Saturday, February 8, 2014

LOUISA MAY ALCOTT

This is from Daughters of the Puritans by Seth Curtis Beach



Miss Alcott has been called, perhaps truly, the most popular story-teller for children, in her generation. Like those elect souls whom the apostle saw arrayed in white robes, she came up through great tribulation, paying dearly in labor and privation for her successes, but one must pronounce her life happy and fortunate, since she lived to enjoy her fame and fortune twenty years, to witness the sale of a million volumes of her writings, to receive more than two hundred thousand dollars from her publishers, and thereby to accomplish the great purpose upon which as a girl she had set her heart, which was, to see her father and mother comfortable in their declining years. Little Womem

Successful as Miss Alcott was as a writer, she was greater as a woman, and the story of her life is as interesting,—as full of tragedy and comedy,—as the careers of her heroes and heroines. In fact, we have reason to believe that the adventures of her characters are often not so much invented as remembered, the pranks and frolics of her boys and girls being episodes from her own youthful experience. In the preface to "Little Women," the most charming of her books, she tells us herself that the most improbable incidents are the least imaginary. The happy girlhood which she portrays was her own, in spite of forbidding conditions. The struggle in which her cheerful nature extorted happiness from unwilling fortune, gives a dramatic interest to her youthful experiences, as her literary disappointments and successes do to the years of her maturity. Louisa about age 25 

Miss Alcott inherited a name which her father's genius had made known on both sides of the sea, before her own made it famous in a hundred thousand households. Alcott is a derivative from Alcocke, the name by which Mr. Alcott himself was known in his boyhood.  Below Parents Abby and Amos





John Alcocke, born in New Haven, Ct., married Mary Pierson, daughter of Rev. Abraham Pierson, first president of Yale College. He was a man of considerable fortune and left 1,200 acres of land to his six children, one of whom was Capt. John Alcocke, a man of some distinction in the colonial service. Joseph Chatfield Alcocke, son of Capt. John, married Anna Bronson, sister of Rev. Tillotson Bronson, D.D. Of this marriage, Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa, was born, Nov. 29, 1799. The fortunes of Joseph Chatfield Alcocke were those of other small farmers of the period, but Mrs. Alcocke could not forget that she was the sister of a college graduate, and it was worth something to her son to know that he was descended from the president of a college. The mother and son early settled it that the boy should be a scholar, and the father loyally furthered their ambitions, borrowing of his acquaintances such books as he discovered and bringing them home for the delectation of his studious son. At the age of thirteen, Bronson became a pupil in a private school kept by his uncle, Dr. Bronson, and at eighteen, he set out for Virginia with the secret purpose of teaching if opportunity offered, at the same time taking along a peddler's trunk out of which to turn an honest penny and pay the expenses of his journey. Circumstances did not favor his becoming a Virginia teacher, but between his eighteenth and twenty-third years, he made several expeditions into the Southern States as a Yankee peddler, with rather negative financial results, but with much enlargement of his information and improvement of his rustic manners. Mr. Alcott was rather distinguished for his high-bred manners and, on a visit to England, there is an amusing incident of his having been mistaken for some member of the titled aristocracy. Concord School of Philosophy


At the age of twenty-five, Mr. Alcott began his career as a teacher in an Episcopal Academy at Cheshire, Ct. His family were Episcopalians, and he had been confirmed at sixteen. Since the age of eighteen when he started for Virginia as a candidate for a school, he had been theorizing upon the art of teaching and had thought out many of the principles of what, a century later, began to be called the "New Education." He undertook, perhaps too rapidly, to apply his theories in the conduct of the Cheshire Academy. His experiments occasioned a vast amount of controversy, in which Connecticut conservatism gained a victory, and Mr. Alcott retired from the school at the end of two years' service. His results however had been sufficient to convince him of the soundness of his principles, and to launch him upon the troubled career of educational reform.

Among a few intelligent friends and sympathizers who rallied to Mr. Alcott's side in this controversy, was (pic above) Rev. Samuel J. May, a Unitarian minister then of Brooklyn, Ct., at whose house, in 1827, Mr. Alcott met  Mr. May's sister Abbie, who shared fully her brother's enthusiasm for the new education and its persecuted apostle. Miss May began her relations with Mr. Alcott as his admirer and champion, a dangerous part for an enthusiastic young lady to play, as the sequel proved when, three years later, she became Mrs. Alcott.

Mrs. Alcott was the daughter of a Boston merchant, Col. Joseph May, and his wife, Dorothy Sewall, daughter of Samuel Sewall and his wife, Elizabeth Quincy, sister of (pic above)  Dorothy Quincy, wife of John Hancock. By the marriage of Joseph May and Dorothy Sewall, two very distinguished lines of ancestry had been united. Under her father's roof, Mrs. Alcott had enjoyed every comfort and the best of social advantages. She was tall, had a fine physique, good intellect, warm affections, and generous sympathies, but it would have astonished her to have been told that she was bringing to the marriage altar more than she received; and however much it may have cost her to be the wife of an unworldly idealist, it was precisely his unworldly idealism that first won her admiration and then gained her heart. Picture below Elizabeth Sewall Alcott

Life may have been harder for Mrs. Alcott than she anticipated, but she knew very well that she was abjuring riches. Two years before her marriage, her brother had written her: "Mr. Alcott's mind and heart are so much occupied with other things that poverty and riches do not seem to concern him much." She had known Mr. Alcott three years and had enjoyed ample opportunity to make this observation herself. Indeed, two months after her marriage, she wrote her brother, "My husband is the perfect personification of modesty and moderation. I am not sure that we shall not blush into obscurity and contemplate into starvation." That she had not repented of her choice a year later, may be judged from a letter to her brother on the first anniversary of her marriage: "It has been an eventful year,—a year of trial, of happiness, of improvement. I can wish no better fate to any sister of my sex than has attended me since my entrance into the conjugal state." That Mr. Alcott, then in his young manhood, had qualities which, for a young lady of refinement and culture, would compensate for many privations is evident. Whether he was one of the great men of his generation or not, there is no doubt he seemed so. When, in 1837, Dr. Bartol came to Boston, Mr. Emerson asked him whom he knew in the city, and said: "There is but one man, Mr. Alcott." Dr. Bartol seems to have come to much the same opinion. He says: "Alcott belonged to the Christ class: his manners were the most gentle and gracious, under all fair or unfair provocation, I ever beheld; he had a rare inborn piety and a god-like incapacity in the purity of his eyes to behold iniquity." These qualities were not visible to the public and have no commercial value, but that Mr. Alcott had them is confirmed by the beautiful domestic life of the Alcotts, by the unabated love and devotion of Mrs. Alcott to her husband in all trials, and the always high and always loyal appreciation with which Louisa speaks of her father, even when perhaps smiling at his innocent illusions. The character of Mr. Alcott is an important element in the life of Louisa because she was his daughter, and because, being unmarried, her life and fortunes were his, or those of the Alcott family. She had no individual existence. Below Elizabeth Peabody


Two years after the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Alcott, Louisa, their second daughter was born in Germantown, Pa., where Mr. Alcott was in charge of a school belonging to the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The date was November 29, 1832, also Mr. Alcott's birthday, always observed as a double festival in the family. In 1834, Mr. Alcott opened his celebrated school in Masonic Temple in Boston, Mass., under the auspices of Dr. Channing and with the assured patronage of some of the most cultivated and influential families in the city. As assistants in this school, he had first Miss Sophia Peabody afterward Mrs. Hawthorne, her sister Miss Elizabeth Peabody, and finally(pic below) Margaret Fuller.


The school opened prosperously and achieved remarkable success until, in 1837, the publication of Mr. Alcott's "Conversations on the Gospels" shocked the piety of Boston newspapers, whose persistent and virulent attacks frightened the public and caused the withdrawal of two-thirds of the pupils. Mr. Emerson came to Mr. Alcott's defence, saying: "He is making an experiment in which all the friends of education are interested," and asking, "whether it be wise or just to add to the anxieties of this enterprise a public clamor against some detached sentences of a book which, on the whole, is pervaded by original thought and sincere piety." In a private note, Mr. Emerson urged Mr. Alcott to give up his school, as the people of Boston were not worthy of him. Mr. Alcott had spent more than the income of the school in its equipment, creating debts which Louisa afterward paid; all his educational ideals were at stake, and he could not accept defeat easily.


However, in 1839, a colored girl was admitted to the school, and all his pupils were withdrawn, except the little negress and four whites, three of whom were his own daughters. So ended the Temple school. The event was very fateful for the Alcott family, but, much as it concerned Mrs. Alcott, there can be no doubt she much preferred that the school should end thus, than that Mr. Alcott should yield to public clamor on either of the issues which wrecked the enterprise. Orchard House

Louisa was seven years old when this misfortune occurred which shaped the rest of her life, fixing the straitened circumstances in which she was to pass her youth and preparing the burdens which ultimately were to be lifted by her facile pen. Happily the little Alcotts, of whom there were three, were too young to feel the perplexities that harassed their parents and their early years could hardly have been passed more pleasantly or profitably if they had been the daughters of millionaires. The family lived very comfortably amidst a fine circle of relatives and friends in Boston, preached and practised a vegetarian gospel,—rice without sugar and graham meal without butter or molasses,—monotonous but wholesome, spent their summers with friends at Scituate and, in town or country, partly owing to the principles of the new education, partly to the preoccupation of the parents, the children of the family were left in large measure to the teaching of nature and their own experience. Very abundant moral instruction there was in this apostolic family, both by example and precept, but the young disciples were expected to make their own application of the principles. The result, in the case of Louisa, was to develop a girl of very enterprising and adventurous character, who might have been mistaken for a boy from her sun-burned face, vigorous health, and abounding animal spirits. It was her pride to drive her hoop around the Common before breakfast and she tells us that she admitted to her social circle no girl who could not climb a tree and no boy whom she had not beaten in a race. Her autobiography of this period, she has given us, very thinly disguised, in "Poppy's Pranks."


Meanwhile, her mental faculties were not neglected. Mr. Alcott began the education of his children, in a kindergarten way, almost in their infancy, and before his Boston school closed, Louisa had two or three years in it as a pupil. What his method of education could do with a child of eight years is shown by a poem written by Louisa at that age. The family were then living in Concord, in the house which, in "Little Women," is celebrated as "Meg's first home." One early Spring day, Louisa found in the garden a robin, chilled and famished, and wrote these lines: "Welcome, welcome, little stranger, Fear no harm, and fear no danger; We are glad to see you here, For you sing, Sweet Spring is near.
Now the white snow melts away; Now the flowers blossom gay: Come, dear bird, and build your nest, For we love our robin best."
It will be remembered that this literary faculty, unusual at the age of eight, had been attained by a girl in the physical condition of an athlete, who could climb a tree like a squirrel.

Readers of "Little Women" will remember what a child's paradise "Meg's first home" was, with its garden full of fruit-trees and shade, and its old empty barn which the children alternately turned into a drawing-room for company, a gymnasium for romps, and a theatre for dramatic performances. "There," says Louisa, "we dramatized the fairy tales in great style," Jack the Giant-killer and Cinderella being favorites, the passion for the stage which came near making Louisa an actress, as also her sister Anna, getting early development. The fun and frolic of these days were the more enjoyed because they alternated with regular duties, with lessons in housework with the mother and language lessons with the father, for which he now had abundant leisure. As he had no other pupils, he could try all his educational experiments in his own family. Among other exercises, the children were required to keep a journal, to write in it regularly, and to submit it to the examination and criticism of the parents. Facility in writing thus became an early acquisition. It was furthered by a pretty habit which Mrs. Alcott had of keeping up a little correspondence with her children, writing little notes to them when she had anything to say in the way of reproof, correction, or instruction, receiving their confessions, repentance, and good resolutions by the next mail.



Some of these maternal letters are very tender and beautiful. One to Louisa at the age of eleven, enclosed a picture of a frail mother cared for by a faithful daughter, and says, "I have always liked it very much, for I imagined that you might be just such an industrious daughter and I such a feeble and loving mother, looking to your labor for my daily bread." There was prophecy in this and there was more prophecy in the lines with which Louisa replied:

"I hope that soon, dear mother, You and I may be In the quiet room my fancy Has so often made for thee,—
The pleasant, sunny chamber, The cushioned easy-chair, The book laid for your reading, The vase of flowers fair;
The desk beside the window When the sun shines warm and bright, And there in ease and quiet, The promised book you write.
While I sit close beside you, Content at last to see That you can rest, dear mother, And I can cherish thee."
The versification is still juvenile, but there is no fault in the sentiment, and Miss Alcott, in a later note, says, "The dream came true, and for the last ten years of her life, Marmee sat in peace with every wish granted." Evidently Louisa had begun to feel the pinch of the family circumstances. The income was of the slenderest. Sometimes Mr. Alcott gave a lecture or "conversation" and received a few dollars; sometimes he did a day's farm work for a neighbor; now and then Mr. Emerson called and clandestinely left a bank note, and many valuable packages came out from relatives in Boston; but frugal housekeeping was the chief asset of the family. Discouraging as the outlook was, some bitter experience might have been escaped if the Alcotts had remained in Concord, pursuing their unambitious career. It was, however, the era of social experiments in New England. The famous Brook Farm community was then in the third year of its existence, and it was impossible that Mr. Alcott should not sympathize with this effort to ease the burden of life, and wish to try his own experiment. Therefore, in 1843, being joined by several English socialists, one of whom financed the undertaking, Mr. Alcott started a small community on a worn-out not to say abandoned farm, which was hopefully christened "Fruitlands."

Visiting the community five or six weeks after its inception, Mr. Emerson wrote: "The sun and the evening sky do not look calmer than Alcott and his family at Fruitlands. They seem to have arrived at the fact,—to have got rid of the show, and so to be serene. They look well in July; we will see them in December." An inhospitable December came upon the promising experiment, as it generally has upon all similar enterprises. Under the title Transcendental Wild Oats, in "Silver Pitchers," Miss Alcott gives a lively account of the varying humors of this disastrous adventure.

Whatever disappointments and privations the enterprise had in store for their parents, the situation, with its little daily bustle, its limitless range of fields and woods, its flower hunting and berry picking, was full of interest and charm for four healthy children all under the age of twelve years. The fateful December, to which Mr. Emerson postponed his judgment, had not come before the elders were debating a dissolution of the community. "Father asked us if we saw any reason for us to separate," writes Louisa in her journal. "Mother wanted to, she is so tired. I like it." Of course she did; but "not the school part," she adds, "nor Mr. L.", who was one of her teachers. The inevitable lessons interfered with her proper business.
"Fruitlands" continued for three years with declining fortunes, its lack of promise being perhaps a benefit to the family in saving for other purposes a small legacy which Mrs. Alcott received from her father's estate. With this and a loan of $500 from Mr. Emerson, she bought "The Hillside" in Concord, an estate which, after the Alcotts, was occupied by Mr. Hawthorne. Thither Mrs. Alcott removed with her family in 1846, and the two years that followed is the period which Louisa looked back upon as the happiest of her life, "for we had," she says, "charming playmates in the little Emersons, Channings, Hawthornes, and Goodwins, with the illustrious parents and their friends to enjoy our pranks and share our excursions." Here the happy girlish life was passed which is so charmingly depicted in "Little Women," and here at the age of sixteen, Louisa wrote, for the entertainment of the little Alcotts and Emersons, a series of pretty fairy tales, still to be read in the second volume of Lulu's Library. Much as there was to enjoy in these surroundings, the problem of subsistence had not been solved and, with the growth of her daughters toward womanhood, it became more difficult for Mrs. Alcott. The world had, apparently, no use for Mr. Alcott; there were six persons to be fed and clothed, and no bread-winner in the family. The story is that one day, a friend found her in tears and demanded an explanation. "Abby Alcott, what does this mean?" asked the visitor, and when Mrs. Alcott had made her confessions, her friend said, "Come to Boston and I will find you employment." Accepting the proposition, the family removed to Boston in 1848, and Mrs. Alcott became the agent of certain benevolent societies. Mr. Alcott taught private classes, or held "conversations"; the older daughters, Anna and Louisa, found employment; and we may think of the family as fairly comfortable during the seven or eight years of its life in Boston. "Our poor little home," says Miss Alcott, "had much love and happiness in it, and was a shelter for lost girls, abused wives, friendless children, and weak and wicked men. Father and mother had no money to give but they gave time, sympathy, help; and if blessings would make them rich, they would be millionaires." Fugitive slaves were among the homeless who found shelter, one of whom Mrs. Alcott concealed in an unused brick oven. In Miss Alcott's journal of this period, we find the burden of existence weighing very heavily upon her, a state of mind apparently induced by her first experience in teaching. "School is hard work," she says, "and I feel as though I should like to run away from it. But my children get on; so I travel up every day and do my best. I get very little time to write or think, for my working days have begun." Later, she seems to have seen the value of this experience. "At sixteen," she writes, "I began to teach twenty pupils and, for ten years, I learned to know and love children."


Amateur theatricals were still the recreation of the Alcott girls, as they had been almost from infancy, and the stage presented a fascinating alternative to the school-room. "Anna wants to be an actress and so do I," writes Louisa at seventeen. "We could make plenty of money perhaps, and it is a very gay life. Mother says we are too young and must wait. Anna acts splendidly. I like tragic plays and shall be a Siddons if I can. We get up harps, dresses, water-falls, and thunder, and have great fun." Both of the sisters wrote many exciting dramas at this period, and one of Louisa's, "The Rival Prima Donnas," was accepted by the manager of the Boston Theatre, who "thought it would have a fine run" and sent the author a free pass to the theatre, which partly compensated for the non-appearance of the play. Some years later, a farce written by Louisa, "Nat Bachelor's Pleasure Trip, or the Trials of a Good-Natured Man," was produced at the Howard Athenæum, and was favorably received. Christie's experience as an actress, in Miss Alcott's novel entitled, "Work," is imaginary in its incidents, but autobiographical in its spirit.

All these experiments in dramatic literature, from Jack the Giant-Killer on, were training the future story-teller. Miss Alcott's first story to see the light was printed in a newspaper at the age of twenty, in 1852, though it had been written at sixteen. She received $5.00 for it, and the event is interesting as the beginning of her fortune. This little encouragement came at a period of considerable trial for the family. The following is from her journal of 1853: "In January, I started a little school of about a dozen in our parlor. In May, my school closed and I went to L. as second girl. I needed the change, could do the wash, and was glad to earn my $2.00 a week." Notice that this is her summer vacation. "Home in October with $34.00 for my wages. After two days' rest, began school again with ten children." The family distributed themselves as follows: "Anna went to Syracuse to teach; father to the west to try his luck,—so poor, so hopeful, so serene. God be with him. Mother had several boarders. School for me, month after month. I earned a good deal by sewing in the evening when my day's work was done."


Mr. Alcott returned from the west, and the account of his adventures is very touching: "In February father came home. Paid his way, but no more. A dramatic scene when he arrived in the night. We were awakened by the bell. Mother flew down crying, My Husband. We rushed after and five white figures embraced the half-frozen wanderer who came in, hungry, tired, cold, and disappointed, but smiling bravely and as serene as ever. We fed and warmed and brooded over him, longing to ask if he had made any money; but no one did till little May said, after he had told us all the pleasant things, 'Well, did people pay you?' Then with a queer look he opened his pocket book, and showed one dollar, saying with a smile, 'Only that. My overcoat was stolen, and I had to buy a shawl. Many promises were not kept, and traveling is costly; but I have opened the way, and another year shall do better.' I shall never forget how beautifully mother answered him, though the dear, hopeful soul had built much on his success: but with a beaming face she kissed him, saying, 'I call that doing very well. Since you are safely home, dear, we don't ask anything else.'" One of Miss Alcott's unfulfilled purposes was to write a story entitled "The Pathetic Family." This passage would have found a place in it. It deserves to be said that Mr. Alcott's faith that he had "opened a way and another year should do better," was justified. Fifteen years later, from one of his western tours, he brought home $700, but, thanks to Louisa's pen, the family were no longer in such desperate need of money.

More than once Miss Alcott declares that no one ever assisted her in her struggles, but that was far from true, as appears from many favors acknowledged in her journal. It was by the kindness of a lady who bought the manuscripts and assumed the risk of publication, that her first book, "Flower Fables," was brought out in 1854. It consisted of the fairy tales written six years before for the little Emersons. She received $32.00, a sum which would have seemed insignificant thirty years later when, in 1886, the sale of her books for six months brought her $8,000; but she says, "I was prouder over the $32.00 than over the $8,000." The picture of Jo in a garret in "Little Women," planning and writing stories, is drawn from Louisa's experiences of the following winter. A frequent entry in her journal for this period is "$5.00 for a story" and her winter's earnings are summed up, "school, one quarter, $50, sewing $50, stories, $20." In December we read, "Got five dollars for a tale and twelve for sewing." Teaching, writing, and sewing alternate in her life for the next five years, and, for a year or two yet, the needle is mightier than the pen; but in 1856, she began to be paid $10 for a story, and, in 1859, the Atlantic accepted a story and paid her $50.
A friend for whose encouragement during these hard years, she acknowledges great indebtedness and who appears as one of the characters in her story, entitled "Work," was Rev. Theodore Parker, a man as helpful, loving, and gentle as she depicts him, but then much hated by those called orthodox and hardly in good standing among his Unitarian brethren. Miss Alcott, then as ever, had the courage of her convictions, was a member of his Music Hall congregation, and a regular attendant at his Sunday evening receptions, finding him "very friendly to the large, bashful girl who adorns his parlor regularly." She "fought for him," she says, when some one said Mr. Parker "was not a Christian. He is my sort; for though he may lack reverence for other people's God, he works bravely for his own, and turns his back on no one who needs help, as some of the pious do." After Mr. Parker's death, Miss Alcott, when in Boston, attended the church of Dr. C. A. Bartol, who buried her mother, her father and herself.

In 1857, the Alcotts returned to Concord, buying and occupying the Orchard House, which thenceforth became their home. Other family events of the period were, the death of Miss Alcott's sister Elizabeth, Beth in "Little Women," the marriage of Anna, Meg in "Little Women," and a proposal of marriage to Louisa, serious enough for her to hold a consultation over it with her mother. Miss Alcott is said to have been averse to entangling alliances for herself, to have married off the heroines in her novels reluctantly at the demand of her readers, and never to have enjoyed writing the necessary love-passages. The year 1860, when Miss Alcott is twenty-seven, has the distinction of being marked in the heading of her journal as "A Year of Good Luck." Her family had attained a comfortable, settled home in Concord; Mr. Alcott had been appointed superintendent of public schools, an office for which he was peculiarly well qualified and in which he was both happy and admirably successful; Anna, the eldest sister, was happily married; May, the youngest, was making a reputation as an artist; and Louisa, in perfect health, having in May before, "walked to Boston, twenty miles, in five hours, and attended an evening party," was becoming a regular contributor to the Atlantic, and receiving $50, $75, and sometimes $100 for her stories. In these happy conditions, Miss Alcott sat down to a more ambitious attempt at authorship and wrote the first rough draft of "Moods," a "problem novel" that provoked much discussion and, though it caused her more trouble than any other of her books, was always dearest to her heart. It was written in a kind of frenzy of poetic enthusiasm. "Genius burned so fiercely," she says, "that for four weeks, I wrote all day and planned nearly all night, being quite possessed by my work. I was perfectly happy, and seemed to have no wants. Finished the book, or a rough draft of it, and put it away to settle." It was not published till four years later. Even in this year of good luck, there seem to have been some privations, as she records being invited to attend a John Brown meeting and declining because she "had no good gown." She sends a poem instead. The breaking out of the Civil War stirred Miss Alcott's soul to its depths, and we have numerous references to its progress in her journal. "I like the stir in the air," she writes, "and long for battle like a war-horse when he smells powder." Not being permitted to enlist as a soldier, she went into a hospital in Washington as a nurse. Her experiences are graphically and dramatically told in "Hospital Sketches." That book, chiefly made from her private letters, met the demand of the public, eager for any information about the great war; it was widely read and, besides putting $200 in her purse, gave her a reputation with readers and publishers.

Many applications for manuscript came in and she was told that "any publisher this side of Baltimore would be glad to get a book" from her. "There is a sudden hoist," she says, "for a meek and lowly scribbler. Fifteen years of hard grubbing may come to something yet." Her receipts for the year 1863, amounted to $600 and she takes comfort in saying that she had spent less than one hundred on herself. The following year, after having been twice re-written, "Moods" was brought out and, thanks to the "Hospital Sketches," had a ready sale. Wherever she went, she says, she "found people laughing or crying over it, and was continually told how well it was going, how much it was liked, how fine a thing I had done." The first edition was exhausted in a week. An entire edition was ordered by London publishers. She was very well satisfied with the reception of "Moods" at the time, though in after years when fifty thousand copies of a book would be printed as a first edition, the sale of "Moods" seemed to her inconsiderable. The present day reader wonders neither at the eagerness of the public for the book, nor at the criticisms that were freely made upon it. It is interesting from cover to cover and as a study of "a life affected by moods, not a discussion of marriage," it is effective. In spite, however, of the warning of the author, everyone read it as "a discussion of marriage," and few were satisfied. The interest centres in the fortunes of a girl who has married the wrong lover, the man to whom, by preference, she would have given her heart being supposed to be dead. Would that he had been, for then, to all appearance, she would have been contented and happy. Unfortunately he returns a year too late, finds the girl married and, though endowed with every virtue which a novelist can bestow upon her hero, he does not know enough to leave the poor woman in peace. On the contrary, he settles down to a deliberate siege to find out how she feels, wrings from her the confession that she is miserable, as by that time no doubt she was, and then convinces her that since she does not love her husband, it is altogether wrong to live under the same roof with him. Surely this was nobly done. Poor Sylvia loves this villain, Miss Alcott evidently loves him, but the bloody-minded reader would like to thrust a knife into him. However, he is not a name or a type, but a real man, or one could not get so angry with him. All the characters live and breathe in these pages, and no criticism was less to the purpose than that the situations were unnatural. Miss Alcott says "The relations of Warwick, Moor, and Sylvia are pronounced impossible; yet a case of the sort exists, and a woman came and asked me how I knew it. I did not know or guess, but perhaps felt it, without any other guide, and unconsciously put the thing into my book." Everyone will agree that Miss Alcott had earned a vacation, and it came in 1865, in a trip to Europe, where she spent a year, from July to July, as the companion of an invalid lady, going abroad for health. The necessity of modulating her pace to the movements of a nervous invalid involved some discomforts for a person of Miss Alcott's pedestrian abilities, but who would not accept some discomforts for a year of European travel? She had a reading knowledge of German and French, and in the abundant leisure which the long rests of her invalid friend forced upon her, she learned to speak French with facility.


On her return from Europe, she found her circumstances much improved. She had established her position as a regular contributer to the Atlantic whose editor, she says, "takes all I'll send." In 1868, she was offered and accepted the editorship of Merry's Museum at a salary of $500, and, more important, she was asked by Roberts Brothers to "write a girl's book." Her response to this proposition was "Little Women," which she calls "the first golden egg of the ugly duckling, for the copyright made her fortune." Two editions were exhausted in six weeks and the book was translated into French, German and Dutch. "Little Men" was written, a chapter a day, in November of the same year, and "An Old-fashioned Girl," a popular favorite, the year following. "Hospital Sketches" had not yet outlived its welcome, was republished, with some additions, in 1869, and two thousand copies were sold the first week. She is able to say, "Paid up all debts, thank the Lord, every penny that money can pay,—and now I feel as if I could die in peace." Besides, she has invested "$1,200 for a rainy day," and is annoyed because "people come and stare at the Alcotts. Reporters haunt the place to look at the authoress, who dodges into the woods."


The severe application which her achievement had cost had impaired Miss Alcott's fine constitution and, in 1870, taking May, her artist sister, she made a second trip to Europe, spending the summer in France and Switzerland and the winter in Rome. A charming account of the adventures of this expedition is given in "Shawl-Straps." A pleasant incident of the journey was the receipt of a statement from her publisher giving her credit for $6,212, and she is able to say that she has "$10,000 well invested and more coming in all the time," and that she thinks "we may venture to enjoy ourselves, after the hard times we have had." In 1872, she published "Work: a story of Experience," and it is for the most part, a story of her own experience. "Christie's adventures," she says, "are many of them my own: Mr. Power is Mr. Parker: Mrs. Wilkins is imaginary, and all the rest. This was begun at eighteen, and never finished till H. W. Beecher wrote me for a serial for the Christian Union and paid $3,000 for it." It is one of the most deservedly popular of her books.

In 1877, for Roberts Brothers' "No Name Series," Miss Alcott wrote "A Modern Mephistopheles," her least agreeable book, but original, imaginative, and powerful. The moral of the story is that, in our modern life, the devil does not appear with a cloven foot, but as a cultivated man of the world. Miss Alcott's Mephistopheles is even capable of generous impulses. With the kindness of a Good Samaritan, he saves a poor wretch from suicide and then destroys him morally. The devil is apparently a mixed character with a decided preponderance of sinfulness. Miss Alcott had now reached her forty-fifth year, had placed her family in independent circumstances, thus achieving her early ambition, and the effort began to tell upon her health. A succession of rapid changes soon came upon her. Mrs. Alcott, having attained her seventy-seventh year, was very comfortable for her age. "Mother is cosy with her sewing, letters, and the success of her 'girls,'" writes Miss Alcott in January; but in June, "Marmee grows more and more feeble," and in November the end came. "She fell asleep in my arms," writes Louisa; "My duty is done, and now I shall be glad to follow her."


May, the talented artist sister, whom Louisa had educated, had once taken to Europe and twice sent abroad for study, was married in London in 1878, to a Swiss gentleman of good family and some fortune, Mr. Nieriker. The marriage was a very happy one but the joy of the young wife was brief. She died the year following, leaving an infant daughter as a legacy to Louisa. Mr. Emerson's death in 1882, was, to her, much like taking a member of her own family: "The nearest and dearest friend father ever had and the man who helped me most by his life, his books, his society. I can never tell all he has been to me,—from the time I sang Mignon's song under his window (a little girl) and wrote letters a la Bettine to him, my Goethe, at fifteen, up through my hard years, when his essays on Self-Reliance, Character, Compensation, Love, and Friendship helped me to understand myself and life, and God and Nature."
Mr. Alcott is still with her, vigorous for his years. In 1879, at the age of eighty, he inaugurated the Concord School of Philosophy, "with thirty students. Father the dean. He has his dream realized at last, and is in glory, with plenty of talk to swim in." The school was, for Miss Alcott, an expensive toy with which she was glad to be able to indulge her father. Personally she cared little for it. On one of her rare visits to it, she was asked her definition of a philosopher, and responded instantly: "My definition is of a man up in a balloon, with his family and friends holding the ropes which confine him to earth and trying to haul him down." For her father's sake, she rejoiced in the success of the enterprise. Of the second season, she writes, "The new craze flourishes. The first year, Concord people stood aloof; now the school is pronounced a success, because it brings money to the town. Father asked why we never went, and Anna showed him a long list of four hundred names of callers, and he said no more." In addition to the labors which the school laid upon Mr. Alcott, he prepared for the press a volume of sonnets, some of which are excellent, especially one to Louisa: "Ne'er from thyself by Fame's loud trump beguiled, Sounding in this and the farther hemisphere,— I press thee to my heart as Duty's faithful child." Mr. Alcott seemed to be renewing his youth but, in November, he was prostrated by paralysis. "Forty sonnets last winter," writes Louisa, "and fifty lectures at the school last summer, were too much for a man of eighty-three." He recovered sufficiently to enjoy his friends and his books and lingered six years, every want supplied by his devoted daughter.


With Miss Alcott the years go on at a slower pace, the writing of books alternating with sleepless nights and attacks of vertigo. "Jo's Boys" was written in 1884, fifty thousand copies being printed for the first edition. In 1886, her physician forbids her beginning anything that will need much thought. Life was closing in upon her, and she did not wish to live if she could not be of use. In March, 1888, Mr. Alcott failed rapidly, and died on the sixth of the month. Miss Alcott visited him and, in the excitement of leave-taking, neglected to wrap herself properly, took a fatal cold, and two days after, on the day of his burial, she followed him, in the fifty-sixth year of her age. Dr. C. A. Bartol, (pic above) who had just buried her father, said tenderly at her funeral: "The two were so wont to be together, God saw they could not well live apart." If Miss Alcott, by the pressure of circumstances, had not been a writer of children's books, she might have been a poet, and would, from choice, have been a philanthropist and reformer. Having worked her own way with much difficulty, it was impossible that she should not be interested in lightening the burdens which lay upon women, in the race of life, and though never a prominent worker in the cause, she was a zealous believer in the right of women to the ballot. She attended the Woman's Congress in Syracuse, in 1875, "drove about and drummed up women to my suffrage meeting" in Concord, she says, in 1879, and writes in a letter of 1881, "I for one don't want to be ranked among idiots, felons, and minors any longer, for I am none of them."

To say that she might have been a poet does her scant justice. She wrote two or three fine lyrics which would justify giving her a high place among the verse-writers of her generation. "Thoreau's Flute," printed in the Atlantic, has been called the most perfect of her poems, with a possible exception of a tender tribute to her mother. Personally, I consider the lines in memory of her mother one of the finest elegiac poems within my knowledge: "Mysterious death: who in a single hour Life's gold can so refine, And by thy art divine, Change mortal weakness to immortal power."



There are twelve stanzas of equal strength and beauty. The closing lines of this fine eulogy we may apply to Miss Alcott, for both lives have the same lesson:
"Teaching us how to seek the highest goal, To earn the true success,— To live, to love, to bless,— And make death proud to take a royal soul."
House Tours Louisa May Alcott Home

1 comment:

  1. Melissa, I thoroughly enjoyed this article! She's always been one of my favorite authors. I learned much about her through reading her books and biographies about her. But after reading this article, I learned a few more things I wasn't aware of before (maybe I missed a few things or had forgotten about, as it's been many years since I read anything pertaining to her and her family and many of her books too.). Great job, and well put together too. Thanks for sharing this with us all.

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