Alcott, Louisa May (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Louisa May Alcott 1832-1888
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Flora Fairfield, A. M. Barnard, Cousin Tribulation, A. M., and Abba May Alcott.) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and dramatist.
See also Louisa May Alcott Short Story Criticism.
Alcott's heart-warming depictions of nineteenth-century domestic life in such novels as Little Women (1868-69) and Little Men (1871) have remained extremely popular—particularly with female readers—for over a century. While the continued following for Alcott's fiction speaks to its relevance to several generations, Alcott's novels have also been the subject of extensive critical attention, particularly as they relate to the role of nineteenth-century American women in society. Her success as a prolific professional writer during a time when fiction-writing was newly emerging as a potential career for women and women's writing was opening a major new publishing market has been the source of historical as well as literary interest. Alcott's oeuvre also contains the lesser known adult novels Moods (1864), Work (1872), A Modern Mephistopheles (1888) and A Whisper in the Dark (1888), as well as a series of pseudonymous romantic thrillers which received substantial critical attention following the discovery of their authorship by Alcott.
The second of four daughters, Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and lived most of her life in Concord, Massachusetts. Both of her parents strongly influenced her education and the development of her social views. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a Transcendentalist philosopher and an educational reformer whose idealistic projects tended to take precedence over his familial and financial responsibilities. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, initially shared her husband's Transcendental ideals, but soon became disillusioned by the failure of this way of life to provide for her family's practical needs. Following the disappointment of the Alcotts' failed attempt at a communal farm society called "Fruitlands," Abigail Alcott assumed the role of family decision-maker, and she and her daughters pursued practical employment. Louisa, for example, taught school, took in sewing, and worked briefly as a domestic servant; her early experience of poverty and her observation of her father's financial instability may have contributed to her strong desire to achieve a steady income through her writing. She began writing at age sixteen, and in 1851, her first poem was published in Peterson's Magazine under the pseudonym of Flora Fairfield. She subsequently published a number of sensational serial stories under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, providing her family with a relatively lucrative source of income. In 1862, Alcott traveled to Washington, D.C. to serve as a nurse to soldiers wounded in the American Civil War. Although she was forced to return home after she contracted typhoid pneumonia—the treatment for which resulted in mercury poisoning and permanent damage to her health—the brief experience provided material for the book that would become her first major literary success, Hospital Sketches (1863). This Civil War memoir was followed by her first novel, Moods, which sold well despite accusations of immorality by reviewers. Encouraged by the prospect of financial stability, Alcott agreed to assume the editorship of a girls' magazine titled Merry's Museum, for which she composed short stories, poems, and advice columns. At the request of her publishers, she also agreed to write a novel for girls, and the publication of her semi-autobiographical novel Little Women proved to be the defining moment of her career. The success of the novel made Alcott famous, and she was now easily able to support her family with her earnings. Biographers have noted, however, that this success proved to be a mixed blessing for Alcott, who felt restricted by demands for more books written in a similarly domestic style. She nevertheless accommodated the interests of her readers with four sequels to Little Women—Good Wives (volume two of Little Women), Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys, and Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out (1886). Alcott continued to write juvenile fiction during her later years, although her productivity sharply declined as a result of her ailing health. In addition to writing, she devoted her last years to the care of her father and her young niece Lulu, whose mother (Alcott's sister May) had died as a result of complications in childbirth.
A prominent theme in much of Alcott's fiction is the conflict experienced by women who must choose between individuality and the bonds of family responsibilities and social traditions. The heroine of Little Women, for example, is a rebellious young woman who strives for independence and personal achievement as a writer, but ultimately modifies her dreams when she gets married—a fact that has caused this novel to be regarded as antifeminist by some critics. Others, however, have interpreted the plot as Alcott's argument for a woman's right to both family and individual achievement, and argue that her depiction of a home dominated by strong female characters suggests her advocation of equality for women in American society at large. Widely considered the most overtly feminist of Alcott's novels, Work has been interpreted as a more subversive exploration of the same conflicts and ideas that Alcott had previously explored in Little Women. The novel chronicles the diverse experiences of Christie Devon, who pursues economic independence through a variety of jobs traditionally assigned to women (servant, actress, governess, seamstress), returns to the more traditional values of domesticity and marriage, and ultimately embraces the new feminist movement. Despite its portrayal of women struggling to achieve an independent life in a world beyond the domestic sphere, Work has been faulted for an uneven plot and an ambivalent portrayal of its progressive motifs. Elaine Showalter comments: "Alcott is defeated by the very form of the sentimental novel, which could not be the instrument of a radical social critique." The Gothic novel, in contrast, provided the model for Alcott's earlier pseudonymous thrillers, many of which suggest feminist anger through their depiction of heroines who are driven by a passionate desire for revenge. Describing the protagonist of Alcott's thriller "Behind a Mask," Madeleine Stern comments: "[She is] a woman who, to achieve her ends, resorts to all sorts of coquetries and subterfuges including the feigning of an attempted suicide; a woman filled with anger directed principally against the male lords of creation."
During her lifetime Alcott's spirited, wholesome stories for children were widely regarded as American classics. The early twentieth century, however, witnessed a decline in the critical assessment of Alcott's works, with some critics denouncing the moralizing tone of her fiction. Katharine Fullerton Gerould (1920), for example, called the March girls "underbred" and "unworldly," while Thomas Beer denounced Alcott's domestic realism as repressive and sentimental. Prior to critical evaluations of Alcott's work during the 1970s, the sentimental appeal of her domestic fiction was interpreted as an indication of Alcott's support for the prevailing ideology of separate spheres of social activity for men and women. With the rise of feminist criticism and women's studies, however, Alcott's works for both children and adults have been the subject of critical reexamination, with much discussion surrounding the nature of her views on the role of women in the family and society. The posthumous publication of the first volume of Alcott's thrillers in 1975 also contributed to a surge of scholarship focusing on Alcott's oeuvre, much of which has assumed a psychoanalytic approach. While some critics argue that the thrillers provided an outlet for Alcott's suppressed rage at the many restrictions she encountered in her life and her writing, others emphasize the purely financial aspects of her sensational stories, noting that Alcott's artistic goals were often compromised in an effort to please publishers and a popular audience. Elizabeth Lennox Keyser comments: "Some believe that anonymity [in Alcott's thrillers] permitted what acknowledged authorship, especially of books for children, did not—the revolutionary rage and rebellion necessary to produce compelling work. These scholars value her career primarily for what it tells us about the constraints operating upon talented, ambitious women, especially women artists, in nineteenth-century America. Others feel that anonymity encouraged self-indulgence and escapism or, at best, provided catharsis, whereas the extraordinarily popular and lucrative children's fiction, if not great literature, enabled Alcott to promote reform and even envision a Utopian society."
Flower Fables (fairy tales) 1855
Hospital Sketches (letters and sketches) 1863
Moods (novel) 1864; revised edition, 1882
On Picket Duty, and Other Tales (short stories) 1864
The Rose Family. A Fairy Tale (fiction) 1864
Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy 2 vols. (novel) 1868-69; also published as Little Women and Good Wives, 1871
An Old-fashioned Girl (novel) 1870
Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (novel) 1871
Transcendental Wild Oats (memoir) 1872
Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag. 6 vols. (short stories) 1872-82
Work: A Story of Experience (novel) 1873
Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill (novel) 1875
Rose in Bloom. A Sequel to "Eight Cousins" (novel) 1876
A Modern Mephistopheles (novel) 1877
Under the Lilacs (novel) 1878
Diana and Persis (unfinished novel) 1879
Jack and Jill: A Village Story (novel) 1880
Proverb Stories (short stories) 1882
Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out (novel) 1886
A Whisperer in the Dark (novel) 1888
Louisa May Alcott: Her Life,...
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SOURCE: "Little Women: Alcott's Civil War," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 369-83.
[In the following essay, Fetterley argues that Little Women reveals stylistic and thematic compromises that were made by Alcott in deference to prevailing social opinions of the time and the preferences of her publisher.]
When, toward the end of Little Women, Jo finds her "true style at last," her father blesses her with the prospect of inner peace and an end to all ambivalence: "You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do your best and grow as happy as we are in your success." And Alcott adds her benediction: "So, taught by love and sorrow, Jo wrote her little stories and sent them away to make friends for themselves and her, finding it a very charitable world to such humble wanderers."1 Finding her true style at last was not, however, such a peaceful arrival in safe waters for Alcott herself. She responded with alacrity to the opportunity afforded by the anonymous "No-Name Series" to write something not in her style, declaring that she was "tired of providing moral pap for the young" and enjoying the fun of hearing people say, "I know you didn't write it, for you can't hide your peculiar style."2 She prayed more than once for time enough to write a "good" book and realized that without it she would do what was easiest and succumb to the...
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SOURCE: "From Success to Experience: Louisa May Alcott's Work," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXI, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 527-39.
[In the following essay, Yellin argues that Alcott's feminist concerns are revealed in her novel Work, which is distinguished from other nineteenth-century novels "in proposing that women extend their actions into the public sphere."]
From Hawthorne's Zenobia to Chopin's Edna, in nineteenth-century American fiction female characters who stray beyond the domestic sphere end their lives as suicides. This literature was written while feminists were emerging into the public arena demanding economic, social, domestic, and political rights for women. During this period Louisa May Alcott wrote Work, an adult semi-autobiographical novel. Daughter of feminist abolitionist communitarians Abba May and Bronson Alcott, neighbor and friend of Emerson and Thoreau, Alcott lived near the center of many of the radical movements of her time. The most remarkable aspect of her book is that its female protagonist rejects a traditional feminine role but does not, as a consequence, drown herself.1 Instead, Alcott's heroine Christie undertakes a series of experiments in an attempt to lead an authentic life.
The central question Work poses is, can a woman live an independent life in America? Both Alcott's...
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SOURCE: "Female Stories of Experience: Alcott's Little Women in Light of Work," in The Voyage in Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsh, and Elizabeth Langland, University Press of New England, 1983, pp. 112-27.
[In the following essay, Langland offers a comparative discussion of Little Women and Work, arguing that "the developmental pattern expressed in Work is central to understanding key tensions in Little Women. "]
"I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful and pleasant lives. . . . To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience."1
Marmee's words in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women express the goal of female ambition and growth: the passive state of being chosen and becoming "good wives," which is also the title to the second part of this children's classic. But Marmee's words are subtly belied by the context in which they are spoken. She is "holding a hand of each [daughter, Meg and Jo], and watching the two young faces wistfully." The love felt by a mother and her daughters infuses the scene; and it radiates throughout the novel so that when Meg marries we tend to share Jo's...
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SOURCE: "Moods," in A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, Temple University Press, 1984, pp. 102-18.
[In the following chapter from a critical study of Alcott, Elbert examines how Alcott's novel Moods examines social and moral questions associated with relationships between the sexes.]
Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be so many coloured lenses, which paint the world their own hue and each shows us only what lies in its own focus.
R. W. Emerson, "Experience, " 1844-45
In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of "the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover."1 Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. "Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it," James wrote acidly.2 His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that "marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by...
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SOURCE: "The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 233-54.
[In the following essay, a version of which was presented at the National Women's Studies Association Conference in May, 1980, Halttunen examines the role of the "parlor theatrical" in Alcott's fiction, noting that the popularity of this dramatic form reflected idealized conceptions of the role of the family during the Victorian era.]
From the opening scene of Little Women when the four March sisters rehearse Jo's play, "The Witch's Curse, An Operatic Tragedy," to the closing lines of Jo's Boys—"let the music stop, the lights die out, and the curtain fall forever on the March family"—Louisa May Alcott's fascination with theater shaped her views of domestic life. Her most famous novel actually begins with a play-within-a-play: "The Witch's Curse" is enacted within the larger performance of The Pilgrim's Progress which frames this "domestic drama." These two plays represent significantly different kinds of theater. "The Witch's Curse" is an explosive, violent melodrama, in which Jo comes at Amy with a pistol, Meg chants evil incantations over a simmering kettle of toads, and Jo finally dies on stage "in agonies of remorse and arsenic, with a wild 'Ha! ha!'" The Pilgrim's Progress is, by contrast, a quiet moral allegory within which the March sisters...
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SOURCE: "Louisa Alcott's Self-Criticism," in Studies in the American Renaissance, edited by Joel Myerson, University Press of Virginia, 1985, pp. 333-43.
[In the following essay, Stern examines Alcott's artistic development throughout her career, focusing in particular on the author's approach to both the craft and the business of fiction writing.]
The self-portrait of a writer is a comparatively rare phenomenon; yet, to the literary critic, it provides insights available nowhere else. Unlike most major—or minor—writers, Louisa May Alcott had few illusions about herself, and when she wrote about the development of her own craft she wore no rose-colored glasses. Her literary self-criticism reveals a consciousness of her limitations, an awareness of her experimentations and growth, her use of source materials, her techniques, her attitude toward language, and her ultimate professionalism. That self-criticism is to be found in her letters, published and unpublished, in her journals, her prefaces and narratives. Excerpted from those sources, her comments upon her literary purposes and style form a revealing self-portrait of one who essayed many genres, learned to heed the public pulse, and became a professional American writer in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Almost from the start, Alcott was aware that she was experimenting, and, as she moved from style to style, that she...
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SOURCE: "The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in Little Women," in Signs, Vol. 15, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 562-85.
[In the following essay, Murphy examines critical debate surrounding the question of Little Women's status as a feminist novel. She argues that the power of the work is largely derived "from the contradictions and tensions it exposes and from the pattern it establishes of subversive feminist exploration colliding repeatedly against patriarchal repression. "]
Twenty years of scholarship about Louisa May Alcott's most famous and enduring work, Little Women, testifies to the complicated process of reexamining a novel widely recognized as a classic in American children's literature.1 This critical reevaluation of Alcott has been complicated by the publication of her previously uncollected and largely unavailable gothic thrillers,2 which reveal a new dimension to the familiar author, both enriching our reactions to Little Women (especially to the silencing of Jo March's own anxious authorship of pseudonymous thrillers) and confirming our sense of the subversion in that sentimental text.
Biographies exploring the darker side of Alcott and reinterpreting her complicated family, as well as ongoing feminist work retrieving, recuperating, and reenvisioning American literature and cultural...
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SOURCE: "Little Women: The American Female Myth," in Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991, pp. 42-64.
[In the following chapter from a critical study of American women's writing, Showalter considers the reasons for the sustained popularity of Alcott's Little Women among American female readers of diverse backgrounds.]
In the eyes of many readers and critics, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) is 'the American female myth,' and Alcott's heroine Jo March has become the most influential figure of the independent and creative American woman.1 Ardent testimonials to Alcott have come from women writers as diverse as Gertrude Stein and Adrienne Rich. 'I read Little Women a thousand times,' the novelist Cynthia Ozick recalls. 'Ten thousand. I am Jo in her "vortex," not Jo exactly, but some Jo-of-the-future.' In 1989, when American governors were asked to name their favourite childhood books, two of the three women governors, Rose Mofford of Alabama and Kay Orr of Nebraska, chose Little Women.2
It should not come as a surprise, however, that none of the forty-seven male governors named Little Women in their response. While it has influenced the work of scores of American women writers, in male literature, such as the stories of Hemingway and Fitzgerald,...
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SOURCE: "The Second Sex: Behind a Mask or a Woman's Power," in Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott, University of Tennessee Press, 1993, pp. 46-57.
[In the following chapter from a critical study of Alcott's fiction, Keyser offers an analysis of Behind a Mask, considering the work in the context of the "Victorian Cult of True Womanhood. "]
Woman plays the part of those secret agents who are left to the firing squad if they get caught, and are loaded with rewards if they succeed; it is for her to shoulder all man's immorality: not the prostitute only, but all women who serve as sewer to the shining, wholesome edifice where respectable people have their abode. When, thereupon, to these women one speaks of dignity, honor, loyalty, of all the lofty masculine virtues, it is not astonishing if they decline to "go along." They laugh in derision particularly when the virtuous males have just reproached them for not being disinterested, for play-acting, for lying. They well know that no other way out is open to them.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (578-79)
Insignificant as this action was, it spoke very plainly. It spoke very plainly of ever-recurring fears—of fatal necessities for concealment—of a mind that in its silent agonies was ever alive to the importance of...
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SOURCE: "'So Like Women!': Louisa May Alcott's Work and the Ideology of Relations," in Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901, edited by Sharon M. Harris, University of Tennessee Press, 1995, pp. 109-27.
[In the following essay, Rigsby emphasizes the political significance of Alcott's Work, arguing that the novel reveals Alcott's affiliation with "feminist transcendentalism " through a subversion of "powerful patriarchal images and narrative patterns. "]
Critical reassessments of Louisa May Alcott's writings have proliferated in recent years, but the political nature of her fiction has yet to be explored in its complexity. In her novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873), for instance, Louisa May Alcott challenges the glorification of individualism and condemns practices of capitalism that thrive on it. She presents an ambitious political agenda that becomes especially evident when we read Work in the context of Alcott's affiliation with Margaret Fuller's feminist transcendentalism—a Utopian optimism with a corresponding microanalysis of social inequalities. Specifically, in Christie Devon, Alcott gives us a character who raises familiar genre and plot expectations but in the end uses them to defuse the powerful ideology with which they are usually complicitous. As a Bildungsroman character, Christie is most obviously an American...
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Payne, Alma J. Louisa May Alcott: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980, 87 p.
Comprehensive bibliography of secondary sources on Alcott.
Anthony, Katharine. Louisa May Alcott. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938, 315 p.
Questions the morality and upbringing of the Alcott family. Anthony's position has been disputed, most notably by Odell Shepard, who believes that Anthony's conjectures are not based on solid evidence.
Bedell, Madelon. The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1980, 400 p.
Seeks connections between Alcott's career and her family background, particularly her parents' marriage and life in the Alcott household.
Cheney, Ednah D., ed. Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1907, 404 p.
Biography sanctioned by Alcott's sister, Anna Alcott Pratt. Relies heavily on Alcott's journal entries and correspondence and also includes excerpts from her previously unpublished poetry.
Saxton, Martha. Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, 428...
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