Saturday, May 22, 2010

Fascination with the Alcotts

Today's post on the American Literary Blog on the anniversary of the 1863 publication of Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches reminded me of my grad school days. While taking a course studying the theme of nature in American literature, my interest in Louisa May Alcott and the Alcott family in general was rekindled.

When I was a child, my favorite book, bar none, was my mother's copy of Little Women. I also had my grandmother's copies, passed down to her, of Little Men and Jo's Boys, part of a slightly water-damaged set published in 1903. (My love of old books started young!) Then at the library which we visited each week, I unearthed more Alcott treasures: Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom, An Old-Fashioned Girl (my second favorite Alcott book), and Jack and Jill. I eventually discovered books of her short stories for children as well, including "An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving," and also A Garland for Girls and Flower Fables, the latter of which was published when Alcott was 17, a gift for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous Transcendentalist and also the Alcotts' neighbor in Concord, Massachusetts. I was in my late teens when I ran across Hospital Sketches, the first of her books written for adults. I found her writing for an adult audience very different from her works for children; there was a pungency of sorts, a realism unshadowed by the idealism that marked her books for children.

Once in graduate school and especially in the abovementioned Nature in American Lit course, I was introduced to Transcendentalism in more depth, particularly to the works and philosophy of Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson Alcott, Louisa's father (all of these neighbors in Concord), plus Theodore Parker and Margaret Fuller. The lives of these seemingly larger-than-life figures intertwined beautifully, as if dancing a complicated minuet. Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance is based on Fruitlands, the commune experiment that was attempted and later abandoned by the Transcendalists, led by the Alcott family. Louisa wrote about the nine months of the experiment in her journals with a true lack of enjoyment and some bitterness.

Louisa's forays into the philosophy and high ideals of Transcendentalism left her with a yen for the practical, and she writes very autobiographically about how her writings helped to support her family in Little Women: "Jo...fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house; for by the magic of a pen, her 'rubbish' turned into comforts for them all. 'The Duke's Daughter' paid the butcher's bill, 'A Phantom Hand' put down a new carpet, and 'The Curse of the Coventrys' proved the blessing of the Marches in the way of groceries and gowns."

The foremost authority on the Alcott family, Madeleine Stern, in collecting Louisa's journals and letters which were published in the late 1980s and early 1990's (the height of my own Alcott research), made a great literary find. From the 2007 In Memoriam web page marking Stern's death at age 95:

In 1942, doggedly investigating rather unusual and elusive references in Louisa May Alcott’s correspondence and journals, Miss Stern and Miss Rostenberg found evidence at Houghton Library in Harvard University that Alcott -- best known for her treasured children’s classic, Little Women (1868) -- had also written racy potboilers, or “blood-and-thunder tales.” Published in popular periodicals anonymously or under the mysterious pseudonym of “A. M. Barnard,” these stories dealt with seamier aspects of life and love that excited the reading public and, more importantly, provided Miss Alcott with badly needed money to help support her family.

Miss Stern oversaw the publication of these risqué stories in several anthologies beginning in the 1970s -- Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (Morrow, 1975); Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (Morrow, 1976); A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (Little, Brown & Company, 1988); Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers (Northeastern University, 1995); and The Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman’s Power (Northeastern University Press, 1996). With Professors Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, Miss Stern co-edited Miss Alcott’s journals, letters, and selected fiction in the 1990s.
And thus was discovered a whole new Louisa May Alcott--a woman who wrote Gothic romances containing passionate and violent relationships, murder plots, women who spoke their mind and also were passionate and real--so much the opposite of her children's books which she once referred to as "moral pap for the young." 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.
Alcott's novel A Long Fatal Love Chase was first published in 1995 and made it onto the NY Times Bestseller list for a short time. Written in 1866, two years before Little Women, it's an impassioned Gothic romance that chases itself across Europe and ends in tragedy. It's not the best-written novel I've read (by far), but the plot is intriguing even if the characters are a bit flat--of course, these elements are to be expected in a novel that remained in first draft condition (although it seemed that Alcott wrote extremely quickly and rarely revised, often churning out a chapter a day, at least in composing her children's books). Her short stories and novellas in Behind a Mask, Plots and Counterplots, and A Double Life are far more intriguing--the characters more deftly drawn, more subtly nuanced; certainly these collections are very worth one's while.

I've nearly written an article here, so I'll stop and turn to checking all the Twitter and Facebook status updates on the double earthquakes that occurred while I wrote this post (according to prelimary reports by the USGS, a 5.3 earthquake occurred at 10:30 AM PST along the Mexican border between Tecate and Mexicali, followed by a second 4.8 earthquake three minutes later; the first earthquake felt like two separate ones, the first one rolling, the second jolting, but there was probably just a mellow middle to it that we didn't feel.). And I also need to change hats from literary researcher to evaluator of student essays as I complete the grading of my online Literary Analysis course with Brave Writer.

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