Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on 29 November 1832 to Abigail May Alcott and Amos Bronson Alcott. On the day of her birth her father wrote to his father-in-law, Colonel Joseph May:
It is with great pleasure that I announce to you the birth of a second daughter. She was born at half-past 12 this morning, on my birthday (33), and is a very fine healthful child, . . . has a fine foundation for health and energy of character. . . . Abba inclines to call the babe Louisa May,--a name to her full of every association connected with amiable benevolence and exalted worth. I hope its present possessor may rise to equal attainment, and deserve a place in the estimation of society.
The Alcott family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, and in time consisted of four daughters--Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May--who were later transmuted into the heroines of Little Women. The books written by Alcott for young adults were based in large measure upon her family life; they glossed over the family poverty (a result of Bronson Alcott's inability to make money) and stressed the loving relationships of its members. The sensational narratives, on the other hand, found their motivation in the family 's economic need, in Alcott's personal frustrations, in a brief experience in domestic service, and especially in what she called her "natural ambition . . . for the lurid style." In her thrillers she exploited such themes as the struggle between the sexes, mind control, feminist power, opium addiction, and drug experimentation.
Alcott's first published book was quite distant from such preoccupations. Flower Fables (1855) was a direct outcome of Alcott's early teaching of children in Concord. A natural storyteller, even at age sixteen and without formal education--her education had been directed almost entirely by her father--she was able to rivet the attention of children with the stories she imagined and told. In 1848 Alcott opened a school in the Hillside barn in Concord. Her younger sisters attended it as well as neighboring children, among them Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellen was a most attentive listener to Alcott's fairy tales about flowers, Violet and the Frost King, and Thistledown and Lily-Bell; for her the narrator wrote down the stories in a green notebook. Ellen's mother, Lidian Emerson, read them and subsequently advised their publication. The first publication took place at the end of 1855, when Flower Fables, dedicated to Ellen Emerson, was published, yielding the author some $30. Presenting a copy to her mother, Alcott wrote, "Into your Christmas stocking I have put my 'first-born,' knowing that you will accept it with all its faults . . . and look upon it merely as an earnest of what I may yet do; for, . . . I hope to pass in time from fairies and fables to men and realities."
Alcott's second published book did indeed make that transition. Hospital Sketches , published in 1863, was the outcome of the author's brief but harrowing experience as a nurse in the Union Hotel Hospital, Georgetown, D.C., where she served between 13 December 1862 and 24 January 1863. Having tried her hand at fairy tales, she now turned to realistic descriptions of her experience with wounded soldiers in a blend of verisimilitude and humor. After serialization in the Boston Commonwealth, Hospital Sketches was published by the abolitionist James Redpath in August 1863. The public's enthusiastic reaction was reported by Alcott to her publisher: "I have the satisfaction of seeing my towns folk buying, reading, laughing & crying over it wherever I go."
Her younger sister Elizabeth's death in 1858 and her older sister Anna's marriage to John Sewall Pratt in 1860 strengthened Alcott's determination to support the family. Appointing herself family breadwinner, she had by 1863 attempted many ways of earning money, from domestic service to sewing, and from teaching and tutoring to writing.
In her third major work--Moods , published by Aaron K. Loring of Boston in December 1865--Alcott turned from fairy tales and realistic nonfiction to the novel. The epigraph of Moods was a quotation from Emerson: "Life is a train of moods like a string of beads; and as we pass through them they prove to be many colored lenses, which paint the world their own hue, and each shows us only what lies in its own focus." Alcott had begun work on the novel in August 1860, writing of Sylvia Yule's turbulent loves and interweaving thoughts on marriage and death, goodness and godliness, and nature and books. Her characters Adam and Ottila were a modern Samson and Delilah. One of the themes in the novel was the evils arising from marriages based on impulse rather than principle. Moods was not published until December 1865, after it had been revised and shortened for Aaron K. Loring. Reviews of the book included one by young Henry James, whose reaction was ambivalent. He declared the author ignorant of human nature but conceded that, with the exception of two or three celebrated names, he knew of no one in the country except Miss Alcott who could write a novel above the average. Alcott's initial compensation for Moods was $236.
In 1882 Alcott published a revised version of Moods, in which she elected "to show the mistakes of a moody nature" rather than to give views on marriage. In her preface to the revision she explained, "At eighteen death seemed the only solution for Sylvia's perplexities; but thirty years later, having learned the possibility of finding happiness after disappointment, and making love and duty go hand in hand, my heroine meets a wiser if less romantic fate than in the former edition."
While she was working on the first version of Moods, Alcott was also experimenting with sensational blood-and-thunder tales that earned her between $25 and $100 each from periodical story papers. Leona Rostenberg's article "Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott," published in Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America in 1943, first announced the discovery that the Children's Friend had also plunged "into the frothy sea of sensational literature," most of it published anonymously or under the pseudonym of A. M. Barnard. Alcott's thrillers were traced and published posthumously in book form during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Only then were they made available to the public, who swiftly reassessed Alcott's literary status and image.
A look at several of these newly identified stories is sufficient to suggest their general character. One of the earliest, "Marion Earle: or, Only an Actress," was contributed in 1858 to The American Union; it is a story about an unwed mother, a substitute bride, and a feminist sisterhood, and is based largely upon Alcott's reading and imagination. In 1860 the anonymous "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," whose protagonist was a manipulative woman, won a $100 prize from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, "Behind a Mask: or, A Woman's Power" appeared in The Flag of Our Union; a strongly feminist narrative, "Behind a Mask" is based in part upon Alcott's short but distasteful experience in domestic service and partly upon her staunchly feminist inclinations. The brief but powerful "Perilous Play," concerned with hashish experimentation, had its source in the opiates ministered to the author after an illness contracted during her nursing experience in the Civil War; the story was published in Frank Leslie's Chimney Corner in 1869. None of these stories appeared in book form until the twentieth century. Unlike most of her thrillers, however, The Mysterious Key, and What It Opened (1867) was published as an independent book and under her own name. Its suspenseful elements were milder than in those stories published anonymously; its hero was no manipulating and forceful heroine but a man modeled partly after the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini. Its themes were Gothic in nature: it included such elements as a haunted room, a mysterious black-bearded visitor, and pretended sleepwalking. The Mysterious Key made its bow as No. 50 in the Elliott, Thomes and Talbot series of Ten Cent Novelettes in 1867.
In September of that year, Alcott recorded in her journal: "Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girls book. Said I'd try. Fuller asked me to be the Editor of 'Merry 's Museum.' Said I'd try." She began first with Merry's Museum , receiving for her labors $500 a year. The labors were arduous, involving not only the selection of stories and articles for children but the writing of them. Moving to 6 Hayward Place, Boston, she spent her time searching for material for stories, planning editorials for the section "Merry's Monthly Chat with His Friends," selecting contributions, and writing.
Her own contributions included a serial titled Will's Wonder-Book , which ran in Merry's Museum for eight numbers, between April and November 1868. Will's Wonder-Book was a collection of stories told by Grandma to Will and Polly about the denizens of the animal world: of bees and how they make cells; of ants and their nurseries; of spiders and how they spin; of crickets, moths, and butterflies; of squirrels, moles, seals, and snails; and of cats and dogs. The whole was directed at teaching kindness to animals and charity toward the ugly, weak, and friendless. What heightens the interest of this serial is that it was published in book form, apparently without the author's knowledge, in 1870 while she was taking a grand tour abroad. Horace B. Fuller, the editor of Merry's Museum, published it as volume 2 of what he called The Dirigo Series.
Alcott's relations with Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers were more enduring than her relations with Horace B. Fuller. Their professional relationship began in earnest when she took up his suggestion that she "write a girls book." The "girls book" turned out to be the domestic saga Little Women , a book that has never been out of print since it was first published.
The only girls Alcott had ever really known were her sisters. Her apprenticeship had encompassed a variety of writing styles. For this book the writing was simple and the story genuine, based in large measure upon her own autobiographical experiences--a tale embodying the facts and persons of the family. Had not Emerson written in Poems, "Tell men what they knew before; / Paint the prospect from their door"? In Little Women Alcott painted that prospect from the door of the Orchard House in Concord, where her family lived. The persons of the family were the four sisters and Meg (Anna), Jo (Louisa), Beth (Elizabeth), and Amy (May); the loving, motherly Marmee, staunch defender of human rights; and the father, a shadow on the hearth, shunted off to the Civil War because Bronson Alcott would be atypical in a book on the American home. The hero was Laurie, based upon young Alfred Whitman, who had shared Louisa's passion for the stage and parlor theatricals, and upon the young Polish enthusiast Ladislas Wisniewski, whom she had met during a trip abroad. The heroine was unmistakable from the beginning--Jo March, tall and thin, with sharp gray eyes and long thick hair, odd blunt ways, and a fiery spirit--independent, forthright Jo who would live perennially.
The family's poverty was toned down, but many of the episodes, including the private theatricals and Jo March's secret production of sensational tales, were incorporated in a book that soon became a classic. Alcott took up her pen, but the Marches wrote her story. From the opening sentence, "'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug," Little Women captured the hearts of its readers. Part 1 was published by Roberts Brothers of Boston on 1 October 1868; the tentative promise of a sequel was fulfilled with part 2, published 14 April 1869. Niles advised the author to "keep the copyright." As Alcott acknowledged, he was an "honest publisher" and she "a lucky author, for the copyright made her fortune." The appearance of Little Women was a dividing point in Alcott's life. Following its publication, both her financial state and her literary output underwent a metamorphosis.
As family breadwinner, Alcott felt compelled to supply the constant and profitable demands of youthful readership. In 1870, a year after the appearance of part 2 of Little Women, An Old-Fashioned Girl was published in book form by Roberts after serialization in Merry's Museum. The novel crusaded against fashionable absurdities, its heroine, Polly, representing the new but wholesome and womanly woman. As Alcott wrote in her preface, "The 'Old-Fashioned Girl' is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be,--a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another." The author successfully applied the manner of Little Women to a new subject.
With her next full-length book Alcott turned even more closely to Little Women, producing a sequel to her masterpiece. As she wrote, "most of the incidents are taken from real life, and . . . the oddest are the truest." The book was written while Alcott was abroad, and its "incidents . . . from real life" were based upon the Temple School that her father had directed in Boston when she was a child. Her grand tour itself was made possible from the royalties she had earned, and the journey formed a striking contrast to her first trip abroad in 1865-1866 when she served as companion to an invalid. Now, in the company of her sister May and a friend, Alice Bartlett, Alcott in November 1870 arrived in Rome, where unexpected news reached her that her brother-in-law John Pratt had died suddenly at age thirty-seven, leaving behind his widow, Anna, and two small boys. In her room at 2 Piazza Barberini, Alcott in January 1871 began a new book for the sake of Anna and her children. She named it after the two boys--Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (1871).
Little Men is filled with reminders not only of Alcott's early years but also of the progressive movements of the American nineteenth century with which her life and her family 's life had interacted. The new educational philosophy launched by her father at the Temple School between 1834 and 1839 is the source for Plumfield, the school featured in Little Men. The innovative pedagogy practiced by Bronson Alcott, stressing unfoldment through self-expression, was also the pedagogy that he had applied in his daughters' education at home. Other aspects and phases of the writer's life also appeared: the performance of theatricals in Concord, her love of Charles Dickens, her memories of Henry David Thoreau (here named Mr. Hyde), not to mention the matured Aunt Jo--now Jo March Bhaer, no longer rebellious, but comfortable, understanding, and generous. The boys themselves were engaging, and though they were short on book learning, they showed strong character. Besides the rights of children, the book promotes the Emersonian virtues, especially self-help and kindness to animals.
Unlike most of her books, Little Men was published first in London by Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, though American publication followed swiftly. When the author returned home, she was met at Boston Harbor by her father and her publisher, Niles, who had pinned up in their carriage a placard advertising Little Men. Advance sales were huge, and orders continued to flow in. Between May and November 1871, forty-four thousand copies were distributed, and the popularity of Little Men continued through the years.
To keep her now-avid public satisfied, Alcott published between 1872 and 1882 a series of six collections under the general title of Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag. They include narratives reprinted from periodicals as well as new stories.
In 1873 Alcott published her most autobiographical book, Work: A Story of Experience. Work was in truth a story of Alcott's experience. Alcott had started it as early as 1861 when she called it not Work but "Success." Its individual episodes she based upon her life--her experiences in private theatricals, her domestic service, and the characters she admired, Thoreau appearing as David Sterling and the understanding minister Theodore Parker as Mr. Power. The unifying thread knitting the chapters together was the heroine, Christie Devon.
In a letter written in 1863 to James Redpath, publisher of Hospital Sketches, Alcott explained her purpose. The book "was begun with the design" of putting some of "my own experiences into a story illustrating the trials of young women who want employment & find it hard to get. . . . The story is made up of various essays this girl makes, her failures & succeses [sic] told in chapters merry or sad, & various characters all more or less from life are introduced to help or hinder her." Between 1863 when that letter was written and 1872 Alcott produced several books, but none titled either "Success" or "Work." "Success" remained a fragment until 1872, when the Christian Union, increasing a previous offer, promised the now-successful Louisa May Alcott $3,000 for a serial. She then dusted off the manuscript once called "Success," renamed it "Work," and plunged with renewed vigor into her autobiographical experiment.
Its chapter headings alone trace her autobiography: "Servant," "Actress," "Governess," "Companion," "Seamstress" --titles clearly based upon episodes in her life as family breadwinner. The chapter titled "Companion" is a partial reworking of Alcott's long serial "A Nurse's Story," which had appeared in Frank Leslie's Chimney Corner in 1865-1866 but whose authorship was not identified until 1991. The serial version was far more sensational than the more factual version in Work, which centers on Christie's service as a companion to a patient suffering from inherited insanity--a service Alcott actually rendered in 1860. All the episodes in Work uphold the high standards of a feminist sisterhood of working women, "a loving league of sisters, old and young, black and white, rich and poor." Alcott was familiar with Margaret Fuller's plea to "let them be sea-captains, if you will." The message was well received, since Roberts Brothers printed twenty thousand copies of this autobiographical novel during the summer of 1873.
If Work elaborated the feminist theme of women in occupations, Alcott's next major volume sounded the trumpet for health reform. Like Work, Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill (1875)--one of the sequence known as the Little Women Series--was serialized in advance of book publication, not in the Christian Union but in the recently launched St. Nicholas, edited by Mary Mapes Dodge. So popular had the author become that, as she recorded in her journal in November 1874, "Funny time with the publishers about the tale; for all wanted it at once, and each tried to outbid the other for an unwritten story. I rather enjoyed it, and felt important with Roberts, Low [Sampson Low of London], and Scribner [publisher of St. Nicholas] all clamoring for my ''umble' works."
In Eight Cousins Alcott, who approved of homeopathy, crusaded for sound minds in sound bodies, the use of brown bread pills in place of medicine, new milk instead of strong coffee, and brown bread rather than hot biscuits. She also championed dress reform that loosened women's tight belts and advocated freedom suits. The three great nineteenth-century remedies of sun, air, and water were exalted. In general, less Latin and Greek and more knowledge of the laws of health were recommended. The heroine, Rose, and her cousins were depicted in broad strokes, and the new enlightenment in food, clothing, and schooling was skillfully insinuated in the narrative. Henry James remarked of the protagonist Uncle Alec that he was "addicted to riding a tilt at the shams of life." Just so was Alcott.
That addiction persisted in the sequel. In the preface to Eight Cousins Alcott had written that she would "try to make amends" for any shortcomings in "a second volume, which shall attempt to show The Rose in Bloom." In Rose in Bloom. A Sequel to "Eight Cousins," published by Roberts in 1876, Alcott's heroine, Rose, bloomed indeed with her gift of living for others. The reforms of the day found a place in the novel. Temperance was urged as wild Charlie found his death in the punch bowl; philanthropy and women's rights were gently interwoven. Since her characters were strong and credible, her message reached its target. In her preface to Rose in Bloom, the fifth of the Little Women Series, the author chose to minimize her crusades, declaring that "there is no moral to this story. Rose is not designed for a model girl: and the Sequel was simply written in fulfilment of a promise; hoping to afford some amusement, and perhaps here and there a helpful hint, to other roses getting ready to bloom." Though certainly not the most successful of Alcott's full-length juveniles, Rose in Bloom attracted a large enough readership to warrant a printing of nearly seventeen thousand copies in November and December 1876.
Early in 1877 Alcott wrote in her journal: "Went for some weeks to the Bellevue [Hotel, Boston], and wrote 'A Modern Mephistopheles' for the No Name Series. It has been simmering ever since I read Faust last year. Enjoyed doing it, being tired of providing moral pap for the young." If Alcott equated Rose in Bloom with moral pap, she could have equated A Modern Mephistopheles (1877) with the thrillers she had attempted in the 1860s. Actually, she had used the title "Modern Mephistopheles" for a blood-and-thunder tale written and rejected in 1866. Now, more than a decade later, she was given the opportunity of metamorphosing that narrative radically in an experimental fiction. The opportunity came from Niles, who in 1876 had launched the No Name Series, consisting of anonymous novels by well-known authors. By that time, Alcott had had considerable experience in hiding her uncharacteristic and anomalous productions under a pseudonym or by publishing anonymously. Anonymity conferred freedom in creativity as well as amusement in hearing speculative attributions of authorship from curious readers. Alcott's No Name A Modern Mephistopheles was based in part upon Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (1808, 1832). In a Faustian pact, her hero, Felix Canaris, the victim of thwarted ambition, yields up his liberty in return for literary fame. Alcott's modern Mephistopheles is the power-hungry Jasper Helwyze--wise in the knowledge of Hell and modern insofar as he is less magician than psychologist. Canaris, eventually resenting his enslavement to Helwyze, struggles to free himself from his master's control. The theme is enriched by the introduction of two women--the forty-year-old mellow beauty, Olivia, and the maiden ewig-weibliche (ever womanly), Gladys. The sexual acrobatics of the four characters combine with the Faustian pact to propel the narrative. In the course of a Walpurgis Night, Helwyze ministers hashish to Gladys, who, in a drugged condition, joins Olivia in the performance of tableaux vivants. During her hashish dreams, Helwyze interrogates her. As Alcott puts it, "Then Helwyze did an evil thing. . . . He deliberately violated the sanctity of a human soul, robbing it alike of its most secret and most precious thoughts. . . . Helwyze concentrated every power upon the accomplishment of the purpose to which he bent his will. He called it psychological curiosity."
This scene is a far cry from "'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug." Readers are coming to the realization that Louisa May Alcott, author of both Little Women and A Modern Mephistopheles, was leading a double literary life. At this point, however, when A Modern Mephistopheles appeared in 1877 as number 6 in Roberts Brothers' first No Name Series, no one was aware of that extraordinary fact.
Few if any of Alcott's readers penetrated the anonymity of A Modern Mephistopheles. As the author wrote in her journal: "'M. M.' appears and causes much guessing. It is praised and criticised, and I enjoy the fun, especially when friends say, 'I know you did n't write it, for you can't hide your peculiar style.'" She did hide it for another ten years. In 1887, a year before her death, Alcott gave permission for Roberts Brothers to reprint A Modern Mephistopheles under her name, along with "A Whisper in the Dark," one of her early sensation stories, as a trailer. A hundred years later, Madeleine B. Stern reprinted it again with another trailer, the previously untraced "Taming a Tartar."
In her next three major novels, published between 1878 and 1886, Alcott returned to the type of Little Women. Many dramatic and tragic changes occurred in the author's life during those years. The family moved from the Orchard House, where they had spent most of their lives, to the Thoreau house in Concord. Less than two weeks after the move, Abigail Alcott--model for Marmee--died. In March 1878 Louisa's sister May, who had studied art abroad, was married in London to Ernest Nieriker, a young Swiss by whom she bore a daughter, Louisa May, known as Lulu. On 29 December 1879, May died in Paris, and in September of the following year, little Lulu was sent to live with her namesake. Both delighted and burdened with the rearing of a small child, Alcott found her cares increased when her father suffered a stroke in October 1882. Having shuttled between Concord and Boston for many years, Alcott in 1885 moved to 10 Louisburg Square, Boston, with Anna and her sons, Lulu, and her invalid father. Against a background of declining health and many problems Alcott, as the family breadwinner, was still highly productive, endearing herself to her demanding readership with Under the Lilacs (1877-1878), Jack and Jill: A Village Story (1880), and Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out. A Sequel to "Little Men" (1886).
The hero of Under the Lilacs is no Jo March or Rose in bloom but a performing poodle with a tassel at the end of his tail and ruffles around his ankles. With hints culled from visits to Van Amburgh's Menagerie, Alcott developed the character of the canine Sancho. While her mother's illness overshadowed her life, Alcott struggled to put into her book all the sunshine flowing from a waltzing, parading poodle. After serialization in St. Nicholas, Under the Lilacs appeared in book form in 1878. Despite the charm of its hero, the volume was the least substantial of the Little Women series, though Roberts circulated about nine thousand copies in the year of publication.
The relationship of Jack and Jill with Little Women is far stronger. At the outset a boy and girl in an upset sled take center stage, and from then on Alcott (writing a chapter a day) unfolds her village history. Harmony Village is Concord, whose Milldam stores and river, clubs, and skating excursions come alive. May Day and the cattle show, the yearly apple picking, performances by the Dramatic Club--all form part of Harmony 's annals. Alcott reforms are not forgotten; Father's school festival in the Town Hall is held again in retrospect, and the Cold Water Army reminds the citizens of the need for temperance. For her cast of characters Alcott provided life studies of the children of Concord: Ellsworth Devens, barely disguised as Ed Devlin; Frank Elwell, now Ralph Evans, combining the skill of a mechanic with the art of a sculptor; and the artist Daniel French, now metamorphosed into Daniel German. Anna's boys are there too, of course, and Alcott catches this group of young Concordians, who play a part in another domestic drama, not of a family, as in Little Women , but of a village. As she wrote to Mary Mapes Dodge, "'Jack & Jill' are right out of our own little circle, & the boys & girls are in a twitter to know what is going in, so it will be a 'truly story ' in the main." Like Eight Cousins and Under the Lilacs, Jack and Jill was serialized in St. Nicholas and reprinted as Jack and Jill: A Village Story by Roberts in 1880.
Not until six years had passed was Alcott able to produce the final volume of the Little Women series. Little Men had been a sequel to Little Women, and Jo's Boys was a sequel to Little Men, the three books forming a trilogy that represents the best of the series.
As her mother's death formed the background to the writing of Under the Lilacs and the death of May accompanied serialization of Jack and Jill, Bronson Alcott's illness interrupted the writing of Jo's Boys. She herself already in declining health, Alcott was doubtless aware that this sequel to a sequel would bring an end to the Alcott family as well as to the Marches. Publishers, however, were clamoring for the book. Sampson Low of London wrote to Roberts Brothers: "We learn from the New York Times, that it is the intention of Miss Louisa M. Alcott to publish a new story entitled 'Joe's [sic] Boys and How They Turned Out,' being a Sequel to her 'Little Men.' Having held for many years the English copyright of the latter book we are very desirous of Securing the same for 'Joe's Boys.' Will you therefore kindly mail us as soon as possible a Set of sheets that we may be Enabled to have the new work reprinted for the English market." Niles reminded his star author that, since the 1880 publication of Jack and Jill, "we have not had a new book by you. . . . All we want now to make an additional furore is 'Jo's Boys.' The time is ripe for it."
Alcott's work on the new book was sporadic. As she explained to Niles, "I ache to fall on some of the ideas that are simmering in my head, but dare not, as my one attempt since the last 'Jo's Boys' break-down cost me a week or two of woe and $30 for the doctor." In January 1886 she reminded him, "I heartily wish I could swamp the book-room with 'Jo's Boys,' . . . and hope to do it by and by when head and hand can safely obey the desire of the heart." In March she "Planned 'Jo's Boys' to the end." By July she had finished it. She reported her publisher's delight in her journal: "Much rejoicing over a new book, . . . Orders coming in fast. Not good, too great intervals between the parts as it was begun long ago. But the children will be happy & my promise kept. Two new chapters were needed, so I wrote them, & gladly corked my inkstand."
Alcott's derogatory judgment of Jo's Boys was undeserved. It is a fitting follow-up to Little Women and to Little Men. In it the author returned to the dramatis personae of the past, to a Jo March who is now Aunt Jo, universally popular, detesting lion hunters and autograph collectors, loving her boys. The Plumfield of Little Men has been metamorphosed into Laurence College, donated by and named after the Laurie of Little Women, who is now Amy 's husband and a philanthropic pillar of society. After an interval of ten years, Plumfield has become a Parnassus of sorts, a coeducational college that "believed so heartily in the right of all sexes, colors, creeds, and ranks to education that there was room for everyone who knocked." Mr. March (Bronson Alcott) is chaplain of the institution; Jo's husband, Professor Bhaer, is its president, a pedagogue whose methods are modeled in part after those of his father-in-law. However, academic pursuits seldom interfere with the basic business at hand, the inculcation of "health and real wisdom." The boys and girls of Laurence College are carried over from Plumfield: Dan the wanderer; Nat the musician; the twins Demi and Daisy; and Nan, who pursues a medical career. In the episodic style now so characteristic of her writing, Alcott devotes her chapters to the various characters in turn. One of the most interesting chapters concerns Daniel Kean, the "wild boy" of Little Men who becomes pivotal in Jo's Boys. He is now, at twenty-five, the wild young man who has tried sheep farming in Australia and mining in California. He has met Black Hawk and befriended the Montana Indians, who call him "Dan Fire Cloud." Bold and adventurous, firebrand and black sheep, Dan becomes victim of his own hubris and in the end dies a hero's death, defending his "chosen people," the Indians. One Alcott biographer, Madelon Bedell, has identified in the character of Dan Kean, Jo March's alter ego. Critic Nina Auerbach also perceived a relationship between Jo and Dan by which Jo fulfills herself vicariously through him.
Several reforms are touched upon in Jo's Boys, a practice now customary with Alcott. All of Jo's boys favor women's suffrage, and many feminist-related themes punctuate the narrative--from dress reform to coeducation. Indeed, historian Sarah Elbert describes Laurence College as "a feminist Utopia graced with cooperative housekeeping and coeducation." Alcott endorses egalitarian marriage and "makes spinsterhood a viable choice."
The final chapter of the final volume of the Little Women Series carries the following valedictory: "It is a strong temptation to the weary historian to close the present tale with an earthquake which should engulf Plumfield and its environs so deeply in the bowels of the earth that no youthful Schliemann could ever find a vestige of it. But as that somewhat melodramatic conclusion might shock my gentle readers, I will refrain. . . . And now, having endeavoured to suit everyone by many weddings, few deaths, and as much prosperity as the eternal fitness of things will permit, let the music stop, the lights die out, and the curtain fall for ever on the March family."
The first Roberts printing of Jo's Boys consisted of 10,000 copies, and by the end of 1886, 47,500 copies had been printed. The original readers of Little Women and Little Men belonged to an earlier generation. With Jo's Boys , Alcott's work gave every evidence that its appeal would become perennial. The book that completed a trilogy and marked a finale to the annals of the Marches has continued to be read.
Both before and after its publication, Alcott provided her expanding readership with other books from her pen. She accomplished this feat with anthologies of stories newly written or reprinted from periodicals. Spinning-Wheel Stories appeared in 1884; three volumes of Lulu's Library, tales told or retold for her niece, Lulu Nieriker, were published between 1886 and 1889; and in 1887, the year before her death, A Garland for Girls appeared. For all intents and purposes, however, her last "new" book was Jo's Boys. On 6 March 1888--two days after Bronson Alcott's death--Louisa May Alcott died at Rhoda Lawrence's nursing home on Dunreath Place, Roxbury.
Alcott's next major book, actually a collaboration with her sister Anna, was a posthumous publication edited by Anna Pratt for Roberts Brothers in 1893. Comic Tragedies Written by "Jo" and "Meg" and Acted by the "Little Women" is a major work only because it is an encapsulation of Alcott's youth when she and her sister wrote and performed plays in the barn of Hillside Cottage, Concord, where the family lived between 1845 and 1848. In her teens, Louisa could lose herself in writing melodramatic plays with such titles as "Norna; or, The Witch's Curse," "The Greek Slave," "Ion," "The Captive of Castile," and "The Unloved Wife." In their wildly imagined scripts the sisters could forget their recent miseries in Fruitlands, a communal society established in Harvard, Massachusetts, by the unrealistic Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane in 1843. Though short-lived, the experience had been devastating, and in the course of it Bronson Alcott had considered abandoning his family. Decades later Alcott could gloss over Fruitlands with humor in her semi-fictional "Transcendental Wild Oats." But in 1848--at the same time that the sixteen-year-old Louisa was telling flower fables and when most of the plays in Comic Tragedies were performed--she doubtless preferred dismissing Fruitlands from her memory. That was easy to do as she wrote of murder and insanity, violence and blood-and-thunder, daggers, love potions, and death vials. The seeds of the thrillers with which Louisa May Alcott was to enrich the family income and find her own psychological release were early planted. They flowered in the 1860s, but their existence was not proven until 1943, and the thrillers themselves were not traced and made public until 1975. The sensation stories produced in the nineteenth century are now twentieth-century phenomena that have reshaped their author's image and reputation.
After Leona Rostenberg's revelation of her discovery that Alcott had written sensation stories under a pseudonym, Lawrence C. Wroth announced in the 22 August 1943 New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review: "Miss Leona Rostenberg gives most of us something of a shock by her revelation of a well concealed literary activity. . . . From Miss Rostenberg's discoveries we learn that the author of 'Little Women' wielded a purple-tipped pen when, hiding behind the name 'A. M. Barnard,' she released her inhibitions and in the 1860's wrote various tales for 'Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper' and for the Boston penny dreadful 'The Flag of Our Union.' "
In 1943, in a world at war, no scholar was tempted to locate and republish the productions of Alcott's purple-tipped pen. Moreover, runs of the periodicals that had published them had been placed in safekeeping for the duration of the war and were temporarily unavailable. In her biography of Alcott, Stern did discuss the few she had traced and read, but no collection of them was assembled until 1975. In that year Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott was launched, and a year later another collection followed: Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Now the shock of learning that the Children's Friend had used a pseudonym for publishing sensation stories was intensified by access to the sensation stories themselves. At long last, such narratives as "V. V.: or, Plots and Counterplots," "A Marble Woman: or, The Mysterious Model," "A Whisper in the Dark," and "The Abbot's Ghost: or, Maurice Treherne's Temptation" could actually be read. And they were read--with surprise, with shock, and with intense interest. Now readers who knew the Children's Friend could expand their knowledge about an author who had interwoven in her tales such violent themes as mind control, opium addiction, and madness. Enigmatic and intriguing heroes connected with femme fatales, the fascinations of mesmerism, the Pygmalion-Galatea relationship, child brides, and especially the power struggle between the sexes were threaded through stories that were often cliff-hangers. With publication of Alcott's Journals and Selected Letters , clues to additional anonymous or pseudonymous thrillers stimulated detection and climaxed in the discovery of many more suspenseful and supposedly atypical Alcott effusions. Several collections appeared in time: A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (1988); Freaks of Genius: Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (1991); From Jo March's Attic: Stories of Intrigue and Suspense (1993); Modern Magic (1995); The Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman's Power (1996); and Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers (1995). In Collected Thrillers most of the Alcott sensation stories were gathered together, including such alluring titles as "A Pair of Eyes; or, Modern Magic," "The Fate of the Forrests," and "A Double Tragedy. An Actor's Story," "The Freak of a Genius," "Taming a Tartar," "Doctor Dorn's Revenge," "Countess Varazoff," "Fatal Follies," "Fate in a Fan," and "Mrs. Vane's Charade." From 1975 on, Alcott could be viewed not only as Children's Friend but also as secret sensationalist. The critics gathered to unearth the autobiographical and literary sources of these anomalous writings, to analyze the strong feminism in Alcott that resulted in such a tale as "Taming a Tartar," in which an English teacher humbles a Tartar tyrant before promising to love, honor, and NOT obey him. Other previously unpublished Alcott writings were rediscovered and published: A Long Fatal Love Chase (a full-length sensation novel) by Kent Bicknell in 1995 and The Inheritance (a story for younger readers--Alcott's first novel) by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy in 1997. The author of Flower Fables and the Little Women series had indeed lived a double literary life. If she used a rose-colored pen with one hand, she used that purple-tipped one with the other. Her personal complexities were reexamined, along with the output of a writer far more prolific than had been realized during her lifetime. In the eyes both of critics and of general readers her stature increased along with her entitlement to a high place in nineteenth-century American literary history. As Publishers Weekly wrote for 5 May 1975 when Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott was published: "Never again will you have quite the same image of this particular 'little woman.'"
From: Stern, Madeleine B. "Louisa May Alcott." The American Renaissance in New England: Second Series, edited by Wesley T. Mott, Gale, 2000. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 223.