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing. Oxford: Clarenden Press.

―――――――. 1988. Introduction. In Alternative Alcott, by Louisa May Alcott, ed. Elaine Showalter. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Stern, Madeleine B. 1996. Introduction. In The Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman's Power, by Louisa May Alcott, ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Stoneley, Peter. 1999. "'The Fashionable World Displayed': Alcott and Social Power." Studies in American Fiction 27.1: 21-36.

Takaki, Ronald T. 1979. Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Warren, Joyce W. 1998. "Fracturing Gender: Woman's Economic Independence." In Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Critical Reader, ed. Karen L. Kilcup. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Weber, Max. 1958. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Scribner's.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. 1980. "From Success to Experience: Louisa May Alcott's Work." The Massachusetts Review 21.3: 527-39.

Zehr, Janet S. 1987. "The Response of Nineteenth-Century Audiences to Louisa May Alcott's Fiction." American Transcendental Quarterly 1.4: 323-42.


Phoebe-Lou Adams (review date April 1997)

SOURCE: Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Review of The Inheritance, by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Atlantic Monthly 279, no. 4 (April 1997): 122.

The editors [of The Inheritance ], Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, found among the Alcott papers a notebook labeled "My first novel written at seventeen" in Louisa's hand. Alcott devotees will want to read it. Nobody else needs to, although any reader can be impressed by the young author's control of her plot and her implied knowledge of the popular fiction of 1849. Titles and money abound, as do tears and blushes. Noble renunciation marches with improbable repentance. There is no hint of the humor that enlivened Alcott's later writing. There is no evidence that the tale was ever published, which may have been just as well. It would have been a hard thing for the mature Alcott to live down.


Eva Mitnick (review date October 1999)

SOURCE: Mitnick, Eva. Review of The Quiet Little Woman: A Christmas Story, by Louisa May Alcott. School Library Journal 45, no. 10 (October 1999): 64.

Gr. 4-7—[The Quiet Little Woman: A Christmas Story contains t]hree Christmas stories, at least one of which was "rediscovered" in a children's magazine of its day. The first and longest selection is about Patty, an orphan whose greatest dream is to be adopted; instead, she is given a place as a servant in the Murray family. Through Patty's loving nature, plus the Christmas-time intervention of Aunt Jane, the family members realize that they have a gem in their midst. The other two stories are shorter—one involves a poor girl whose kindness to a tiny bird prods a mean neighbor into an act of charity; the other features a horse, able to speak through the Christmas miracle, that tells her story of kindness and cruelty suffered at the hands of humans. All three pieces have an undeniably 19th-century tone that may strike today's readers as too sentimental and quaint to be interesting. However, Alcott's fans will zip right through these stories and take pleasure in the satisfyingly happy endings, in which goodness and endurance triumph over adversity.


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. (review date 1 April 2000)

SOURCE: Carrigan, Jr., Henry L. Review of The Early Stories of Louisa May Alcott, 1852-1860, by Louisa May Alcott. Library Journal 125, no. 6 (1 April 2000): 133.

In yet another addition to the growing body of Louisa May Alcott's work, Ironweed follows The Poems of Louisa May Alcott (LJ 2/15/00) with these 19 previously uncollected stories [The Early Stories of Louisa May Alcott, 1852-1860 ], which chronicle the development of Alcott's early career as a writer. Though her earliest efforts, like "The Rival Painters: A Tale of Rome" and "The Masked Marriage," are patterned on the sentimental romances of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, they contain glimpses of the creative genius behind her most popular later works. Alcott's more mature stories, like "Bertha," "The Lady and the Woman," and "The Sisters' Trial," demonstrate the growing influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller. Monika Elbert's (English, Montclair State Univ.) helpful introduction sets each story in its cultural context. Recommended for large public libraries.

Donna Seaman (review date 15 May 2000)

SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of The Early Stories of Louisa May Alcott, 1852-1860, by Louisa May Alcott. Booklist 96, no. 18 (15 May 2000): 1727.

The reclamation of Alcott's lost works and attendant recognition of her status as a trail-blazing writer and social critic has been one of the past decade's most noteworthy literary events. Her thrillers have been republished, and now 19 of her earliest stories, penned for popular magazines when she was in her twenties, have been similarly rescued [in The Early Stories of Louisa May Alcott, 1852-1860 ]. These tales reflect her fascination with the grotesque and the sensational as well as her remarkably modern feminism. In tales such as "The Lady and the Woman" and "Ruth's Secret," for instance, Alcott subverts the conventions of melodrama to portray strong, independent heroines who win love and transform lives, not with feminine wiles but by virtue of their intelligence, fortitude, generosity, and compassion.


Ray Olson (review date 15 February 2000)

SOURCE: Olson, Ray. Review of The Poems of Louisa May Alcott, by Louisa May Alcott. Booklist 96, no. 12 (15 February 2000): 1073.

The author of Little Women and the other March family chronicles was no great shakes as a poet. Most of her poems [in The Poems of Louisa May Alcott ] are in ballad stanzas. Most tell little moral stories about personified flowers and insects, though another batch celebrates family and Louisa's transcendentalist philosopher sire, Amos Bronson Alcott, and a handful comment on her literary circle and career. The reasons to read them are all biographical, for the patience, diligence, and self-abnegation celebrated in the moral poems, the veneration of sisters and patriarch in the familial verses, and the incompletely suppressed frustration and resentment that peep out of the literary poems bespeak the conditions of Louisa's self-conception as a gifted but ugly duckling and her self-assumed role as the hack whose saleable handiwork sustained the Alcott household as its improvidently intellectual head could not. Particularly piquant with biographic implication are "The Lay of a Golden Goose" and its alternate ending; forced graciousness seldom grinds its gritted teeth so audibly.


Roxanne Burg (review date April 2001)

SOURCE: Burg, Roxanne. Review of The Girlhood Diary of Louisa May Alcott, 1843-1846, by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Kerry A. Graves. School Library Journal 47, no. 4 (April 2001): 54.

Gr. 4-6—These books contain excerpts from actual childhood journals and diaries, misspellings and all. The editors provide further background information on the times and the customs. Photos and reproductions are attractively interspersed throughout. [The Girlhood Diary of Louisa May Alcott, 1843-1846 ] records Alcott's life from ages 11 to 14, and offers her observations, information about the abolition movement, the lifestyle at Fruitlands, etc. Through samples of her poetry, readers see Alcott's talent blossoming even at that early age.


Shawn Brommer (review date May 2004)

SOURCE: Brommer, Shawn. Review of The Brownie and the Princess and Other Stories, by Louisa May Alcott. School Library Journal 50, no. 5 (May 2004): 140.

Gr. 5 Up—This volume [The Brownie and the Princess and Other Stories ] presents 10 of Alcott's short stories, which were originally published in children's magazines during her lifetime. Beginning with the title piece, in which a country girl is much happier than a pampered princess, the selections celebrate the honest, hardworking pastoral life in which simplicity is far more valuable than extravagance. In "Tabby's Tablecloth," a girl foils Tory spies; "Baa! Baa!" tells how two young sisters make certain that sheep being delivered to farmers by train are routinely given water. In "Jerseys, or the Girls' Ghost," a motivating teacher at a girls school inspires her students to find strength in physical exercise and healthy food. Throughout the stories, selfless characters are rewarded for their good deeds. The female protagonists are courageous and outspoken and improve their own lives as well as the world around them. Alcott's 19th-century prose style may sound didactic to 21st-century ears, but even though style and events are different, the themes and issues are still important. Readers who enjoy Little Women and those interested in the 19th century and feminist authors will appreciate this volume.

Additional coverage of Alcott's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 1; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 1, 38; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1, 42, 79, 223, 239, 242; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 14; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Feminism in Literature, Ed. 1; Feminist Writers; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 6, 58, 83; Novels for Students, Vol. 12; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 27; Something about the Author, Vol. 100; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; Writers for Children; Writers for Young Adults; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 1.



Talbot, Marion. "Glimpses of the Real Louisa May Alcott." New England Quarterly 11, no. 4 (December 1938): 731-38.

Traces Alcott's life through her journal entries and personal correspondence.


Butterworth-McDermott, Christine. "Behind a Mask of Beauty: Alcott's Beast in Disguise." American Transcendental Quarterly 18, no. 1 (March 2004): 25-48.

Investigates the influences of fairy tales on Alcott's novella Behind a Mask.

Grasso, Linda. "Louisa May Alcott's 'Magic Inkstand': Little Women, Feminism, and the Myth of Regeneration." Frontiers 19, no. 1 (1998): 177-92.

Focuses on the changes made to Alcott's Little Women in the 1994 film adaptation and studies the basis for the alterations.

Review of The Sketches of Louisa May Alcott, by Louisa May Alcott. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 13 (26 March 2001): 83.

Presents a positive assessment of the essays and travel sketches collected in The Sketches of Louisa May Alcott.

Stadler, Gustavus. "Louisa May Alcott's Queer Geniuses." American Literature 71, no. 4 (December 1999): 657-77.

Investigates Alcott's use of non-standard gender roles in her novels and the difference that marked intelligence has on her characters' conformity to the acceptable social/sexual behaviors of the era.

Stern, Madeleine B. "Louisa M. Alcott: An Appraisal." New England Quarterly 22, no. 4 (December 1949): 475-98.

Examines early literary influences on Alcott and explores the recurring themes of family and moral responsibility in Alcott's works.

―――――――. "Louisa's Wonder Book: A Newly Discovered Alcott Juvenile." American Literature 26, no. 3 (November 1954): 384-90.

Discusses the newly rediscovered short stories in Will's Wonder Book, written by Alcott yet originally published anonymously.

Townsend, Juliet. "A Tale of Shameless Sensation." Spectator 275, no. 8730 (4 November 1995): 50.

Portrays A Long Fatal Love Chase as sensationalist, lacking a strong plot, and deficient in character development.