The Alcott of Aquarius - Articulating a Practical Christianity, Louisa May Alcott Examined the Struggles and Triumphs of Young Girls and Revolutionized the Writing of Children's Books

By Morrow, Laurie | The World and I, May 2002 | Go to article overview

The Alcott of Aquarius - Articulating a Practical Christianity, Louisa May Alcott Examined the Struggles and Triumphs of Young Girls and Revolutionized the Writing of Children's Books


Morrow, Laurie, The World and I


Laurie Morrow, a former English professor, is the cohost, with Kelsey Bush-Nadeau, of the talk radio show True North, broadcast weekdays on 1390 AM, WKDR (Burlington, Vermont). The president of Evening Star Grants & Development, Morrow lives in Montpelier, Vermont.

Her nickname was "Louey," and her childhood seems familiar: She sounds like a product of the Age of Aquarius, a flower child's child, with a far-out philosopher pa, devoted to educational change, and a mellow, social-worker mother who was a model of maternal love. This couple was so devoted to the pursuit of their ideological and spiritual dreams that, with the help of some oddball, intellectual friends, they founded a vegetarian commune in Harvard, Massachusetts, devoted to building a utopian society based on Christian love. Also in keeping with the Aquarian experience of the 1960s and '70s, the commune failed ignominiously, leaving Louey's parents scrabbling for money to feed their brood of four daughters. Like some of the Aquarian kids, Louey learned the value of money from the mistakes of her parents and set out on a career intent on achieving financial security.

Who was this girl, who grew up shunning meat and shaped by progressive educational theory?

"Louey" was the childhood nickname of Louisa May Alcott (1832--88), one of America's most beloved novelists. Homeschooled by her loving but unworldly father, an educational philosopher, she was encouraged to develop her intellectual and creative abilities. She admired her family, and, sharing their commitment to translating their Christian beliefs into action, she vowed to find a way to bring in an income to sustain them.

As a young writer, Alcott transformed herself into an adroit commercial author, penning gothic potboilers full of mysterious villains. But the books into which she poured her heart and for which she remains beloved are novels examining the struggles and triumphs of young girls. Before she died, over one million copies of her works had been sold. Today, more than a century after her death, she remains a best-selling author. Little Women has been translated into film several times, with varying degrees of success--the George Cukor version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, in 1933; the 1949 version, featuring June Allyson as Jo and Elizabeth Taylor, in a blonde wig, as Amy; and, most recently, a politically correct, anachronistic version starring Winona Ryder, in 1994.

While her father strove to revolutionize education, Alcott revolutionized the writing of children's books. She drew on her father's complex vision of child psychology to create genuinely complex characters, in contrast to the flat models of propriety or ill behavior typical of previous children's books. Especially in Little Women, Alcott peopled her stories with recognizable types and memorable individuals. Through practice gained by writing for serial publication in magazines, and the concomitant need to keep readers eager for more of her work, she became a master of the compelling plot. The plots of her best-loved works articulate a practical Christianity, as her characters are confronted by moral dilemmas they must identify and resolve, weighing personal, selfish interest and immediate gratification against a greater, higher good.

Alcott's father was the New England Transcendentalist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott (1799--1888). Though never financially successful, the largely self-taught Bronson became an influential reformer of American education. He popularized a then innovative pedagogy, which maintained that children learn best when learning is made fun and they are treated with respect. Rather than instruct children by lecturing to them, Bronson's method employed the Socratic dialogue. Education, he asserted, lay "in the art of asking apt and fit questions, and in leading the mind by its own light to the perception of truth. …

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