Louisa May Alcott
Feminist Icons: Today, Louisa May Alcott is inseparably linked with ‘Little Women’, a saccharine novel of sisterly love and affection. Yet she was linked to the Transcendentalist Movement and used her pen in the service of Women’s Rights…
Today, the name ‘Louisa May Alcott’ is inseparably associated with the novel Little Women, a saccharine story of sisterly love and affection. The sequel, Jo’s Boys, which further glorifies family bonds, is also remembered on occasion. Alcott’s legacy has remained essentially the same since her death, at age 55, in 1888; even while living, she regretted that children’s stories were all she was known.
Alcott lived in New England at the height of the American Transcendentalist Movement. She was liked and respected by men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (on whom she had a schoolgirl crush), Nathanial Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau (whom, allegedly, she said was a nice man but would never find a willing wife unless he shaved off his neckbeard). Yet somehow, these men are remembered for their great social theories and philosophical works and Louisa… is not. Why? Well, she published her more lurid fiction under a penname and until recent times, being a supporter of women’s rights wasn’t the most respectable of occupations. However, it seems that Ms. Alcott is beginning to garner the respect she deserves.
Louisa loved writing since she was a child, educated by her father who supported the then-liberal position that children should enjoy learning and study what they liked the most. Amos Alcott tried to establish a school based on these principles, but it fell through, as did the Alcott family’s temporary residence in the Utopian Fruitlands (a transcendental agrarian community). By the time she was a teenager, Louisa felt herself feeling responsible to provide financially for her mother, older sister and two younger sisters. She got her first book (Flower Fables, a collection of short stories written for Ellen Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s daughter) published at the age of 23. Louisa went on to work, at various times, as a governess, teacher, seamstress and maid. As a fervent abolitionist, she felt it her duty to serve as a nurse in a Union hospital during the American Civil War. Her experiences in the Civil War and witty letters home to her family resulted in the publication of Hospital Sketches in 1863 and Moods in 1864.
After the war ended in 1865, Americans had time and money for leisure reading. Alcott’s publisher requested that she write a novel suitable for magazine serialization. Inspired by a trip to Europe (unable to afford to go herself, Louisa traveled as the paid companion of an invalid), she dashed off the gothic romance A Modern Mephistopheles, or The Fatal Love Chase. Her editor rejected it, saying that it was “too long & too sensational!” So Alcott shortened the story, toned down the racy bits and changed the title to Fair Rosamond. It was still too liberal for the publisher and so the manuscript remained unpublished until 1995.
Her publisher next requested a children’s story, and in need of money, Louisa complied. Little Women, loosely based on Alcott’s childhood experiences, contains feminist themes but was largely accepted as a wholesome children’s piece. It met with such commercial success that Louisa was hounded to write a sequel, Good Wives, and then Jo’s Boys, Little Men and several other pieces in that style. During this time, she continued to write her blood-and-thunder stories for her own satisfaction and emotional release. It simply ‘wouldn’t do’, however, for the writer of Little Women to be associated with works entitled Scarlett Stockings, Love Chase and Pauline’s Passion (which are made available for your literary enlightenment at