Alcott, Louisa May: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Beach, Seth Curtis. "Louisa May Alcott." In Daughters of the Puritans: A Group of Biographies, pp. 251-86. Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1905.

In the following essay, Beach emphasizes Alcott's life as the source of her work and her father as a dominant influence in her development and identity.

Miss Alcott has been called, perhaps truly, the most popular story-teller for children, in her generation. Like those elect souls whom the apostle saw arrayed in white robes, she came up through great tribulation, paying dearly in labor and privation for her successes, but one must pronounce her life happy and fortunate, since she lived to enjoy her fame and fortune twenty years, to witness the sale of a million volumes of her writings, to receive more than two hundred thousand dollars from her publishers, and thereby to accomplish the great purpose upon which as a girl she had set her heart, which was, to see her father and mother comfortable in their declining years.

Successful as Miss Alcott was as a writer, she was greater as a woman, and the story of her life is as interesting,—as full of tragedy and comedy,—as the careers of her heroes and heroines. In fact, we have reason to believe that the adventures of her characters are often not so much invented as remembered, the pranks and frolics of her boys and girls being episodes from her own youthful experience. In the preface to Little Women, the most charming of her books, she tells us herself that the most improbable incidents are the least imaginary. The happy girlhood which she portrays was her own, in spite of forbidding conditions. The struggle in which her cheerful nature extorted happiness from unwilling fortune, gives a dramatic interest to her youthful experiences, as her literary disappointments and successes do to the years of her maturity.



There is very little to report about the woman's vote at Concord Town Meeting, as only eight were there in time to do the one thing permitted them.

With the want of forethought and promptness which show how much our sex have yet to learn in the way of business habits, some dozen delayed coming till the vote for school committee was over. It came third on the warrant, and a little care in discovering this fact would have spared us much disappointment. It probably made no difference in the choice of officers, as there is seldom any trouble about the matter, but it is to be regretted that the women do not give more attention to the duty which they really care for, yet fail, as yet, to realize the importance of, small as it is at present.

Their delay shows, however, that home affairs are not neglected, for the good ladies remained doubtless to give the men a comfortable dinner and set their houses in order before going to vote.

Next time I hope they will leave the dishes till they get home, as they do when in a hurry to go to the sewing-society, Bible-class, or picnic. A hasty meal once a year will not harm the digestion of the lords of creation, and the women need all the drill they can get in the new duties that are surely coming to widen their sphere, sharpen their wits, and strengthen their wills, teaching them the courage, intelligence and independence all should have, and many sorely need in a world of vicissitudes.

Alcott, Louisa May. Excerpt from a letter to the editor of Woman's Journal, May 8, 1884. In L. M. Alcott: Signature of Reform. Edited by Madeleine B. Stern, pp. 218-19. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.

Miss Alcott inherited a name which her father's genius had made known on both sides of the sea, before her own made it famous in a hundred thousand households. Alcott is a derivative from Alcocke, the name by which Mr. Alcott himself was known in his boyhood. John Alcocke, born in New Haven, Ct., married Mary, daughter of Rev. Abraham Pierson, first president of Yale College. He was a man of considerable fortune and left 1,200 acres of land to his six children, one of whom was Capt. John Alcocke, a man of some distinction in the colonial service. Joseph Chatfield Alcocke, son of Capt. John, married Anna, sister of Rev. Tillotson Bronson, D. D. Of this marriage, Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa, was born, Nov. 29, 1799. The fortunes of Joseph Chatfield Alcocke were those of other small farmers of the period, but Mrs. Alcocke could not forget that she was the sister of a college graduate, and it was worth something to her son to know that he was descended from the president of a college. The mother and son early settled it that the boy should be a scholar, and the father loyally furthered their ambitions, borrowing of his acquaintances such books as he discovered and bringing them home for the delectation of his studious son. At the age of thirteen, Bronson became a pupil in a private school kept by his uncle, Dr. Bronson, and at eighteen, he set out for Virginia with the secret purpose of teaching if opportunity offered, at the same time taking along a peddler's trunk out of which to turn an honest penny and pay the expenses of his journey. Circumstances did not favor his becoming a Virginia teacher, but between his eighteenth and twenty-third years, he made several expeditions into the Southern States as a Yankee peddler, with rather negative financial results, but with much enlargement of his information and improvement of his rustic manners. Mr. Alcott was rather distinguished for his high-bred manners and, on a visit to England, there is an amusing incident of his having been mistaken for some member of the titled aristocracy.

At the age of twenty-five, Mr. Alcott began his career as a teacher in an Episcopal Academy at Cheshire, Ct. His family were Episcopalians, and he had been confirmed at sixteen. Since the age of eighteen when he started for Virginia as a candidate for a school, he had been theorizing upon the art of teaching and had thought out many of the principles of what, a century later, began to be called the "New Education." He undertook, perhaps too rapidly, to apply his theories in the conduct of the Cheshire Academy. His experiments occasioned a vast amount of controversy, in which Connecticut conservatism gained a victory, and Mr. Alcott retired from the school at the end of two years' service. His results however had been sufficient to convince him of the soundness of his principles, and to launch him upon the troubled career of educational reform.

Among a few intelligent friends and sympathizers who rallied to Mr. Alcott's side in this controversy, was Rev. Samuel J. May, a Unitarian minister then of Brooklyn, Ct., at whose house, in 1827, Mr. Alcott met Mr. May's sister Abbie, who shared fully her brother's enthusiasm for the new education and its persecuted apostle. Miss May began her relations with Mr. Alcott as his admirer and champion, a dangerous part for an enthusiastic young lady to play, as the sequel proved when, three years later, she became Mrs. Alcott.

Mrs. Alcott was the daughter of a Boston merchant, Col. Joseph May, and his wife, Dorothy Sewall, daughter of Samuel Sewall and his wife, Elizabeth Quincy, sister of Dorothy Quincy, wife of John Hancock. By the marriage of Joseph May and Dorothy Sewall, two very distinguished lines of ancestry had been united. Under her father's roof, Mrs. Alcott had enjoyed every comfort and the best of social advantages. She was tall, had a fine physique, good intellect, warm affections, and generous sympathies, but it would have astonished her to have been told that she was bringing to the marriage altar more than she received; and however much it may have cost her to be the wife of an unworldly idealist, it was precisely his unworldly idealism that first won her admiration and then gained her heart.

Life may have been harder for Mrs. Alcott than she anticipated, but she knew very well that she was abjuring riches. Two years before her marriage, her brother had written her: "Mr. Alcott's mind and heart are so much occupied with other things that poverty and riches do not seem to concern him much." She had known Mr. Alcott three years and had enjoyed ample opportunity to make this observation herself. Indeed, two months after her marriage, she wrote her brother, "My husband is the perfect personification of modesty and moderation. I am not sure that we shall not blush into obscurity and contemplate into starvation." That she had not repented of her choice a year later, may be judged from a letter to her brother on the first anniversary of her marriage: "It has been an eventful year,—a year of trial, of happiness, of improvement. I can wish no better fate to any sister of my sex than has attended me since my entrance into the conjugal state."

That Mr. Alcott, then in his young manhood, had qualities which, for a young lady of refinement and culture, would compensate for many privations is evident. Whether he was one of the great men of his generation or not, there is no doubt he seemed so. When, in 1837, Dr. Bartol came to Boston, Mr. Emerson asked him whom he knew in the city, and said: "There is but one man, Mr. Alcott." Dr. Bartol seems to have come to much the same opinion. He says: "Alcott belonged to the Christ class: his manners were the most gentle and gracious, under all fair or unfair provocation, I ever beheld; he had a rare inborn piety and a god-like incapacity in the purity of his eyes to behold iniquity."

These qualities were not visible to the public and have no commercial value, but that Mr. Alcott had them is confirmed by the beautiful domestic life of the Alcotts, by the unabated love and devotion of Mrs. Alcott to her husband in all trials, and the always high and always loyal appreciation with which Louisa speaks of her father, even when perhaps smiling at his innocent illusions. The character of Mr. Alcott is an important element in the life of Louisa because she was his daughter, and because, being unmarried, her life and fortunes were his, or those of the Alcott family. She had no individual existence.

Two years after the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Alcott, Louisa, their second daughter was born in Germantown, Pa., where Mr. Alcott was in charge of a school belonging to the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The date was November 29, 1832, also Mr. Alcott's birthday, always observed as a double festival in the family. In 1834, Mr. Alcott opened his celebrated school in Masonic Temple in Boston, Mass., under the auspices of Dr. Channing and with the assured patronage of some of the most cultivated and influential families in the city. As assistants in this school, he had first Miss Sophia Peabody afterward Mrs. Hawthorne, her sister Miss Elizabeth Peabody, and finally Margaret Fuller.

The school opened prosperously and achieved remarkable success until, in 1837, the publication of Mr. Alcott's "Conversations on the Gospels" shocked the piety of Boston newspapers, whose persistent and virulent attacks frightened the public and caused the withdrawal of two-thirds of the pupils. Mr. Emerson came to Mr. Alcott's defence, saying: "He is making an experiment in which all the friends of education are interested," and asking, "whether it be wise or just to add to the anxieties of this enterprise a public clamor against some detached sentences of a book which, on the whole, is pervaded by original thought and sincere piety." In a private note, Mr. Emerson urged Mr. Alcott to give up his school, as the people of Boston were not worthy of him. Mr. Alcott had spent more than the income of the school in its equipment, creating debts which Louisa afterward paid; all his educational ideals were at stake, and he could not accept defeat easily. However, in 1839, a colored girl was admitted to the school, and all his pupils were withdrawn, except the little negress and four whites, three of whom were his own daughters. So ended the Temple school. The event was very fateful for the Alcott family, but, much as it concerned Mrs. Alcott, there can be no doubt she much preferred that the school should end thus, than that Mr. Alcott should yield to public clamor on either of the issues which wrecked the enterprise.

Louisa was seven years old when this misfortune occurred which shaped the rest of her life, fixing the straitened circumstances in which she was to pass her youth and preparing the burdens which ultimately were to be lifted by her facile pen. Happily the little Alcotts, of whom there were three, were too young to feel the perplexities that harassed their parents and their early years could hardly have been passed more pleasantly or profitably if they had been the daughters of millionaires. The family lived very comfortably amidst a fine circle of relatives and friends in Boston, preached and practised a vegetarian gospel,—rice without sugar and graham meal without butter or molasses,—monotonous but wholesome, spent their summers with friends at Scituate and, in town or country, partly owing to the principles of the new education, partly to the preoccupation of the parents, the children of the family were left in large measure to the teaching of nature and their own experience.

Very abundant moral instruction there was in this apostolic family, both by example and precept, but the young disciples were expected to make their own application of the principles. The result, in the case of Louisa, was to develop a girl of very enterprising and adventurous character, who might have been mistaken for a boy from her sun-burned face, vigorous health, and abounding animal spirits. It was her pride to drive her hoop around the Common before breakfast and she tells us that she admitted to her social circle no girl who could not climb a tree and no boy whom she had not beaten in a race. Her autobiography of this period, she has given us, very thinly disguised, in "Poppy's Pranks."

Meanwhile, her mental faculties were not neglected. Mr. Alcott began the education of his children, in a kindergarten way, almost in their infancy, and before his Boston school closed, Louisa had two or three years in it as a pupil. What his method of education could do with a child of eight years is shown by a poem written by Louisa at that age. The family were then living in Concord, in the house which, in Little Women, is celebrated as "Meg's first home." One early Spring day, Louisa found in the garden a robin, chilled and famished, and wrote these lines:

"Welcome, welcome, little stranger,
Fear no harm, and fear no danger;
We are glad to see you here,
For you sing, Sweet Spring is near.
Now the white snow melts away;
Now the flowers blossom gay:
Come, dear bird, and build your nest,
For we love our robin best."

It will be remembered that this literary faculty, unusual at the age of eight, had been attained by a girl in the physical condition of an athlete, who could climb a tree like a squirrel.

Readers of Little Women will remember what a child's paradise "Meg's first home" was, with its garden full of fruit-trees and shade, and its old empty barn which the children alternately turned into a drawing-room for company, a gymnasium for romps, and a theatre for dramatic performances. "There," says Louisa, "we dramatized the fairy tales in great style," Jack the Giant-killer and Cinderella being favorites, the passion for the stage which came near making Louisa an actress, as also her sister Anna, getting early development.

The fun and frolic of these days were the more enjoyed because they alternated with regular duties, with lessons in housework with the mother and language lessons with the father, for which he now had abundant leisure. As he had no other pupils, he could try all his educational experiments in his own family. Among other exercises, the children were required to keep a journal, to write in it regularly, and to submit it to the examination and criticism of the parents. Facility in writing thus became an early acquisition. It was furthered by a pretty habit which Mrs. Alcott had of keeping up a little correspondence with her children, writing little notes to them when she had anything to say in the way of reproof, correction, or instruction, receiving their confessions, repentance, and good resolutions by the next mail.

Some of these maternal letters are very tender and beautiful. One to Louisa at the age of eleven, enclosed a picture of a frail mother cared for by a faithful daughter, and says, "I have always liked it very much, for I imagined that you might be just such an industrious daughter and I such a feeble and loving mother, looking to your labor for my daily bread." There was prophecy in this and there was more prophecy in the lines with which Louisa replied:

"I hope that soon, dear mother,
You and I may be
In the quiet room my fancy
Has so often made for thee,—
The pleasant, sunny chamber,
The cushioned easy-chair,
The book laid for your reading,
The vase of flowers fair;
The desk beside the window
When the sun shines warm and bright,
And there in ease and quiet,
The promised book you write.
While I sit close beside you,
Content at last to see
That you can rest, dear mother,
And I can cherish thee."

The versification is still juvenile, but there is no fault in the sentiment, and Miss Alcott, in a later note, says, "The dream came true, and for the last ten years of her life, Marmee sat in peace with every wish granted."

Evidently Louisa had begun to feel the pinch of the family circumstances. The income was of the slenderest. Sometimes Mr. Alcott gave a lecture or "conversation" and received a few dollars; sometimes he did a day's farm work for a neighbor; now and then Mr. Emerson called and clandestinely left a bank note, and many valuable packages came out from relatives in Boston; but frugal housekeeping was the chief asset of the family. Discouraging as the outlook was, some bitter experience might have been escaped if the Alcotts had remained in Concord, pursuing their unambitious career. It was, however, the era of social experiments in New England. The famous Brook Farm community was then in the third year of its existence, and it was impossible that Mr. Alcott should not sympathize with this effort to ease the burden of life, and wish to try his own experiment. Therefore, in 1843, being joined by several English socialists, one of whom financed the undertaking, Mr. Alcott started a small community on a worn-out not to say abandoned farm, which was hopefully christened "Fruitlands."

Visiting the community five or six weeks after its inception, Mr. Emerson wrote: "The sun and the evening sky do not look calmer than Alcott and his family at Fruitlands. They seem to have arrived at the fact,—to have got rid of the show, and so to be serene. They look well in July; we will see them in December." An inhospitable December came upon the promising experiment, as it generally has upon all similar enterprises. Under the title Transcendental Wild Oats, in Silver Pitchers, Miss Alcott gives a lively account of the varying humors of this disastrous adventure.

Whatever disappointments and privations the enterprise had in store for their parents, the situation, with its little daily bustle, its limitless range of fields and woods, its flower hunting and berry picking, was full of interest and charm for four healthy children all under the age of twelve years. The fateful December, to which Mr. Emerson postponed his judgment, had not come before the elders were debating a dissolution of the community. "Father asked us if we saw any reason for us to separate," writes Louisa in her journal. "Mother wanted to, she is so tired. I like it." Of course she did; but "not the school part," she adds, "nor Mr. L.", who was one of her teachers. The inevitable lessons interfered with her proper business.

"Fruitlands" continued for three years with declining fortunes, its lack of promise being perhaps a benefit to the family in saving for other purposes a small legacy which Mrs. Alcott received from her father's estate. With this and a loan of $500 from Mr. Emerson, she bought "The Hillside" in Concord, an estate which, after the Alcotts, was occupied by Mr. Hawthorne. Thither Mrs. Alcott removed with her family in 1846, and the two years that followed is the period which Louisa looked back upon as the happiest of her life, "for we had," she says, "charming playmates in the little Emersons, Channings, Hawthornes, and Goodwins, with the illustrious parents and their friends to enjoy our pranks and share our excursions." Here the happy girlish life was passed which is so charmingly depicted in Little Women, and here at the age of sixteen, Louisa wrote, for the entertainment of the little Alcotts and Emersons, a series of pretty fairy tales, still to be read in the second volume of Lulu's Library.

Much as there was to enjoy in these surroundings, the problem of subsistence had not been solved and, with the growth of her daughters toward womanhood, it became more difficult for Mrs. Alcott. The world had, apparently, no use for Mr. Alcott; there were six persons to be fed and clothed, and no bread-winner in the family. The story is that one day, a friend found her in tears and demanded an explanation. "Abby Alcott, what does this mean?" asked the visitor, and when Mrs. Alcott had made her confessions, her friend said, "Come to Boston and I will find you employment."

Accepting the proposition, the family removed to Boston in 1848, and Mrs. Alcott became the agent of certain benevolent societies. Mr. Alcott taught private classes, or held "conversations"; the older daughters, Anna and Louisa, found employment; and we may think of the family as fairly comfortable during the seven or eight years of its life in Boston. "Our poor little home," says Miss Alcott, "had much love and happiness in it, and was a shelter for lost girls, abused wives, friendless children, and weak and wicked men. Father and mother had no money to give but they gave time, sympathy, help; and if blessings would make them rich, they would be millionaires." Fugitive slaves were among the homeless who found shelter, one of whom Mrs. Alcott concealed in an unused brick oven.

In Miss Alcott's journal of this period, we find the burden of existence weighing very heavily upon her, a state of mind apparently induced by her first expereince in teaching. "School is hard work," she says, "and I feel as though I should like to run away from it. But my children get on; so I travel up every day and do my best. I get very little time to write or think, for my working days have begun." Later, she seems to have seen the value of this experience. "At sixteen," she writes, "I began to teach twenty pupils and, for ten years, I learned to know and love children."

Amateur theatricals were still the recreation of the Alcott girls, as they had been almost from infancy, and the stage presented a fascinating alternative to the school-room. "Anna wants to be an actress and so do I," writes Louisa at seventeen. "We could make plenty of money perhaps, and it is a very gay life. Mother says we are too young and must wait. Anna acts splendidly. I like tragic plays and shall be a Siddons if I can. We get up harps, dresses, water-falls, and thunder, and have great fun." Both of the sisters wrote many exciting dramas at this period, and one of Louisa's, "The Rival Prima Donnas," was accepted by the manager of the Boston Theatre, who "thought it would have a fine run" and sent the author a free pass to the theatre, which partly compensated for the non-appearance of the play. Some years later, a farce written by Louisa, "Nat Bachelor's Pleasure Trip, or the Trials of a Good-Natured Man," was produced at the Howard Athenæum, and was favorably received. Christie's experience as an actress, in Miss Alcott's novel entitled, Work, is imaginary in its incidents, but autobiographical in its spirit.

All these experiments in dramatic literature, from Jack the Giant-Killer on, were training the future story-teller. Miss Alcott's first story to see the light was printed in a newspaper at the age of twenty, in 1852, though it had been written at sixteen. She received $5.00 for it, and the event is interesting as the beginning of her fortune. This little encouragement came at a period of considerable trial for the family. The following is from her journal of 1853: "In January, I started a little school of about a dozen in our parlor. In May, my school closed and I went to L. as second girl. I needed the change, could do the wash, and was glad to earn my $2.00 a week." Notice that this is her summer vacation. "Home in October with $34.00 for my wages. After two days' rest, began school again with ten children." The family distributed themselves as follows: "Anna went to Syracuse to teach; father to the west to try his luck,—so poor, so hopeful, so serene. God be with him. Mother had several boarders. School for me, month after month. I earned a good deal by sewing in the evening when my day's work was done."

Mr. Alcott returned from the west, and the account of his adventures is very touching: "In February father came home. Paid his way, but no more. A dramatic scene when he arrived in the night. We were awakened by the bell. Mother flew down crying, My Husband. We rushed after and five white figures embraced the half-frozen wanderer who came in, hungry, tired, cold, and disappointed, but smiling bravely and as serene as ever. We fed and warmed and brooded over him, longing to ask if he had made any money; but no one did till little May said, after he had told us all the pleasant things, 'Well, did people pay you?' Then with a queer look he opened his pocket book, and showed one dollar, saying with a smile, 'Only that. My overcoat was stolen, and I had to buy a shawl. Many promises were not kept, and traveling is costly; but I have opened the way, and another year shall do better.' I shall never forget how beautifully mother answered him, though the dear, hopeful soul had built much on his success: but with a beaming face she kissed him, saying, 'I call that doing very well. Since you are safely home, dear, we don't ask anything else.'"

One of Miss Alcott's unfulfilled purposes was to write a story entitled "The Pathetic Family." This passage would have found a place in it. It deserves to be said that Mr. Alcott's faith that he had "opened a way and another year should do better," was justified. Fifteen years later, from one of his western tours, he brought home $700, but, thanks to Louisa's pen, the family were no longer in such desperate need of money.

More than once Miss Alcott declares that no one ever assisted her in her struggles, but that was far from true, as appears from many favors acknowledged in her journal. It was by the kindness of a lady who bought the manuscripts and assumed the risk of publication, that her first book, Flower Fables, was brought out in 1854. It consisted of the fairy tales written six years before for the little Emersons. She received $32.00, a sum which would have seemed insignificant thirty years later when, in 1886, the sale of her books for six months brought her $8,000; but she says, "I was prouder over the $32.00 than over the $8,000."

The picture of Jo in a garret in Little Women, planning and writing stories, is drawn from Louisa's experiences of the following winter. A frequent entry in her journal for this period is "$5.00 for a story" and her winter's earnings are summed up, "school, one quarter, $50, sewing $50, stories, $20." In December we read, "Got five dollars for a tale and twelve for sewing." Teaching, writing, and sewing alternate in her life for the next five years, and, for a year or two yet, the needle is mightier than the pen; but in 1856, she began to be paid $10 for a story, and, in 1859, the Atlantic accepted a story and paid her $50.

A friend for whose encouragement during these hard years, she acknowledges great indebtedness and who appears as one of the characters in her story, entitled Work, was Rev. Theodore Parker, a man as helpful, loving, and gentle as she depicts him, but then much hated by those called orthodox and hardly in good standing among his Unitarian brethren. Miss Alcott, then as ever, had the courage of her convictions, was a member of his Music Hall congregation, and a regular attendant at his Sunday evening receptions, finding him "very friendly to the large, bashful girl who adorns his parlor regularly." She "fought for him," she says, when some one said Mr. Parker "was not a Christian. He is my sort; for though he may lack reverence for other people's God, he works bravely for his own, and turns his back on no one who needs help, as some of the pious do." After Mr. Parker's death, Miss Alcott, when in Boston, attended the church of Dr. C. A. Bartol, who buried her mother, her father and herself.

In 1857, the Alcotts returned to Concord, buying and occupying the Orchard House, which thenceforth became their home. Other family events of the period were, the death of Miss Alcott's sister Elizabeth, Beth in Little Women, the marriage of Anna, Meg in Little Women, and a proposal of marriage to Louisa, serious enough for her to hold a consultation over it with her mother. Miss Alcott is said to have been averse to entangling alliances for herself, to have married off the heroines in her novels reluctantly at the demand of her readers, and never to have enjoyed writing the necessary love-passages.

The year 1860, when Miss Alcott is twenty-seven, has the distinction of being marked in the heading of her journal as "A Year of Good Luck." Her family had attained a comfortable, settled home in Concord; Mr. Alcott had been appointed superintendent of public schools, an office for which he was peculiarly well qualified and in which he was both happy and admirably successful; Anna, the eldest sister, was happily married; May, the youngest, was making a reputation as an artist; and Louisa, in perfect health, having in May before, "walked to Boston, twenty miles, in five hours, and attended an evening party," was becoming a regular contributor to the Atlantic, and receiving $50, $75, and sometimes $100 for her stories.

In these happy conditions, Miss Alcott sat down to a more ambitious attempt at authorship and wrote the first rough draft of Moods, a "problem novel" that provoked much discussion and, though it caused her more trouble than any other of her books, was always dearest to her heart. It was written in a kind of frenzy of poetic enthusiasm. "Genius burned so fiercely," she says, "that for four weeks, I wrote all day and planned nearly all night, being quite possessed by my work. I was perfectly happy, and seemed to have no wants. Finished the book, or a rough draft of it, and put it away to settle." It was not published till four years later. Even in this year of good luck, there seem to have been some privations, as she records being invited to attend a John Brown meeting and declining because she "had no good gown." She sends a poem instead.

The breaking out of the Civil War stirred Miss Alcott's soul to its depths, and we have numerous references to its progress in her journal. "I like the stir in the air," she writes, "and long for battle like a war-horse when he smells powder." Not being permitted to enlist as a soldier, she went into a hospital in Washington as a nurse. Her experiences are graphically and dramatically told in Hospital Sketches. That book, chiefly made from her private letters, met the demand of the public, eager for any information about the great war; it was widely read and, besides putting $200 in her purse, gave her a reputation with readers and publishers. Many applications for manuscript came in and she was told that "any publisher this side of Baltimore would be glad to get a book" from her. "There is a sudden hoist," she says, "for a meek and lowly scribbler. Fifteen years of hard grubbing may come to something yet." Her receipts for the year 1863, amounted to $600 and she takes comfort in saying that she had spent less than one hundred on herself.

The following year, after having been twice rewritten, Moods was brought out and, thanks to the Hospital Sketches, had a ready sale. Wherever she went, she says, she "found people laughing or crying over it, and was continually told how well it was going, how much it was liked, how fine a thing I had done." The first edition was exhausted in a week. An entire edition was ordered by London publishers. She was very well satisfied with the reception of Moods at the time, though in after years when fifty thousand copies of a book would be printed as a first edition, the sale of Moods seemed to her inconsiderable.

The present day reader wonders neither at the eagerness of the public for the book, nor at the criticisms that were freely made upon it. It is interesting from cover to cover and as a study of "a life affected by moods, not a discussion of marriage," it is effective. In spite, however, of the warning of the author, everyone read it as "a discussion of marriage," and few were satisfied. The interest centres in the fortunes of a girl who has married the wrong lover, the man to whom, by preference, she would have given her heart being supposedly dead. Would that he had been, for then, to all appearance, she would have been contented and happy. Unfortunately he returns a year too late, finds the girl married and, though endowed with every virtue which a novelist can bestow upon her hero, he does not know enough to leave the poor woman in peace. On the contrary, he settles down to a deliberate siege to find out how she feels, wrings from her the confession that she is miserable, as by that time no doubt she was, and then convinces her that since she does not love her husband, it is altogether wrong to live under the same roof with him. Surely this was nobly done. Poor Sylvia loves this villain, Miss Alcott evidently loves him, but the bloody-minded reader would like to thrust a knife into him. However, he is not a name or a type, but a real man, or one could not get so angry with him. All the characters live and breathe in these pages, and no criticism was less to the purpose than that the situations were unnatural. Miss Alcott says "The relations of Warwick, Moor, and Sylvia are pronounced impossible; yet a case of the sort exists, and a woman came and asked me how I knew it. I did not know or guess, but perhaps felt it, without any other guide, and unconsciously put the thing into my book."

Everyone will agree that Miss Alcott had earned a vacation, and it came in 1865, in a trip to Europe, where she spent a year, from July to July, as the companion of an invalid lady, going abroad for health. The necessity of modulating her pace to the movements of a nervous invalid involved some discomforts for a person of Miss Alcott's pedestrian abilities, but who would not accept some discomforts for a year of European travel? She had a reading knowledge of German and French, and in the abundant leisure which the long rests of her invalid friend forced upon her, she learned to speak French with facility.

On her return from Europe, she found her circumstances much improved. She had established her position as a regular contributor to the Atlantic whose editor, she says, "takes all I'll send." In 1868, she was offered and accepted the editorship of Merry's Museum at a salary of $500, and, more important, she was asked by Roberts Brothers to "write a girl's book." Her response to this proposition was Little Women, which she calls "the first golden egg of the ugly duckling, for the copyright made her fortune." Two editions were exhausted in six weeks and the book was translated into French, German and Dutch.

Little Men was written, a chapter a day, in November of the same year, and An Old-fashioned Girl, a popular favorite, the year following. Hospital Sketches had not yet outlived its welcome, was republished, with some additions, in 1869, and two thousand copies were sold the first week. She is able to say, "Paid up all debts, thank the Lord, every penny that money can pay,—and now I feel as if I could die in peace." Besides, she has invested "$1,200 for a rainy day," and is annoyed because "people come and stare at the Alcotts. Reporters haunt the place to look at the authoress, who dodges into the woods."

The severe application which her achievement had cost had impaired Miss Alcott's fine constitution and, in 1870, taking May, her artist sister, she made a second trip to Europe, spending the summer in France and Switzerland and the winter in Rome. A charming account of the adventures of this expedition is given in "Shawl-Straps." A pleasant incident of the journey was the receipt of a statement from her publisher giving her credit for $6,212, and she is able to say that she has "$10,000 well invested and more coming in all the time," and that she thinks "we may venture to enjoy ourselves, after the hard times we have had."

In 1872, she published Work: a story of Experience, and it is for the most part, a story of her own experience. "Christie's adventures," she says, "are many of them my own: Mr. Power is Mr. Parker: Mrs. Wilkins is imaginary, and all the rest. This was begun at eighteen, and never finished till H. W. Beecher wrote me for a serial for the Christian Union and paid $3,000 for it." It is one of the most deservedly popular of her books.

In 1877, for Roberts Brothers' "No Name Series," Miss Alcott wrote A Modern Mephistopheles, her least agreeable book, but original, imaginative, and powerful. The moral of the story is that, in our modern life, the devil does not appear with a cloven foot, but as a cultivated man of the world. Miss Alcott's Mephistopheles is even capable of generous impulses. With the kindness of a Good Samaritan, he saves a poor wretch from suicide and then destroys him morally. The devil is apparently a mixed character with a decided preponderance of sinfulness.

Miss Alcott had now reached her forty-fifth year, had placed her family in independent circumstances, thus achieving her early ambition, and the effort began to tell upon her health. A succession of rapid changes soon came upon her. Mrs. Alcott, having attained her seventy-seventh year, was very comfortable for her age. "Mother is cosy with her sewing, letters, and the success of her 'girls,'" writes Miss Alcott in January; but in June, "Marmee grows more and more feeble," and in November the end came. "She fell asleep in my arms," writes Louisa; "My duty is done, and now I shall be glad to follow her."

May, the talented artist sister, whom Louisa had educated, had once taken to Europe and twice sent abroad for study, was married in London in 1878, to a Swiss gentleman of good family and some fortune, Mr. Nieriker. The marriage was a very happy one but the joy of the young wife was brief. She died the year following, leaving an infant daughter as a legacy to Louisa.

Mr. Emerson's death in 1882, was, to her, much like taking a member of her own family: "The nearest and dearest friend father ever had and the man who helped me most by his life, his books, his society. I can never tell all he has been to me,—from the time I sang Mignon's song under his window (a little girl) and wrote letters a la Bettine to him, my Goethe, at fifteen, up through my hard years, when his essays on Self-Reliance, Character, Compensation, Love, and Friendship helped me to understand myself and life, and God and Nature."

Mr. Alcott is still with her, vigorous for his years. In 1879, at the age of eighty, he inaugurated the Concord School of Philosophy, "with thirty students. Father the dean. He has his dream realized at last, and is in glory, with plenty of talk to swim in." The school was, for Miss Alcott, an expensive toy with which she was glad to be able to indulge her father. Personally she cared little for it. On one of her rare visits to it, she was asked her definition of a philosopher, and responded instantly: "My definition is of a man up in a balloon, with his family and friends holding the ropes which confine him to earth and trying to haul him down." For her father's sake, she rejoiced in the success of the enterprise. Of the second season, she writes, "The new craze flourishes. The first year, Concord people stood aloof; now the school is pronounced a success, because it brings money to the town. Father asked why we never went, and Anna showed him a long list of four hundred names of callers, and he said no more."

In addition to the labors which the school laid upon Mr. Alcott, he prepared for the press a volume of sonnets, some of which are excellent, especially one to Louisa:

"Ne'er from thyself by Fame's loud trump beguiled,
Sounding in this and the farther hemisphere,—
I press thee to my heart as Duty's faithful child."

Mr. Alcott seemed to be renewing his youth but, in November, he was prostrated by paralysis. "Forty sonnets last winter," writes Louisa, "and fifty lectures at the school last summer, were too much for a man of eighty-three." He recovered sufficiently to enjoy his friends and his books and lingered six years, every want supplied by his devoted daughter.

With Miss Alcott the years go on at a slower pace, the writing of books alternating with sleepless nights and attacks of vertigo. Jo's Boys was written in 1884, fifty thousand copies being printed for the first edition. In 1886, her physician forbids her beginning anything that will need much thought. Life was closing in upon her, and she did not wish to live if she could not be of use. In March, 1888, Mr. Alcott failed rapidly, and died on the sixth of the month. Miss Alcott visited him and, in the excitement of leave-taking, neglected to wrap herself properly, took a fatal cold, and two days after, on the day of his burial, she followed him, in the fifty-sixth year of her age. Dr. C. A. Bartol, who had just buried her father, said tenderly at her funeral: "The two were so wont to be together, God saw they could not well live apart."

If Miss Alcott, by the pressure of circumstances, had not been a writer of children's books, she might have been a poet, and would, from choice, have been a philanthropist and reformer. Having worked her own way with much difficulty, it was impossible that she should not be interested in lightening the burdens which lay upon women, in the race of life, and though never a prominent worker in the cause, she was a zealous believer in the right of women to the ballot. She attended the Woman's Congress in Syracuse, in 1875, "drove about and drummed up women to my suffrage meeting" in Concord, she says, in 1879, and writes in a letter of 1881, "I for one don't want to be ranked among idiots, felons, and minors any longer, for I am none of them."



My sisters, don't be afraid of the words, "old maid," for it is in your power to make this a term of honor, not reproach. It is not necessary to be a sour, spiteful spinster, with nothing to do but brew tea, talk scandal and tend a pocket-handkerchief. No, the world is full of work, needing all the heads, hearts, and hands we can bring to do it. Never was there so splendid an opportunity for women to enjoy their liberty and prove that they deserve it by using it wisely. If love comes as it should come, accept it in God's name and be worthy of His best blessing. If it never comes, then in God's name reject the shadow of it, for that can never satisfy a hungry heart. Do not be ashamed to own the truth—do not be daunted by the fear of ridicule and loneliness, nor saddened by the loss of a woman's tenderest ties. Be true to yourselves; cherish whatever talent you possess, and in using it faithfully for the good of others you will most assuredly find happiness for yourself, and make of life no failure, but a beautiful success.

Alcott, Louisa May. Excerpt from "Happy Women," originally published in the New York Ledger, April 11, 1868. In L. M. Alcott: Signature of Reform. Edited by Madeleine B. Stern, pp. 146-49. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.

To say that she might have been a poet does her scant justice. She wrote two or three fine lyrics which would justify giving her a high place among the verse-writers of her generation. "Thoreau's Flute," printed in the Atlantic, has been called the most perfect of her poems, with a possible exception of a tender tribute to her mother. Personally, I consider the lines in memory of her mother one of the finest elegiac poems within my knowledge:

"Mysterious death: who in a single hour
Life's gold can so refine,
And by thy art divine,
Change mortal weakness to immortal power."

There are twelve stanzas of equal strength and beauty. The closing lines of this fine eulogy we may apply to Miss Alcott, for both lives have the same lesson:

"Teaching us how to seek the highest goal,
To earn the true success,—
To live, to love, to bless,—
And make death proud to take a royal soul."


SOURCE: Elbert, Sarah. "The Social Influence." In A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, pp. 205-35. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.

In the following excerpt, Elbert places Alcott's work in the context of contemporary beliefs about gender and the burgeoning women's movement and connects Alcott's concerns about other social issues to her particular brand of domestic feminism.

The 1870s and 1880s witnessed a challenge to woman's rights in the name of science. The notion of woman's limited mental ability, supposedly the product of her specialized reproductive capacity, was never "more fervently held or more highly elaborated than it was in America after the Civil War."1 Alcott impatiently took up this challenge in the pages of Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and Jo's Boys. Women's minds, she insisted, were every bit as curious as men's; female anatomy, however biologically suited for procreation, presented no impediment to serious mental work.

Motives for the renewed differentiation between the sexes were complex, but clear enough to Alcott and her liberal contemporaries. Women were working outside their homes in even greater numbers, and they were often played out against men in the labor market. Middle-class women, both conservative and liberal, were uniting in serious campaigns to reform public life and public policy in the name of family welfare. Each new role played by women seemed to spur their sex on to greater demands for education, suffrage, and even equal pay for equal work.

As a consequence, "Many Americans believed the need to draw a clear line between appropriately male and female activities had become acute."2 Dr. Edward Clarke drew that line on Louisa's homeground, speaking at the New England Woman's Club of Boston in 1872.3 He cited Darwin and Spencer, arguing that it was not so much that one sex was superior, but that the sexes were widely different. His arguments were embellished in his book, Sex in Education: or A Fair Chance for the Girls.4 Men, he claimed, had evolved with a higher metabolic rate than women and a greater tendency to vary; hence they grew progressively stronger and more intelligent than women over the long Descent of Man.5 Because of their biological specificity (and consequently diminished capacity for variance) women were dependent upon men for protection. Motherhood therefore granted women a gentle immunity from the struggle of natural selection, but that same immunity also rendered woman biologically unfit for the mental exertions that stimulated and developed man.

Yours for Reform of All Kinds

Feminists replied to Clarke in The Woman's Journal, and Julia Ward Howe eventually assembled a brilliant array of essays under the title Sex and Education: A Reply to Dr. Clarke's "Sex in Education."6 Louisa May Alcott began her own refutation of Clarke's theses with the novel Eight Cousins. She wrote the first chapters on a farm in Conway, Massachusetts during a summer holiday in 1874. Anna and her sons had accompanied her, and Louisa drew heavily on the boys' adventures and also upon her own childhood recollections. At first she seems intent on creating another version of Little Men for St. Nicholas, the most successful and prestigious magazine for children in late nineteenth-century America.7 But unlike Little Men the new serial focussed on one particular heroine. Attacking the presumption of woman's innate fragility, it demonstrates that mental and physical strength are products of environment and education.

Rose Campbell, the sheltered rich orphan in Alcott's tale, joins an array of strong-minded girls depicted in St. Nicholas from the 1870s through the early twentieth century. Its editor, Mary Mapes Dodge, set a remarkable standard for young people's literature. She published the fiction of Rebecca Harding Davis, Sarah Orne Jewett, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Helen Stuart Campbell, among others, as well as impressive nonfiction works. Eight Cousins appeared for twelve months in 1874 and 1875 alongside reports of a gassiz Club's naturalist projects and reports of children's temperance union meetings.8 All of these offerings were aimed directly at a middle-class audience, but though the tone was uniformly patriotic and genteel, the pervading message was that character is environmentally rather than biologically formed. This conviction enabled Alcott to claim woman's rights as a benefit both for girls' health and America's social welfare.

Rose arrives at the refined home of her Aunt Peace and Aunt Plenty, who cosset and spoil her. The seven male Campbell cousins assume that Rose is a "delicate little creter," which indeed she is at the start of the book.9 To the proud and prosperous Campbells, Rose's delicacy seems no more than the price of a good breeding. Her first friend is Phoebe, the household's maid and an orphan, like Rose. Phoebe, however, has survived because she is sturdy and self-sufficient. Like Dickens' Charley, she announces, "I'm fifteen now, and old enough to earn my own living."10 Part of Rose's education involves learning (through Phoebe) how the other half lives. Her schooling also includes learning to make "bread and button holes," because her remarkable Uncle Alec, physician and guardian, believes that all men and women should be self-reliant. The good Doctor, once a sailor, has his own work bag "out of which he produced a thimble without a top, and, having threaded his needle, he proceeded to sew on the buttons so handily that Rose was much impressed and amused."11

Doctor Alec Campbell must battle his fashionable sisters-in-law and his own spinster sisters to provide a sensible wardrobe of warm, loose clothing, and a healthy diet of milk and gingerbread instead of hot bread, coffee, and patent medicines for his niece. He wins out, and with the aid of shiny ice-skates and plenty of outdoor exercise, Rose's character, intelligence, and physical strength bloom harmoniously during the year-long educational experiment.12

Phoebe does not need lessons in domestic science, nor is her life lacking in physical exertion. Rose finds her "maid, friend, teacher" in silent tears, however, frustrated in an attempt to teach herself to read and write. A "broken slate that had blown off the roof, and inch or two of pencil, an old almanac for a reader, several bits of brown or yellow paper ironed smoothly and sewed together for a copy-book, and the copies of sundry receipts … these, with a small bottle of ink and a rusty pen" make up Phoebe's school supplies.13 In contrast, Rose possesses one of the most delightful chambers imaginable. Her bath, toilet table, curio cabinet, and desk are all arranged to facilitate a young lady's love of both reading and primping. At this point Rose realizes that her own well-stocked library and her leisure for reading are unusual privileges, and she sets out to share her knowledge and supplies with Phoebe. Greek and Latin, courtesy of the Campbell cousins, follow literacy, and finally Uncle Alec takes a hand, agreeing to send Phoebe to school. Fortunately, a new cook and maid are being hired, so Phoebe's work may be taken over by others.

Phoebe, however, is not the only person who needs help. Rose is subsequently sent on monthly sojourns to her cousins' homes as a missionary. The indulgent, well-meaning efforts of the boys' mothers are unable to offset problem fathers and powerful male peer groups. The adolescent male Campbells reenforce one another in smoking, drinking, fighting, betting, and a general lack of old-fashioned deference to elders. Rose's missionary efforts not only benefit her cousins, they improve her own character and physical health. Alcott's message is clear: true womanhood involves setting a civilized example to rude male savages; in turn, such cares strengthen and improve little women. Rose announces that she has learned what little girls are made for—"to take care of boys."14

Rose in Bloom

Even in Concord Alcott found that "young American gentlemen, as well as farmers and mill hands" did a great deal of drinking. She expected it, she said, "among the Irish," but such dissolution among native-born Yankee men testified to the need for a wider social influence on the part of reformers. At Franklin and Louisa Sanborn's home she met regularly with Mrs. Julia Ward Howe and William Torrey Harris, and at least once partook of tea with Walt Whitman.15 Her network of intergenerational reformers stretched from Whitman, with his professed love of cold water baths and plain carpenter's dress, to the Woman's Congress at Syracuse, New York, where Julia Ward Howe led the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and even to elegant New York City drawing rooms, where an international coterie of free religionists, actresses, writers, and charity organizers met regularly.

Between the publication of Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, Lousia Alcott travelled the full range of this reformers' network. At Vassar College she listed her duties: "talk with four hundred girls, write in stacks of albums and schoolbooks, and kiss every one who asks me." Vassar students even formed a Little Women Club.16 Their famous teacher, the astronomer Maria Mitchell, refused to give grades; she acknowledged her ties to Emerson and the Transcendental Circle: "You cannot mark a human mind because there is no intellectual unit."17 Vice-president of the American Social Science Association, mature both intellectually and emotionally, Mitchell embodied Alcott's ideal of true womanhood.

In 1875, Mitchell offered an opening prayer from the platform of the Woman's Congress at Syracuse, New York.18 Louisa, who hated making speeches, attended this conference and signed numerous autographs while listening carefully to the full range of woman's issues. Temperance, coeducation, domestic science, suffrage, and the wrongs of poorly-paid working women were all represented and eloquently described. Rose in Bloom and Jo's Boys put these issues before a sympathetic middle-class audience.

Later she visited New York City, where she found the contrasts between rich and poor described at the woman's congress all too visible. Dressed in silks, she attended the opera, the theater, and found herself the honored guest of Sorosis, the most advanced and liberal women's club in the city. At Mrs. Croly's reception she found herself sharing guest-of-honor status with the young poet, Oscar Wilde. Twenty-seven years old, he had just won the Newdigate Prize for English verse.19 Louisa met socially prominent people at the Frothinghams' and the Botta's, and also sampled the water cure and spartan diet of the Bath Hotel in lower New York. Thanksgiving Day found her sharing a carriage ride with her friend Sallie Holley, teacher and missionary to freedmen and women.20

On Christmas Day during the same trip to New York, Louisa visited the Tombs, a well-known home for newsboys, and Randalls Island Hospital. She helped give out toys and sweets to poor babies "born of want and sin" who suffered "every sort of deformity, disease, and pain." In letters to Concord she described "one mite so eaten up with sores that his whole face was painted with some white salve—its head covered with an oilskin cap; one eye gone, and the other half filmed over." This babe, she said, could only "moan and move its feet till I put a gay red dolly in one hand and a pink candy in the other; then the dim eye brightened, the hoarse voice said feebly, 'tanky lady' and I left it contentedly sucking the sweetie and trying to see its dear new toy."21

The vivid contrast between fashionable drawing rooms and Randalls Island became the focus for Rose in Bloom. 22 Alcott has her heroine, Rose Campbell, take up the causes of poor children, ill-paid working women, and temperance. Alcott also portrays (through Rose and Phoebe) the growing gap between reform-minded middle-class women and their working-class sisters. Rose and Phoebe, can no longer overlook the material and social distances between mistress and maid. After several years abroad with Uncle Alec, the two young women return sharing a belief that "it is as much a right and a duty for women to do something with their lives as for men."23 Phoebe's imperative is clear: she must support herself. However, Prince Charlie, the most dashing of Rose's Campbell cousins, reminds Rose that a well-to-do girl's proper career is marriage and motherhood. Rose angrily asks him, "Would you be contented to be told to enjoy yourself for a little while then marry and do nothing more til you die?"24 The fact that women possess minds, souls, hearts, ambition, and talent does not preclude marriage and motherhood, but Rose vows to prove that she is something beside "a housekeeper and a baby tender" before yielding to love.25

Phoebe's natural gift for music is cultivated by professional training, and she launches a career as a choir singer and music teacher. A brilliant concert appearance on behalf of an orphan home eventually leads Archie Campbell, Rose's eldest cousin, to propose marriage to Phoebe. Although love is unquestionably his only motive, and although Phoebe returns his affection, Alcott plays out their courtship for the entire length of the novel because Phoebe must overcome the objections of snobbish Campbell mothers and aunts. Not surprisingly, it is Phoebe who feels obliged to prove her worth, and Rose who cannot understand why the young couple should not marry at once. Rose naively tries to minimize the differences between Phoebe and herself by wearing simple gowns and fresh flowers when the two young women attend the same dances. Phoebe, however, continues to call her patroness, "little mistress." Working in the city is Phoebe's only escape from social inferiority.

Left to her own devices, with only lazy cousin Charlie to "play with Rose," the young heiress falls prey to his charming attentions. She mistakes romance for love, and in the fashionable social season she also finds that gift-giving is a sentimental mask for ordinary greed. Charlie himself is gradually revealed as an alcoholic, lured by fast male chums to overindulgences he cannot control. The temperance message is strong in Rose in Bloom; liquor is the downfall not only of working men who abuse their families, but of gentlemen who cannot observe the old-fashioned moderation exemplified in domestic holiday toasts. Alcott draws a clear line between domestic abundance and a secretive popping of corks behind the closed doors of all-male smoking-rooms. In fact, it hardly matters if the drinking environment is private library or public saloon; the effect is disastrously the same. Similarly, contra dancing represents an old-fashioned intergenerational amusement, while "round" dancing at fashionable balls leads to a romantic intensity that is perilously separate from the safe circle of kin and friends. With the exception of Uncle Alec, all the adult men in the Campbell clan desert domesticity, bent on making money or escaping an imperfect homelife. Fashionable women, Alcott argues here as in earlier novels, are somewhat to blame, failing to create happy homes for husbands and children. Happy homes, in turn, are part of a dense social network which protects and sustains the individual.

Louisa Alcott's own background included her father's enjoyment of New England hard cider, and the author herself admitted she liked a glass of champagne at fashionable New York suppers. Her temperance advocacy is nonetheless genuine; it was immoderate indulgence in members of their own class that led many liberal, sophisticated reformers to support temperance. A founder of the Concord Women's Temperance Society, Louisa linked that cause to woman's suffrage. She wrote her publisher, "We are going to meet the Governor, council and legislature at Mrs. Tudor's next Wednesday and have a grand-set-to. I hope he will come out of the struggle alive."26

Conservative church women, previously aloof to woman's rights activities, often became public activists in the Women's Crusade, the temperance organization which soon became the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Frances Willard, subsequently president of the W. C. T. U., regarded the issue of alcohol as the single most important vehicle in persuading women of the helplessness of their sex to defend self and family. If women were dependent upon men as a natural consequence of biology, they were also helpless before the ruin visited upon them by intemperate men. Historian Barbara Epstein concludes further that "in the context of discussing mens' drinking, it was possible for women to talk about their own isolation and loneliness." Moreover, "Women could hardly object to their husbands' involvement in their work, since women's livelihood depended on it, but they could object to their husbands' socializing with other men in their free time. The saloon thus became a symbol for the larger issues of the exclusion of women and children from men's lives."27

Charlie Campbell takes the pledge in Rose in Bloom on the eve of sailing to India with his mother. He does so, however, in order to prove he is dependable enough to join the family mercantile business. Predictably, he is lured by friends for a farewell round of drinks in a saloon. Later that cold, snowy night, he is thrown from his horse in a drunken stupor. Eventually discovered and taken home, Charlie develops pneumonia and dies repentent. Rose is thereby saved from marriage to the wrong man, and soon finds herself happily involved in philanthropic work with her bookish cousin, Mac, now a physician and poet.

Rose's true partner for life, Mac, is interesting to Alcott's readers because he so closely resembles Jo March. Like the heroine of Little Women, Mac Campbell is shy, honest, and bookish, but occasionally sarcastic when provoked by too many conventional restrictions. He accompanies Rose to a ball, properly garbed in borrowed broadcloth and white gloves, but before the last German can be danced, "His tie was under one ear, his posy hung upside down, his gloves were rolled into a ball, which he absently squeezed and pounded as he talked, and his hair looked as if a whirlwind had passed over it."28 Mac becomes a physician because he enjoys science as an alternative to fashionable banter and because he wishes to serve the poor. That is not enough to win Rose, however. In the end he achieves her love by proving himself tenderhearted and poetic, an admirer of Emerson's Essays and Thoreau's "Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers."29 Mac, we are told, admired, "Heroism" and "Self-Reliance," while Rose preferred "Love" and "Friendship," as they discuss Emerson's Essays. Friendly arguments over Concord's distinguished ante-bellum literature proves a proper basis for true love, especially if the reader recalls that Charlie Campbell had admired Jane Eyre's Rochester as a hero.

Drawing upon her Christmas visit to Randalls Island and the Newsboys Home, Alcott uses Mac's work in a charity hospital to impress a middle-class audience with the enormity of the social problems around them. After Charlie's death, Rose takes up the cause of poor children who have no chance of fresh air or decent food; she establishes the Campbells' summer farmhouse as a vacation asylum for slum children. This asylum, in addition to the refurbishing of two old tenements as cooperative, low-cost homes for working women, constitutes the philanthropic career Rose chooses as an alternative to fashionable life. Mac, however, is in daily contact with the worst social inequities. One day while on his hospital rounds he comes across a destitute, dying woman who begs him to take care of her baby. He locates the infant in "a miserable place, left in the care of an old hag, who had shut her up alone to keep her out of the way, and there this mite was, huddled in a corner, crying, 'Marmar,' 'marmar' fit to touch a heart of stone."30 The baby has been beaten and starved. Mac's own mother refuses to have an unlovely, dirty orphan baby in her house, and none of the "overcrowded institutions" can give the child the care and love she needs. Rose adopts the child, naming her Dulcinea, and a few months of kindness, food, and fresh air restore the little girl. Her new mother admits, however, that she will never really be a "gay, attractive child," having been born "in sorrow and brought up in misery."31

The point Alcott makes with this incident is that woman's rights and motherhood go hand in hand; Clarke's books, in fact, help feminists to unite the two. Frances Willard, for example, used the slogan of the Canadian temperance women, "Home Protection ballot," in the 1870s.32 Women, she argued, needed suffrage in order to protect their homes from demon liquor. Certainly there was opposition within the woman's temperance movement itself to Willard's firm linkage of woman's suffrage and temperance, but she and her allies persevered in making the connection. In 1879 Willard was elected president of the WCTU and remained in that office until her death. Alcott, who was committed somewhat contradictorily both to woman's special virtue and woman's natural rights, corresponded with President Willard. She notes a letter written to her (in 1880) by a reformed convict; the man had heard Louisa read a story at Concord Prison, and wished to explain that drink had led him to steal in the first place. Alcott kept track of him, after checking his story with the prison warden, and she kept up correspondence until he left for work in South America. Alcott's letter of reference and the interest of Frances Willard in the case helped his cause, and Louisa wrote proudly, "Glad to have said a word to help the poor boy."33

Rose must marry because a spinster heroine might prove Clarke's charge that education and full-time public service made women unfit for motherhood. Alcott's fictional couples, however, reflect the demographic transformation in her own lifetime; she limits the March women's progeny to three children for Meg, two for Jo, and only one for Amy. Jo's Boys also offers the full range of demographic changes: each of the March women lives out a genuinely representative mid-nineteenth-century woman's life cycle.34 Although Alcott marries her heroine, Rose, to young Doctor Alec Campbell in a final chapter appropriately entitled "Short and Sweet," Alcott acknowledges spinsterhood as a real choice in Jo's Boys. In any case, Rose and Mac are a reformist couple, pledged to "work together and try to make the world better by the music and the love we leave behind us when we go." Rose admittedly has no special talents; she does possess inherited money, which Alcott darkly intimates could only leave her prey to unscrupulous fortune hunters in the absence of a watchful, temperate mate and philanthropic endowments.…

Domesticity and Feminism

Only one young man in Alcott's later fiction actually cooks. He is a foundry watchman, "a young and pleasant-looking fellow, with a merry eye, an honest brown face and a hearty voice."35 A poor orphaned sewing girl finds a friend in him, and "Letty's Tramp" (who is not a tramp at all) offers her shelter from a snowstorm, a pallet by his fire, a sandwich and hot coffee. The author knows that a working girl needs the stimulant that only overexcites a lady of leisure. Letty and her friend Joe fall in love because he "tried to express his sympathy in deeds as well as words."36 Not only does he cook her supper and share his breakfast next morning, he also finds work for her after learning that the putting-out system pays Letty only six cents, "sometimes only four," for each shirt she sews. Joe decides to reject the products of this sweat labor: "Hanged if I buy another."37 Instead, he orders a bale of red flannel and stakes Letty to a small shirtmaking business, the finished products to be sold to his fellow foundrymen. Joe and Letty marry eventually, but we never learn if he continues to make the coffee and sandwiches.

Moods presented a large class of women identified as a "sad sisterhood," forced by unfortunate circumstances into the world. Work expanded on their trials and sufferings in a hostile world. Little Women, in turn, gave domestic reformers an opportunity to demonstrate the possibilities for women in democratic households. Alcott later reached towards enlarged institutions to reproduce the March family's mutual sacrifice. Little Men began a coeducational experiment in cooperative democracy. Then, in the uncompleted Diana and Persis, Alcott expresses her suspicion that a private domestic solution to the woman problem is not possible. Even at Lawrence University, in Jo's Boys, the true union of domesticity and feminism is incomplete. Jo herself is free to write and supervise community morality, but her domestic freedom depends upon the excellent money she earns; moreover; Fritz never challenges her household authority. Even earning a living and having an agreeable, almost invisible spouse is not enough; Jo's liberty also depends upon Daisy's migratory cooking, Meg's baby-sitting, and her own paid household staff.

The March sisters and their progeny at Laurence University never really yield control of their lives to anyone. It is not even clear that children of the March family attend classes there. The college really exists for those who lack family, wealth, or social influence to place them comfortably in the world. The March sons and daughters find their way in that world through a network of family and friends, with only vague references to college educations. Laurence, then, is a vehicle for presenting the feminist demand for coeducation in a pleasing, comfortable way. It is also Alcott's means of reassuring her public about new reformist institutions. Like Little Women, Little Men and An Old Fashioned Girl, the final March novel tries to make social change seem like old, familiar history.

Little Women has a timeless resonance which reflects Alcott's grasp of her historical framework in the 1860s. The novel's ideas do not intrude themselves upon the reader because the author wholly controls the implications of her imaginative structure. Sexual equality is the salvation of marriage and the family; democratic relationships make happy endings. This is the unifying imaginative frame of Little Women which then expands into Little Men and bravely attempts to work itself out as historical law in Jo's Boys.

The last effort fails, but Alcott is in good company. The progressive social imagination embodied in the utopian works of Twain, Howells, and Gilman (only a few years after Jo's Boys ) accepted human nature as constant, but posited history as advancing toward ideal freedom. The inherent contradictions of this position troubled all utopian writers, perhaps Alcott the most of all. She made her choice after the Civil War in favor of the progressive framework, but its concepts never fully live in the fictional worlds she created. Also, despite her debt to the Romantic belief in conflict as the source of creativity, she feared the radical implications of conflict after the war.

It was not enthusiasm which frightened her. Alcott was on the side of Anne Hutchinson and Hester Prynne; it was time to realize the brave new relationship between the sexes prophesized in The Scarlet Letter. By the 1880s, that new relationship was as contradictory in her own work as it was in the woman's rights movement itself. She insisted on the full human status of her heroines while also claiming that women must play a major role in society because of their capacity for nurturance. Daisy exercised that gift traditionally by caring for her extended family, while Nan demonstrated her womanly nature by becoming a woman's physician and healing the members of her own sex. Both heroines, of course, deserve suffrage, and therefore the right-minded heroes in Jo's Boys support their claim. The best of Jo's boys, in fact, learn to expand their nurturing capacities, and in becoming more like women they become more fully human as well.

Sexual segregation permitted Harvard's President Eliot to claim that "the world knows next to nothing about the natural mental capacities of the female sex."38 Alcott therefore insisted that coeducation was the best method of teaching one sex about the capacities of the other. To that end, Josie competes almost rudely with visiting Harvard students in tennis matches and debates about woman's suffrage. Such competitions, incidentally, separate the real men from the boys; weaker members of the male sex give up quickly in the face of feminist challenge. Defeated men, Alcott says, seek feminine balm for their wounded vanity; they marry girls who are willing to mother them. Having made a strong case for women's natural rights, Alcott then admits a fear that girls, overly protected in youth, might lack the aggressiveness necessary in traditionally masculine territory. She recognized that intellectual and physical skills alone were not enough, and notes in Rose in Bloom that "we do our duty better by the boys … the poor little women are seldom provided with any armor worth having; and, sooner or later, they are sure to need it, for every one must fight her own battle, and only the brave and strong can win."39 Young women needed the experience of a male-dominated society, she thought, in order to prepare themselves for the "ups and downs of life."

At the same time, the author of Little Women suspected that democratic domesticity was itself a product of women's segregation from the power struggles of the larger world. In order to reform society, women must have some means of maintaining their own sense of idealism and mutual sacrifice in a coeducational world. The March sisters therefore re-create the old sewing circle, passing on the little women's spirit of egalitarian domesticity to a new generation of coeds who might otherwise succumb totally to male values—and consequently reject the domestic habits that link them to ordinary women outside the university community. Women, Alcott argues, will not remake the world by becoming just like men. Both sexes are united in the old familiar way at the close of Jo's Boys when Nat plays "the street melody he gave them the first night he came to Plumfield." All of the others remember it and join in singing.

Oh, my heart is sad and weary
Everywhere I roam, still
Longing for the old plantation
And for the old folks at home.

Ancestors and Immigrants

Next to civil war, the conflict Alcott and her friends feared most was brewing in the struggles of immigrants, freedmen, women, industrial workers, and angry small farmers. These groups constituted a growing numerical majority in the United States. True, progressivism at its most rigorous argued that "The Law is Progress: The Result Democracy."41 But for Alcott a popular victory was cause for celebration only when the victors were familiar native stock whose leaders were of unquestioned good breeding and reputation (such as her friends).

When late nineteenth-century American society expanded beyond the communal myth of the March cottage, Louisa Alcott shifted her perspective uneasily. The primacy of biology over culture, an idea which had never really been defeated by ante-bellum reformers, made a strong come-back in reaction to the woman's rights movement. Combatting this resurgence strengthened Alcott's conviction that no inherent differences existed between races and ethnic groups either. If environment actually shaped human behavior, then Alcott and her set were more determined than ever to provide a single national culture fashioned in their own image. They generally assumed that their own dominance was the result of social laws beyond individual control, thereby absolving themselves from responsibility for institutionalizing poverty, racial and sexual discrimination, and the virtual annihilation of American Indian tribal life. Much of the injustice seemed a regrettable by-product of progress; ultimately there would be abundance for all. They counted upon social influence to blend Americans within a balanced society. In Jo's Boys, for instance, Alcott tries to accept the social structure around her as given.

She never questioned its historical origins. Believing that her beloved band of reformers had fought for progress, she found it hard to question their achievement. Indeed, there had been great changes: the emancipation of slaves was the greatest of all victories. Louisa deliberately used the old antislavery language as proof of her women's rights allegiance; in 1885 she told Lucy Stone, "After a fifty year acquaintance with the noble men and women of the anti-slavery cause, the sight of the glorious end to their faithful work, I should be a traitor to all I most love, honor and desire to imitate, if I did not covet a place among those who are giving their lives to the emancipation of the white slaves of America."42

Although they defend social stability, Alcott's last works also attempt to persuade readers to accept and advance social change. That there were contradictions between democratic ideals and social reality, Alcott never denied. She had lived through a period of extraordinary social ferment. Like many of her circle, including Harris, Sanborn, Cheney, Croly, Abba May and Julia Ward Howe, she was less fearful of destroying the individual than she was of civil war. In any case, molding society into line with the values already held by her set seemed more or less the natural working out of Providence—with a little help from the "best people." It must be said as an explanation, if not an excuse, that Alcott never forgot the examples of David Thoreau, Frank Sanborn, and John Brown. Once she had fiercely supported the effort to arm slaves against their masters, knowing that ownership of human beings is the worst example of property rights. Similarly, she thought that good people would refuse to accept the degradation and exploitation of their fellow human beings after emancipation.

Social roles now seemed to have some intrinsic merit. In Alcott's earlier fiction, stepping out of a role allowed her heroines to see society more truly—as Jo does when she stomps aound in unlaced boots uttering rather mild boyish slang. But Jo's role-swapping did not change society. In Jo's Boys, her namesake, Josie, does not need to pretend at being a boy. A modern girl, never outside her role, she plays tennis in comfortable clothes, swims and dives like a porpoise, and insists on acting as a profession, not as a mere vent for pent-up feelings. Woman's social role had indeed changed between 1868 and 1885, and the "great changes" are evident in the hope Alcott holds out to a generation of coeds at Laurence University.

From a nineteenth-century feminist perspective, women needed a social structure to replace the code of laissez faire individualism. They could not desert society and light out to the territories as Dan does in Jo's Boys. Alcott, moreover, does not set her utopia backwards, as Twain does in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), or forward, as Bellamy does in Looking Backward (1888). Although her society at Laurence University somewhat resembles Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915), Alcott does not remove men from utopia to achieve social harmony and rational planning.

Jo's Boys is set in Alcott's last historical moment. It chronicles the gains made in her lifetime, but gathers them up into one great cornucopia at Plumfield. There her readers may observe the scattered gains already integrated into a social system. Young men and women have a free, open relationship with one another. They eat healthily, exercise, and work hard in anticipation of happy useful lives. Their educated talent is dedicated to social welfare. Only indolent, dull sons of wealth loll at Harvard with no important plans for the future; Alcott intimates that they will be superfluous in the new order.

For all her energy in depicting a brave new world, Alcott cannot make its inhabitants compelling. Josie at fourteen is a "pretty little lass" with "curly dark hair, bright eyes, and a very expressive face." But she does not capture our hearts as Jo did with her wonderful mixture of self-will and self-sacrifice. Josie has talent but little imagination; she is all common sense. Moreover, she has no apparent ties to her sister Daisy, and unlike Jo, who resented her sisters' marriages, Josie willingly serves as John's go-between in his courtship of Alice Healey. The earlier little women had clung to their childhood and their siblings, but Josie cannot wait to grow up. Young womanhood, Alcott argues, is now glorious independence for those with talent, discipline, and a college education.

There are moments of nostalgia in Jo's Boys, but they are all for former days of adversity. Moreover, the poor young people at Laurence acquiesce too easily to advice about patience, hard work, and dressmaking. Alcott has not lost her feeling for youth—Dan's plight is evocative of brave John Sulie in Hospital Sketches —but somehow the new little women seem a tame group. It is as if life lies outside the gates of utopia. The ragged children who wander in and out of stories in St. Nicholas and the collected tales of Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag, for example, have the warm spark of Alcott's earliest heroes and heroines. Her later feminist men and women have benefitted greatly from the earlier band's efforts and they do care about the ragged children and working men and women. Alcott never quite saw the world she imagined in Jo's Boys and she could not portray it as reality. To the end, a "cry for bread and hunger for home" was the woman problem as she knew it.


  1. Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism (New Haven, 1982), xv.
  2. Ibid. Rosenberg's chapter, "In the Shadow of Dr. Clarke," graphically details the predicament of Alcott's set.
  3. The Woman's Journal reported Dr. Clarke's speech in its Dec. 21, 1872 edition. Julia Ward Howe, an editor, then followed with several months coverage of the ensuing debates.
  4. Edward Clarke, Sex in Education: or A Fair Chance for the Girls (Boston, 1873).
  5. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols. (London, 1871). For the popular depiction of the Darwinian controversy see issues of Popular Science Monthly from the mid-1870s through the 1880s. The social significance of woman's biological specialization is discussed in Charles Rosenberg, No Other Gods: On Science and American Social Thought (Baltimore, 1976).
  6. Julia Ward Howe, ed., Sex and Education: A Reply to Dr. Clarke's "Sex in Education" (Cambridge, Mass., 1874). See also Anna C. Brackett, The Education of American Girls (New York, 1874) and Eliza B. Duffey, No Sex in Education: or An Equal Chance for both Girls and Boys (Philadelphia, 1874). The latter two books are recommended in Louisa May Alcott Jo's Boys (Boston, 1886), Chapter 17, "Among the Maids."
  7. Madeleine B. Stern, Louisa May Alcott (London, New York, 1957), pp. 236-45. For an excellent description of St. Nicholas and the importance of juvenile magazines see Jane Benardette and Phyllis Moe, Companions of Our Youth: Stories by Women for Young People's Magazines, 1865-1900 (New York, 1980).
  8. Ibid. Louisa May Alcott continued to publish in juvenile magazines until the end of her career. Letters to Mary Mapes Dodge, in particular, appear throughout Ednah Cheney, ed., Louisa May Alcott: Life, Letters and Journals (Boston, 1928), chapter 11, "Last Years."
  9. Louisa May Alcott Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill (Boston, 1890), chapter 2, "The Clan," p. 18.
  10. Ibid., chapter 1, "Two Girls," p. 5.
  11. Ibid. chapter 16, "Bread and Button-Holes," p. 190.
  12. Ibid., chapter 28, "Fashion and Physiology," p. 211.
  13. Ibid. chapter 22, "Something to Do," p. 255.
  14. Ibid. chapter 24, "Which?" p. 279.
  15. Stern, Louisa May Alcott, p. 295. In 1862 Frank Sanborn married his cousin, Louisa Augusta Leavitt, after the death of his first wife, Ariana Walker. Ariana, a close friend of Ednah Dow Cheney, was consumptive, dying eight days after her wedding in 1854. Frank and Louisa Sanborn had three sons. Louisa May Alcott maintained close ties with the Sanborns, and included a poem by one of the Sanborn boys in Under the Lilacs.
  16. Cheney, ed., Louisa May Alcott, chapter 10 (Feb. 1875).
  17. Helen Wright, "Biographical sketch of Maria Mitchell," ed. E. James Notable American Women (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), II, p. 555.
  18. Ibid. See also Cheney, ed., Louisa May Alcott, chapter 10 (Sept. and Oct. 1875).
  19. See Stern, Louisa May Alcott, pp. 297-98. Anna Charlotte Lynch Botta was a notable hostess, admired by Emerson, among others, who called her home, "the house of expanding doors." Botta also contributed poetry to The Democratic Review and wrote A Hardbook of Universal Literature in 1860. She taught for a time at the Brooklyn Academy for Women.
  20. Cheney, ed., Louisa May Alcott, chapter 10.
  21. Louisa May Alcott to Alcott Family, Dec. 25, 1875, in Ibid., pp. 235-39.
  22. Louisa May Alcott, Rose in Bloom [(Boston, 1876), page references are to 1934 ed.], chapter 1, "Coming Home." This chapter deals with Rose Campbell's adoption of a poor child.
  23. Ibid., p. 10.
  24. Ibid., p. 11.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Cheney, ed., Louisa May Alcott, p. 284 (Letter to Thomas Niles, Feb. 18, 1881).
  27. Barbara Leslie Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity, Women Evangelism and Temperance in Nineteenth Century America (Conn., 1981), p. 106.
  28. Louisa May Alcott, Rose in Bloom, chapter 6, "Polishing Mac," p. 100. Mac is carrying a volume of Thoreau and reading Emerson.
  29. Ibid., chapter 18, "Which Was It?," p. 283.
  30. Ibid., chapter 16, "Good Works," p. 260.
  31. Ibid., chapter 17, "Among the Hay-Cocks," p. 267.
  32. See Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity, and Ruth Bordin, Woman and Temperance, The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 (Philadelphia, 1981).
  33. Cheney, ed., Louisa May Alcott, p. 283.
  34. For discussions of the fact that the mean number of children born to a hypothetical woman dropped in Louisa's lifetime from 6.21 to 3.87, see the following: Peter Uhlenberg, "Changing Configurations of the Life Course," ed. Tamara K. Hareven, Transitions: The Family and the Life Course in Historical Perspective (New York, 1978); Robert V. Wells, "Family History and Demographic Transition," Journal of Social History (Fall 1975), p. 1-19; and Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control Movement and American Society Since 1830 (New York, 1978).
  35. Louisa May Alcott, "Letty's Tramp," The Independent 27, no. 1412 (Dec. 23, 1875); rpt. in The Women's Journal 3, no. 5 (Jan. 29, 1876).
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid. Louisa May Alcott, Rose in Bloom has Rose investing her wealth in cooperative homes for working women.
  38. Quoted in Hugh Hawkins, Between Havard and America: The Educational Leadership of Charles W. Eliot (New York, 1972), p. 198.
  39. Louisa May Alcott, Rose in Bloom, Chapter 1, "Coming Home," p. 9.
  40. Louisa May Alcott, Jo's Boys, chapter 22, "Positively Last Appearance," p. 284.
  41. John Lathrop Motley, Historic Progress and American Democracy (New York, 1869), p. 6.
  42. Louisa May Alcott, letter to The Woman's Journal 14 (Jan. 20, 1883).