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by Bamber Gascoigne

L(ouisa) M(ay) Alcott (1832-1888) - pseudonyms: A. Barnard, Flora Fairfield


American author, known for her children' books, especially Little Women (1868-69). This timeless coming-of-age story has appealed to generations of readers. Alcott draws her material from her own family and from the New England milieu where she had grown up. Originally she begun writing "rubbish novels," sometimes anonymously, sometimes as "A.N. Barnard," to contribute to the family income.

Above man's aims his nature rose.
The wisdom of a just content
Made one small spot a continent,
And tuned to poetry Life's prose.

(from Louisa May Alcott, Her Life Letters, and Journals, 1889)

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown (now part of Philadelphia), the second of four daughters of Abigail May Alcott and Bronson Alcott (1799-1888). During her childhood the family moved to Boston. She spent most of her life in the Boston-Concord area, and received almost all her early education from her father. His favorite moral guide was Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Her cousin Frederick Llewellyn Willis wrote that she was "full of spirit and life; impulsive and moody, and at times irritable and nervous." (Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen, 2009, p. 3)

Bronson was member of the New England Transcendentalists. He was an idealistic, if impractical person, who believed in the spiritual life, as contrasted with the material life. Louisa May called him "the modern Plato". When a visiting English author criticized his teaching methods, he moved with his family to Concord. Among the family friends were Theodore Parker, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bronson's ideas influenced a numer of educators, but nowadays his books are no loger widely read. He wrote also poems. Sonnets and Canzonets (1882) was written in memory of his wife. Diana and Persis, which Alcott started to write in 1879, was based on her sister May's life and unconventional marriage in Europe.

At the age of seven, Alcott began to keep diary. In her teens, she regarded Goethe as her "chief idol", and was deeply impressed by Goethe's Correspondence with a Child, which Emerson gave her. Also the Brontë family inspired her, especially Charlotte Brontë. Alcott's first book, Flower Fables (1854), a collection of tales, was originally written for Emerson's daughter Ellen. After the failure of her father's utopian community Fruitlands, she took care with her mother of the welfare of the family. In one sonnet her father praised Louisa May as "duty's faithful child". Alcott's mother had not been so enthusiastic about the New Eden plan of her husband. The family moved into Boston again.

In Work: A Story of Experience (1873) Alcott later recorded her unhappy experiences as a domestic servant, but also demonstrated through her character alternative values, such as equality and self-fulfillment, for women. Committed to social reform, Alcott often signed her letters "Yours for reform of all kinds." While working in Dedham, she was obligued to listen the philosophing of her employer. When she was expected to black his boots, she quit the job.   

"No, dear; the dress is proper and becoming as it is, and the old fashion of simplicity the best for all of us. I don't want my Polly to be loved for her clothes, but for herself; so wear the plain frocks mother took such pleasure in making for you, and let the panniers go. The least of us have some influence in this big world; and perhaps my little girl can do some good by showing others that a contended heart and a happy face are better ornaments than any Paris can give her." (from An Old-fashioned Girl, 1870)

By 1860 Alcott's short stories and poems began to appear in the Atlantic Monthly (now The Atlantic). An ardent abolitionist, she volunteered in the American Civil War as a nurse. "Go nurse the soldiers," had her neighbor said, when she had stated: "I want something to do." To support the war effort, Alcott applied for a nursing position. She was accepted a position in December 1862 at the Union Hotel Hospital ("the Hurly-burly House" as Alcott called it) in Washington, D.C., where she arrived soon after the  Battle of Fredericksburg.

On January 7, 1863, Alcott contracted typhoid fever and was forced to return home. She was treated with large doses of calomel, a mercury compound viewed as a remedy for all kinds of ills by both Union and Confederate doctors. When the reform-minded Union surgeon general William A. Hammond wiped calomel and tartar emetic out from the medical supply table in May 1863, he was removed from his post.

Alcott never completely recovered from the cure; until her death, she suffered at various times from "leg pains, vertigo, neuralgia, rheumatism, headache, hoarseness, "flutter," insomnia, chest pain, writer's cramp, eye problems, lack of appetite, indigestion, weight loss, fatigue, and nervous prostration." (The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, edited by Gregory Eiselein and Anne K. Phillips, 2001, p. 132) The drug also caused her to have dramatic dreams and visions, which impacted her stories. In 1863 Alcott published her letters in book form under the title Hospital Sketches. It was well received although some of her readers objected "the tone of levity." This little volume never made much money.

Hospital Sketches encouraged Alcott to continue with her writing aspirations. Her first novel was Moods (1867). A Long Fatal Love Chase, a tale about obsession, which she wrote in 1866 for magazine serialization, was not published in book until 1995. Alcott's publisher considered it "too sensational." The heroine, Rosamond, is pursued across Europe by the diabolic Philip Tempest, who first nearly manages to get her under his spell. "I like danger," she tells Tempest, before he has revealed his true nature.

In 1867 Alcott became editor of a children's magazine, Merry Museum. With the publication of Little Women, which was born under the pressure of financial need, Alcott gained enormous fame as a writer. As a model for the character Amy she took May Alcott, her sister. Anna was the model for Meg, and Abba May Alcott the beloved mother Marmee. In Part II May Alcott's drawings were replaced by illustrations by Hamnatt Billings.

Little Women came out in two parts in 1868 and 1869 – the second part under the title Good Wives. Originally Alcott was asked to write a "girls' story" for Thomas Niles, a partner in the Boston firm of Roberts Brothers. She agreed, but stated in her journal in May 1868: " So I plod away, though I don't enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it." (Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals, edited by Edhan D. Cheney, 1889, p. 199)

Roberts Brothers published in 1880 a somewhat bowdlerized edition of the work, which remained the basis for the subsequent editions. It was illustrated by Frank T. Merrill with more than hundred drawings. Pleased with the result, Alcott wrote to Thomas Niles: "Mr. Merrill certainly deserves a good penny for his work. Such a fertile fancy and quick hand as his should be well paid,  and I shall not begrudge him his well-earned compensation, nor the praise I am sure these illustrtions will earn." An excerpt from the novel, 'A March Christmas', has been reprinted numerous times.

Set in a quiet Massachusetts town, Little Women starts from the years of the American Civil War. Meg, Jo, Bert, and Amy March are raised in genteel poverty by their loving mother Marmee. Their father serves as a Civil War preacher. The girls entertain themselves by producing plays and a weekly newspaper. Soon they befriend Theodore Lawrence, who is the grandson of a rich old man. Some years pass. Meg marries Laurie's tutor John Brooke, Beth's health deteriorates and eventually dies from scarlet fever. Laurie falls in love with Jo, but he is turned down and flees with his grandfather to Europe. Amy and Laurie became engaged abroad. Jo's choices are crucial for the development of the events. Jo, a version of the author herself, vows never to marry. She wants to be a journalist, but she is frustrated with her role and tight Christian values. She goes to New York and continues to write. Finally Jo marries Professor Bhaer, an older scholar from Germany, although he has discouraged her writing. Together they set up a school for boys.

Feminist critics have concluded that Jo's decision means actually self-denial and regression. Later Alcott wrote to a friend about Jo's marriage: "Jo should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn't dare to refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her." Most Alcott critics have been shy about discussing her sexual orientation, but Elaine Showalter has raised the possibility of Alcott's lesbianism. ('"Queer Performances": Lesbian Politics in Little Women' by Roberta Seelinger Trites, in Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays, edited by Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark, 1999, p. 140) 

Clive Bloom sees Little Women as a perfect example of the evolution of the novel from its early days in Walter Scott. The writing is self-conscious and aware of the importance of the novel both as entertainment, art and moral instrument. It was also produced for the new audience – young people. (See: Cult Fiction by Clive Bloom, 1996). The book has fascinated such writers as Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, and Joyce Carol Oates. "I identified myself passionately with Jo, the intellectual," wrote Beauvoir in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958). "Brusque and bony, Jo clambered up into trees when she wanted to read; she was more tomboyish and daring than I was, but I shared her horror of sewing and housekeeping and her love of books."

Little Women has been filmed several times. The screenwriters Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman received an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for the 1933 version, directed by George Cukor and starring a 26-year-old Katherine Hepburn as the tomboy Josephine "Jo" March. At that time, she used to swim nude in Cukor's pool. (Katherine Hepburn by Barbara Leaming, 1995, pp. 282-284) Like Jo, Hepburn saw herself outside her own gender. Her lively performance was praised both the director, who became her best friend, and critics.

Mervyn LeRoy's adaptation from 1949 is considered mediocre. It also softens Jo's beliefs in an autonomous life. Gillian Armstrong's version (1994), scripted by Robin Swicord, dealt with feminist issues. "In writing the screenplay, Swicord views this story as a tale of strong women, and she ideally wants young girls to come away from the film with a sense of validation and feeling stronger in this male-dominated world." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999) The BBC miniseries from 1970 (nine 25-minute episodes) is considered the most faithful to the novel. Angela Lansbury played Aunt March in the latest TV adaptation, produced by Playground Television UK with PBS Masterpiece and broadcast in three parts in 2017. It covered many of the plotlines but received poor reviews in Variety: "How it is possible to make Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic so dull that you start to envy the characters who die of scarlet fever?" (Jacqueline Cutler, Variety, May 6, 2018) 

Little Women was followed by several other popular works, Little Men (1871), Jo's Boys (1886), and others, in which she followed the lives of the March family girls, Meg, Beth, Amy and Jo. To increase her productivity,  Alcott taught herself to write with her left hand.

Alcott's last years were shadowed by the deaths of her mother and her sister May, who left behind a little daughter, Louisa May Nieriker. She gained fame as an artists. She lived in Boston, London and Paris, where she died in 1879. Among her literary works were Concord Sketches (1869) and Art Studying Abroad (1879). For her Alcott wrote the story 'Lu Sing,' later published in the St. Nicholas magazinein 1902. It was the last work she completed. Louisa May Alcott died from intestinal cancer in Boston on March 6, 1888, a few days after her father had died. She never married. Once Alcott said of herself: "I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman's body . . . because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man".  (Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel by Roberta S. Trites, 2007, p. 22)

Although Alcott is often considered as a juvenile writer (her first biographer, Ednah Dow Chaney, labelled her as "The Children's Friend"), she produced also thrillers and melodramatic stories that appeared in weekly magazines. For her thrillers published in the mid-1860s Alcott used the ambiguous pseudonym "A.N. Barnard". A Modern Mephistopheles (1877) was published anonymously. The Faustian story of a young woman and a diabolic genius was republished posthumously with A Whisper in the Dark (1889). 'Behind a Mask', which originally appeared anonymously in The Flag of Our Union (1866) portrays a deceitful governess, who uses her skills as a former actress to find a rich husband. Alcott's revengeful heroines and themes from mind control and madness, hashish experimentation and opium addiction, differ radically from the domestic atmosphere of her best-known works.

For further reading: Louisa on the Front Lines: Louisa May Alcott in the Civil War by Samantha Seiple (2020); Sacramental Shopping: Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism by Sarah Way Sherman (2013); Marmee & Louisa: the Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante (2012); Louisa May Alcott by Susan Cheever (2010); Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen (2009); Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson (2008); Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel by Roberta S. Trites (2007); The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, edited by Gregory Eiselein and Anne K. Phillips (2001); Little Women & the Feminist Imagination, edited by Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark (1999); Louisa May Alcott by Amy Katheran Ruth (1998); Louisa May Alcott by Kathleen Burke, Matina S. Horner (1998); Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs (1933, reissued in 1991); Louisa May by Norma Johnston (1991); 'Introduction' by Elaine Showalter, in Alternative Alcott (1988); 'The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott' by Karen Halttunen, in Feminist Studies 10 (1984); The Alcotts: Biography of a Family by Madelon Bedell (1980): Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography by Martha Saxton (1977); Louisa May Alcott, ed. by Madeleine B. Stern (1950); Marmee: The Mother of Little Women by Sanford Salyer (1949); Louisa May Alcott by Katharine Anthony (1938); May Alcott: A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor (1928); Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals, ed. by Ednah D. Cheney (1889) - See other classic writers of children's literature: L. M. Montgomery, Astrid Lindgren

Selected works:

  • Flower Fables, 1855
  • The Rose Family: A Fairy Tale, 1864
  • On Picket Duty, and Other Tales, 1864
  • Hospital Sketches, 1863 (enlarged edition: Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories, 1869)
  • Moods, 1865
  • Nelly's Hospital, 1865
  • Morning-Glories and Other Stories, 1867
  • The Mysterious Key and What It Opened, 1867
  • Aunt Kipp, 1868
  • Louisa M. Alcott's Proverb Stories, 1868
  • Kitty's Class Day, 1868
  • Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, 1868-69
    - Pikku naisia (suom. Tyyni Haapanen, 1916)
    - two silent movie versions; 1933, dir. George Cukor, starring Katherine Hepburn as Josephine "Jo" March; 1949, dir. Mervyn Le Roy, starring June Allyson, Elisabeth Taylor; film 1994, dir. Gillian Armstrong, starring Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne
  • Morning-Glories, and Other Stories, 1868
  • Psyche's Art, 1868
  • Good Wives, 1869
    - Viimevuotisen ystävämme (suom. Annikki Haahti, 1921)
  • An Old Fashioned Girl, 1870
    - Nuorta väkeä (suom. 1889) / Tytöistä parhain (suom. Aatto, 1890; Lyyli Reijonen, 1916)
  • Will's Wonder Book / Louisa's Wonder Book, 1870
  • Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys, 1871
    - Pikku miehiä (suom. Ville Hynynen, 1916)
    - film adaptations: 1934, dir. by Phil Rosen; 1940, dir. by Norman Z. McLeod, starring Kay Francis, Jack Oakie, James Lydon, and Elsie the cow; 1998, dir. by Rodney Gibbons, starring Mariel Hemingway, Chris Sarandon, Michael Caloz
  • Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag, 1872-82 (6 vols.)
  • Something To Do, 1873
  • Work: A Story of Experience, 1873
  • Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill, 1875
    - Kahdeksan serkusta (suom. Ville Hynynen, 1917)
  • Rose in Bloom: A Sequel to Eight Cousins, 1876
    - Kun ruusu puhkeaa (suom. Alli Wiherheimo, 1919)
  • Silver Pitchers, and Independence: A Centennial Love Story, 1876
  • A Modern Mephistopheles, 1877
  • Under the Lilacs, 1879
    - Sireenien alla (suom. Martta Räsänen, 1923)
  • Meadow Blossoms, 1879
  • Sparkles for Bright Eyes, 1879
  • Water-Cresses, 1879 (with Olive Thorne, Laurie Loring, and others)
  • Jack and Jill: A Village Story, 1880
  • Proverb Stories, 1882
  • Spinning-Wheel Stories, 1884
  • Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to "Little Men", 1886 - Plumfieldin pojat ja mitä heistä tuli (suom. Elma Voipio, Aarni Voipio, 1919)
  • Lulu's Library, 1886-89
  • A Garland for Girls, 1888
  • Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals, 1889 (ed. by Edhan D. Cheney)
  • Comic Tragedies Written by "Jo" and "Meg" and Acted by the "Little Women", 1893
  • A Modern Cinderella; or, The Little Old Shoe and Other Stories, 1908
  • Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands, 1915 (ed. by Clara Endicott)
  • Three Unpublished Poems, 1919
  • A Round Dozen, 1963 (ed. by Anne Thaxter Eaton)
  • Glimpses of Louisa: A Centennial Sampling of the Best Short Stories, 1968 (selected with an introd. and editor's notes, by Cornelia Meigs)
  • An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving, 1974 (illustrated by Holly Johnson)
  • Louisa's Wonder Book: An Unknown Alcott Juvenile, 1975
  • Trancendental Wild Oats and Excerpts from the Fruitlands Diary, 1975 (with an intro. by William Henry Harrison; and ill. by J. Streeter Fowke) 
  • Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, 1975 (ed. by Madeleine B. Stern)
  • Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, 1976 (as A.M. Barnard; ed. by Madeleine B. Stern)
  • Trudel's Siege, 1976 (art by Stan Skardinski)
  • A Free Bed, 1978 (ed. by Madeleine B. Stern)
  • Diana and Persis, 1978 (ed. by Sarah Elbert)
  • Works of Louisa May Alcott, 1982 (edited by Claire Booss; illustrated by Frank T. Merrill, Reginald B. Birch, Addie Ledyard, and others)
  • The Hidden Louisa May Alcott: A Collection of Her Unknown Thrillers, 1984 (ed. by Madeleine B. Stern)
  • The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, 1987 (with an introduction by Madeleine B. Stern; editors, Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, associate editor, Madeleine B. Stern)
  • A Modern Mephistopheles; and, Taming a Tartar, 1987 (ed. by Madeleine B. Stern)
  • Alternative Alcott, 1988 (edited and with an introduction by Elaine Showalter)
  • A Double Life. Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, 1988 (ed. by Madeleina B. Stern, Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy)
  • Journals of Louisa May Alcott, 1989 (ed. by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, Madeleine B. Stern)
  • Freaks of Genius. Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, 1991 (ed. by Madeleine B. Stern, Joel Myerson, and Daniel Shealy)
  • Louisa May Alcott's Fairy Tales and Fantasy Stories, 1992 (edited by Daniel Shealy)
  • Louisa May Alcott: Her Girlhood Diary, 1993 (edited by Cary Ryan, illustrated by Mark Graham)
  • From Jo March's Attick. Stories of Itrigue and Suspense, 1993 (ed. by Madeleine B. Stern and Daniel Shealy)
  • Louisa May Alcott Unmasked, Collected Thrillers, 1995 (ed. by Madeleine B. Stern)
  • The Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman's Power, 1996 (ed. by Madeleine B. Stern)
  • The Ingeritance. My First Novel Written at Seventeen, 1997 (ed. by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy)
  • The Poems of Louisa May Alcott, 2000 (with an introduction by Robert S. Nelsen)
  • The Early stories of Louisa May Alcott, 1852-1860, 2000 (with an introduction by Monika Elbert)
  • Portable Louisa May Alcott, 2000 (edited with an introduction by Elizabeth Lennox Keyser)
  • The Girlhood diary of Louisa May Alcott, 1843-1846: Writings of a Young Author, 2001 (edited by Kerry A. Graves)
  • The Uncollected Works of Louisa May Alcott, 2001- (with an introduction by Monika Elbert)
  • The Best of Louisa May Alcott, 2007 (edited by Claire Booss; illustrated by Frank T. Merrill, Reginald B. Birch, Addie Ledyard, and others)
  • Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870-1871 / Louisa May Alcott and May Alcott, 2008 (edited by Daniel Shealy)
  • Little Women: An Annotated Edition, 2013 (edited by Daniel Shealy)
  • The Annotated Little Women, 2015 (edited with an introduction and notes by John Matteson)
  • Behind a Mask: a Short Story Collection, 2020 (editor of this volume, Janet B. Kopito)
  • Aunt Nellie’s Diary, 2020 (The Strand Magazine)

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