There are some stories that somehow seem to escape the shackles of language, place, time and fashion. They entertain and edify children down the generations without ever seeming old, stilted or “peculiar” even when there are details that anchor them in a different time and place.
Think about the Railway Children, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, King Solomon’s Mines and Tom Sawyer. What is the authorial sleight of hand that allows these books to remain relevant and entertaining over such spans of time and reach children with knowledge and sophistication unimaginable to the author of the story at the time it was written?
It is in this pantheon of books out of time that Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women resides. Written one hundred and forty years ago and set in the northeast US at the time of the Civil War, it has an identifiable time and setting but is a timeless read.
I cannot recognize what it is that set these books apart nor do I know of any research which has attempted to identify those characteristics that permit a book to unfetter itself from the period in which it is written. If you go back to the time of publication and identify the other books which were in circulation, there are often others which were even more popular but have faded completely from the scene. Reading these other books, you can often, like a building or a song, place it to the quarter century if not the decade based on the language, structure and tone of the book. But by being so anchored in their time of writing, they seem doomed to die with those times, whereas others float free on down the tide of generations, always fresh and entertaining.
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania to Amos Bronson Alcott and his wife Abigail May Alcott on November 29, 1832. She lived her life predominantly in Massachusetts, alternating between Boston and Concord. Louisa was the second of four daughters: Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May.
Alcott led an initially difficult, but fascinating life. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was an idealistic, progressive transcendentalist philosopher, very active in many movements and launching many initiatives but in the end, apparently very impractical, leaving the family usually in straightened financial circumstances.
Alcott was home-schooled consistent with her father’s theories but supplemented by the very rich intellectual environment with which he enveloped the family. Not only were there rarified discussions within the family on social and scientific issues but the young Alcott was taken under the wing of family friends and neighbors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. She apparently spent much time in Emerson’s library reading deeply and broadly.
Out of this hot-house transcendentalist environment, she took away a deep commitment to helping her family, helping others, and an abiding respect for hard work. After a reasonably disastrous family exercise in utopian community living (in the community christened Fruitlands) when she was twelve and which resulted in borderline starvation, Alcott committed herself to doing whatever was required to provide for her family.
She was exposed to writing from an early age, all four daughters being required to maintain a journal of thoughts and observations which would then be reviewed with her parents, all as part of her practical and spiritual education. There were a number of entries through these middle teenage years reflecting her commitment to see her family through the hard times such as this one when she was fifteen “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.” This was a fairly prescient forecast as she did indeed do all these things (as well as acting as a tutor for Emerson’s daughter and working as a household servant) as she tried to bring in money and did indeed eventually become wealthy and happy.
In her mid-teens, and like Jo in Little Women, Alcott began writing stories and was earning money by selling poems and sentimental/passion stories, often under the pen name of A.M. Barnard, to various magazines and other publications by her late teens. She published her first book, Flower Fables, a collection of fairy stories originally written for Emerson’s daughter, Emma, in 1854 when she was twenty-two.
All during these years of financial strain, uncertainty and near impoverishment, Alcott, as with the rest of her family, remained true to their progressive ideals, supporting various movements including women’s suffrage, abolition, coeducation, vegetarianism, temperance, education reform.
In 1856, after a number of years of poor health, Alcott’s beloved younger sister, Elizabeth, died of scarlet fever. This was followed soon after by the marriage of her older sister Anna, bringing to a close the many years of family life together. It was these first twenty-four years of her life and her family experience that formed the basis for the books which were to bring her literary fame and fortune.
With the coming of the Civil War, Alcott, wanting to help, went to Washington, D.C. to serve as a nurse. She only served for six weeks before contracting typhoid and being invalided back home. The treatment, including doses of mercury, was almost worse than the disease and she suffered various recurrent symptoms throughout the remainder of her life. While serving, she had written many letters home describing the terrible conditions and circumstances to which she was exposed and the suffering of her patients.
She used this material to writer her second book, Hospital Sketches, which was published in 1863. The public was desperate for all information about the war and this combined with her distinctive, straightforward writing style in which she was able to relate terrible stories in a way that was moving without being overly sentimental, brought her to the attention of a much wider critical audience than she had had with her earlier writings and book.
Encouraged by the positive reception of Hospital Sketches, Alcott produced seven books over the next five years. These books provided some measure of financial and literary success and she was able to achieve her goal of beginning to pull her family out of their precarious financial circumstances.
Her publisher Thomas Niles, encouraged her to write a girls’ story. Alcott was reluctant at first and skeptical of her ability to produce anything that might find an audience but accepted the suggestion and began work on a story, basing it on her own life. Her hesitancy is reflected in her journal recorded at this time, “So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, other than my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences might be interesting, though I doubt it.”
So out of this very distinctive up-bringing, peculiar life experiences, and the need to put food on the table was created one of America’s iconic stories. There was no literary guile, no effort to write a classic, no deliberate artifice in structuring the story – simply another book to earn some money.
Alcott wrote the story in six weeks and Little Women, substantially drawing from her own life, was published in 1868. It was an instant and huge success. So successful in fact that she immediately sat down and wrote a sequel Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second in two months. Ever since, these two volumes have almost always been published as a single book, Little Women.
With the triumph of Little Women, Alcott had arrived at a station of literary and financial success, for which she had striven but had seemed completely improbable. Some of the things that set Little Women apart from the run of the mill children’s books of the time were that it was a warm and sympathetic story, it told a story without preaching, it was very concrete in its descriptions of people and settings and the protagonists were clearly attractive character’s but all flawed in their own particular way; they were characters with whom children could empathize.
This period saw the emergence of a number of children’s protagonists each of whom were essentially good kids, but all of whom had flaws. In addition to Jo and her sisters in Little Women, there was also The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, and of course the north stars in this particular constellation, The Adventures of Tom Sawyerby Mark Twain.
There are considered to be eight Little Women stories though they are more of a hive of stories than a series per se. Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys and How They Turned Out all cover the March family and children. An Old Fashioned Girl; Eight Cousins, The Aunt-Hill; Rose in Bloom; Under the Lilacs, and Jack and Jill are considered part of the series as well even though they do not focus on the March family.
As she wrote further stories, Alcott’s writing style became more structured and there is perhaps more intention to communicate a particular message.
As with any great story whose success is assured by popularity, there have of course been legions of literary army ants eager to attack and draw out all sorts of points ranging from literary critiques to assaults on the stories for various social short-comings. I think these can be safely tucked away in some sort of basement collection of critical writings that don’t amount to a hill of beans.
You can turn your children loose on these books and be confident that they will enjoy them. I would add, whether representative or not, that they ought to be left where young boys can get their hands them as well. I remember one long summer finding myself one day without anything to read and raiding my sister’s room for anything that might be good and first latching on to Little Women. I enjoyed it so much I then kidnapped her Little Men as well as Jo’s Boys. Had I not been bereft of reading material I probably would never have thought of trying them. I am glad that I did.
Alcott never married. Her father died March 4, 1888 and Louisa May Alcott followed him two days later on March 6, 1888.
Flower Fables by Louisa May Alcott 1855
The Rose Family. A Fairy Tale by Louisa May Alcott 1864
Moods by Louisa May Alcott 1865
Nelly's Hospital by Louisa May Alcott 1865
The Mysterious Key, and What It Opened by Louisa May Alcott 1867
Aunt Kipp by Louisa May Alcott 1868
Louisa M. Alcott's Proverb Stories by Louisa May Alcott 1868
Louisa May Alcott's Proverb Stories by Louisa May Alcott 1868
Morning-Glories, and Other Stories by Louisa May Alcott 1868
Psyche's Art by Louisa May Alcott 1868
Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories by Louisa May Alcott 1869
V.V.: or, Plots and Counterplots by Louisa May Alcott 1870
Will's Wonder Book by Louisa May Alcott 1870
Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 1: My Boys, Etc. by Louisa May Alcott 1872
Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 2: Shawl-Straps, Etc. by Louisa May Alcott 1872
Something to Do by Louisa May Alcott 1873
Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott 1873
Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 3: Cupid and Chow Chow, Etc. by Louisa May Alcott 1874
Silver Pitchers: And Independence, A Centennial Love Story by Louisa May Alcott 1876
A Modern Mephistopheles, anonymous by Louisa May Alcott 1877
Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 4: My Girls, Etc. by Louisa May Alcott 1878
Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott 1878
Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 5: Jimmy's Cruise in the Pinafore, Etc.by Louisa May Alcott 1879
Meadow Blossoms by Louisa May Alcott 1879
Sparkles for Bright Eyes by Louisa May Alcott 1879
Water Cresses by Louisa May Alcott 1879
Jack and Jill: A Village Story by Louisa May Alcott 1880
Lulu's Library. Vol. I. A Christmas Dream by Louisa May Alcott 1886
A Garland for Girls by Louisa May Alcott 1887
Lulu's Library. Vol. II. The Frost King by Louisa May Alcott 1887
A Modern Mephistopheles and A Whisper in the Dark by Louisa May Alcott 1889
Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals edited by Ednah D. Cheney 1889
Lulu's Library. Vol. III. Recollections by Louisa May Alcott 1889
Comic Tragedies Written by "Jo" and "Meg" and Acted by the Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 1893
A Round Dozen: Stories edited by Anne Thaxter Eaton 1963
Glimpses of Louisa: A Centennial Sampling of the Best Short Stories by Louisa May Alcott edited by Cornelia Meigs 1968
Louisa's Wonder Book: An Unknown Alcott Juvenile by Louisa May Alcott 1975
Plots and Counterplots; More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott 1976
Diana and Persis edited by Sarah Elbert 1978
Transcendental Wild Oats by Louisa May Alcott 1981
The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson 1987
The Works of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott 1987
A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madeleine B. Stern 1988
Alternative Alcott edited by Elaine Showalter 1988
The Journals of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson 1989
Louisa May Alcott's Fairy Tales and Fantasy Stories edited by Daniel Shealy 1992
Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers edited by Madeleine B. Stern 1995