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POVERTY DROVE ALCOTT TO WRITE CLASSIC TALE

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For all of "Little Women's" sentimental "moral pap" - as the author referred to her children's literature - Louisa May Alcott had one thing in mind when she whisked off the novel, uncopied and unrevised, to her publisher in 1868. The breadwinner of the house, she hoped the juvenile "pot boiler" (another Alcottism) would fetch a nice wad of cash for her increasingly needy family.

"Father saw Mr. Niles (of Roberts Brothers publishing house) about a fairy book. Mr. N. wants a girls' story, and I begin `Little Women,' " Alcott wrote in her journal in May. "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."Little did she know. By October, "Little Women's" first part was published to such success that Alcott began Part 2 a month later.

The 35-year-old writer undertook "Little Women" not only for her family but also as a rueful gift to young readers, who had only pious, sweet and entirely unreal heroines on their bookshelves. The March girls of "Women" were wonderfully flawed, especially Alcott's alter-ego, Jo.

Like Jo, Alcott was torn between her free spirit and workaholism. But she "paddled her own canoe" as much as she could, remaining unmarried. When she died in 1888 after years of poor health caused by typhoid pneumonia, she had written nearly 300 books, articles and poems.

In a time when society promised girls little but marriage, the Alcotts cultivated individualism. "Their father would keep a daily diary about his daughters when they were growing up," says Emory University professor and Alcott scholar Charles Strickland. "He was very consciously progressive about education."

Bronson Alcott, a transcendentalist philosopher, was chummy with Concord, Mass., scribes Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and their philosophies fueled Louisa's creative fire.

Even the Alcotts' hardships were ahead of their time. Bronson Alcott conceived a transcendentalist, vegetarian commune called Fruitlands. The family lived there for six months and almost starved.

Poverty was Louisa's muse. To pay the bills, she penned fairy tales, novels, a memoir of her work as a Civil War nurse, and even sultry dime novels, written under a pen name.

Many readers have imagined Alcott as Jo - tossing her chestnut mane and exclaiming "Christopher Columbus!" Few know about Alcott's more serious endeavors, among them campaigning for temperance and women's suffrage. She was the first woman to register to vote in Concord.

The staff at Orchard House - the Alcott home-turned-museum in Concord that hosts up to 35,000 visitors a year - assures that many of Louisa's Jo-isms are alive and well in the little brown house.

"Louisa had the mood pillow," says Heather Campbell of Orchard House, referring to Jo's velvet bolster. "Louisa did have a bad temper, so her family devised the mood pillow for visitors. If it was upright, it meant come in. If it was lying down, it meant stay away from Louisa."

For generations of girls, that's been an impossible task.