On September 30, 1868, the first volume of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was published. It was an immediate success, and Alcott authored a second volume at a punishing pace, completing the text in just two months. The New York Public Library has many, many copies of Little Women and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. These include early copies — such as the 1868 and 1869 first editions, as well as the first published simultaneously in two volumes — up to e-books and audiobooks published just last year.
Second volume of the 1870 edition of Little Women — the first published simultaneously in two volumes — with a frontispiece illustrating the courtship of Amy March and Laurie. General Research Division.
Even reading the book at a young age, I recognized the fondness with which Alcott described her March sisters. These characters were closely based on her own family. (One of the few characters constructed out of whole cloth was Professor Bhaer; Alcott did not want Jo to marry, but was persuaded by pressure from her publisher, Roberts Brothers, and reading public.) According to Alcott:
Facts in the stories that are true, though often changed as to time and place: —“Little Women” — The early plays and experiences; Beth’s death; Jo’s literary and Amy’s artistic experiences; Meg’s happy home; John Brooke and his death; Demi’s character. Mr. March did not go to the war, but Jo did. [Alcott served as a nurse during the Civil War.] Mrs. March is all true, only not half good enough. Laurie is not an American boy, though every lad I ever knew claims the character. He was a Polish boy, met abroad in 1865. Mr. Lawrence is my grandfather, Colonel Joseph May. Aunt March is no one. (p. 193)
This excerpt is from Louisa May Alcott, Her Life, Letters, and Journals, edited by Ednah D. Cheney and first published in 1889, shortly after Alcott's death. This book can be read in its entirety online, through NYPL’s Nineteenth Century Collections Online database—all you need is a library card! Her journal entries around the time of Little Women’s publication offer charming and wry commentary on her characters and their journey from concept to printed page. Alcott even re-read and annotated her journal entries later in life. Since Alcott is at her best when she's speaking for herself, I'll share some of my favorite portions (all from pages 198-201).
May, 1868. — Father saw Mr. Niles [of the publishing company Roberts Brothers] about a fairy book. Mr. N. wants a girls’ story, and I begin “Little Women.” Marmee, Anna [basis for Meg], and May [basis for Amy] all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.
[At a later point, Alcott added: “Good joke.”]
June. — Sent twelve chapters of “L.W.” to Mr. N. He thought it dull; so do I. But work away and mean to try the experiment; for lively, simple books are very much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need.
August 26th. — Proof of whole book came. It reads better than I expected. Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it; and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it. Mr. N. likes it better now, and says some girls who have read the manuscripts say it is “splendid!” As it is for them, they are the best critics, so I should be satisfied.
[October] 30th. — Saw Mr. N. of Roberts Brothers, and he gave me good news of the book. An order from London for an edition came in. First edition gone and more called for. Expects to sell three or four thousand before the New Year.
Mr. N. wants a second volume for spring. Pleasant notices and letters arrive, and much interest in my little women, who seem to find friends by their truth to life, as I hoped.
November 1st. — Began the second part of “Little Women.” I can do a chapter a day, and in a month I mean to be done. A little success is so inspiring that I now find my “Marches” sober, nice people, and as I can launch into the future, my fancy has more play. Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.
Even if you were one of the readers who “wept aloud, and refused to be comforted” (p. 191) when Jo and Laurie proved not to be, we still return to these books, just as Alcott returned to her own journals. Like her nineteenth century readers, we see something enduring and true. As Proust says, “The recognition within oneself, by the reader, of what the book says is the proof of its truth.” What of yourself do you recognize in Little Women?
Image Credits: New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.