Jennifer Wilson is a writer and critic. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. (August 2019)

NYR DAILY

From the Battlefield to ‘Little Women’

Wounded soldiers resting with a nurse, Civil War, circa 1864

In Louisa May Alcott’s much beloved novel Little Women (1868), Jo March earns extra money writing low-brow sensational stories, or “blood and thunder tales,” as Alcott calls them. Later in the story, Jo goes on to write a novel less mired in sensation and more rooted in her experience. In this way, Jo’s life mimics Alcott’s own transition from a writer of garish thrillers to sentimental tales of everyday life. But Alcott’s creative transformation had less to do with winning the affections of a shy scholar and more to do with her time serving as in military hospitals during the American Civil War. Alcott’s letters home from the front lines, later published as Hospital Sketches (1863), proved that her true gift lay not in inventing new worlds, but in observing the one around her.