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 Bronson 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. But I had fun reading this essay in The Paris Review about the Professor by Sadie Stein). The book is perfect because of the emotions it touches, the depth of the experience, the feeling that you must, you must turn the page. Not to mention just how much the characters leap off the page. The events are so singular, so unforgettable, that even if I had only read the book once I would still remember: Amy burning Jo’s book, Jo selling her hair, Jo hiding the stain on the back of her dress at the party, the death-vigil, Amy falling through the ice. These are EVENTS that stay in the mind, especially if you first read the book at 10, 11.

It is a book I go back to again and again and again, always seeing something new in it. The characters seemed to grow up with me. When I first read it, when I was 10 years old, I was ALL ABOUT JO. I think that’s true of most readers: Jo is clearly the crowd-pleaser. Jo March remains one of my favorite female characters ever written. It is also a wonderful portrait of a woman going her own way, who has many talents, and tries to find access to that talent, and ways to express it. As a young creative and day-dreaming child, obsessed with fantasy worlds and writing and movies and books – all fictional means of escape – Jo was a potent reminder 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. That’s the breaks. Nothing in life is free. But freedom is the most important thing, freedom of the soul, of the mind. Jo represents that.

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As I have grown up, and as I have continuously gone back to the book, the other March sisters have come to the foreground, dominating whereas before I could only see Jo. But these four young women are so sensitively drawn, I see bits of myself in all of them (well, maybe not Meg. I’m sure if I thought a bit harder I could find some similarities)! Parts of me are like Amy (the parts I am least proud of), and I would like to think that parts of me are like Beth. But honestly: Jo is the one. The artist. The tomboy. The independent wild spirit. The one who makes so many wrong choices, but never through mean-spiritedness. She’s flawed, she’s messy, she’s honest and rough.

When I was a kid, I hated the professor with his stupid German accent, and his goofy poetry and his sentimental botched-language wooing of Jo. I resented the fact that he wasn’t Laurie, first of all. And second of all, I just did not understand the appeal of his character. Like: what was it? (Honestly, I still don’t get it. But chalk that up to my own choices in life: I’ve been given offers of marriage too. I turned them all – well, except one – down. I have not gone the conventional way in any way/shape/form. So I have not “settled.” I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a better thing. My life may have been 84% easier if I had settled. But I didn’t. So there you have it. Jo “settling” still seems wrong to me.)

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Louisa May Alcott was forced by her publishers to marry Jo off. She didn’t want Jo to marry Laurie, OR the Professor. She wanted Jo to stay single. And if you really think about it, Jo-as-single is much more logical. 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 as well as her devotion to her family. She had to support her father financially 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, born into an activist family. They were abolitionists. Her mother was a social worker. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was an educational philosopher who had a belief in communal living. Bronson Alcott was buddies with Emerson, and part of the Transcendentalist movement. At the time, Bronson Alcott’s views on education were very controversial: He actually believed that students should enjoy learning. He thought it was very important to have a beautiful classroom aesthetically.

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Bronson Alcott’s passion was to see that his four daughters were educated, well-rounded, and part of the intellectual community he lived in. 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 you don’t get the sense that he thought all of that 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.

He poured his heart (and finances) into a school which ran for a couple of years but then went under. Bronson Alcott was a foolish man, in a lot of ways, especially financially. Louisa May Alcott eventually would be the sole supporter of her parents. She made a ton of money DURING her lifetime, 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 that point, Alcott had already started getting stuff published – poems, short stories in the Gothic melodramatic vein. She preferred Gothic melodramas to the kinds of books that later would make her name. (She disliked 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. (It’s a wonderful book full of incredible journalistic observations that brings the whole era to life.)

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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 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 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 been a feminist himself. In 1879, Louisa May Alcott was the first woman to register to vote (for the school committee election) in Concord.

Bronson Alcott 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. This is evidence that one doesn’t have to sit in an ivory tower and only follow one’s beautiful sensitive star to be considered an artist. There is art, and there is popularity, and sometimes those two things coincide. Being opaque and “hard-hitting” and oblique and morally-serious … good things perhaps, although it can all be a bit school-marm-y – but they are not the only measures of art. Creating something beloved, something that ends up being immortal – like the 4 March girls – is something far far difficult and rare. And all the more precious.

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. 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 prickly un-marriageable spirit, just like me.

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Excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

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!”

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9 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).

  4. Anne says:

    Love your Laurie post. “Put your umbrella away, dude. It’s not wanted here.” Ha.

    I loved Laurie and couldn’t cope with the German professor either. It reminds me of the INTENSE hatred I had for the Natasha-Pierre pairing in War & Peace. I was so Team Prince Andrei. Romantic all the way. The disgust for the dumpy older dude knew no bounds.

  5. The Norton Annotated Little Women is so, so, so, so good. I hope you own it.

    • sheila says:

      Wow!! I don’t! I didn’t even know it existed – thank you, Steve!

      • Talking about so, so, so, so good books, Joyceans of all stripes and spots have to love all 1262 pages of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, what with its 47 page finneganswakeian chapter starring Lucia Joyce among its many other prose delights. From hence until forth, it will be for England what Ulysses is for Ireland.

  6. carolyn clarke says:

    Ms. Alcott is also one of my favorite authors. I’ve read Little Women numerous times over the years and like you, I read more and more into it as I got older. I was Jo, of course, even though I was a black child who grew up on the lower east side during the crazy 60’s but for some reason I absolutely identified with her frustrations and intelligence and joys. I also sort of understood why she married the professor rather than Laurie. I would have married Laurie, too, but my theory was that she was marrying her father(!) as women sometimes do in one form or another for better or worse.

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