Happy Birthday, Louisa May Alcott

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“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” said Meg, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.

“That’s the reason I was born in it,” observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott was born on this day, in 1832. (I just LOVE that picture of her above. The dress!!)

To me, Little Women is a perfect book (even with the whole Laurie debacle, and the advent of the German professor which never works for me, to this day). It is a book I go back to again and again and again, always seeing something new in it, always finding new levels. The characters seem to grow up with me. When I first read it, when I was 10 years old, I was ALL ABOUT JO. And my love affair with Jo continues eternally. She is one of my favorite female characters ever written (it’s a tie between Jo March and Harriet the Spy). Jo LIVES. No one can convince me that she is just a fictional character. Nope. You cannot do it. It is also a wonderful portrait of a woman going her own way, who has a talent, many talents, and tries to find access to that talent, and also a way to express it. As a young creative and dream-filled child, Jo was a potent reminder to keep my nose to the grindstone, and to continue to develop myself, whichever way my talents took me. You will never please everyone when you buck the trends. You will be judged for living life differently than others. Oh well. That’s the breaks. Nothing in life comes for free. But freedom is the most important thing, freedom of the soul, of the mind. Jo represents that.

As I have grown up, and as I have continuously gone back to the book – the other sisters have come to the foreground – I see myself in all of them. Parts of me are like Amy, parts of me are like Meg, and I would like to think that parts of me are like Beth. But honestly: Jo is the one. Jo is the one I most relate to. She’s the artist. The tomboy. The independent wild spirit. The one who is afraid to make the wrong choice. The one who sticks to her guns.

I still am not really reconciled to the fact that she and Laurie did not end up together . However, I can see Jo’s point. They were like brother and sister. But … but … but … couldn’t that have segued into a love thing? The intimacy they have together, the comfort?

When I was a kid, I hated the professor. With his stupid German accent, and his goofy poetry as he wooed Jo. I resented the fact that he wasn’t Laurie. I loved Laurie.

Louisa May Alcott was forced by her publishers to marry Jo off. She wanted her to stay single. And if you really think about it, THAT would be much more logical – it makes much more sense that Jo, even with all her passion, and her ability to understand men (in a way that Meg, the one with all the love affairs, doesn’t) – would choose to spend her life alone. She would marry her writing. In that day and age, those were the choices. It was the choice Louisa May Alcott herself made. She could not submit to the demands of wifehood and motherhood – it would infringe on her writing. She also had to support her wack-job father in all of his ridiculous exploits. She was a dutiful daughter. She churned out the words that she knew would sell. When she was 15 years old, she wrote in her journal:

“I will do something by and by. Don’t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!”

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Alcott grew up in Concord, one of 4 girls, and part of what we would now call an activist family. They were abolitinists. Social reformers. Her mother was a social worker. Her father was an educational philosopher (more on this extraordinary and, frankly, bizarre man here), and had a belief in communal living (Louisa May Alcott wrote some funny pieces about these experiments of her father’s, and having to submit to them as a young girl.) Her father (Amos Bronson Alcott – also born on this day) was buddies with Emerson, and part of the Transcendentalist movement. At the time, her father’s views on teaching were very controversial: He actually believed that students should enjoy learning. Heaven forbid! He thought that students should be actively involved in their own education, and not just sit back and be passive little drones. Her father thought it was very important to have a beautiful classroom – not just desks and a chalkboard. He poured his heart (and finances) into a school – which ran for a couple of years – but then went under, putting the family at financial risk. Louisa May Alcott eventually, many years later, would be pretty much the sole supporter of her parents. She made a ton of money DURING her lifetime, which is quite rare for writers, then and now. Her parents just weren’t the money-making types, obviously.

In 1862, Alcott (as always, determined to make a living – and to contribute financially to her family) traveled to Washington DC as a Civil War nurse. By this point, Alcott had already started getting stuff published – poems, short stories in the Gothic melodramatic vein … She actually preferred Gothic melodramas to the kinds of books that later would make her name. (She despised Little Women and found the writing of it extremely tedious.) Her experience as a nurse in the Civil War prompted her to publish a book called Hospital Sketches. At that point, her publisher asked her if she would write a book “for girls”. Never one to back off from a challenge, Louisa May Alcott sat down and wrote Little Women in two months. She had grown up with 3 sisters – and she put her entire childhood and life into that book, even as she hated doing it, and didn’t think the book would amount to much.

Little Women was published in 1868 and was an immediate rip-roaring success. The publisher, within only a couple of weeks of its publication, begged Alcott to get to work on a sequel. So Alcott did. Another smash success. Louisa May Alcott had become a star.

Every book she wrote after that was eagerly awaited for by a breathless loving public. Success had, indeed, come – her childish ambitions to be ‘rich and famous’ came to fruition tenfold … but ‘happy’? Was she happy?

She never married. She ended up taking care of her sister May’s daughter after May died from complications in childbirth. Being a surrogate mother to this young girl was one of the most fulfilling experiences of Alcott’s life. She kept writing, kept publishing … although she began to get more and more ill from mercury poisoning she had received years earlier during the Civil War (she had, like many other Civil War nurses, contracted typhoid fever – and at the time, the proscribed cure was something called “calomel”, a drug laden with mercury).

Near the end of her life, Alcott became active in the suffragette movement. Her father had always been a feminist himself:

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His passion was to see that his four daughters were educated, well-rounded, and part of the intellectual community he lived in. (Some heavy-hitters there – Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) Louisa’s father kept detailed diaries during the raising of his 4 girls, chronicling everything about each one of them. His whole thing was early education – the importance of the first couple of years – and again, you don’t ever get the sense that he thought this was only good for BOYS. On the contrary. Here’s a snippet of a letter Louisa’s father wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1869, which gives you some idea of who this man was:

Woman is helping herself to secure her place in a better spirit and manner than any we [men] can suggest or devise, it becomes us to take, rather than proffer Consels, readily waiting to learn her wishes and aims, as she has so long, and so patiently deferred to us.

In 1879, Louisa May Alcott was the first woman to register to vote in Concord. It was for the school committee election. Pretty awesome, huh?

Her beloved father passed away on March 4, 1888. Louisa May Alcott died two days later.

She didn’t care for the book that made her name … and probably wished that her legacy was different … but that’s okay. It is not for the artist to decide what the audience will react to, what the reader will respond to. She created something with Little Women that transcends the ages, that pierces through the centuries. It is a classic book. And perhaps it’s fitting, in a way, that she wrote it for hire, pretty much – it was not her idea, and yet – look at what she was able to create. Look at what she was able to bring out!!

Those 4 girls are immortal.

When I was 16 years old, one of the assignments we had in our Drama class was to do a one-person show – maybe 15, 20 minutes long – based on either a real person from history, or a fictional character – and we had to come into the class as that character, and do a monologue – based on our research – and then take questions from the class – in character. I still remember my core group of friends and their projects: Beth came in as Mae West. She was incredible. She had on a blowsy blonde wig, and wore a tight sparkley dress – and I still remember the shock when Beth started telling us all about birth control options – because Mae West was an early champion of birth control for women. It was awesome. Beth was fearless. Betsy did Paddington Bear (although she has no memory of this! But I SWEAR it is true!!) (and I still remember how one of the questions for Betsy was: “Why don’t you eat some of your marmalade?” and Betsy – who despises marmalade – had to dip her hand into the jar, take out a big scoop of it, and eat it – pretending she liked it. Now that’s dedication to the acting craft!). Michele did Marilyn Monroe. Unbelievable. Michele was an amazing actress, a natural. She got the sadness beneath the blonde glamour of Marilyn.

And I did Louisa May Alcott.

One of my first forays into the one-person show format. I did hours and hours and hours of research for a mere 20 minute piece, because I had no idea what questions people would ask, and I had to be ready for anything!

It was great, because I had known nothing about her before that. I had just read Little Women and we had also visited her house in Concord on a family trip (a great thing to do if you are in the area). Orchard House:

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Once I learned all this stuff about her, my admiration for her grew. I loved that our birthdays were almost the same. She was a Sagittarius too.

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Little Women. Here’s the excerpt I posted from it – an excerpt that still, after so many times reading it, brings a lump to my throat.

I don’t know if I would call Little Women a great book but I would say that it is something much better than “great”: it is beloved. And that is a rare and precious thing.

Happy birthday, Louisa May!

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20 Responses to Happy Birthday, Louisa May Alcott

  1. kathy says:

    I’m a first time commenter. I’ve always loved that book. It’s not my favorite; but, any girl who loves to read, surely gets to this one. The fact that Laurie ends up with Amy is the flaw in the book. It is so annoying that I can never get past that unsatisfactory feeling! Amy ! Amy gets the trip to Europe, she gets Laurie, she stops going to school cuz’ she’s a spoiled brat! I always wished Amy died instead of Beth. This shows you how I really get into my books!!

  2. sheila says:

    Kathy – Welcome!

    Ha! I know! It still doesn’t work for me. It still feels wrong. And I STILL have a hard time forgiving Amy for burning Jo’s book. I know Jo needed to learn a lesson about her terrible temper, but boy … I still get mad when I think of that particular scene.

    • kathy says:

      Sheila, I don’t have a blog. Sometimes I feel selfish glomming on to blogs and not reciprocating. I only got on a computer 18 months ago. I resisted for a long time; because, I like to read. Hard enough to get things done if you’re always reading. Now with my little netbook, I’m a goner! I love your blog so much. I like all kinds of sites and food blogs; but, when I found yours -kindred spirits! Thanks so much for all the enjoyment you give me! You and TCM- what more could anyone ask for?

      • sheila says:

        Kathy – I totally know what you mean. I still try to limit my time online (not always easy) because I love to read/watch movies – and I don’t know about you, but I find that when my laptop is always on, I feel the need to constantly check it – to see if I have new emails, new comments, whatever. BAH. Total time-waster. So I make the effort to turn the damn thing off from time to time. :)

        Anyway, I’m so pleased you commented. It’s always great to find another kindred spirit out there – especially the one who is still angry about Amy marrying Laurie! Yes!!

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  4. Desirae says:

    My mom played Jo in her school’s production of Little Women when she was in her early teens. She didn’t like the guy who was playing Laurie and there was a scene where she kissed him, so she made them rewrite it so she didn’t have to. She was a thirteen year old diva.

  5. sheila says:

    Desirae – hahahahahaha. That is so awesome.

  6. Janis Weiner says:

    Little Women was my favorite book as a girl…I was 6 the first time I read it and kept track on the inside cover. I think it was something like 126 readings. The front cover finally fell off. I still look for this edition in bookstores, though I don’t recall much about it, I am sure I would recognize it if I ever saw it. I felt the same as you did about the Professor until Gabriel Byrne played him. Is that wrong? I also read Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs. All of these many, many times. I was a LMA devotee. When I had a moral predicament as a lass, I would think about what the March girls would do, or what would make Marmee proud. Reading your piece makes me want to leave work and curl up with Little Women again.

  7. sheila says:

    Janis – I totally feel like curling up right now with one of her books!

    And I think Gabriel Byrne could play Beelzebub himself and I would think, “Huh. The devil is pretty awesome!” I agree: you could understand why Jo would “go for him” in that rendition of it. But the way he’s written in the book – ugh. He just drove me NUTS when I was a kid. It makes me laugh now to think how ANGRY I was about him.

  8. sheila says:

    All of this being said – my cousin Kerry (who has played Jo many times in regional theatre and workshops before its Broadway opening) gave to me a painting she has of Jo and the Professor under the umbrella in their courtship scene. A beautiful painting – one of the nicest I own and it hangs in my front foyer. So I forgive the Professor for NOT being Laurie, just so I can enjoy the painting!

  9. Susan Bailey says:

    I came into Little Women backwards you might say. I discovered Louisa as a child and on and off over the years I read several books about her. I found her fascinating. During this last reading binge I read Harriet Reisen’s biography and decided to start a blog so I could meet other enthusiasts. What a joy it has been blogging about Louisa and it just fuels the fire that keeps my interest growing.

    We have a wonderful community over at http://louisamayalcottismypassion.wordpress.com/ and we’d love to have you join us.

    • sheila says:

      Susan – wow, your site is a total goldmine. I haven’t even scratched the surface. Thanks so much for commenting and leaving the link – I will definitely be visiting you often.

  10. Louisa May Alcott was certainly pretty amazing for her time, but I’m almost more impressed by her Dad. Sure it sounds like he was a little bizarre and crazy at times, but he clearly loved his daughters like crazy!!

  11. Lovely post. I wrote a play on Alcott’s Civil War experience as a nurse called “Transcendence in War,” partially based on research I had done for an article on the same subject published in “Civil War Magazine” some years ago. The woman is endlessly fascinating.

    • sheila says:

      Jacqueline – what a great topic for a play. Believe it or not, I have NOT read Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, which is something I really must rectify. Her experiences as a nurse fascinate me.

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  13. Kate says:

    Oh! I don’t even know if you’ll see this because you wrote it way back when and I’m responding now, but . . .

    I do a character study/play type thing every year at my library for Women’s History Month. Some of the characters I’ve portrayed have been Rachel Carson, Willa Cather, Minnie Howard (a local frontier woman/doctor/humanist), Eleanor Roosevelt, and Louisa May Alcott (among others). I spend months and hours and hours researching and then writing and then memorizing the sketches of these women. Louisa is one of my favorites. Then, to my utter joy, I have been invited to go to Iowa in 2011 to do my Louisa portrayal for the Grinnell public library! Anyway, I just wanted to share both the good news and my happiness at finding that you also love her. That’s all.

    Kate

  14. Anne says:

    I was just reading Sadie Stein’s pieces on Professor Bhaer at the Paris Review, and thought of this conversation.

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