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Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Louisa May Alcott led a remarkable, multi-faceted literary life. In addition to the novels of sentiment and domesticity for which she is best known, she also possessed a darker, more subterranean strain which produced lurid gothic tales combining elements of madness, violence, and perversity. She wrote realistic accounts of her service as a Civil War nurse, fairy stories and fables specifically for children, letters in the Woman’s Journal on all aspects of women’s rights, and perceptive adult novels such as her first, Moods, a probing analysis of the extremes of love.
Alcott’s early life in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts was colored by her family’s high-minded idealism but also by an often-acute poverty. As the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, Transcendental philosopher and educational reformer, and Abigail May Alcott, one of the first paid social workers in Massachusetts, her days were spent in a progressive intellectual environment which included such family friends as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This setting provided much of the autobiographical background for Little Women. Her three sisters, Anna, Lizzie, and May, served as the source for their March family counterparts Meg, Beth, and Amy. The fiery-spirited Jo was, of course, modeled on Louisa herself.
In an era when women had few options for earning money, Alcott determined to overcome her family’s poverty through her prolific writing. Her first published book, Flower Fables, was written for Emerson’s daughter when the author was only sixteen. In all she would produce more than two hundred stories, sketches, poems, and serials that were published in over forty periodicals. Her tremendous productivity, conscious experimentation with form and genre, and exploitation of various literary techniques assured Alcott’s place as one of the most popular authors of the nineteenth century. She even took time to edit a juvenile periodical, Merry’s Museum, which was crammed with many of her own anecdotes and stories. Her best-known work, Little Women, has never been out of print, and has been adapted numerous times for the stage, film, and television. There was a resurgence of interest in Alcott in the mid-1970s when her often anonymous or pseudonymous thrillers were rediscovered through the bibliographic detective work of Madeleine B. Stern and published in the anthology, Behind a Mask, revealing an author whose life and work were richer and more complex than had been suspected.
Alcott was always a strong advocate for social reforms, including abolition, prison reform, and temperance, but her primary efforts were directed towards the cause of women’s suffrage. Much of her writing is of a strong and, for its time, surprisingly feminist nature. Many of the thrillers feature subversive sexual power struggles in which female slaves overcome their male masters. Jo March of Little Women is the ultimate portrait of an independent young woman. Critic Elizabeth Janeway, in a New York Times book review, singled out Jo as the only young woman in nineteenth-century fiction “who maintains her individual independence, who gives up no part of her autonomy as payment for being born a woman—and who gets away with it.”1 In the later juvenile novel Rose in Bloom, the theme of women’s rights is interwoven throughout the lives of its characters. Alcott delved into all aspects of female emancipation in her letters to Woman’s Journal, and it was a source of great pride to her that, towards the end of the decade, when Concord allowed women to vote in local elections, she was the first to register.
The New York Public Library’s holdings of material by and about Louisa May Alcott are extensive. The general catalog contains 163 entries listing her novels, stories, and poetry in numerous editions, including many rare and historic volumes, from a first edition of her first published book, Flower Fables, to the last novel she published in her lifetime, Jo’s Boys, and How They Turned Out. There are also many unusual items in the collection. The Theatre Collection of the Performing Arts Library has a copy of the shooting scripts of both the 1933 and 1946 films of Little Women, actual performance photographs from the Playhouse Theatre (New York) production of Little Women on December 12, 1912, and a live recording of an operatic version recorded March 17-18, 2000. There is a Hebrew translation of Little Women in the Dorot Jewish Division; the Asian and Middle Eastern Division has a translation into Japanese published in Tokyo in 1934. Original manuscripts and correspondence dating from 1865 to 1884 can be found in the Berg Collection of English and American Literature. Along with copies of the majority of her published work, the General Research Division features a wide range of biographies, bibliographies, and works of criticism and interpretation that can be used to pursue a study on any level of Louisa May Alcott.
1 Elizabeth Janeway “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Louisa.” NY Times Book Review. Sept 1963, BR42.