Mary's Library

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Louisa May Alcott

The other day Sandy, our letter carrier, delivered the latest Library of America volume, Louisa May Alcott’s trilogy, LITTLE WOMEN (1868), LITTLE MEN (1871), and JO’S BOYS (1886.) I’m very fond of Alcott's work and LITTLE WOMEN is one of those books I read almost yearly. It never loses its charm for me. I can’t recall ever meeting a woman who didn’t love these stories. Many of us have made the pilgrimage to Concord to visit Orchard House, where the Alcotts lived from 1858 until 1877.

We’ve learned a lot about Alcott in recent years. She wrote sensational fiction under a pseudonym, for one thing. And she was ill for much of her adult life after being treated for typhoid with calomel, which contained a great deal of mercury. She met most of the literary figures of England, and of course she grew up being dandled on Emerson’s knee and was a friend of Thoreau, whose cabin at Walden Pond her father helped to build.

Her father reminds me of Skimpole in Dickens’ BLEAK HOUSE (1852.) Bronson Alcott never could figure out how to go about supporting a family. He was always the first to sign up for obviously doomed business prospects. He did at one time have a fairly prosperous school in Boston, but in 1837 he published a book containing a frank discussion of pregnancy, which led to a scandal, and the relatives of Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, and John Quincy Adams withdrew their children from his Temple School, as did most of the other parents, and Bronson went bust once more.

He started up again with a small class in his parlor, but when he admitted an African American girl most of the other parents pulled their children out of his class and that school, too, failed. The man was clearly ahead of his time and you can’t help admiring his courage – at one point the family took in a fugitive slave. But when his utopian community, Fruitlands, failed he seems to have given up and the family lived on the mother’s inheritance and Louisa May’s work as a domestic, governess, laundress, and seamstress. His daughter’s writing helped.

An 1868, at the age of 35, Louisa May wrote LITTLE WOMEN, which was an immediate success. She was able to support her family, send her sister abroad to study, and to keep everyone comfortable until she died in 1888, two days after her father.

Alcott wrote some other books that I loved when I was young:

EIGHT COUSINS (1874) and its sequel ROSE IN BLOOM (1876)

You can read these books on line at
excepting EIGHT COUSINS, which is at .


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