Alcott, Louisa May (Short Story Criticism)
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."
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.
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.
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...
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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,...
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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 powerful and revealing insights. On these [Martha] Saxton rightly bases her critical re-evaluation of Louisa May Alcott.
During this period, Alcott was following the English masters of the so-called "sensation" novel. Dickens's Great Expectations and Little Dorrit, Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne, Wilkie Collins's Woman in White, and M. E. Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret were enormous best-sellers of the early 1860s. These are all tales of premeditated crimes. The plots are characterized by incest, bigamy, confusions of identity, disguised returns from the grave—in short, by any violation of Victorian norms which involved deception and double identities.
Indebted as she was to...
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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 nineteenth-century parents held about their children and the proper way they should be reared, although, of course, they can tell us little about the actual practices parents engaged in. Although the stories are not as heavily didactic as earlier nineteenth-century tales, they are still formula stories that teach a moral lesson, however delicately that lesson is incorporated. As moral tales, they are part of a body of literature that was concerned with how those children should best be reared to fulfill their destiny in a land that offered great promise for their adult lives. As moral tales, they echoed the themes of youth counselors, who argued that childhood offered the best opportunities for parents to shape their children's behavior and that...
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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 "true style," discovered in the act of writing Little Women, was a mask which increasingly encased her, displacing finally all other personas and all other possibilities of self, is implicit in the text of Little Women. Indeed, one recent critic [Eugenia Kaledin, in Women's Studies, Vol. 5, 1978], has argued perceptively that the anonymously published A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), in which the protagonist gains fame and fortune by publishing work that is not his own, reveals Alcott's own Faustian pact and records her alienation from the writing which brought her success. Certainly the disjunction between the values asserted in the sensational fiction and those asserted in the domestic stories argues Alcott's...
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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" [Women's Studies, Vol. 5, 1978]. Like Kaledin, Judith Fetterley believes that Alcott preserved her artistic and moral integrity only in her anonymous and pseudonymous sensational stories. According to Fetterley, "What these stories . . . make clear is the amount of rage and intelligence Alcott had to suppress in order to attain her 'true style' and write Little Women." Unlike Kaledin and Fetterley, Elizabeth Langland reads the adult novel Work as a successful "feminist romance" that affirms "the possibility of growth in female community," but just as Fetterley sees Alcott's rage suppressed in Little Women, so Langland sees suppressed "the model of female development Alcott wanted to propose" [The Voyage In,...
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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 Union, and the Ten Cent Novelette Series. Biographer and editor Madeleine Stern, speculating on Alcott's rare publication of one of these stories under her own name, identifies the common subject matter of the thrillers as female rage: "The possibility suggests itself that Louisa insisted upon secrecy less for her blood-and-thunder stories in general than for her passionate and angry heroines in particular" [Behind A Mask]. Connections between these heroines and their creator indicate one reason for the secrecy. Stern describes the composition of the thrillers in terms of "a psychological catharsis," and early biographer Ednah Cheney notes of Alcott's work on these stories, "Louisa was always a creature of moods; and it was a...
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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 public: a general readership avidly turning unaccustomed pages; a scholarly following seeking to understand the unseemly relationship.
As time passes and heretofore unknown Alcott thrillers are discovered, it begins to appear that that relationship was actually a commitment on her part and that Alcott's literary pursuit of darkness was long-lasting. Her life behind the mask of anonymity or pseudonymity began earlier, was far more productive, and persisted longer than has been realized. Moreover, while it may have begun and endured primarily for economic reasons, it played an enormously interesting role in her literary development. Even when Alcott discontinued her contributions to the gory storypapers of her day, she returned...
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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 what I may yet do, for, with so much to cheer me on, I hope to pass in time from fairies and fables to men and realities." Alcott would indeed go on to write of "men and realities." In less than ten years, her experiences as a Civil War nurse would be chronicled in Hospital Sketches (1863), and in 1868 she would publish her greatest success, Little Women, a landmark in children's literature and an American classic. In the following two decades, she would write many domestic novels, ensuring herself a prominent niche in the American tradition of realistic fiction, especially fiction for juveniles. Despite the enormous fame and fortune that such fiction brought to Alcott, she never left behind the fairies and fables of her...
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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 patriarchal model of gender relations that mystifies and immobilizes women. And like Moods, though in more cryptic form, it advocates replacing that model with one more egalitarian and androgynous. Drawing upon the myth of Amor and Psyche, the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, and, as its title suggests, Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860), Alcott's bizarre melodrama implies that both violence and sterility result from men's efforts to mold women in a vain effort to shape themselves.
As in Moods, the eighteen-year-old heroine, Cecilia Stein, is tormented by her love for two men—her guardian, the sculptor Bazil Yorke, and his supposed model, known only as Germain. The story opens with Yorke's adoption of...
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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 approach to her children's fiction; Alcott recognized, says Marsella, "the practical nature of her work" and was fully aware of her responsibility to her young readers to contribute "to the education of the child": "Alcott conceded that although fantasy gave pleasure to children, ultimately it had to be replaced by an acquiescence to reality." Marsella argues further that Alcott's opting to teach the young how to navigate the responsibilities of the actual adult world and her decision to answer "market demand" cost her "the opportunity to strive for truly great artistry."
Such a reading of this complex story about a young girl's entry into the world of adulthood accedes to the very attitudes Alcott criticizes in this work and...
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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 boasted, besides the "Abbot's Ghost" of the title, a thick-walled gallery and an arched stone roof, armored figures and screaming peacocks. An altogether different backdrop was painted for "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," the sequence of passion and punishment being enacted in an exotic paradise, a green wilderness with tamarind and almond trees, a Cuban cafetal with a tropical orchard of plantain and palm, not to mention a mansion surrounded by brilliant shrubs and flowers.
Europe provided the author with a multitude of romantic backgrounds—with few of which she was familiar. She had driven along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in 1865 when she served as companion to a young invalid, Anna Weld. A few years...
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Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984, 278 p.
Examines Alcott's life and works in the context of Little Women.
Saxton, Martha. Louisa May Alcott. New York: The Noonday Press, 1995, 428 p.
Claims that Alcott's sentimental works masked a life of sexual repression.
Beer, Patricia. "Jo's Other Sisters." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3870 (14 May 1976): 569.
Argues that the sensation stories reveal a dark side to Little Women.
Estes, Angela M., and Kathleen Margaret Lant. "'We Don't Mind the Bumps': Reforming the Child's Body in Louisa May Alcott's 'Cupid and Chow-chow'." Children's Literature XXII (1994): 27-42.
Argues that Alcott metaphorically punishes the heroine of "Cupid and Chow-chow."
Johnson, Diane. "Plots and Counterplots." The New York Times Book Review CXXXV, No. 48 (25 July 1976): 7-8.
Identifies central themes in Alcott's sensation stories.
MacDonald, Ruth K. "Recent Alcott Criticism." Children's Literature 9 (1981): 210-13.
Offers a useful survey of Alcott criticism in light of the recovered sensation stories.
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