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."