Nonfiction That Rivals Little Women: The Forgotten Essays of Louisa May Alcott
Liz Rosenberg on the Literary Marvels of Alcott's Memoirs
Louisa May Alcott is best known for Little Women, of course, her classic American novel for young readers—but she earned her first taste of celebrity as an essayist. That should surprise no one. Her writing genius defied genre. In many ways, her finest essays are even more brilliant—more consistently brilliant—than her novels and stories. Three of her non-fiction pieces alone—”Going Out to Service”; “Transcendental Wild Oats”; and “Hospital Sketches”—are, as they used to say in Charles II’s day, worth the price of admission to all the rest. Anyone who has read and loved her novels will recognize her characteristic style, energy and wit.
Louisa May Alcott was born to a family of high idealists—lovers of equality, ideas, and books. Her first playthings as a toddler were her father’s volumes from his private library. She learned to express herself and share her observations of the world in the childhood journals her parents required her to write. These provided a habit of writing, and also fodder for novels, stories and non-fiction to follow in time.
In her earliest writings she identifies and scorns hypocrisy—especially when it harms the poor, the helpless, and the young. By her teens, she exercises the eagle eye of a reporter. For instance, she describes the highly-respected Julia Ward Howe, author of the American anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a “straw colored supercilious lady with pale eyes & a green gown in which she looked like a faded lettuce.” Her Boston relations would have been appalled had they read her notes.
Louisa sharpened her literary tools in those diaries and letters—and by the time she was writing essays she’d begun to truly hone her craft. One of her literary idols was Charles Dickens. She modeled the family “newspaper” on his Pickwick Papers, shared his empathy for the downtrodden, and learned from him to pay close attention to and bring readers to love even her most minor characters.
Alcott played a supporting role in her own family, shaped in the shadow of her eccentric philosopher father. Bronson Alcott stood tall among the founders of American Transcendentalism and Louisa’s first teachers and adult friends included great figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. No one could have had a more exalted education. Emerson loaned her books from his library and Thoreau became her first natural science teacher, escorting the four Alcott sisters on walks and canoe rides, pointing out the flora and fauna (and more fancifully, the fairies) of New England.
Alcott began to write seriously in early childhood. She composed her first poem, “To the First Robin” when she was eight. By the time she was fourteen, she was given the great gift of her own room and desk. As a teenager she wrote anything and everything—stories, romances, news articles for the family paper, comedies, melodramas, poetry and plays.In many ways, her finest essays are even more brilliant—more consistently brilliant—than her novels and stories.
Her earliest “real book,” as she called it, was Flower Fables published in December, 1854; a collection of fairy tales written for her pupil Ellen Emerson, the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Inscribing the very first copy to her mother, Louisa made an apology and a promise: “I hope to pass in time from flowers and fables to men and realities.” One of the ways she kept her promise was by writing autobiographical essays about even the grittiest “realities.”
In one of her earliest essays, “Going Out to Service,” Alcott records her labors as a young, naïve and over-worked domestic servant. When Alcott was about fifteen, her mother began an informal employment agency geared to help the poor. Louisa became one of her early “clients,” going out to keep house for a miserly lawyer in Dedham. Alcott’s sympathies always lay with under-appreciated and underpaid female workers, and the roots of her sympathy may have begun with her own difficult experiences “in service,” shoveling snow, cooking, cleaning, hauling water and chopping wood. There is nothing glamorous about her character in the piece. Most authors would hesitate to show themselves in such a humble and humbled light.
Yet the piece is as deft as anything she ever wrote. Alcott’s sanctimonious minister-employer proves to be a liar, glutton, and predator with designs on the poor young author. “[H]e presented me with an overblown rose, which fell to pieces before I got out of the room, pressed my hand, and dismissed me with a fervent “God bless you, child. Don’t forget the dropped eggs for breakfast.” Part of the tragicomedy is that the innocent narrator doesn’t see his misbehavior coming—but the reader does.
The narrator seems to leap right out of a Jane Austen novel. She sees but does not understand what lies ahead. “He possessed an impressive nose, a fine flow of language, and a pair of large hands, encased in black kid gloves.” Those large hands “encased” in black kid gloves are also the stuff of gothic horror—at which Alcott also excelled.
An aspiring, unknown Louisa Alcott presented “Going Out to Service” in 1861 to Boston’s most distinguished publisher, James Field of newly-created Atlantic Monthly. He glanced through the piece and dismissed her with a condescending “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.” To add insult to injury, her offered her forty dollars as a loan to start her own school. Luckily for us all, a quiet young editor named Thomas Niles sat beside Fields during this interview, listening in. Years later, he commissioned, edited, and published her novel Little Women.
Her first taste of significant success came from a book-length memoir about her time as a Union war nurse. Alcott’s autobiographical “Hospital Sketches” captured the attention of a reading public hungry for news of the American Civil War. But it was not written with an eye toward fame. Culled from letters home and journal notes, Alcott thought it a hodge-podge of sketches, unlikely to interest anyone.
She was more shocked than anyone when it became a popular sensation. First published in serial form and later as a book, (1863) “Hospital Sketches” provided rare on-the-ground reportage of the long, bloody conflict from a war nurse’s perspective—a thing unheard of at the time. Her non-fiction was sometimes severe, and always strived to be real—even when she included elements obviously invented.
“Hospital Sketches,” this longest and most memorable work of non-fiction, features a Civil War narrator named “Nurse Periwinkle.” Nearly everything else in it derives from her actual personal history: Louisa did nurse sick and dying Union soldiers; she witnessed their arrival from the catastrophic battle at Fredericksburg. She served as head of the night ward after only two weeks on the job. In the Hurly Burly House hospital (again, only the name is changed) she came down with typhoid pneumonia that nearly killed her, and was heavily dosed with the wonder drug calomel, the mercury poison that likely did.
Grateful nineteenth century readers found in “Hospital Sketches” their first real-life account of the solders’ experiences of the Civil War. Hers was new journalism before the phrase was ever invented—and readers embraced it. War news traveled northward slowly and unreliably. “Hospital Sketches” filled the gap for anxious Yankee families and friends. But Louisa expressed amazement at the book’s success. “I cannot see why people like a few extracts from topsey turvey letters written on inverted tea kettles,” she marveled. Only later did she admit that these autobiographical and realistic essays “pointed the way” toward her true writing material and style.
Among her best essays, one of the last written is Alcott’s autobiographical piece on her unhappy early childhood experience at a communal farm. Written in 1873, “Transcendental Wild Oats” alternates broad comedy with tragedy. It records in detail the near-dissolution of the Alcott family. They nearly froze, nearly starved. The commune even at its most populous was too small to succeed, and it housed eccentrics and bonafide lunatics equally. The utopian experiment was a dismal failure, for the commune and for the Alcotts personally, and at the end of it all Bronson suffered a breakdown.
Surely these events were traumatic for a ten year old child, and this may partly explain why she waited so long to write about it, but in “Transcendental Wild Oats Alcott” never lingers on the psychological devastation. Instead of dwelling in the self-reflection more typical of memoir, she focuses on the characters around her and records the homely details of daily life—”unleavened bread, porridge, and water for breakfast; bread, vegetables, and water for dinner; bread, fruit, and water for supper”—leaving little room for disbelief.
It must all be true, because it sounds true. Indeed that is part of her genius as an essayist and memoirist. She is as succinct as a newspaper reporter. Her prose canters along. She covers great distances in the fewest words. There is no dilly-dallying. Alcott once advised an aspiring writer, “The strongest, simplest words are best.”Grateful nineteenth century readers found in “Hospital Sketches” their first real-life account of the solders’ experiences of the Civil War. Hers was new journalism before the phrase was ever invented—and readers embraced it.
On more than one occasion she halted publication of her nonfiction because she felt it was not true, not deep enough. This happened with a linked series of European travel essays, written for a projected book called Shawl-Straps. Instead, the pieces appeared later in miscellaneous books like Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, where the spare parts could find a place. The popularity of her “Hospital Sketches” had led to invitations for similar works of nonfiction. One collection intended as a travelogue of American places she cut short close to its start, fearing that writing superficially might become a bad habit. She refused to become an imitation of herself.
Nor was she ever willing (or perhaps even able) in her nonfiction to keep a straight face throughout, no matter how somber the subject matter. In her lighter tone—her tone, throughout all of her essays, is flexible—she captures, for example, the comic anxiety of the amateur traveler desperate not to lose important papers: “put my tickets in every conceivable place…and finish by losing them entirely. Suffer agonies till a compassionate neighbour pokes them out of a crack with his pen-knife.”
Her essays are rich with unerasable moments, and as in her greatest works of fiction, they strike the intersecting point between tragedy and comedy. If she tugs on heart-strings in her essays—and most assuredly she does—she also demonstrates a clear awareness of the funny side of life.
Alcott understood that habitual use of humor and exaggeration might incline readers to doubt the veracity of her non-fiction. At the end of Hospital Sketches she urges the reader to believe what is only partly true: “such a being as Nurse Periwinkle does exist, that she really did go to Washington, and…these Sketches are not romance.” Her fiction found its roots in real-life experiences and her non-fiction always contained kernels of invention. She largely shrugged off strict distinctions between fact and fiction.
In her non-fiction Alcott spoke her mind, politically and otherwise, and incorporated into her writing her beliefs in abolition, suffrage and equal rights. She also wrote dozens of civic-minded minded letters, both privately and publicly, on issues important to her day. Newspapers provided a handy platform. One of her shortest pieces, “Happy Women,” published in a “Column of Advice to Young Women” on—of all days—Valentine’s Day, defends women’s inalienable right to remain single.
Alcott herself, though she later became an adoptive mother to a niece and a nephew, never married. Her mother Abigail May Alcott had labored in Boston’s worst slums, campaigning tirelessly for healthier, safer working conditions for women, fair pay, equal opportunity. Louisa was an outspoken defender of the rights of women to vote, early and late. (She was also the first woman ever to cast a vote in her home town of Concord, Ma.) She shared her mother’s dedication to feminist causes and social justice.
In her fiction for young readers she had become known as “The Children’s Friend.” Such accolades were both enriching (financially and otherwise) and limiting. Essay writing allowed her to say openly what her children’s stories could only suggest. She had tried bringing her social conscience and philosophical beliefs into her adult fiction, only to find herself roundly condemned for thinking as she did—perhaps indeed for thinking at all.
Fortunately for her future young readers, her “serious” literary fiction—which she’d believed was her destined format—was a commercial failure, coming into print only on the heels of the far more successful Hospital Sketches. That essay’s success was the main reason her literary novels were published at all. Suddenly, Alcott became a viable commodity. Her first serious novel, Moods, published in 1864, earned tepid reviews at best and poor sales; her second, Work, published nine years later, fared no better.
Even her more daring, gothic novels appeared only under a series of pseudonyms. Had any of these fully succeeded, we might never have had Little Women, nor any of its successors. As it was, Alcott tumbled into children’s literature—or was pushed into it, by Thomas Niles, the young editorial assistant who had seen her early essay “Going Out to Service” rejected out of hand.
In the 1860s and 70s a new pseudonymous “Oliver Optic” series of books for boys flooded a new market and Niles wanted to test the publishing waters for girls, believing there was a vacuum waiting to be filled. He used a blend of charm, encouragement and family pressure to persuade Louisa to try her hand at a girl’s novel. Privately she noted in her journal, “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.” The one saving grace, she believed, was the story’s reality: “we lived it.”
Autobiographical essays such as “How I Went Out to Service,” “Hospital Sketches” and “Transcendental Wild Oats” are closer in tone, style, voice and subject matter to Little Women than any of her early fiction, including her many gothic romances and the two serious novels. If one wants to see the author of the March family chronicles in the making, one need look no further than into those three exceptional essays. The published thrillers such as A Long Fatal Love Chase sound nothing like the author beloved in young people’s books like Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys.Autobiographical essays such as “How I Went Out to Service,” “Hospital Sketches” and “Transcendental Wild Oats” are closer in tone, style, voice and subject matter to Little Women than any of her early fiction, including her many gothic romances and the two serious novels.
But the essays certainly do. Even if they were not the literary jewels they are, they would be worthy of attention. It’s not often that we get to see a great author coming into her own before our eyes. The essays also give further proof of her indefatigable energy. Nothing but death and dying could slow her down.
As a young woman Alcott wrote for ten and twelve hours a day, in addition to her other labors. Later, after her stint as a war nurse, she wrote with an aching arm, or painfully swollen leg propped up on a stool. Mercury poisoning from the “miracle cure” calomel she’d been given, slow and insidious, had begun to take effect. The writing “machine,” as she called herself, labored to keep producing. She published not only to express herself, but to earn money to keep “The Pathetic Family,” (her private name for the Alcotts) afloat. She could not afford to sentimentalize or write lengthy and rambling descriptions; or to hold forth like her father. She knew she must “please the public or starve.”
As a woman and as an author, Alcott was a force of nature. She worked incredibly long hours for years—scrubbed and sewed through the night, cleaned and cooked, taught school, walked miles to get where she needed to go—while also writing her own material in every possible genre hours a day. None of non-fiction was ever intended to be her “real” work—that ambition she reserved for her unsuccessful literary adult novels.
But the warm reception of her essay “Hospital Sketches” gave her confidence to trust her own voice and material. Without that “hint,” as she called it, she never could have written Little Women. It proved to her that people love truth as well as invention. Under the most challenging circumstances, she kept on writing, celebrating the good and calling out the bad. She rejected sentimentality and self-pity in an era that encouraged both, especially for women who were expected to faint away at the first obstacle. That was not Louisa’s way. “I was there to work, not to wonder or weep….”
A Strange Life: Selected Essays of Louisa May Alcott is available via Notting Hill Editions.