Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
How is Louisa May Alcott’s experience of having a brilliant but impractical father who was a poor provider reflected in Little Women?
Does reading this summary of Alcott’s career make you want to explore her “generally overlooked” works, or is she best regarded as a children’s writer?
Does Alcott’s dedication to write popular domestic fiction to order to support her family cause her to compromise her feminist convictions?
Would Alcott be better appreciated today if she had written more in the manner of today’s often very candid and realistic writers of fiction for children and young adults?
In her diary, an eleven-year-old Alcott wrote, “I wish I could be gentle always.” Could she have retained this attitude and written all of the books described here?
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
In addition to her novels, Louisa May Alcott authored a collection of fairy tales, Flower Fables (1854); several short-story collections, notably Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag (1872-1882, 6 volumes), A Garland for Girls (1887), and Lulu’s Library (1895); a nonfiction work, Hospital Sketches (1863); a collection of plays, Comic Tragedies Written by “Jo” and “Meg” and Acted by the “Little Women” (1893); a few poems; and some articles and reviews for major periodicals. Alcott’s surviving letters and journal entries were edited and published in 1889 by Ednah D. Cheney.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Louisa May Alcott first gained the recognition of a popular audience and then acceptance by the critics as a serious writer, becoming a giant in the subgenre of adolescent girls’ novels and the family story. She was unique in having moral lessons exemplified by her characters’ actions, thus avoiding the sermonizing of her contemporaries. Her heroes and heroines are flawed humans often trying to overcome their weaknesses. Much of the time, Alcott managed to avoid making her novels a vehicle to promote social or political issues, which was a fairly common practice of the day. She was a master of character development, and, despite adverse scholarly criticism and changing literary tastes among readers, her novels endure for what they offer in support of timeless values: the importance of a strong family life and honest, hard work.
Contribution (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
Although Louisa May Alcott is best known for her classic and most financially successful novel, Little Women (1868), as well as other juvenile literature, she found her greatest enjoyment in writing thrillers that allowed her to push the narrow boundaries that were set for her as a Victorian woman. In works such as A Long Fatal Love Chase (written 1866; published 1995) and A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), she showed the darker side of human nature, depicting female heroines who either succumbed to the pressures of propriety, conforming to the angelic ideal of womanhood, or triumphed over adversity, using society’s expectations of them to outwit their adversaries and escape confinement.
Alcott’s work also included nonfictional pieces, such as the popular Hospital Sketches (1863), based on her stint as a nurse during the American Civil War, and “How I Went Out to Service,” based on her work experiences outside writing. Alcott’s novel Work: A Study of Experience (1873) was also based on her experiences in low-paying, less-than-satisfying jobs before she was able to not only earn a living but also support her immediate family with the money she made from writing. Like the heroines of her novels, Alcott was torn between what was considered a respectable lifestyle and her desire to rebel against it. Although Little Women, Little Men (1871), and other popular, morally oriented works allowed her to achieve economic independence and some pleasure in providing for her family, it was the thrillers that she wrote before her commercial success that allowed her to at least vicariously experience the freedom her heroines did.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Alcott, Louisa May. A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Edited by Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. This book contains tales of mystery and melodrama that were published anonymously in weeklies before Alcott wrote her tales of social realism. These stories reveal a side of Alcott that is little known by the general public.
Alcott, Louisa May, and May Alcott. Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters’ Letters from Europe, 1870-1871. Edited by Daniel Shealy. Athens: University of Georgia, 2008. The letters that Louisa and her sister May wrote to their family on their visit to Europe are collected here, along with sketches by May. These seventy-one letters reveal the personalities of the Alcotts and help us understand American attitudes toward Europe in the late 19th century.
Alcott, Louisa May. Louisa May Alcott: Selected Fiction. Edited by Daniel Shealy, Madeleine B. Stern, and Joel Myerson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. A collection of stories that cover the romances Alcott wrote during her teens and the thrillers and Gothic novels she wrote before turning to realism. In these stories, Alcott’s rebellious spirit is reflected as a supporter of abolition and women’s rights.
Alcott, Louisa May. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. Edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Many of Alcott’s unpublished journals are housed in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. This book, however, offers a personal look at the experiences and responses that she wrote in letters to family members and friends throughout her life.
Anthony, Katharine S. Louisa May Alcott. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977. Reveals the social influence of Alcott’s writing as she kept alive the ideals of the Victorian period. Anthony’s biography discusses the misrepresentation of Alcott by the literary world, which consistently categorizes her as a children’s writer. Includes an excellent bibliography on Alcott and her entire family.
Boyd, Anne E. Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Explores efforts by Alcott and other female writers living in mid-nineteenth century New England to achieve recognition as authors equal to that given to their male counterparts in both Europe and the United States.
Clark, Beverly Lyon, ed. Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Collection of reviews of Alcott’s work that appeared when...
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