Thursday, January 17, 2013
Louisa May Alcott: More than a Little Woman
I keep going back to Louisa May Alcott, and not only to reread my favorite books, including Little Women and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, and Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom (we used to call it “the Jewish Alcott book”).
One of four daughters of Bronson Alcott, an impractical and controversial Transcendental philosopher and friend of Emerson and Thoreau, Louisa was born in 1832 and grew up in Boston and Concord, MA. In addition to becoming a successful writer after years of struggle and poverty, she served as a nurse during the Civil War. She never married and died in 1888.
An online bio from the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association says:
Confronting a society that offered little opportunity to women seeking employment, Louisa determined, "... I will make a battering-ram of my head and make my way through this rough and tumble world." Whether as a teacher, seamstress, governess, or household servant, for many years Louisa did any work she could find....
"Jo March" was the first American juvenile heroine to act from her own individuality --a living, breathing person rather than the idealized stereotype then prevalent in children’s fiction.
Available at: http://www.louisamayalcott.org/louisamaytext.html
Thanks to the proliferation of e-books, I’ve now been able to read all Alcott’s minor works, including the Civil War nursing memoir, Hospital Sketches and some of those lurid Gothic tales that the fictional Jo stops writing because Professor Bhaer disapproves of their sensationalism. It was fascinating to explore the building blocks of the world of Little Women, in which I’ve been a frequent visitor since childhood. I learned that Louisa’s nursing career in a Washington, DC hospital filled with the detritus of battle—wounded, sick, and dying soldiers—lasted only a month: an intense and exhausting month in which a keen observer gathered ample material. She only quit because she got sick, and she certainly wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.
Like Jo’s sister Amy, Louisa apparently spent a year in Europe. There’s a delightful travel memoir about her adventures with a couple of women friends that could have been written well into the 20th century (not later only because pockets of unspoiled traditional cultures have more or less disappeared).
The feminist and post-sexual-revolution revision of Louisa’s life has put a few myths into circulation. One is that Louisa despised her children’s books and longed to write for grownups about passion. After reading her whole body of work, I think that’s misleading. Nobody could moralize quite so much if she didn’t believe the morality, even if it was the fashion of the time. I discovered that the Fifties hardcover copy of Jo’s Boys that I’ve had for decades cut out a chapter about Jo and a group of virtuous young women protegees spending a womanly afternoon sewing together. Her stories about doomed and passionate love seem absurd to the modern reader—possibly because as an unmarried woman, she couldn’t impart a hint of sexuality to the love relationships in her fiction.
I also learned the truth about the Polish youth who is supposed to have been the inspiration for Laurie in Little Women, the young man who loves Jo and eventually marries Amy. The way I’d heard it, this was Louisa’s near approach to love. From her own account, it was not quite like that. She did become close friends with this young man. Yes, she was very, very fond of him. But he spent an awful lot of time telling her about his fiancée back in Poland. And as she points out, they could go about together unchaperoned and remain respectable because she was twelve years older than he. Some of today’s admirers make her sound like a cougar. I don’t think so. And that’s okay--there are more kinds of love in the world than some people think.