When she published the phenomenally popular Little Women in 1868, and began her career as America’s best-loved author for the young, Louisa May Alcott was thirty-five years old. An intensely private person, she disliked the lion-hunters who soon came in frightening numbers to the Alcott’s Concord home. She could not always avoid them, however, and the ensuing encounters were usually painful to her, and sometimes to her visitors. She recorded how a little girl wept violently and could not be comforted that this sharp-featured, grim, middle-aged woman was the author of Little Women. The anecdote is not so predictable and slight as it at first seems. Most of Alcott’s critics have been less perceptive or less open than the little girl who so frankly registered her shock at the discrepancy between the literary persona and the reality of Louisa May Alcott.
Yet it is in part our growing awareness of this discrepancy that helps to restore Alcott’s interest for us today. Martha Saxton’s recent biography, Louisa May, is a major step in the process of reassessment. Her book follows logically upon Madeleine Stern’s critical discovery and republication of Alcott’s lost “thrillers” written before Little Women.1 Saxton offers a psychological and cultural study of Alcott and her milieu, emphasizing the darker sides of her life and career. Although Alcott is diverse enough to provide material for books very different from Saxton’s,2 Saxton has powerfully delineated what has too long been ignored: the compulsions and fears that both inspired and limited the “children’s friend.” “Duty’s faithful child,” as her father, the transcendental philosopher Bronson Alcott called her, Alcott is for Saxton a haunting example of the consequences of unwilling adherence to Victorian literary and personal conventions.
Shall never lead my own life,” Alcott wrote in one of her many unhappy late journal entries, and she was partly right. A vehement, adventurous person with a dread of boredom, she played with boys as a girl, remained single all her life, at thirty enlisted briefly as a nurse in the Civil War, supported women’s rights and other activist causes in middle age, and wrote prolifically always. Despite intermittent feverish travel, however, Alcott lived most of her life with her family in or near Concord. Her mentors were, of course, her father and his friends, Emerson, Thoreau, and other luminaries of Concord’s Transcendental group. She increasingly disliked the place as high-talking and small-minded, yet never managed to escape it.
There is also an evident paradox in her career. She rose to fame as the author of cheery, nearly plotless books like Little Women, An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), and Eight Cousins (1875), which she herself found of little interest. Yet she earlier published pseudonymously at least a dozen dazzling, highly plotted, sensational “thrillers” on which she worked with the utmost absorption. She had in fact a gift for melodramatic plot and the working out of deception and discovery which such a plot entails. How are we to understand the two very different sides of her work and character? Saxton offers a partial, but convincing, clue.
Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832, the second child of Bronson and Abba Alcott. Of farming stock, Bronson became a brilliant and improvident educator, unemployed for the better part of thirty years. Abba was a talented member of the well-bred, reform-minded Sewall and May families. The couple had four daughters and no son. From the start, Bronson and Abba considered Louisa difficult, even violent. Abba, a strong-minded, willful woman devoted to her husband but anxious for a little more of the worldly goods Bronson’s high-mindedness bypassed, saw her second-born as cast in her own mold. She sensed in Louisa’s moodiness, and the tenacious loyalty the girl increasingly used as the only means of controlling it, both a source of affection and some hint of future success in the world.
Until after the Civil War, Abba did more to support the Alcott family than her husband. An amateur pioneer in social work, a tireless laborer in her own home, she everywhere saw—her trenchant phrase—“woman under the yoke,” and she impressed upon Louisa early that there would be “few to understand” her. Abba Alcott’s matriarchal feminism and the largely patriarchal arrangements it kept afloat were to be, Saxton argues, an uneasy source of inspiration for Louisa all her life.
Abba is of course the model for “Marmee” in Little Women. Her energy, passion, and determination also lie behind the damned, struggling heroines of Louisa’s early thrillers. But it was Louisa’s father, as Saxton, I think rightly, stresses, whose precepts and personality guided, and perhaps damaged, Louisa’s development most seriously.
Abba felt Louisa was her ally. Bronson, despite all the pride he eventually took in her, often considered her his opposition. He felt, not incorrectly, that Louisa was a creature of will, able to learn only through conflict. Hence, he noted in the journal he devoted to her early development, she experienced the world largely as intractable materialia; she would not discover the unchanging Platonic unity behind appearances in which he believed. And since Bronson was Louisa’s teacher as well as father, it was difficult for her to elude or modify his definitions of her.
Bronson Alcott, a radical and unpopular pioneer in children’s education, experimented largely perforce on his own offspring. His technique was deliberately to merge the extremes of introspection with the extremes of sublimation. His little daughters and the young students at the famous Temple School he ran for a few years in Boston in the mid-1830s were encouraged in unconventional ways to plummet the deepest reaches of their spirit in earnest discussions of everything from conscience to conception; but in the process they subjected their findings to inspection and judgment by their elders. Bronson once asked his pupils to “give me some emblems on birth.” Most of them were well under ten years of age, and responded with answers such as birth is “like rain,” or birth is “a small stream coming from a great sea,” or birth is “the rising light.” Alcott then simply closed the discussion: “I should like to have all your emblems, but have not time. There is no adequate sign of birth in the outward world, except the physiological facts that attend it, with which you are not acquainted.” He had asked his students to think of things they could not fully realize.
Everywhere, there was little separation between private experience and public life in Louisa’s education. She kept a journal from early childhood on. For some of us, keeping a journal as children is the first strike for secrecy, for having our own lives. Louisa’s journal, her fledgling authorial effort, was written for her parents, who read it and penned commentaries for her edification. Louisa was by nature a complicated and perhaps difficult person; she might well have short-circuited herself under any conditions. But it is true, as Saxton argues, that she never even began to map out her inner self as she might have done if she had rebelled against a more conventionally pious and repressive family.
Saxton’s analysis, if deterministic, is shrewd, but there are complexities in her own interpretation which she overlooks. Louisa, as Saxton notes, never wrote as extensively about her father as she did about the other members of her claustrophobically tight-knit family. She did not understand, much less sympathize with, his ideas, or with the poverty they entailed for his family. But Saxton, who sometimes casts Bronson simplistically as the villain in the piece, misses much that was interesting about him.
Many of his friends concurred with Emerson that, despite Bronson’s inability to write, laugh, or “vary” himself (considerable defects), he might well be the “highest genius of his age.” And Louisa herself not infrequently voiced the widespread if frequently contested view that her father was a “saint.” Abba supported Bronson, if at times grudgingly, somewhat in the spirit that people supported anchorite recluses in the Middle Ages. Emerson felt the Commonwealth of Massachusetts owed Alcott a subsistence, and personally donated thousands of dollars to what Abba called her husband’s “experiment in living.” Bronson was convinced that he was called; like a medieval saint, he saw his life as a laboratory in which to explore the higher possibilities of his kind.
An early abolitionist, a full supporter of feminine rights, the founder of a short-lived but impressive Utopian community at Harvard, Massachusetts, Bronson rightly described himself as a “prophet” and a “hoper,” and he put his hope in a future that might or might not be similar to the present. He restored old buildings. He was fascinated by gardens, and he planted and ably tended dozens of them. He is the only prominent American of the Victorian age who appears to have been almost consistently at peace with himself. He was complacent, yet he did not stagnate. Success as a writer and thinker came to him in his sixties and seventies; at eighty he opened a summer school for philosophic minds.
I stress my own view of Bronson Alcott, which is much more positive than Saxton’s, because it both supports and modifies her analysis of Louisa’s career. Saxton sees, rightly, that Louisa May Alcott’s later work shows a steady decline. She dates the start of that decline with the publication of Little Women, because, she believes, Louisa was subject in that work to Bronson’s influence, or her sense of it. This view seems too simple.
Bronson Alcott wrote that Louisa’s favorite activity when she was a little girl was moving all her playthings back and forth between her father’s study and her mother’s realm, the nursery. He was recording a vignette that may be crucial to understanding Louisa, divided as she seems to have been between the different influences of her parents. Abba possessed a passion, a will that Louisa shared but mistrusted as perhaps wrong and certainly painful. Bronson was calm, serene in ways that seemed admirable, enviable, and yet perhaps deadening to his tense and troubled daughter.
In the few strong works of literature she wrote, we can, I think, see her drawing on these two very different sides of her nature. But we can also suspect that she was too torn between them to continue serious work for long in either the sensational or the domestic vein. She found herself blocked—and the impasse became itself the subject of her most interesting work.
Louisa May Alcott’s achievement was both inspired and limited, as Bronson observed, by her obsessive need to objectify experience. In her work, emotions are best understood as purposes, and purposes almost literally as objects. Louisa always emphasized her “brains,” by which she meant less her intellect than her will and ability to exploit it. She constantly talked of her mind in terms of physical entities, often mechanistic, technological, military ones: “Spinning brains,” using brains as a “battering ram” against the world or as a “thinking machine”—these were her phrases in discussing her ambition. Always she disavowed “inspiration” and “genius” in favor of “necessity” to explain her motive for writing. Bronson never thought of himself as poor; for Louisa, as for Abba, poverty was her means of self-identification. It helped to explain her radical materialism. Louisa trusted only the concrete, and yet she was not, as her father sometimes thought, unimaginative. Far from it. It was rather that in contrast to—perhaps in impatient reaction to—Bronson’s mystical inner life, Louisa’s imagination was literal-minded: gravity was the law of her artistic impulse.
Louisa told part of the story of her creative career in the rather episodic novel Work (1873), written five years after Little Women, now finely re-edited by Sarah Elbert. Christie Devon, the heroine, sets out at twenty-one to find her fortune. Christie is an orphan, but she is also warm, talented, emotional, and giving. She marries happily and has a child, only to be conveniently widowed so that she may head a little matriarchal community. Here as elsewhere in Alcott’s work, what Elbert calls “domestic feminism” is the doctrine of the book; but it is not, as Elbert seems to think, its great strength. Louisa May Alcott’s reformist themes were serious yet, for an Alcott, safe, and it was not in safety that Lousia’s chief interest or her gifts lay.
What makes Work powerful is its description of Christie’s quest for a career that will represent, stabilize, and even substitute for her inner life. Work is the saga of an unsuccessful search for objective, tangible self-realization. Christie, resembling here Louisa, tries in turn being an actress, a maid, a nurse, a companion, a hero-worshipper. The most haunting, truest material in the book is Christie’s intermittent loneliness, her drift toward death—there are four suicide attempts in Work including Christie’s own—and her constant fight, with the help of other women, against depression. Louisa almost drew in Christie a portrait of exhaustion: we catch glimpses of a woman determined to fight but drained by the struggle with a reality whose rigidity is the product both of her poverty and of the workings of her psyche. But only glimpses. By 1873, Louisa was stopping short of the demands of her subject. She had not always done so.
It is in her first novel Moods (1864) and the subsequent anonymous or pseudonymous “thrillers” she wrote for the popular periodical press during the 1860s, in the years immediately preceding Little Women, and now republished by Madeleine Stern, that we find some of Alcott’s most powerful and revealing insights. On these Saxton rightly bases her critical re-evaluation of Louisa May Alcott.
During this period, Alcott was following the English masters of the so-called “sensation” novel. Dickens’s Great Expectations and Little Dorrit, Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne, Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White, and M.E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret were enormous best-sellers of the early 1860s. These are all tales of premeditated crimes. The plots are characterized by incest, bigamy, confusions of identity, disguised returns from the grave—in short, by any violation of Victorian norms which involved deception and double identities.
Indebted as she was to her English contemporaries, however, Louisa May Alcott made this genre her own. She spent almost no time on the detective figures who intrigued Dickens, Collins, and Braddon. At her best, she did not let her femmes fatales even pretend to be helplessly sweet or feminine, nor did she waste time on the traditional “good” heroine who in the work of her peers opposed the bad one. She kept few secrets from her readers. She was more interested in the criminal mentality than in the process of comparing or unmasking it. Like Poe before her, Louisa May Alcott ignored the intricacies which other authors more interested in exposing the workings of society created; for her, deception, the essential plot of the sensation story, was material enough.
Behind a Mask,” written in 1866, is Alcott’s masterpiece in this genre. The story concerns a governess called Jean Muir, who poses as a nineteen-year-old victim of fortune. In actuality (we know this from the start), she is an embittered thirty-year-old ex-actress, whose selfish ambition has condensed down to a desire to outwit the world once and for all and retire from her exhausting career of deceiving everyone all the time. Calculated step by calculated step, she wins the obsessive attention and love of the members of the well-born affluent family in which she is working. But her success is short-lived, and soon it seems her various deceptions will be publicly exposed. In a race against time, however, Jean secures the affection and hand of the elderly chivalric uncle of the house. She sweeps out of her fictive kingdom in triumph, leaving her detractors permanently silenced by her new status—a victory, one notes, seldom granted her English counterparts. She has proved herself a heroine—if only of deception.
For Louisa May Alcott, deception can be a means for women to infiltrate a closed world and get some of what they want from it. And, if nothing else, deception allows women to manipulate and make excitingly perilous their one culturally sanctioned area of expertise: the creation and display of emotion. Boredom is the ultimate nightmare in the sensationalist mode. Yet I do not agree with Saxton that the only source of Louisa May Alcott’s artistic fascination with lies was her dilemma as a woman, closely linked as the two are. For Alcott, as for many of her literary contemporaries, deception was most compelling when used in cold pursuit of an object; a kind of literary calisthenics of the will.
Deception as the narrative focal point undermines the narrator’s moral and reflective commentary on the plot, no matter how elaborate the plot itself. The novelist undertaking such a plot must have, first, as Wilkie Collins wrote, an “idea”; he must, almost perversely, work backward from the end, not forward from the start. We are back with Alcott’s obsession with her “brains.” Thinking backward, like counting backward, is abstract, an effort of the will. Jean Muir can promise a hostile young man who mocks her histrionic skill at the opening of the action that her “last act will be better” than her first. And it is, as she cruelly reminds him in the story’s last line.
Deception requires an intense effort of the will, a constant vigilante hunt mounted against the emotions. Mark Twain once remarked that the pleasure of telling the truth is that one doesn’t have to remember what one says. But the memory enforced by deception, memory as relentless attention, a persistent hangover of the most aggrandizing curiosity, a constant lashing of the mind to the objects it perceives, is exactly what Jean Muir and her creator are after. The plot of the sensation story provides an uncanny parallel to the way the mind desperately strives for some conscious hold on essentially unconscious material. Deception as a theme provides a way to psychologize a plot.
Deception, moreover, suggests a paralyzed tension between the desire for omnipotence and the fear of rejection, the twin fueling process of the will. Jean Muir makes everyone fall in love with her, at least for a while, and she does so by her ability to be all things to all people. Jean, using every charm in the book, proves that she can possess any gift which can be translated from a resource into a weapon. As long as she can conceive of a hostile purpose for any skill or feeling, it is within her command. She does not want to love; we know from other of Alcott’s sensationalist stories like “V. V.” that to love, for this kind of woman, is to die. Jean does not even want to be loved; she wants the exemption from scrutiny granted the loved object. She is buying time to avoid confronting the fissures of her self. Her ability to deceive depends on her belief that if she is herself fully known, the contradiction of her psyche will be literally explosive: she will not only be rejected, she will come apart. As Jean nails down the infatuation of various people in her world, she deals with each person more or less in isolation from the others. She is building up, objectifying in more and more extensive and concrete ways, the different facets of herself. The impending nemesis, from which Alcott rescues her, is one in which Jean would be left in a psychic graveyard full of the monuments of her fragmented personality.
It is a finale which her author could not altogether avoid. Louisa May Alcott could not sustain the inner strain of such fiction. In 1868, she turned more or less permanently from sensationalist novels to the even more lucrative and certainly safer juvenile market. We should not be surprised by the financial success of someone so aware of the difference material reward can make. Her first book for children, however, Little Women, despite Alcott’s expressed lack of interest and belief in it, is an important book, even aside from its legendary popularity. Saxton reads it largely as a story of repression: Jo denies herself and becomes a woman, i.e., a diminished creature. I see it somewhat differently. A kind of Alcott family autobiography, Little Women seems an examination of the moral effort which a nature like Alcott’s makes to bridge the distance between its own turmoil and the serenity represented by her father. To put it in literary terms, Alcott hoped to let sensational and domestic fiction educate each other.
Little Women is of course the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth, and their strong and kindly mother, “Marmee.” Although the women have seen better days, they are true gentlefolk who win the love and regard of their rich neighbors, Mr. Lawrence and his dashing, difficult grandson, Laurie. Mr. March, the father, clearly based on Bronson Alcott, is away for most of the action, serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. But he is not excluded simply as too difficult, or even too uninteresting, to handle; he is also an unattainable ideal for the conflict-laden Jo and her equally strong-tempered mother. He has the active life permitted men and the serenity legislated for women.
Jo’s remarks, reflecting those of Alcott’s early journals, are dotted with resolves: to be good, dutiful, calm, in general “better.” As she is well aware, she breaks most of her resolves daily. Jo, like other Victorians, like her author, hoped by resolution, especially by failed resolutions, to mount the will-to-change to crisis proportions and, in the process, to turn it in a complex campaign against itself. Little Women is about this incessant stimulating of the moral will; events, Marmee, Father, and her own conscience continually intensify Jo’s struggle to subdue herself. She turns down the charming Laurie so like herself and accepts the poor, scholarly, awkward, warmhearted German émigré, Professor Bhaer, so like her father, not just out of self-denial—as Saxton believes—but out of a genuine sense of herself. Jo, like Louisa, may confuse peace with repression, but that does not mean she does not want peace.
Jo is never entirely successful in her efforts at change. This is why we like her, and why she is real to us. We understand her desire to be steadier, less agitated. After all, her capacity for anger, unlike Jean Muir’s, is, in this realistic setting, frightening: she almost kills Amy, her selfishness hastens Beth’s death. And her partial success in modifying behavior is also convincing: this is the way it is, we think, this is what we can expect. The very fact that Jo does not marry above her social or financial station guarantees an ongoing life of work for her, and that is what she needs.
Beth of course is Jo’s alter ego, and very similar to Mr. March. Jo is strong, although she is often frustrated and in turmoil. Beth has serenity, although she is very limited. We believe in Beth too—because we know from the start she is going to die. The trouble with the work that followed Little Women is that Jo’s female successors bypass or overcome their wills, as Jo could not, and yet survive, even flourish, as Beth did not.
Under the Lilacs (1878), perhaps Alcott’s worst book, concerns two sisters, the sweet, rather dull Bette, a Beth figure, and the warm-hearted but impetuous Bab, a Jo figure. At the story’s close, Bab, a crack little archer—no one needs a knowledge of Freud or of classical mythology to sense the implications of her skill—deliberately throws an archery contest to a boy. Presumably, Bab thus becomes a true girl and at last earns the same affection Bette effortlessly attracts. Bab’s conflict is Jo’s, but her answer is not. Jo tried to cope with her nature, not cancel it. Bab’s story is a fantasy, not a representation, of moral effort. Something has gone wrong.
Everything Louisa May Alcott wrote after 1869 was read. She gained an approval at home and abroad that never ceased to amaze and disturb her. She clearly felt, and with reason, that the acclaim showered on her was unearned. In her later children’s books, such as An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Eight Cousins (1875), Rose in Bloom (1877), Little Men (1878), Jack and Jill (1880), and Jo’s Boys (1886), Alcott simply reversed the patterns she had developed in her “lurid” writing, instead of testing them as she did in Little Women. In the early sensational writing, characters exploit and destroy “love” to gain their objects. In the late juvenile stories, children are taught to abandon the objects of their will to win love and approval: “taming” is the word repeatedly used to describe this breaking-in process. The sensational characters exist in a painful and creative solitude; their only real links to society are conspiratorial. In the later work, Alcott’s little folks are seldom alone. They can never free themselves from what feels like a claustrophobically communal atmosphere: the orphan Rose meeting her “cousins,” not to speak of half a dozen aunts and uncles, in a single week is a case in point. In a real sense, the later characters, for all the learning they ostensibly do, are just plain outnumbered.
The most enduring children’s literature, Lewis Carroll’s, Mark Twain’s, E. Nesbit’s, or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s, shows children creating an autonomous world separate from the adult realm; childhood serves the author as a means to explore a less trammeled consciousness. In contrast, Alcott’s later young people are under the constant and unquestioned guidance and surveillance of their Uncle Alecs and Mother Bhaers. “Queer” was a word Alcott often used in childhood about herself in the journals she wrote for parental inspection. The word does not appear in her sensational fiction, but it crops up again and again in her domestic tales. It serves Alcott as a catchbag for unexplored areas of psychic life.
Flippancy, even slyness, as Henry James noted in his hostile review of Eight Cousins, are the hallmarks of Alcott’s later books for children. These works are often almost insultingly careless. Alcott’s very real professionalism as a writer functions as a license to be slipshod. Whereas she entirely rewrote Moods (1864) at least three times, Little Women and all the books which succeeded it were sent off to be published more or less as rough drafts. Alcott’s sincere avowals about the literary merits of unpretentiousness do not quite cover the case, or excuse the self-conscious use of slang, the acknowledged rambling and episodic nature of the narratives, the slighting references to major historical events, the willingness to reshuffle the prospects and fates of her characters to suit her little readers. These stories have no plots because the only permissible ending they offer is self-betterment. And if Alcott could not plot, she could not think, or perhaps even feel.
Yet the little girls of Alcott’s later work have something in common with the femmes fatales of her early books: they too undergo metamorphosis, not growth. In a sense, murder pervades the worlds of both. The most interesting young figure in the last two March books, Little Men (1878) and Jo’s Boys (1886), is Dan; he is an inadvertent murderer, a semi-sensational character, and Jo’s favorite adopted “boy.” But Jo has little more real contact with him than with her Bronson-like husband, Professor Bhaer. Dan has gone to the bad, as surely as Bhaer has gone to the good. Jo is in the middle, and the middle increasingly became the place for Alcott where extremes could not meet.
September 28, 1978