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Little Women, Page 2

Louisa May Alcott

  1876 Alcott protests the centennial celebrations at Concord because women are prohibited from participating. Rose in Bloom is published. Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer appears.

  1877 Alcott’s A Modern Mephistopheles is published anonymously as part of the Roberts Brothers No Name series. Alcott and her sister Anna purchase the Thoreau house in Concord, where they move with their father and ailing mother; later this year Abba Alcott dies.

  1878 May marries Ernest Nieriker in London, but the Alcotts can not attend the wedding. Alcott’s Under the Lilacs is published in book form.

  1879 Alcott becomes the first woman to register to vote in Concord. Her sister May dies of complications from childbirth.

  1880 Alcott undertakes the care of her namesake, May’s infant daughter, Louisa May Nieriker, called Lulu. She ceases work on the novel Diana and Persis (published posthumously in 1978). Her novel Jack and Jill and the revised Moods are published. Bronson Alcott founds the Concord School of Philosophy. Too sick to write extensively, Alcott authorizes publication of many collections of previously published stories over the next several years.

  1882 Ralph Waldo Emerson dies. Bronson suffers a stroke and gives up teaching. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are born.

  1884 Alcott’s health begins to decline severely, a result of the mercury treatment she had received for her typhoid in 1863; she seeks medical treatment throughout the Northeast. Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published.

  1885 D. H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, and Ezra Pound are born.

  1886 Alcott publishes the sequel to Little Men, the feminist novel Jo’s Boys, and How They Turned Out, which took her great effort to write. Henry James’s The Bostonians is published.

  1888 Alcott visits her father, who is near death. Bronson Alcott dies on March 4. Louisa May Alcott dies on March 6 and is buried with her parents.

  1893 A collection of Alcott’s plays, Comic Tragedies Written by “Jo” and “Meg” and Acted by the “Little Women,” is published. Anna Alcott Pratt dies.


  On March 22, 1927, the New York Times printed the results of a poll of high-school students who had been asked, “What book has interested you most?” The respondents overwhelmingly chose Little Women as their favorite, as the book that had most influenced them, surpassing even the Bible, which stalled at the number two position. Pause a moment to absorb this: Fifty-eight years after its publication in full, Louisa May Alcott’s domestic novel Little Women bore more influence on the lives and thought processes of American high-school students than did the Bible. Little Women, as John Lennon would claim of the Beatles forty years later, was more popular than Jesus. Although one may want to interpret this poll primarily as an indication of the increasingly secular interests of twentieth-century American youth, one must allow that, with all the other choices of reading matter available, beating out the Bible is clearly a tremendous feat. As related proof of Little Women’s influence, John Bunyan’s unusual 1684 religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress – which is the March family’s favorite book and guide to life in Little Women, and which provides an organizing framework for Alcott’s novel – came in at number three in the poll. I do believe Bunyan must thank Louisa May Alcott for his book’s second wind.

  In remarking that Little Women has been an incredibly popular text, a commentator risks making a gigantic understatement. Part one of the novel, released on September 30, 1868, sold out its first print run in four weeks (at $1.25 a book – some sources note that the price was jacked up to $1.50 after the book’s ability to sell had been proved), though its generally positive early reviews had not yet labeled the story a must-read. Part two, released on April 14, 1869, also sold out quickly, even with the dramatic increase in its initial print run. In 1932, a few years after the novel went into the public domain (meaning that any publishing firm could print it), its long-authorized publisher, Boston’s Little, Brown and Company, reported having sold a total of more than 1,500,000 copies since 1898 – thirty years after the book was first published. Little Women was also an international phenomenon. Publishers’ Weekly noted in 1929 that, in addition to its longstanding popularity in England, Little Women had been translated into French, German, Dutch, Greek, and Chinese (it was a favored Chinese New Year gift). By 1969, one hundred years after the publication of the full text, the list of translations included Arabic, Bengali, Indonesian, Irish, Japanese, Russian, Swedish, and Urdu. On a more personal level, by the end of 1869 Louisa May Alcott had attained clear celebrity status at age thirty-six; her widespread fame far surpassed that of her well-known philosopher father, Amos Bronson Alcott (just as the first part of Little Women had far outsold his own 1868 offering, an essay collection called Tablets).

  Prior to Little Women, Alcott had written primarily for adults, with the exception of Flower Fables, an 1854 collection of children’s fairy stories (Alcott also edited a monthly children’s periodical, Merry’s Museum). In 1863 she had begun publishing sensational Gothic-style stories in newspapers and magazines, anonymously or under a pseudonym, mainly to earn the ready money that these popular narratives commanded. Her serious novel Moods (1864) had met with neither critical esteem nor commercial notice; but the success of Little Women turned its author into a revered, wealthy children’s book writer. The book’s popularity would seem to have been nearly ordained when one considers the circumstances of its birth and its contractual engineering. Both its publisher and its author envisioned Little Women primarily (if hopefully) as a moneymaking venture. The original publisher, Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers, had to persuade Alcott to write a tale for girls to compete with a new type of boys’ book by prolific novelists such as Horatio Alger (Ragged Dick) and Oliver Optic (Poor and Proud), which were in wide demand. Novels like these introduced a genre of children’s fiction written as entertainment, not mainly for moral instruction – a somewhat controversial innovation at the time. Alcott resisted the idea of writing a girls’ book; she doubted both her interest in a project for a young female audience and her ability to write it effectively. She claimed that she didn’t know how to accomplish the task: She wasn’t even especially concerned with the lives of girls outside her own household of four sisters. As a way to overcome her reservations, Alcott would eventually mine her own family’s experiences as the basis for Little Women’s March sisters, their characterizations, and many of their pastimes, conflicts, and daily duties. Alcott finally convinced herself that “lively, simple books are very much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need.”

  The promise of earning more money to assist her financially struggling family also helped Alcott to agree to the project. Niles offered her royalties (a percentage of future sales) rather than a simple flat author’s fee paid upon acceptance of the manuscript. This was a fantastic deal: In Little Women novice writer Jo March is thrilled to be paid $300 for her first novel; although Alcott, as a better-known writer, would have received a larger flat fee than this, her royalties plan would earn her $8,500 by the end of 1869 alone. Despite Alcott’s and Niles’s initial fears that the novel’s opening chapters were too dull, and thus wouldn’t sell the book well, the first part of her fictional experiment – detailing the homey adventures through which the four New England March sisters begin to mature during one year of the American Civil War – was an immediate, unqualified best-seller.

  All these numbers, statistics, and editions clearly indicate that Little Women has universal appeal. One strong reason is the story’s essentially domestic, apolitical nature. After determining that her inclusion of too many controversial ideas about marriage had hurt sales of Moods, Alcott decided to make her girls’ book idea-free: “My next book shall have no ideas in it, only facts, and the people shall be as ordinary as possible.” Most readers would agree that Alcott doesn’t necessarily hold to such a strict scheme – she repeatedly reinforces her moral ideas about self-sacrifice and altruism – but overall the novel does place plot considerations above politi
cs, cultural or otherwise. For example, Little Women is set during the Civil War, but Alcott declines to comment on this potentially polarizing topic, even though she had disturbing firsthand experience of its effects as a nurse in Washington, D.C. (she had previously published her wartime observations and opinions in Hospital Sketches, written for adults and published in 1863). Her grueling, gruesome nursing duties left Alcott sickened and exhausted, and she was forced to return home after spending only six weeks tending the injured and dying soldiers. Although Mr. March in Little Women ministers to Union troops, the novel includes very little commentary on his experiences in doing so, or even on the causes or goals of the war. Alcott instead substitutes general praise for the soldiers and demonstrates the supportive sewing and knitting work that women like the Marches performed on the domestic front. Similarly, contemporary controver sial reform issues such as the abolition of slavery, which was very close to the Alcott family heart, are also left untouched in the novel. We know that Jo is a great believer in social reform – she allows a mixed-race child to attend her school, and she is vocal about women’s rights – but Alcott doesn’t give us many details. Jo makes several feminist declarations, but her own family and friends constitute her main audience, and she ultimately ends up living much more conventionally than she previously had forecast. A practical-minded author, Alcott specifically chose not to proselytize for her beliefs lest she risk alienating potential book buyers from different regions of the United States – consumers who, given her royalties arrangement, could provide her living.

  The author’s strategy of ordinariness worked. An early anonymous review in the Nation (October 22, 1868) quietly praises Little Women as “an agreeable little story, which is not only very well adapted to the readers for whom it is especially intended, but may also be read with pleasure by older people.” The reviewer labels the March girls “healthy types…. drawn with a certain cleverness” yet complains of the text’s lack of “what painters call atmosphere,” its over-reliance upon local color, and, strangely, “things and people [in the novel]… remaining, under all circumstances, somewhat too persistently themselves.” As has often been the case with extremely popular books, this early review did not anticipate its subject’s wild success. Another anonymous review, from the December 1868 issue of Arthur’s Home Magazine, gives advice that has been followed for generations: “Parents desiring a Christmas book for a girl from ten to sixteen years cannot do better than to purchase this.”

  Alcott hinted at the end of the first part of Little Women that a sequel might be forthcoming, “depend[ing] upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama” (page 229). She included this teaser even though she would later claim, upon learning that a second installment was in fact demanded of her, that she disliked the very idea of sequels. Part two of Little Women, originally titled Good Wives to portend the girls’ development as married women, begins with the eldest sister Meg’s marriage. Upon its release, Little Women, part two, was hailed as extending the March story by “loading the palate without sickishness” (by an anonymous reviewer in Commonwealth, April 24, 1869), although some might have cause to argue such an assessment. A review in the National Anti-Slavery Standard (May 1, 1869) praises the ideal families the book portrays and predicts that life will imitate art: “Thousands of young people will read [Alcott‘s] story of these healthy, happy homes, and their standard of home and happiness must in many cases be raised.” The first part of this prediction has certainly come true; the second, although something to hope for in general, seems a bit much to ask even of this wholesome novel.

  The sequel was written to appease Alcott’s many fans, who had been begging the author for more information about the March sisters’ future experiences – namely whom, and how well, they married. Although as a feminist Alcott personally resented the implication that her March girls’ future happiness depended upon marriage as an end in itself, she did succeed in pairing off most of her characters, although not in the neat ways her romantic readers had desired or even anticipated. Alcott’s unusual choices in this regard mystified and disappointed not only many of her contemporary nineteenth-century admirers but generations of girls to follow, who wanted the outspokenly independent, ambitious second sister, Jo, married off according to their own fancy – not to mention future generations of feminist literary critics who bemoaned Alcott’s decision to marry her off at all.

  Alcott absorbed much of her reform interests from her mother, Abigail “Abba” Alcott (nee May). Marmee in Little Women is an idealized version of Abba. Whereas Marmee represses her anger for the good of her family, Abba was known for her sharp tongue and occasional inability to get along with her neighbors. Abba actively participated in various contemporary reform movements, agitating against slavery and for temperance and women’s rights, among other causes, and providing an excellent example of activism for her daughters. Even more than Marmee does, Abba Alcott worked and struggled to keep her family financially afloat; the shabby-genteel aspect of the March household stems from the Alcotts’ own straitened financial circumstances. Papa Alcott, unlike Papa March, however, was not absent on such a selfless mission as army chaplaincy. Writer and educator Bronson Alcott was associated with the original group of New England transcendental philosophers, and he tended in practice to worry more about how his family conformed to his social theories than about its livelihood.

  The transcendentalism Bronson Alcott espoused was an extremely influential quasi-religious American philosophical movement that flourished in the 1830s and ‘40s, most neatly summed up in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay Nature. As a behavioral program, transcendentalism promoted living simply, in intellectual fellowship with other like-minded thinkers and in close contact with nature, and keeping one’s body pure by avoiding alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and often, as in the case of the Alcott family, meat. As an explanatory counterpart to these lifestyle recommendations, transcendentalism’s more mystical aspects emphasized human beings’ metaphysical, intuitive spiritual core, which, in turn, evidenced mankind’s inherent personal divinity. The reverence for nature, manual labor, and self-reliance took its most notable form in Henry David Thoreau’s famous Walden Pond experiment in self-sufficiency (1845-1847). Emerson and Thoreau, friends of Bronson’s (Emerson had provided funds toward the Alcott family’s support), were two of young Louisa’s romantic crushes; some scholars have suggested Emerson as a partial model for Professor Friedrich Bhaer in Little Women. Bronson Alcott raised his daughters according to his own transcendentalist-influenced educational beliefs, encouraging stringent self-analysis from them starting at an early age, through written assessments of their behavior and development that they would produce about themselves for his perusal.

  Bronson Alcott seemed to have absolved himself of nearly all financial responsibility toward his wife and children; this would have been scandalous or unforgivable at the time in most social circles, except that he styled himself as a genius – a philosopher, not a worker. Yet a family cannot live on social and educational theories alone. At one point, around the time of his ill-fated utopian communal-living project, Fruitlands (1843), Bronson seriously considered formally abandoning his wife and young children; his abstract intellectual nature led him to raise the issue with them as a matter for family debate. Facets of Bronson Alcott do appear in Father March: His favorite place is his study, and he loves his books and discussing philosophy. But a reader who knows that Bronson Alcott’s own family skills left much to be desired will find even more poignant Father March’s gentle strength and paternal perfection, as well as the confidence his daughters have in his emotional support and devotion to his family.

  The eldest March sister, Meg, is based on Alcott’s oldest sister, Anna. Alcott uses her own dismay at the rupture of the family household brought about by Anna’s wedding to parallel Jo’s (and Meg’s) resistance to Meg’s marriage in Little Women. The prototype for shy Beth March was the third Alcott sister, Elizabeth (“Lizzie”), who, similar
to Beth, had contracted scarlet fever after nursing a neighbor in 1856. Lizzie never fully recovered; doctors suggested various physical and mental sources, including hysteria, for her continued frailty. She slowly wasted away over a period of two years, eventually refusing even to eat. Alcott’s youngest sister, Abba May, served as the model for the petulant, spoiled, and beautiful Amy March, an artist like her real-life counterpart. May’s somewhat naive published illustrations for the first edition of Little Women unfortunately met with widespread critical disapproval (an early reviewer called the engravings “indifferently executed” and “betray[ing]… a want of anatomical knowledge”). However, she later studied painting in Europe (a trip financed through Louisa’s earnings from writing), lived in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris near the experimental Impressionist painters of the day, and became acquainted with American Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt. May’s skills improved, and her artwork ultimately was accepted into Paris salon galleries in 1877 and 1879. Alcott claimed to have based Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, Jo’s best friend and neighbor, on two of her own admirers: her friend Alfred Whitman and Polish revolutionary Ladislas Wisniewski, who escorted Alcott around Paris during her 1865 European travels.

  Louisa May Alcott based Jo on herself. Consequently Jo is the most fully realized, complex character and, not surprisingly, the one most beloved by Alcott’s readers across generations and most inspirational for these readers’ own fantasies and ambitions. The character shares the author’s November birth month, strong concerns about women’s claims to independence and artistic expression, and the desire to be a writer and to broaden her experience through travel far from her provincial New England home. The titles of Jo’s sensational stories are identical to some of Alcott’s own early efforts. Louisa and Jo share the title of their first published story, “The Rival Painters,” for example; Louisa’s version appeared in print in 1852. Even the cylindrical pillow Jo uses as a silent marker for her approachability in part two of the novel – if Jo stands it on end next to her on the sofa, it means she’s in a good mood; lying flat, the cushion signifies the opposite and serves notice that her family shouldn’t disturb her – echoes Alcott’s own “mood pillow,” which remains on display at Orchard House, a former Alcott family residence in Concord, Massachusetts, that is now a museum.