Versatility characterizes the canon of Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), which includes children’s literature, adult novels, gothic thrillers, autobiography, short stories, poetry, and drama. Although Alcott’s works for children may be distinguished from those of other writers of children’s stories in some important ways, they nonetheless fit into the broader context of American literature of the time. What set Alcott’s children’s novels apart from the rest was her careful avoidance of the overt didacticism and sermonizing that characterized many others. A code of proper behavior is implicit, but it is detected in situations in the novels rather than showcased by authorial intrusion. In the juvenile novels, excepting the March family works, Alcott wrote less from her own experiences, and she was more prone to rewrite earlier works. The most enduring of Alcott’s collection are the girls’ novels and the family stories, which continue to be read because of the vitality of the characters—how they deal with life situations and challenges with humor, even fun—and the way Alcott uses detail to present simple, honest lives. Although criticism of Alcott’s work in the late twentieth century found the children’s novels to be overly sentimental, readers of the day enjoyed them.
The works for adults portray a less simplistic view of life than do the children’s stories. Readers meet people with boring, unhappy, or even sordid lives, lives that would not be deemed suitable for those works that earned Alcott the epithet “children’s friend.” Alcott’s skill in building character, in using dialogue, and in exploring social issues of the day is evident.
Moods, Alcott’s first and favorite novel, was published in 1864. Having been advised to cut its length by about half, Alcott submitted a text predictably unsatisfactory both to her and to her critics. Nearly twenty years later, a new edition was published with some deletions and the restoration of former chapters. The basic story remained the same: The heroine, Sylvia Yule, is dominated by mood swings. Governed more by feelings than by reason, she is prone to making misguided judgments in love. She loves Adam Warwick, a model of strength, intellect, and manliness, but she learns, too late, that he uses others to serve his own purposes and then shuns them. After Adam leaves Sylvia, his best friend, Geoffrey Moor, becomes a true friend to Sylvia, but he mistakes the friendship for love. He is totally unlike Adam: slight of build, sweet, and tranquil. Sylvia decides to marry him because he is a “safe” choice, not because she loves him. When Sylvia finally confesses to Geoffrey her love for Adam, Geoffrey leaves for one year to see if his absence will help her learn to love him. The plan works, but on his way back to claim her love, Adam, Geoffrey’s traveling companion, is drowned. Though saddened, Sylvia and Geoffrey are reunited, wiser and more cognizant of the value of their mutual love. In the 1864 edition of the book, Sylvia develops tuberculosis, and when Geoffrey returns, he nurses her through her terminal illness, before she dies in his arms. In the 1881 edition, in which Sylvia falls ill but recovers and accepts Geoffrey’s love, Alcott focuses more clearly on the theme of moods rather than of marriage, and plot and characterization are more even.
Although Louisa May Alcott was already an established author upon the publication of Little Women, it was that novel that brought her an enduring reputation. The novel was written quickly; the original manuscript was completed in six weeks. Because the public clamored for a sequel revealing how the sisters married, Alcott obliged with Little Women, Part 2 (later published as Good Wives) one year later. The two were subsequently published as a single novel. Little Women is based on the fictionalized life of the Alcott sisters at their house in Concord. The plot is episodic, devoting at least one chapter to each sister. The overall theme is the sisters’ quest to face the challenges of life and to overcome those “burdens” so that they may develop into “little women.” The chief burden of Meg, the eldest, is vanity. Jo, like her mother, has a temper that she must learn to control if she is to become a “little woman.” Beth, thirteen, is already so nearly perfect that her burden is simply to overcome her shyness. Amy is the proverbial spoiled baby in the family, and she must try to overcome her impracticality and thoughtlessness.
When the sisters are not sharing intimacies and producing dramatic productions for entertainment, they interact with the next-door neighbors, Mr. Lawrence and his orphaned grandson Laurie. Laurie is wealthy in material things but longs to have family; he often enjoys the March girls’ activities vicariously, from a window. Mrs. March, affectionately called Marmee, is a central character in the novel. The girls know that they can confide in their mother about anything, and at any time. She is strong, wise, and loving, clearly the anchor of the family. Mr. March is a clergyman who has gone to serve in the CivilWar and so is absent during the course of the novel. The story ends with the engagement of Meg, the eldest sister; with Jo’s decision to become a writer and to leave her tomboyish childhood for a mature relationship; and with Amy’s betrothal to Laurie. Beth, tragically, dies of a terminal illness. LittleWomen was an overnight success, and the public eagerly awaited the sequel, provided in Little Women, Part 2.
Little Women, Part 2
The sequel to Little Women was released in January of 1869. Little Women, Part 2 begins with Meg’s wedding day; she settles into a conventional marriage in which her husband is the breadwinner and she is the docile, dependent wife. They have two children, Daisy and Demi-John. For a time, Alcott allows Jo to be happy being single and to enjoy her liberty. After she has married Amy off to Laurie in another conventional romantic marriage, she bows to the wishes of her readers and has Jo marry Professor Bhaer, the kindly older man about whom Jo became serious in Little Women. Jo is able to maintain a degree of freedom and to pursue intellectual interests in a way that conventional marriages of the day would not have allowed. Together, they operate the Plumfield School, whose pedagogy parallels the philosophy of Alcott’s father in his Temple School; thus, the success of Plumfield is a tribute to Bronson Alcott.
An Old-Fashioned Girl
Alcott’s 1870 novel, An Old-Fashioned Girl, was not as commercially successful as were the March family books. The theme of this book is that wealth in itself does not bring happiness. Polly Milton pays an extended visit to her wealthy friend Fanny Shaw, only to realize that this very “new-fashioned” family is not much of a family at all: Brother Tom is left uncared for by everyone except his grandmother, who is also ignored by the rest of the family; Maud, the six-year-old sister, is a petty, ill-tempered child. The father gives himself wholly to his work; the mother neglects the household largely because of a self-proclaimed invalidism. Fanny herself is lazy and shallow. Polly Milton’s family, on the other hand, though poor, is noble. The Reverend Milton is a country parson who provides for his family’s needs and has a loving and happy family. Mrs. Milton, like Marmee of Little Women, is a wise and caring confidante who dresses Polly appropriately for her age and who teaches respect and charity by word and deed. She is an able seamstress and cook; she operates the household economically and within their means. Polly helps improve the Shaw family, and she returns unspoiled to her loving family. She becomes a music teacher so that she can send her brother to college. Polly is not perfect, however; her flaw is vanity. As a working woman without a fashionable wardrobe, she does not enjoy full social acceptance.
Polly seeks proper marriages for the Shaw children. A reversal of financial circumstances in the Shaw family forces Fanny to learn from the Miltons how to make do with little, but it is a blessing because both Tom and Fanny become better people. By the end of the novel, marriages have been planned for all except Maud, who remains a happy spinster.
Little Men, published in 1871, employs the episodic technique of earlier novels to continue the story that Little Women began. The focus is on Professor and Jo March Bhaer and their students at Plumfield. Jo has a son Rob and a lovable baby boy, Teddy; Daisy and Demi, Meg’s twins, are now old enough to be students at the school, as is Bess, Laurie and Amy’s daughter. Professor Bhaer’s nephews, Emil and Franz, are senior students. Other students include the stock characters Stuffy Cole, Dolly Pettingill, Jack Ford, Billy Ward, and Dick Brown. Four other students are more fully developed: Tommy Bangs, an arsonist; Nat Blake, who loves music and tells lies; Nan, who wanted to be a boy and becomes a physician; and Dan Kean, a troublemaker who threatens to upset the reputation the Bhaers have gained for success in reforming wayward students. The children are rarely seen in the classroom, carrying out Bronson Alcott’s Temple School principle of cultivating healthy bodies and spirits as wellas developing the intellect. Corporal punishment of students is not practiced, and the school is coeducational. Under the guidance of the long-suffering Professor Bhaer and the now-motherly Jo, the school is like a magnet that draws its former charges back to its stable shelter.
Some critics consider Work to be Alcott’s most successful novel for adults. Christie Devon, an orphan, leaves home to seek independence. She goes through a number of jobs quickly—a chapter is given to each one, in episodic fashion—before she meets Rachel, a “fallen” woman whom she befriends. When Rachel’s past is discovered, she is fired from her job, as is Christie for remaining her friend. Christie becomes increasingly poor, hungry, lonely, and depressed, to the point of contemplating suicide. Rachel comes along in time and takes Christie to a washerwoman who introduces her to the Reverend Thomas Power. He arranges for Christie to live with the widow Sterling and her son David, a florist. Christie tries to make David heroic, which he is not, but in time they are married, just before David goes off to war. He is killed, and Christie goes to live with David’s family and has a child. Rachel turns out to be David’s sister-in-law. The novel focuses on the loneliness and frustration of women in situations such as these. Like Alcott, they find salvation in hard work, and though financial recompense is paltry, it is not deemed beneath their dignity. More than in her other novels, Alcott realistically portrays relationships between men and women.
Alcott published Eight Cousins in 1875. She does not resort to the episodic technique of earlier novels as she focuses clearly on the character Rose Campbell, also the heroine of the sequel to Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom. A ward of her Uncle Alex, the orphaned heir Rose comes to live with her relatives. Her six aunts all have strong opinions about Rose’s education, but her schooling merely crams Rose full of useless facts; she is not really educated. Finally, Uncle Alex takes over her education and provides her with “freedom, rest, and care,” echoing Bronson Alcott’s educational philosophy. Rose is in frequent contact with her seven male cousins, to whom she becomes a confidante. She submits to Uncle Alex’s wholesome regimen, but she has her ears pierced despite his disapproval, and she admires what is fashionable even though she chooses the outfits her uncle suggests. The central theme of the novel is a woman’s education. It prescribes physical exercise, housework, and mastery of some kind of trade. It allows courses that were nontraditional for women at the time the novel appeared and rests on practical experience rather than reading of books, although reading is respected. Although the novel clearly has in mind a treatment of various social issues, it succeeds nevertheless because of Alcott’s development of the children and the humor with which she views the foibles of the adult characters.
A Modern Mephistopheles
In 1876, Alcott’s publisher requested a novel to be published anonymously in the No Name series of works by popular writers. She chose a manuscript she had written ten years earlier that had been deemed sensational. A revised version enabled Alcott to write in the gothic mode without compromising her reputation as a children’s writer. Furthermore, she had been impressed with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1808, 1833), and the parallels to Goethe’s masterpiece are obvious. Just when Felix Canaris, a rejected but aspiring poet, is contemplating suicide, Jasper Helwyze comes along, rescues Felix, and befriends him, promising to make him successful. Within a year, Felix has indeed succeeded. He falls in love with Olivia, a former love who had rejected Jasper, but Gladys, an orphan protégé of Olivia, also falls in love with Felix.
Completely under Jasper’s influence, Felix is forced to marry Gladys instead of Olivia. Jasper harasses the young couple in various ways. As they look forward to life with a child, Jasper forces Felix to reveal his secret to Gladys: He has no real talent—Jasper has been writing the successful poetry. Gladys does not reject Felix, but after going into premature labor, she and the baby both die. Before her death, she implores Felix and Jasper to forgive each other. Thus, Felix is freed from his bondage to Jasper and goes on to live a worthwhile life; Jasper has a stroke. Alcott’s novel is not simply a rewritten Faust; a dominant theme in the novel is the power of women, both wives and mothers, to save men from themselves, an idea of high interest to the readers of the day. There is a great deal of foreshadowing, partly because of its parallels to Faust. Alcott explores the darker side of human nature in a way that she could not, or would not, do in her works for children.
Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill’s episodic plot may be explained by the fact that it was first serialized in the St. Nicholas magazine in 1879 and 1880, although several of Alcott’s other novels also employed this technique. Alcott called it a “village story,” and Harmony Village is her fictionalized Concord. Jack and Frank are modeled after Anna Alcott’s sons, and Ed is based on Ellsworth Devens, a Concord friend. Jack and Jill are recovering from a serious sliding accident, and the novel concerns the way the other Harmony Village children are inspired by the near tragedy to improve their ways, both physically and morally. Like Beth of Little Women, Ed is almost too good to be true, foreshadowing his early death. This novel, like Little Men, is an educational novel. Jo’s Boys, and How They Turned Out • In 1886, Alcott brought closure to the March family novels with a final story portraying the changes that have occurred within the previous ten years. Mr. Lawrence, the kind next-door neighbor of Little Women, endows a college next door to the Plumfield School of Little Women, Part 2 and Little Men. Meg notes the absence of the beloved Marmee, Beth, and her late husband John. Readers learn that Demi has gone into the publishing business; Daisy is a “little woman” who marries Nat Blake, and Nan becomes a doctor. Nat completes his musical education in Germany; Emil becomes a ship’s officer who takes charge of a lifeboat when the captain becomes ill; Dan Kean, who decided to seek his fortune in the West, kills a man in self-defense when a crooked card game goes sour. It is remembering and upholding the honor of Plumfield that guides these young men. The one character who cannot return to the inner circle of the March family is the “bad boy,” Dan. He does come back to Plumfield after he is wounded while working with Native Americans in the West, but he is not allowed to marry Beth, the daughter of Amy March and Laurie Lawrence. Feminism is the main focus of the novel; all of the young women succeed in careers that were denied the title characters in LittleWomen.
Other Major Works
Short Fiction: Flower Fables, 1854; On Picket Duty, and Other Tales, 1864; Morning- Glories, and Other Stories, 1867; Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, 1872-1882 (6 volumes); Silver Pitchers: And Independence, a Centennial Love Story, 1876; Spinning-Wheel Stories, 1884; A Garland for Girls, 1887; Lulu’s Library, 1895; From Jo March’s Attic: Stories of Intrigue and Suspense, 1993; Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers, 1995; The Early Stories of Louisa May Alcott, 1852-1860, 2000.
Plays: Comic Tragedies Written by “Jo” and “Meg” and Acted by the “LittleWomen,” 1893.
Poetry: The Poems of Louisa May Alcott, 2000.
Nonfiction: Hospital Sketches, 1863 (essays); Life, Letters, and Journals, 1889 (Ednah D. Cheney, editor); The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, 1989 (Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, editors); The Sketches of Louisa May Alcott, 2001.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press,Inc 2008.