“I write for myself and strangers,” Gertrude Stein once announced. So, too, Louisa May Alcott, who wrote for herself as well as the strangers who have been reading Little Women since 1868, when it first appeared. For more than a century and a half, Little Women has inspired playwrights, composers, filmmakers, scholars, novelists, and of course countless young girls. Jane Smiley salutes those young girls—she was one of them—in her warmly appreciative preface to A Strange Life, Liz Rosenberg’s slim new collection of Alcott’s essays.

When she first encountered Little Women, Smiley realized that a book about girls was actually famous and that every library had it. Later it even seemed that the book had to be about Alcott’s own life. And since many others have felt the same way—with good reason—it’s not surprising that new biographies come down the pike every few years, intent on changing the negative view of Alcott best expressed by Henry James, who belittled her as “the Thackeray, the Trollope, of the nursery and the school-room.”

Martha Saxton’s feminist Louisa May: A Modern Biography (1977) and, more recently, biographies by Harriet Reisen, Susan Cheever, and Eve LaPlante, and by scholars such as John Matteson, have demonstrated that Alcott was much more than the author of what she self-deprecatingly called “moral pap for the young.” Rather, as a woman of imagination with considerable stylistic range, Alcott composed gothic tales, short stories, satires, fantasies, adult novels, poetry, memoirs, and essays in which she wrote of female independence and its costs in a restrictive domestic circle. She was also a prolific letter writer who converted into a tart prose style much of her anguish—and anger—at the circumstances in which she found herself, as a woman, as a dutiful daughter, as a second-class citizen, and, ironically, as a best-selling author who worked hard to maintain her popularity.

Rosenberg, the author of Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots: The Life of Louisa May Alcott (2021), aimed at young readers, is thus not the first person to suggest that Alcott, and in particular her nonfiction, are worthy of serious attention. There’s also Elaine Showalter’s excellent selection of Alcott’s prose in Alternative Alcott (1988); there’s the Portable Louisa May Alcott (2000), edited by Elizabeth Lennox Keyser, and The Sketches of Louisa May Alcott (2001), collected by the Alcott specialist Gregory Eiselein, not to mention the superb selection of her nonfiction in one of the Alcott volumes published by the Library of America.

In A Strange Life, Rosenberg wisely includes Alcott’s best-known prose works—the excellent, slightly fictionalized memoir “Transcendental Wild Oats” and the exceptional (abridged) Hospital Sketches—and sets them alongside excerpts from her semiautobiographical nonfiction to show that her prose, as she explains in her introduction, “canters along; she covers great distances in the fewest words; there is no dilly-dallying.” Maybe so; what’s also true is that Alcott can write with unmistakable acerbity.

Rosenberg provides some biographical information on Alcott as well but unfortunately doesn’t explain why she chose certain pieces and not others, or why she arranged them in the order she did. Presumably the essay “Happy Women” (1868), her penultimate selection, is meant to present Alcott at her feminist best. True, it was written as a buck-me-up advice column for the unmarried woman, counseling her not to fear becoming an “old maid” since “the loss of liberty, happiness, and self respect is poorly repaid by the barren honor of being called ‘Mrs.’” In stock terms, Alcott advises, “Be true to yourselves; cherish whatever talent you possess, and in using it faithfully for the good of others, you will most assuredly find happiness for yourself.” But pieces that Rosenberg didn’t include, such as “Unofficial Incidents Overlooked by the Reporters” (1875), Alcott’s account of the centennial celebration in Concord, Massachusetts, have far more bite:

We had no place in the procession, but such women as wished to hear the oration were directed to meet in the Town Hall at half-past nine, and wait there until certain persons, detailed for the service, should come to lead them to the tent, where a limited number of seats had been reserved for the weaker vessels.

Rosenberg also reprints short excerpts from Alcott’s travel book, Shawl-Straps: An Account of a Trip to Europe (1872), but these selections—from the essays “Women of Brittany,” “The Flood in Rome,” and “Visit from a King”—are flat and predictable. And while she includes Alcott’s autobiographical sketch “My Boys,” a forgettable group of portraits intended mainly for young people and originally published in Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag (1872), Rosenberg fails to note that this was the first in a series of six Scrap-Bag books (Shawl-Straps being the first), and that in them Alcott cleverly assumed the voice of Jo March Bhaer, from the best-selling Little Women—presumably to make money.


Despite the thinness of these sketches, they could be enriched if the reader knew the books from which they’re taken or more of the circumstances under which they were written. For Alcott worked obsessively to become a successful writer and, not coincidentally, her impoverished family’s breadwinner. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was eccentric and impecunious—and lovable, as long as you weren’t related to him. A self-taught Connecticut peddler turned educator, Bronson for a time ran the progressive Temple School in Boston. But after he published Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836–1837), in which he included allusions to sex and birth, scandalized Bostonians withdrew their children from the school, forcing it to close. His next venture was short-lived; he admitted a Black child to a new school and even his die-hard supporters bolted.

Then in 1843, when Louisa was ten, Bronson marched his family off to the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, about fourteen miles from Concord, where the Alcotts had been living. At a farm inappropriately dubbed Fruitlands, Bronson believed that they and a small band of cohorts could create a new Garden of Eden by living off the fruit of the land. “Insane, well-meaning egotists,” the antislavery writer Lydia Maria Child called them.

At Fruitlands, Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s mother, was tasked with the cleaning, the washing of clothes, and the cooking, though there was little of that since utopia mandated a diet of mostly raw vegetables. (Rosenberg calls Bronson “a prescient and intelligent vegetarian pre-hippie.”) She was miserable, and the children almost starved. The model for the beloved Marmee, the mother of the brood in Little Women, Abigail was the youngest child in a family of prominent Boston Brahmin liberals; her brother was the passionate Unitarian abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Samuel Joseph May. She studied French, Latin, and chemistry privately in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and later helped form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. In 1830 she married the self-involved Bronson, who confessed in his journal, “I love her because she loves me.” In Little Women, Marmee understandably declares, “I am angry nearly every day of my life.”

In “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873), Alcott changes the names of the Fruitlanders and, Rosenberg argues, “alternates broad comedy with tragedy.” As she puts it, “Alcott never lingers on the psychological devastation” that she likely experienced but rather

focuses on the characters around her and records the homely details of daily life (“unleavened bread, porridge, and water for breakfast; bread, vegetables, and water for dinner; bread, fruit, and water for supper”), leaving little room for disbelief.

Yet Alcott’s details are telling. Her irony is unmistakable, and her voice devastating in its affectlessness. As she observes, these “modern pilgrims,” most notably her father, possessed “the firm belief that plenteous orchards were soon to be evoked from their inner consciousness.” Once in their prospective Eden, she acidly continues, “no teapot profaned that sacred stove, no gory steak cried aloud for vengeance from her chaste gridiron; and only a brave woman’s taste, time, and temper were sacrificed on that domestic altar.” Fortunately the sojourn in paradise lasted only seven months.

The Alcotts eventually resettled in Concord, where Louisa grew up near Emerson, Thoreau, and later Hawthorne. But since “money is never plentiful in a philosopher’s house,” as she later recollected, the family temporarily moved to a basement apartment in Boston. After her mother formed what was basically a female employment agency, Louisa volunteered to take a position as a lady’s live-in companion in Dedham, Massachusetts. It turned out to be a degrading experience that she partly fictionalized in the essay “How I Went Out to Service” (1874), with which Rosenberg opens her volume, claiming it’s yet another example of Alcott’s ability to “strike the intersecting point between tragedy and comedy.” It’s a fine essay but not particularly comic: it’s a chilly story of exploitation and sexual harassment despite the moralizing conclusion about how the experience taught her many lessons.

Doubtless it did, but it also seems that Alcott wrote more for strangers than herself, often muzzling the intensity of her response to those who underestimated, harassed, or took advantage of her. She had begun to sell stories to help support her family, and though she’d already published two in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, she also tried her hand at teaching again, despite her hatred of it. The publisher of The Atlantic, James Fields, loaned her forty dollars to help outfit her classroom, but when she came to him with another story—according to Rosenberg, “How I Went Out to Service”—he told her bluntly, “Stick to your teaching.” Rosenberg omits what happened later: after the success of Little Women, Alcott paid back the loan, telling Fields she’d found that writing paid far better than teaching, so she’d stick to her pen. “He laughed,” she said, “& owned that he made a mistake.”


She never forgot the insult. Like Marmee, who said she was angry nearly every day of her life, Alcott added, “I have learned not to show it.” Instead she found ways to stifle her rage, distancing herself from her feelings and retreating into the safety of platitudes, which often deaden her prose. For instance, at the conclusion of “How I Went Out to Service,” she tacks on a lesson about “making a companion, not a servant, of those whose aid I need, and helping to gild their honest wages with the sympathy and justice which can sweeten the humblest and lighten the hardest task.” It’s not clear if she’s counseling the reader or herself.

That’s far less true, though, in Hospital Sketches (1863), Alcott’s first successful book, in which she combined her recollections with material from the letters she wrote home while serving as an army nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, D.C. Having “corked up” her tears, she nonetheless writes with feeling about “the barren honors” that these soldiers, cut to pieces at Fredericksburg, had won. She washed their bodies with brown soap, dressed their wounds, sang them lullabies, mopped their brows, and scribbled letters to the mothers and sweethearts of the nameless men, some without arms or legs, who lay in excruciating pain in the hotel’s ballroom. Such “seeming carelessness of the value of life, the sanctity of death” astonished Alcott, who wanted to believe that none of them had been sacrificed in vain.

She lasted only six weeks before she fell ill with typhoid pneumonia and had to be taken home to Concord by her father. The physicians who treated her shaved her hair and dosed her with calomel, a mercury compound that ultimately ruined her health. Alcott, encouraged by a friend to publish her experience, wrote of the desperate conditions that had made her, like many others, so sick: the fetid water and poor ventilation and scant or inedible food. And she wrote not just of the clammy foreheads and agonized deaths, and the insouciance of doctors who made a young woman tell a desperate man that he was dying, but also of the inescapable racism even of her fellow nurses:

I expected to have to defend myself from accusations of prejudice against color; but was surprised to find things just the other way, and daily shocked some neighbor by treating the blacks as I did the whites. The men would swear at the “darkies,” would put two gs into negro, and scoff at the idea of any good coming from such trash. The nurses were willing to be served by the colored people, but seldom thanked them, never praised, and scarcely recognized them in the street.

When she voluntarily touched a small Black child, she was labeled a fanatic. Alcott then offers a typical homily:

Though a hospital is a rough school, its lessons are both stern and salutary; and the humblest of pupils there, in proportion to his faithfulness, learns a deeper faith in God and in himself.

These homilies, like her detachment, may have been a marketing strategy, since she worried always about hanging on to her audience. Yet she did still write for herself after all. “Darkness made visible,” as she called it, was what she also sought, anticipating, in her way, what the witty Emily Dickinson surmised: “Success in Circuit lies.”