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.