Study Guide

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott Essay - Alcott, Louisa May (Short Story Criticism)

Alcott, Louisa May (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Alcott, Louisa May 1832-1888

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms of Flora Fairfield, A. M. Barnard, Cousin Tribulation, A. M., Abba May Alcott, and A. M. daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott) American short story writer, novelist, poet, essayist, editor, and dramatist. See also Louisa May Alcott Literary Criticism.

Although she is best known as the author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott also produced a substantial body of popular short fiction. Ranging in genre from children's stories to sensational thrillers, Alcott's short stories span her entire literary career and offer intriguing insights into the versatility of her imagination. Since the 1970s, critics have been especially fascinated by the lurid style and sensational subject matter of the short serial thrillers that recently have been attributed to Alcott. Originally published anonymously and written largely to finance her family's needs, these works stand in startling contrast to the sentimental realism of Little Women and complicate the familiar public image of Alcott as "The Children's Friend."

Biographical Information

Alcott, the second of four daughters, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania and raised in Concord, Massachusetts, and Boston. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a noted New England Transcendentalist philosopher and educator who worked without pay through Alcott's childhood. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, was descended from the witch-burning Judge Samuel Sewall and the noted abolitionist Colonel Joseph May. Alcott's childhood was apparently happy, though severely impoverished. She never forgot the sparse vegetarian diet imposed on the family by her father, nor his frequent absences as he spread his experimental philosophies through New England. Later, Alcott often remarked that her entire career was inspired by her desire to compensate for her family's early discomfort. Alcott was educated by her father, whose experimental approach to education combined spiritual, physical, and intellectual training with the writings of his friends and fellow Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker. When her father's schools failed, however, Alcott, her sisters, and her mother sought work to offset the family's financial hardship. Alcott taught school, took in sewing, and worked briefly as a domestic servant. At age sixteen, she began writing, convinced that she could eventually earn enough money to alleviate the family's poverty. Her first volume of stories, Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales, was published in 1855. Under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, Alcott also initiated a parallel career in the writing of serial thrillers, which were both popular and lucrative. Drawing on the conventions of the Victorian "sensation" story, these melodramatic tales appeared regularly in various New England periodicals for almost twenty years. In 1862 Alcott went to Washington, D.C. to serve as a nurse to soldiers wounded in the American Civil War. The experience was short-lived, however, for she contracted typhoid pneumonia within a month, from which she nearly died. Her health, undermined by the long illness, never fully recovered. Meanwhile, Alcott produced Hospital Sketches (1863) and Moods (1865), her first novel. It was the publication of Little Women, however, which firmly established Alcott's fame. This work, along with its sequels, was immensely successful. Throughout this final stage of her career, Alcott continued to publish children's tales for several magazines, many of which have been collected in Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag (1872-82). Adored by her fans and sought after by publishers, Alcott was regarded as a celebrity at this stage of her career and was able to support her family with her earnings. Alcott remained the periodic caretaker of her father throughout her adult life. She died on March 6, 1888, two days following her father's death.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Alcott's short stories are often divided between her works for children and those for adults. Like much of the children's literature of the period, Alcott's juvenile fiction is charming, sentimental, and overtly moral. In the fairy tales collected in Flower Fables, for example, characters with names like Thistledown and Lily-Bell, typically struggle to overcome such character flaws as jealousy, anger, and selfishness. In the six volumes of children's stories collected in Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag, Alcott writes in the popular nineteenth-century story-telling persona of a warm, caring, and didactic maiden aunt. In her stories written for an adult audience, however, Alcott explored such taboo subjects as sex, madness, incest, suicide, opium-addiction, and the supernatural, sometimes featuring a mysterious, vengeful woman bent on manipulation and deception. While most of the female protagonists of Alcott's thrillers are ultimately confounded in their machinations, a few—such as the brilliant and mercenary Jean Muir of "Behind a Mask"—ultimately win power and fortune from an otherwise repressive world.

Critical Reception

Prior to Madeleine Stern's publication of Alcott's sensation stories in Behind a Mask: the Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (1975), Alcott's short fiction received relatively scant critical attention. The revelation that the creator of Little Women had also written a series of passionate melodramas, however, stirred considerable critical interest, particularly on the part of feminist and psychoanalytical critics. Commentators including Martha Saxton, Lynette Carpenter, and Judith Fetterley have agreed that the thrillers suggest Alcott's repressed feelings of sensuality and rage. Feminist interpretations have also been influential in the reception of Alcott's juvenile fiction. While some critics continue to emphasize the traditional morality and domestic values of the children's stories, others, such as Elizabeth Keyser, detect subversive elements that implicitly question patriarchal norms.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Flower Fables (fairytales) 1855

Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories (letters and sketches) 1863

Louisa M. Alcott's Proverb Stories 1868

Morning-Glories, and Other Stones 1868

V V: or, Plots and Counterplots [as A. M. Barnard] 1870

Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag 6 vols. 1872-82

Silver Pitchers And Independence, a Centennial Love Story 1876

Spinning-Wheel Stones 1884

Lulu's Library 1886-89

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott 1975

Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott 1976

A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott 1988

Freaks of Genius: Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott 1991

Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott 1995

Other Major Works

Moods (novel) 1865; revised edition, 1882

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

Work: A Story of Experience (novel) 1873

Eight Cousins: or, The Aunt-Hill (novel) 1875

Rose in Bloom (novel) 1876

A Modern Mephistopheles (novel) 1877

Under the Lilacs (novel) 1878

Jack and Jill: A Village Story (novel) 1880

Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to "Little Men" (novel) 1886

Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (letters and journals) 1889

Comic Tragedies Written by "Jo" and "Meg" and Acted by the Little Women (drama) 1893

Criticism

Leona Rostenberg (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott," in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, 1943, pp. 131-39.

[In the following essay, Rostenberg discusses the publishing history of Alcott's pseudonymous sensation stories.]

When Jo March, dressed in her best, entered the office of the Weekly Volcano she found herself confronted by three men "sitting with their heels rather higher than their hats" and smoking long black cigars. Jo had come to offer her latest thriller to the condescending Mr. Dashwood and his partners, the editors of the Weekly Volcano.

How exactly Louisa M. Alcott has revealed her experiences and tribulations as a writer of sensational fiction in Little Women cannot be determined. Nevertheless there is sufficient indication that in reality she had aspired as Jo, had known the counterpart of the critical Mr. Dashwood and his associates and had seen the pages of an authentic Weekly Volcano emblazoned with her thrillers.

Although Miss Alcott during the early years of her literary career contributed to the popular Boston Saturday Evening Gazette and the proud young Atlantic Monthly, she did not disdain publications of lesser repute. By 1862 she wrote regularly for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, a small folio journal selling at ten cents a copy, replete with alluring pictures, New York gossip, murder trials and ringside bouts. Leslie considered her tales "so dramatic, vivid and full of plot" that he announced her anonymous story, "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," appearing in January, 1863, as a prize winner. Her tale, "Enigmas," was published in the May issues of 1864. In Miss Alcott's opinion this thriller was much liked by readers of "sensation rubbish, but having gotten my fifty dollars I was resigned." By her own admission, however, Louisa Alcott enjoyed writing tales injected with the "lurid" not only because of the lucrative rewards, which she sorely needed, but because of "her passion for wild adventurous life and even melodramatic action." The realization that the publication of her stories in Leslie's paper and others of such character would not enhance her reputation may have induced her "resignation." Despite this attitude "Enigmas" was not to be her last tale of blood and thunder.

Shrouded in pseudonymity, Louisa Alcott's stories appeared during the 'sixties in the Boston penny dreadful, The Flag of Our Union. Founded by Fred Gleason in 1842 and later sold to the enterprising Maturin Murray Ballou, this weekly in 1863 passed into the hands of James R. Elliott, William H. Thomes and Newton Talbot, the first two of whom had worked with Henry Leslie for Gleason's publications. Of the three partners the best known is William H. Thomes, author of several successful adventure stories. Originally from Portland, he drifted to Boston and took to sea during the early 'forties. Back in Boston and ready for new adventure, he formed the Boston and California Joint Stock Mining Company whose members were "to take their Bibles in one hand and their great New England civilization in the other and conquer all wickedness that stood in their path." Thomes appears to have conquered neither wickedness nor the West, for he was back in Boston in 1857 to become a reporter for the Herald until 1860. The following year he associated himself with James R. Elliott as co-publisher of The American Union with offices at 100 Washington Street. Prior to his partnership with Thomes, Elliott had published The True Flag with W. U. Moulton and M. V. Lincoln. It appears that with the transfer of The Flag of Our Union to Elliott and Thomes, Talbot, who had worked as cashier for the Ballou publications, decided to continue his connections and hence became the third partner in 1863.

The firm, located first at 118 Washington Street and later at 63 Congress Street, issued not only The Flag of Our Union but other former cheap Ballou periodicals, The Dollar Monthly, The Monthly Novelette and The American Union. Among their contributors were the popular Sylvanus Cobb, Junior, Francis Durivage, Rochester and Amanda Hale whose stories bristled with tales of the South Seas, mulattos, banishment, love and crime. The Flag of Our Union, which Gleason claimed had enjoyed a circulation of 100,000 and brought its owner a yearly income of $25,000, had increased from four to sixteen pages under Elliott's management. Although it originally prided itself on containing no advertisements it now brought to the public's attention the soothing properties of "Redding's Russia Salve" and "Wistar's Balsam." Under the direction of Elliott, Thomes and Talbot the annual subscription rate had risen from two to four dollars annually. It was described by the editors as the "Best Literary Journal" with a corps of contributors embracing "The Best Writers in the Country."

Miss Alcott's contributions to The Flag, tales of violence and revenge peopled with convicts and opium addicts, appeared anonymously, and pseudonymously as the products of A. M. Barnard. This name may have been suggested either by fancy or a chain of associations. The A may have been derived from any one of the family names, Amos, Abba or Anna. The M more than likely represented her mother's maiden name, May, likewise Miss...

(The entire section is 2237 words.)

Ann Douglas (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Mysteries of Louisa May Alcott," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXV, No. 14, September, 28, 1978, pp. 61-3.

[In the following excerpt, Douglas contrasts Alcott's sensation stories with her popular juvenile writings and concludes that "the little girls of Alcott's later work have something in common with the femmes fatales of her early books."]

It is in her first novel Moods (1864) and the subsequent anonymous or pseudonymous "thrillers" she [Alcott] 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...

(The entire section is 2434 words.)

Joy A. Marsella (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Departures," in The Promise of Destiny: Children and Women in the Short Stories of Louisa May Alcott, Greenwood Press, 1983, pp. 135-48.

[In the following essay, Marsella articulates the "moral code" of Alcott's Scrap Bag stories in relation to the author's portrayal of women and children.]

The short stories in the six volumes of Louisa May Alcott's Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag are the children's counterpart of that great body of essays, pamphlets, and books written in the nineteenth century by ministers and popular writers who gave advice to parents on how to rear their children. As such, they can tell us much about the attitudes and values that...

(The entire section is 4936 words.)

Judith Fetterley (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Impersonating 'Little Women': the Radicalism of Alcott's Behind a Mask," in Women's Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1983, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Fetterley argues that " 'Behind a Mask' is Alcott's most radical text."]

Every student of 19th century American literature owes Madeleine Stern an incalculable debt for having recovered and reprinted the sensational fiction of Louisa May Alcott [in Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, 1975]. Not only are these texts significant themselves; equally significant is the context they create for thinking about the career of one of our major 19th century women writers. That Alcott's...

(The entire section is 5314 words.)

Elizabeth Keyser (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "'Playing Puckerage': Alcott's Plot in 'Cupid and Chow-chow'," in Children's Literature, Vol. 14, 1986, pp. 105-21.

[In the following essay, Keyser finds a radical feminist subtext in Alcott's children's story "Cupid and Chow-chow. "]

Louisa May Alcott, despite the critical attention that she has recently received, remains underrated as a literary artist and misunderstood as a feminist. Eugenia Kaledin, although she puts the case more strongly than most Alcott critics, speaks for many when she deplores the fact that Alcott's "acceptance of the creed of womanly self-denial . . . aborted the promise of her art and led her to betray her most deeply felt values"...

(The entire section is 5857 words.)

Lynette Carpenter (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: '"Did they never see anyone angry before?': The Sexual Politics of Self-Control in Alcott's 'A Whisper in the Dark,'" in Legacy, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 31-9.

[In the following essay, Carpenter studies the theme of repressed rage in "A Whisper in the Dark," commenting that "the text should be viewed as a battleground not only for its characters but for its author as well."]

Anger and passion are emotions that Louisa May Alcott's biographers strongly associate with her thrillers, those lurid gothic tales she published largely pseudonymously or anonymously between 1863 and 1869 in such popular periodicals as Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, The Flag of Our...

(The entire section is 6120 words.)

Madeleine B. Stern (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: An Introduction to Freaks of Genius: Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Daniel Shealy, Madeleine B. Stern, and Joel Myerson, Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 1-22.

[In the following excerpt, Stern discusses recurring themes and structural devices in Alcott's sensation stories.]

The association of the author of Little Women with tales of feminist passion and sexual power struggles, narcotics addiction, revenge and murder continues to raise astonished eyebrows. Violence, unleashed emotion, insanity and deviltry are unlikely themes for America's best loved author of juveniles, and the revelation of her connection with them has given her a new...

(The entire section is 8121 words.)

Daniel Shealy (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: An Introduction to Louisa May Alcott's Fairy Tales and Fantasy Stories, edited by Daniel Shealy, The University of Tennessee Press, 1992, pp. xv-xxxvii.

[In the following excerpt, Shealy views Alcott as "a pioneer in American fantasy literature. "]

On Christmas Day 1854, Louisa May Alcott presented her mother, Abigail, with a copy of her first book, Flower Fables, a collection of six fairy tales. Along with the volume, she included a brief letter telling her mother that into "your Christmas stocking I have put my 'first-born,' knowing that you will accept it with all its faults (for grandmothers are always kind), and look upon it merely as an earnest of...

(The entire section is 10098 words.)

Elizabeth Lennox Keyser (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Seduction of Daughters' or The Sins of the Fathers': A Marble Woman or the Mysterious Model," in Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott, The University of Tennessee Press, 1993, pp. 32-45.

[In the following essay, Keyser argues that "Alcott uses the Gothic machinery of a highly implausibleand melodramatic story to make a number of telling points about the nature of patriarchy."]

"A Marble Woman or The Mysterious Model," like Moods, deals with a motherless adolescent girl involved in ambiguous relationships with two much older men. Like the earlier sensation story "A Whisper in the Dark," it offers a sustained critique of the...

(The entire section is 5468 words.)

Angela M. Estes and Kathleen M. Lant (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "'Unlovely, Unreal Creatures': Resistance and Relationship in Louisa May Alcott's 'Fancy's Friend'," in The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 18, No. 2, December, 1994, pp. 154-70.

[In the following essay, Estes and Lant emphasize the ambiguity and complexity of Alcott's portrayal of "a young girl's entry into the world of Adulthood" in "Fancy's Friend."]

Joy Marsella concludes her work on the children's stories of Louisa May Alcott (The Promise of Destiny) with a discussion of Alcott's "Fancy's Friend" and its placement as the final story in the six-volume Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag series. Marsella argues that the story epitomizes and clarifies Alcott's...

(The entire section is 6980 words.)

Madeleine Stern (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in Louisa May Alcott Unmasked, edited by Madeleine Stern, Northeastern University Press, 1995, pp. xi-xxix.

[In the following excerpt, Stern discusses characterizations, themes, and literary sources for Alcotts sensation stories.]

What was the nature of the stories written in secret by the author of Flower Fables, Hospital Sketches, and The Rose Family, and published anonymously or pseudonymously in the weeklies of the 1860s? Their backgrounds and some of their characters reflect perhaps more of her imagining than of her observation. Alcott reveled in foreign backgrounds and set many of her narratives overseas. A haunted English abbey...

(The entire section is 5514 words.)