Mysteries of Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott

by Martha Saxton
Houghton Mifflin, 428 pp., $14.95

Work: A Story of Experience

by Louisa May Alcott, edited with an introduction by Sarah Elbert
Schocken, 443 pp., $5.95 (paper)
Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott; drawing by David Levine


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…

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