LITTLE WOMAN: The Devilish, Dutiful Daughter Louisa May Alcott

By Matteson, John | Humanities, November/December 2009 | Go to article overview

LITTLE WOMAN: The Devilish, Dutiful Daughter Louisa May Alcott


Matteson, John, Humanities


THE GREATEST AMERICAN

LITERARY SENSATION OF THE POST-CIVIL WAR decade had its origins in a conversation between Thomas an editor at the publishing house of Roberts Brothers, and Bronson Alcott, the father of a thirty-five-year-old writer whom his wife had named for a favorite sister, Louisa May. When the elder Alcott and Thomas Niles sat down to talk business in 1868, Louisa May Alcott had a respectable, if still modest, reputation as a highly prolific and versatile author. Her work had appeared several times in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. Her Hospital Sketches, a slightly fictionalized memoir of her work as Union Army nurse, had been hailed as a work of "uncommon merit," and her one published novel, Moods, had been reviewed, if somewhat coolly, by the young Henry James.

But as Louisa herself knew, she had not risen to her full artistic potential. Now her father, in an effort to drum up some work for her, suggested to Niles that Louisa could write him a book of fairy stories. Niles was not taken with the idea; what he really wanted was a book to fill a yawning gap in the juvenile market - a smart, lively novel for girls. He had approached Louisa herself with the same idea the previous autumn. She had told him she would try, and promptly started the project and just as promptly set it aside. It was not simply that she disliked the idea, though that was true enough. Her experience also told her that writing for juveniles "doesn't pay as well as rubbish." Still worse, Alcott considered herself wholly unqualified for the task. An irrepressible tomboy in her youth, Louisa had "never liked girls or [known] many" other than her three siblings: her older sister, Anna, and her younger sisters, Lizzie and May. She saw only a faint possibility that the "queer plays and experiences" that the four of them had shared would interest a popular authence.

All of her concerns, however, were finally outweighed, as they often were, by Louisa's desire to help her father. Bronson Alcott, whose capacity for fascinating conversation was so great that people paid to hear him talk, had repeatedly failed to convert his verbal inspirations into writing. Nevertheless, he was now revising a philosophical manuscript called "Tablets," which was possibly the best work he had ever done. Niles, however, would take Branson's book only on one condition. He must have Louisa's book for girls. That settled it.

Louisa flung herself into the project. She liked the idea of using the name of a month, like her own middle name, as a surname of the family of girls that she would closely base on herself and her sisters. Because she wanted a colder, harsher month, however, the Alcotts became not the Mays, but the Marches. Inspired by her own rough-and-tumble adolescence, she also fancied the idea of a tomboy main character whose given name could be shortened to sound like a boy's; within her own family, she had been known as "Lu." Thus Josephine or "Jo" March was born.

Writing at the small, semicircular desk that her father had built for her, barely taking time to eat or sleep, Louisa produced 402 manuscript pages in two months and then collapsed from fatigue. Her heart heavy, her head "full of pain from overwork," Louisa still entertained few hopes for the thick packet she sent off to Niles under the titie "Little Women."

For a woman who liked to observe that everything in her life went "by contraries," the contrast between Alcott' s expectations regarding Little Women and its phenomenal success was only one in a series of improbable circumstances that influenced both her character and her art. These circumstances originated largely within her family, for there could have been no father more unusual than Bronson Alcott.

In an age when few fathers took primary responsibility for the care of their children, Bronson was so obsessed with the subject of parenthood that he kept exhaustive journals that recorded every event in the early growth and development of his three eldest daughters. …

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LITTLE WOMAN: The Devilish, Dutiful Daughter Louisa May Alcott
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