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. (Her controversial father was also born on this day.)

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). No one can convince me that Jo March 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 and I see bits of myself in all of them. Parts of me are like Amy (the parts I am least proud of), 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.

However, Louisa May Alcott was forced by her publishers to marry Jo off. She didn’t want her to marry Laurie, OR the Professor. 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 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!

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, Amos Bronson Alcott, 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 her father’s experiments.) Bronson Alcott 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. 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 the sole supporter of her parents. She made a ton of money DURING her lifetime, which is quite rare for writers, then and now.

In 1862, Alcott (as always, determined to make a living and to contribute financially to her family) traveled to Washington DC to get work 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 embrace. She created something with Little Women that transcends the ages, that pierces through the centuries. And perhaps it’s fitting, in a way, that she wrote it for hire, pretty much. 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 classm in character. And I came in as Louisa May Alcott. It was 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).

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I loved that our birthdays were almost the same. She was a Sagittarius too. A wild untamable spirit, just like me.

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Excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

The first of December was a wintry day indeed to them, for a bitter wind blew, snow fell fast, and the year seemed getting ready for its death. When Dr. Bangs came that morning, he looked long at Beth, held the hot hand in both his own a minute, and laid it gently down, saying, in a low tone, to Hannah, –

“If Mrs. March can leave her husband, she’d better be sent for.”

Hannah nodded without speaking, for her lips twitched nervously; Meg dropped down into a chair as the strength seemed to go out of her limbs at the sound of those words, and Jo, after standing with a pale face for a minute, ran to the parlor, snatched up the telegram, and, throwing on her things, rushed out into the storm. She was soon back, and, while noiselessly taking off her cloak, Laurie came in with a letter, saying that Mr. March was mending again. Jo read it thankfully, but the heavy weight did not seem lifted off her heart, and her face was so full of misery that Laurie asked, quickly, –

“What is it? is Beth worse?”

“I’ve sent for mother,” said Jo, tugging at her rubber boots with a tragical expression.

“Good for you, Jo! Did you do it on your own responsibility?” asked Laurie, as he seated her in the hall chair and took off the rebellious boots, seeing how her hands shook.

“No, the doctor told us to.”

“Oh, Jo, it’s not so bad as that?” cried Laurie, with a startled face.

“Yes, it is; she don’t know us, she don’t even talk about the flocks of green doves, as she calls the vine leaves on the wall; she don’t look like my Beth, and there’s nobody to help us bear it; mother and father both gone, and God seems so far away I can’t find Him.”

As the tears streamed fast down poor Jo’s cheeks, she stretched out her hand in a helpless sort of way, as if groping in the dark, and Laurie took it in his, whispering, as well as he could, with a lump in his throat, –

“I’m here, hold on to me, Jo, dear!”

She could not speak, but she did “hold on”, and the warm grasp of the friendly human hand comforted her sore heart, and seemed to lead her nearer to the Divine arm which alone could uphold her in her trouble. Laurie longed to say something tender and comfortable, but no fitting words came to him, so he stood silent, gently stroking her bent head as her mother used to do. It was the best thing he could have done; far more soothing than the most eloquent words, for Jo felt the unspoken sympathy, and, in the silence, learned the sweet solace which affection administers to sorrow. Soon she dried the tears which had relieved her, and looked up with a grateful face.

“Thank you, Teddy, I’m better now; I don’t feel so forlorn, and will try to bear it if it comes.”

“Keep hoping for the best; that will help you lots, Jo. Soon your mother will be here, and everything will be right.”

“I’m so glad father is better; now she won’t feel so bad about leaving him. Oh, me! it does seem as if all the troubles came in a heap, and I got the heaviest part on my shoulders,” sighed Jo, spreading her wet handkerchief over her knees to dry.

“Don’t Meg pull fair?” asked Laurie, looking indignant.

“Oh, yes; she tries to, but she don’t love Bethy as I do; and she won’t miss her as I shall. Beth is my conscience, and I can’t give her up; I can’t! I can’t!”

Down went Jo’s face into the wet handkerchief, and she cried despairingly; for she had kept up bravely till now, and never shed a tear. Laurie drew his hand across his eyes, but could not speak till he had subdued the choky feeling in his throat, and steadied his lips. It might be unmanly, but he couldn’t help it, and I am glad of it. Presently, as Jo’s sobs quieted, he said, hopefully, “I don’t think she will die; she’s so good, and we all love her so much, I don’t believe God will take her away yet.”

“The good and dear people always do die,” groaned Jo, but she stopped crying, for her friend’s words cheered her up, in spite of her own doubts and fears.

“Poor girl! you’re worn out. It isn’t like you to be forlorn. Stop a bit; I’ll hearten you up in a jiffy.”

Laurie went off two stairs at a time, and Jo laid her wearied head down on Beth’s little brown hood, which no one had thought of moving from the table where she left it. It must have possessed some magic, for the submissive spirit of its gentle owner seemed to enter into Jo; and, when Laurie came running down with a glass of wine, she took it with a smile, and said, bravely, “I drink — Health to my Beth! You are a good doctor, Teddy, and such a comfortable friend; how can I ever pay you?” she added, as the wine refreshed her body, as the kind words had done her troubled mine.

“I’ll send in my bill, by and by; and to-night I’ll give you something that will warm the cockles of your heart better than quarts of wine,” said Laurie, beaming at her with a face of suppressed satisfaction at something.

“What is it?” cried Jo, forgetting her woes for a minute, in her wonder.

“I telegraphed to your mother yesterday, and Brooke answered she’d come at once, and she’ll be here to-night, and everything will be all right. Aren’t you glad I did it?”

Laurie spoke very fast, and turned red and excited all in a minute, for he had kept his plot a secret, for fear of disappointing the girls or harming Beth. Jo grew quite white, flew out of her chair, and the moment he stopped speaking she electrified him by throwing her arms round his neck, and crying out, with a joyful cry, “Oh, Laurie! oh, mother! I am so glad!” She did not weep again, but laughed hysterically, and trembled, and clung to her friend as if she was a little bewildered by the sudden news. Laurie, though decidedly amazed, behaved with great presence of mind; he patted her back soothingly, and, finding that she was recovering, followed it up by a bashful kiss or two, which brought Jo round at once. Holding on to the banisters, she put him gently away, saying, breathless, “Oh, don’t! I didn’t mean to; it was dreadful of me; but you were such a dear to go and do it in spite of Hannah, that I couldn’t help flying at you. Tell me all about it, and don’t give me wine again; it makes me act so.”

“I don’t mind!” laughed Laurie, as he settled his tie. “Why, you see I got fidgety, and so did grandpa. We thought Hannah was overdoing the authority business, and your mother ought to know. She’d never forgive us if Beth, — well, if anything happened, you know. So I got grandpa to say it was high time we did something, and off I pelted to the office yesterday, for the doctor looked sober, and Hannah took my head off when I proposed a telegram. I never can bear to be ‘marmed over;’ so that settled my mind, and I did it. Your mother will come, I know, and the late train is in at two a.m. I shall go for her; and you’ve only got to bottle up your rapture, and keep Beth quiet, till that blessed lady gets here.”

“Laurie, you’re an angel! How shall I ever thank you?”

“Fly at me again; I rather like it,” said Laurie, looking mischievous – a thing he had not done for a fortnight.

“No, thank you. I’ll do it by proxy, when your grandpa comes. Don’t tease, but go home and rest, for you’ll be up half the night. Bless you, Teddy, bless you!”

Jo had backed into a corner; and, as she finished her speech, she vanished precipitately into the kitchen, where she sat down upon a dresser, and told the assembled cats that she was “happy, oh, so happy!” while Laurie departed, feeling that he had made a rather neat thing of it.

“That’s the interferingest chap I ever see; but I forgive him, and do hope Mrs. March is coming on right away,” said Hannah, with an air of relief, when Jo told the good news.

Meg had a quiet rapture, and then brooded over the letter, while Jo set the sick room in order, and Hannah “knocked up a couple of pies in case of company unexpected.” A breath of fresh air seemed to blow through the house, and something better than sunshine brightened the quiet rooms; everything appeared to feel the hopeful change; Beth’s bird began to chirp again, and a half-blown rose was discovered on Amy’s bush in the window; the fires seemed to burn with unusual cheeriness, and every time the girls met their pale faces broke into smiles as they hugged one another, whispering, encouragingly, “Mother’s coming, dear! mother’s coming!” Every one rejoiced but Beth; she lay in that heavy stupor, alike unconscious of hope and joy, doubt and danber. It was a piteous sight, — the once rosy face so changed and vacant, — the once busy hands so weak and wasted, — the once smiling lips quite dumb, — and the once pretty, well-kept hair scattered rough and tangled on the pillow. All day she lay so, only rousing now and then to mutter, “Water!” with lips so parched they could hardly shape the word; all day Jo and Meg hovered over her, watching, waiting, hoping, and trusting in God and mother; and all day the snow fell, the bitter wind raged, and the hours dragged slowly by. But night came at last; and every time the clock struck the sisters, still sitting on either side of the bed, looking at each other with brightening eyes, for each hour brought help nearer. The doctor had been in to say that some change for better or worse would probably take place about midnight, at which time he would return.

Hannah, quite worn out, lay down on the sofa at the bed’s floor, and fell fast asleep. Mr. Laurence marched to and fro in the parlor, feeling that he would rather face a rebel battery than Mrs. March’s anxious countenance as she entered; Laurie lay on the rug, pretending to rest, but staring into the fire with the thoughtful look which made his black eyes beautifully soft and clear.

The girls never forgot that night, for no sleep came to them as they kept their watch, with that dreadful sense of powerlessness which comes to us in hours like those.

“If God spares Beth I will never complain again,” whispered Meg earnestly.

“If God spares Beth I’ll try to love and serve Him all my life,” answered Jo, with equal fervor.

“I wish I had no heart, it aches so,” sighed Meg, after a pause.

“If life is often as hard as this, I don’t see how we shall ever get through it,” added her sister, despondently.

Here the clock struck twelve, and both forgot themselves in watching Beth, for they fancied a change passed over her wan face. The house was still as death, and nothing but the wailing of the wind broke the deep hush. Weary Hannah slept on, and no one but the sisters saw the pale shadow which seemed to fall upon the little bed. An hour went by, and nothing happened except Laurie’s quiet departure for the station. Another hour, — still no one came; and anxious fears of delay in the storm, or accidents by the way, or, worst of all, a great grief at Washington, haunted the poor girls.

It was past two, when Jo, who stood at the window thinking how dreary the world looked in its winding-sheet of snow, heard a movement by the bed, and, turning quickly, saw Meg kneeling before their mother’s easy-chair, with her face hidden. A dreadful fear passed coldly over Jo, as she thought, “Beth is dead, and Meg is afraid to tell me.”

She was back at her post in an instant, and to her excited eyes a great change seemed to have taken place. The fever flush, and the look of pain, were gone, and the beloved little face looked so pale and peaceful in its utter repose, that Jo felt no desire to weep or lament. Leaning low over this dearest of her sisters, she kissed the damp forehead with her heart on her lips, and softly whispered, “Good-by, my Beth; good-by!”

As if waked by the stir, Hannah started out of her sleep, hurried to the bed, looked at Beth, felt her hands, listened at her lips, and then, throwing her apron over her head, sat down to rock to and fro, exclaiming under her breath, “The fever’s turned; she’s sleepin’ nat’ral; her skin’s damp, and she breathes easy. Praise be given! Oh, my goodness me!”

Before the girls could believe the happy truth, the doctor came to confirm it. He was a homely man, but they thought his face quite heavenly when he smiled, and said, with a fatherly look at them, “Yes, my dears; I think the little girl will pull through this time. Keep the house quiet; let her sleep, and when she wakes, give her –”

What they were to give, neither heard; for both crept into the dark hall, and, sitting on the stairs, held each other close, rejoicing with hearts too full for words. When they went back to be kissed and cuddled by faithful Hannah, they found Beth lying, as she used to do, with her cheek pillowed on her hand, the dreadful pallor gone, and breathing quietly, as if just fallen asleep.

“If mother would only come now!” said Jo, as the winter night began to wane.

“See,” said Meg, coming up wiht a white, half-opened rose, “I thought this would hardly be ready to lay in Beth’s hand tomorrow if she — went away from us. But it has blossomed in the night, and now I mean to put it in my vase here, so that when the darling wakes, the first thing she sees will be the little rose, and mother’s face.”

Never had the sun risen so beautifully, and never had the world seemed so lovely, as it did to the heavy eyes of Meg and Jo, as they looked out in the early morning, when their long, sad vigil was done.

“It looks like a fairy world,” said Meg, smiling to herself, as she stood behind the curtain watching the dazzling sight.

“Hark!” cried Jo, starting to her feet.

Yes, there was a sound of bells at the door below, a cry from Hannah, and then Laurie’s voice, saying, in a joyful whisper, “Girls! she’s come! she’s come!”

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. Beloved books are far rarer than great ones.

Happy birthday, Louisa May.

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3 Responses to Happy Birthday, Louisa May Alcott

  1. Sharon Ferguson says:

    Whats just as delightful is introducing it to the next generation of girls. I read parts of it to my daughter when she was little, only when I got to Beth’s death, I told her she was going to have to read that for herself. There was no way I was going to be able to get through that part without sobbing uncontrollably. That scene has to be one of the most effective, pathetic (in a very good way), heart wrenching scenes ever written. I think she outdid Dickens in that regard.

  2. Kate P says:

    One of my favorite authors as well, although I am more firmly in the EIGHT COUSINS fan club than L.W.’s! (I recall writing an essay in 9th grade English that amounted to “Amy is a great big phony.”)

    I can’t find the name of the biographer whose book I read a couple of years ago–did you know a reexamination of her symptoms is pointing to Lupus? What a difficult life she must have had, that mind constantly going but her body constantly breaking down.

  3. Rinaldo says:

    Louisa May Alcott is such an interesting character. I want to read more about her life, but it comes through in her books too. Her brand of feminism too. It can sometimes be masked, to modern eyes, by her concern that young women be skilled at sewing and cooking and keeping a good linen closet — and than I realized that in her time, these were an answer to the wives who left everything to the servants and knew nothing but “fashionable accomplishments” and paying calls. No: you learn how to be self-sufficient and take care of a household, even if you don’t “have to” — circumstances may change, and anyway it’s not right to be content to be helpless. (There’s some old-style New England sternness with oneself in there too.)

    One of her best portraits is of the character Nan in Little Men and Joe’s Boys. Jo and her husband take her on in their school, seeing a neglected child who has a spark of something more in her, and decide that her gifts and attitude are those of a doctor. And so Nan gets a medical training and does live a contented life as a doctor (never marrying).

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