Louisa May Alcott--American Author Challenge February 2019
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Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, PA, on her father’s birthday in 1832, but lived from an early age in Concord, Massachusetts, where she was exposed to the intellectual circle that included Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a philosopher and educator with some very progressive ideas about women’s rights, abolition and education. He was, however, utterly incapable of providing a comfortable living for his family for most of Louisa’s girlhood. Louisa and her sisters contributed to the family income by taking in sewing, working as maids and so on, while her father pursued his experimental schooling and lifestyle notions. The family settled on a farm Bronson named “Fruitlands”, where he attempted to establish his concept of a Utopian community. Not only were they vegetarians, but they ate only those vegetables and fruits that grew upward (“aspiring”); eschewed coffee, tea, leather and any product that resulted from slave labor, and attempted to do all farm work without “enslaving” animals. Warm baths were considered unhealthy. None of this was particularly successful, in part because the land was poor, but more because Alcott and his followers were simply not equipped to put their high-minded theories into practice. What little income Bronson managed came from lecture tours where he espoused his philosophy, often at the expense of getting the garden planted or harvested at the proper time. At sixteen, Louisa began writing, but it was many years before anything she produced was published. When the American Civil War broke out, she traveled alone to Washington, DC, and like Walt Whitman, served as a nurse in a Union hospital. Unfortunately, she contracted typhoid after only six weeks, and was unable to continue. The experience nonetheless led to her first successful published work, Hospital Sketches, a book based on her letters home from the war.
Her later works, Little Women, Little Men, Eight Cousins and An Old-Fashioned Girl are what modern readers are most likely to be familiar with. My own first experience with Louisa’s writing came in the form of an early 20th century edition of An Old-Fashioned Girl lifted from my grandmother’s shelves, and still in my possession.
Louisa May Alcott was a lifelong feminist, and never married. She addressed her spinsterhood in an interview thus: "I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul put by some freak of nature into a woman's body ... because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man." She did, apparently, have a romantic affair at one point in her life with a young man in Europe, who later served as a model for Laurie in Little Women. Much of her fiction was at the least semi-autobiographical. Louisa was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts. Her life was not easy, and it has been speculated that she suffered from what we now call bi-polar disorder. Her general physical health was not good, and on at least one occasion, she reportedly attempted suicide. Modern evaluation of her symptoms and physical appearance in later life suggests she may have suffered from lupus. She died in 1888, just two days after her father’s death. Two of her childhood homes, Orchard House and Fruitlands, are now museums.
For anyone wanting to delve further, there is a very good blog called Louisa May Alcott is My Passion.
Some less obvious reading choices if you’ve already “done” the Alcott standards:
Hospital Sketches unsparing view of the daily tragedies of a 19th century Army hospital in wartime, with surprising but necessary touches of humor
Moods Alcott’s first novel
The Long Fatal Love Chase (posthumously published Gothic adult fiction)
Louisa May’s Battle A young reader’s biography of LMA and how her Civil War experiences influenced her later writing
American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever Multiple bio of the Concord crowd and their intermingled lives (and loves.)
March by Geraldine Brooks Mr. March’s experiences in the Civil War, while the “little women” kept life humming at home
Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller For the perspective it offers on early feminism.
Most of Alcott’s work is available on-line at Project Gutenberg
Here is the General Discussion Thread for the 2019 AAC
I'm leaning toward a re-read of Little Women. I was already contemplating a re-read before she was announced as the February author.
I have read pretty much everything Alcott ever wrote - if you cannot tell, I love her writing - so I am going to read something different for the challenge. I am going to read The Journals of Louisa May Alcott since I have not read them before. I have it on hold at the local library, so hopefully it will get here soon.
>4 alcottacre: Hmmm, you got me thinking Stasia, I love journals and letters. I'm at the library tonight, I'll see if they have them.
>9 Caroline_McElwee: According to the verbiage about The Journals of Louisa May Alcott on my local library's website: "A companion volume to The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, the journals are here published in their original, unabridged version for the first time."
Unfortunately, my local library does not have "Letters," and honestly, I am not sure how happy I am about them being "Selected Letters."
I love Louisa May Alcott. I think the first real hardcover book I ever owned was the Junior Illustrated classics version of Little Women. An Old Fashioned Girl is probably my favorite, although I also adore Eight Cousins. If anyone has not read A Long Fatal Love Chase, it's kind of fun. Very gothic, and just what you would expect Jo to have written for the pulp papers in Little Women. :)
I've had a certain Alcott on my TBR for a while - A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. That seems like just the thing for my February read!
I was able to check out the 150th anniversary edition of Little Women from one of my library's e-book collections. There were several options available--most requiring a wait--but that one was actually available now. I read the introduction which was written by author J. Courtney Sullivan who told about her experiences with Alcott's characters. I'll probably read a little bit at a time.
I found a copy of Alcott's Under the Lilacs at our library's used book store yesterday. I am not familiar with that one, so I'll give it a try shortly.
The first part of An Old Fashioned Girl reads smoothly with honesty and humor, even through the preaching, with Grandma's LaFayette stories a highlight.
I picked up The Journals of Louisa May Alcott from the library today where I had it on hold. From Madeline B. Stern's Introduction: "From the earliest struggles with her turbulent persona to the pitiful, almost monosyllabic jottings of her last years, Louisa Alcott reconstructed herself and her world in these journals. . .Primarily she reconstructed herself."
Looking forward to reading this, but the print in this book is small for my old eyes, so I imagine it is going to take me the whole month to read it!
Stasia, Alcott's letters and journals (maybe the abridged versions, not sure) are available for Kindle download from Project Gutenberg.
I don't know if I'll get to it - I may have to start with the March author - but if I do, I'll do a re-read of March by Geraldine Brooks which I gave 8/10 stars back in 2007. While I adored Little Women giving it 9/10 stars it's a door stopper (600+ pages) and I simply don't have the time this month. I've read other books by her and didn't care for them at all - Eight Cousins with 5/10 stars and Hospital Sketches with 4/10 stars.
The end of An Old Fashioned Girl is a surprise, with the author directly addressing her readers with both humor and regret.
It will be the last week of the month before I get to my reread of Little Women, but it's by my reading chair.
>21 laytonwoman3rd: I will have to check that out, Linda. I have never downloaded anything from Project Gutenberg to my Kindle. Thanks for the suggestion!
Sorry to report, but I am out of Louisa May Alcott. I read the first couple of chapters in Little Women and realized I'll never be able to stomach another 525 pages. It's been on my gotta-read-it list for years, but it shot like a rocket to the never-gonna-read-it pile. Ba-Bye.
When the Little Women film came out 20 something years ago I must have watched it half a dozen times with my young daughter. In the words of a friend, Winona Ryder was "luminous". I've never forgotten that description of her. It did fit. I still think of the film fondly. As far as I know I had never read the book. I pulled out my daughter's copy and started but I did not get very far. It just isn't for me.
I can give a rec for "March" by Geraldine Brooks - I read it a few years ago and thought it very good.
>30 Morphidae: March is my favorite book so far but I still have a couple I have not read. I just realized I never posted my review of March when I read it so I added it from my 2016 thread. This is what I wrote then:
Upon starting this book I rather quickly realized that this was not a story to rush through. The author obviously went to great effort to write lovely prose, and I suspect it was at least partly to honor the sort of prose written by some soldiers in the American Civil War. I've read enough of it to realize that at times it can be quite purple, but more often just a little flowery. Brooks goes for flowery here. It might bother a few people but I found it rather gorgeous. I read this novel at half speed. I found myself constantly re-reading lines in various places. This was not for a lack of understanding, but rather to savor the vision created in words.
This is the story of Mr. March, and his year away at war and recovery. Mr. March is the father of the Little Women of Louisa May Alcott's novel. War stories frequently can be disturbing when revealing the horrors of war. The Civil War had fields of dead and dying at many engagements. It is disturbing in the extreme to think of all the young lives damaged and destroyed by the war. It is disturbing to think that the war even had to be fought. Are there such things as just wars? One needn't lose limbs to be damaged by wars.
There are many things to enjoy in this book as well as unpleasant things. There are some things in here that will bother some readers. I was a little bothered, but the storytelling trumped the weak points. Mr. March I found to be a man that was hard to like as the book progressed - that wasn't my initial impression, but it slowly turned that way. I didn't really dislike him but he's a bit of an odd bird and made some unfortunate choices. I might suggest that the reader review the author's afterword before reading the story to get a better understanding of Mr. March and the story. In the telling, the story shifts back and forth in time, from his days as a young man, and then to his trials during the Civil War. Back and forth. We see who he was, who he is, and who he becomes.
This novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 2006.
>29 RBeffa: My daughter was very fond of the movie version with Kathryn Hepburn. I really need to see the Winona Ryder one.
>30 Morphidae:, >31 RBeffa: I'm glad to see enthusiasm for March...I suspect it's much more palatable to modern readers than Louisa's fiction, by and large, despite the grim subject matter. I'm definitely in agreement with those who find all that moralizing hard to take. One needs a helmet when getting hit over the head with the point so often.
"Just wars"? = against those monsters who created gas ovens?
I’m not reading Little Woman again for this challenge but I studied it for the Children’s Literature section of my English Literature degree. I used it in my final essay for that course, which was on the changes in the relationship between children and adults in children literature, particularly in relation to conduct and morality. My main argument was that you go from books such as Little Women in the mid-nineteenth century (where it is for the adults to instruct the children in the appropriate moral actions), to books such as Pollyanna in the early part of the twentieth where the moral compass has changed (now it is for adults to learn from the innocence of children). And then the relationship changes again as you move towards the current day.
Okay. I had also been wondering what Bronson Alcott's reaction would be.
>28 alcottacre: I can read morally preachy books, but this one just irritated me to no end. Oh well.
>32 laytonwoman3rd: The Winona Ryder one has Gabriel Byrne in, *sigh*.
The moralizing does not bother me as much as it does some of you. Like Stasia mentioned, the book reflected the expectations of the time. I think a parallel exists to the modern Christian fiction genre. When the genre first began to really develop in the 1970s, most books fictionalized biblical characters lives or maybe a well known Christian's life. Christian fiction itself seemed to take off with the publication of the Janette Oke books. It's been 40 years since the publication of Love Comes Softly. Many books in the genre are quite preachy, but the earlier ones tended to be preachier and even evangelistic in nature. Christian fiction began embracing non-romance genres with the publication of Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness. Some of today's Christian fiction is not preachy or evangelistic, preferring to allow the character's actions rather than words showcase the Christian element. The problem today tends to lie in the writing quality. Some writers could (and do) make it with mainstream publishers, but others make the reader ask, "Why did the publisher print this?" or "Did an editor touch this book?" The plan of salvation's presentation appeared to be a requirement in those early Christian romances, but it is no longer a requirement. I think when Little Women was written, the moralization was expected. A few years later standards evolved, and the requirement no longer existed.
Well, I have given up on A Long Fatal Love Chase after seventy pages or so. It was a little amusing, but I'm afraid I was finding it terribly tedious. I have a collection of Alcott's short works in the same vein, and I may give one of those a go.
I read a book called Meg Jo Beth Amy a few months back that was about the importance and impact of Little Women. It was good, and I think anyone interested in Alcott would probably find it an interesting read. Here's my review.
I finished Under the Lilacs, which I suppose is one of Alcott's lesser-known novels. It's the story of a boy who runs away from the circus, and finds a home for himself and his dog with some very nice people. Lots of standard 19th century elements here---orphans, kind rich ladies, pesky siblings, unnamed lingering illnesses, a girl who wants to excel at boyish things (happily this one gets to do so, and never turns to more "ladylike" pastimes). A bit unbelievable, yet predictable somehow. I found it mildly enjoyable, wanted to know how it all came out (although I had a pretty good idea about that around the half-way point), but did think it took it's time telling the tale, short as it was.
I plan to lower myself into Little Women on Sunday or Monday, so it probably won't get finished in February.
This is the edition I'll be reading it in, the latest Folio Society edition:
>41 lycomayflower: I'm afraid a few people are finding Miss Alcott "tedious"....she isn't getting a lot of love, is she?
>40 msf59: Mark, how's Little Women going for you? I'm hoping for a glowing recommendation of something from somebody who's reading her for the first time.
>43 Caroline_McElwee: Oooh....pretty. I hope you enjoy the read as much as you enjoy holding the book!
>44 laytonwoman3rd: Poor LMA. I have fond memories of Little Women, though I didn't get very far with it a few years back when I tried to reread it. I am enjoying Eight Cousins. I may not finish it before the end of the month, but I'll try to pop in and report whether I still liked it whenever I get to the end.
>41 lycomayflower: I will have to try and get hold of that one before the end of the month. Thanks for the mention, Laura.
I have finished The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, thank goodness. The print type in the book is what took me so long to complete the book - it is tiny! Things I learned or may have forgotten since it has been many years since I read a biography of Alcott:
- LMA not only did not want to write Little Women (this I knew - she did not want to write "a girl's story"), but she found the book itself boring;
- She and her mother had a closer relationship she than I previously believed. They were, in fact, quite close and LMA greatly admired all her mother endured;
- She knew a great many famous people even before she herself was famous, including Frederick Douglas, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne;
- She tried many endeavors to help support her family and did so from an early age: selling her hair, teaching, running a kindergarten, being both a servant and a governess. Her family was always in dire straights financially until her writing began to pay off and she wrote what the public wanted, which would pay; and,
- I did not realize that she raised her niece Lulu from the time the child was an infant until the time of LMA's death, at which time Lulu was taken back to Switzerland to live with her father. I also did not realize that Alcott adopted one of her nephews.
The last year of the journal was hard to read. She began the year 1888 so hopeful "I am on the road to health at last & feel hopeful after much tribulation & pain for two years." Her last journal entry was on March 2. Her beloved father, who shared the same birthday as she did, died March 4. Louisa followed him on March 6.
I know that there has been a lot of negativity for reading Alcott this month, but I am glad to have gotten back to her. I think it is important for us to realize how much the public's reading tastes have changed. What are considered to be classics today might now be in another 130 or so years. . .
>46 alcottacre: Thanks for sharing her Journals with us, Stasia. I know it can be difficult to visit classics that were written so long ago, and some hold up much better than others. I find it very interesting that LMA herself thought Little Women was a boring story!
We're drawing to the end of Alcott month. Hasn't anyone else been reading her?
Here's some interesting biographical info that showed up on my FB newsfeed today, through the Virago Modern Classics Readers' page.
I read two short stories, Pansies and Water-Lilies. The very old book I have was printed in 1902, and the publication page gives the original date as 1887, which was the year before Alcott died. The first story provides discussions of what a young girl should read. And the second is the tale of a hard-working girl of very humble roots who captures the heart of a very eligible sea captain.
They are for young people, most probably aimed at teenaged girls. They do have morals and it's pretty plain to see who a young person of that Victorian era was supposed to admire. I imagine it would be almost impossible to get a children's book published at that time without providing proper "guidance" in the story. These were pleasant stories, exactly what I expected for their time.
I'm rereading LW Linda, but won't finish it til next week me thinks, as I'm not toting my copy about with me, just reading it in the evenings. And enjoying it, but maybe as much for the memories of earlier reads and the dramatisations as anything. It is familiar.
1) I'm wondering if anyone has come across a complete list of the short stories. I can't seem to find the two stories I read, Pansies and Water-Lilies referenced anywhere online, except that a few other people have it on LT. Here's the cover:
2) The book I read from (published by Little, Brown & Co, Boston) has these two Copyrights:
Copyright, 1887 By Louisa M. Alcott
Copyright, 1902 By John S. P. Alcott
Who's John S. P. Alcott?
>50 kac522: a google yields "Alcott became increasingly ill toward the end of her life. Nannies took over the care of her niece, and Alcott began to settle her financial affairs by adopting her nephew John Sewell Pratt (who took the name John S. P. Alcott) so that there would be no legal problems about the proceeds from her books staying in the family."
>50 kac522: Gutenberg offers 6 collections of short stories by Alcott: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search/?query=Alcott+short+stories
I can't make out the title of the volume you read from, but one of those is titled Flower Fables, which seems promising? (That one apparently is also available in Dutch on gutenberg.org).
The March AAC thread is up. Not to rush those of you who are still enjoying Miss Alcott. March is a nice long month!
>53 laytonwoman3rd: OK, thanks. My volume was just the two stories in a little volume. I think it was part of a series of children's titles published by Little, Brown & Co, and it included Alcott titles and other authors (none of whom I recognize).
I've been thinking about how Alcott's "moralizing" is not very appealing to 21st century adult readers. I look at these books in a sort of historical way, as it relates to how young people, especially young women, were expected to behave in the 19th century. Alcott herself was such a pioneer in many ways, and yet she's still adheres to a lot of the morals of the times.
My mother (b. 1926) and grandmother (b. 1904) absolutely loved Alcott, and I have several of their original books. These books were important to them as girls growing up in the 20th century. I like to think that I'm learning a little about my mother and grandmother and their times from reading Alcott. It's important for me to see how far we've come as a society, particularly women, by reading these books for children.
I love that reading Alcott makes you feel closer to the girls who became your mother and grandmother, Kathy. My copy of An Old Fashioned Girl belonged to my grandmother, or to her daughters at least, and my mother encouraged me to read it when I was young. I don't recall how I felt about it back then, though.
I've read Little Women many times and it's a favorite (9/10 stars). Eight Cousins was a favorite when I was a girl, but it didn't survive a reread in adulthood (5/10). I read Hospital Sketches and didn't like it at all (4/10.)
I decided to read *about* Alcott instead with Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy by Anne Boyd Rioux which I enjoyed (7/10.) It was a little tedious at times, but overall, I enjoyed the work, especially with the photos.
Little Women is slowly being read. I'm really enjoying it, but only reading it for the last hour of the day, so it could be another week or two before I finish it. I didn't remember it being a 500 pager! Not generally a problem for me except my edition is a heavy hardback.
>59 Caroline_McElwee: Perhaps you only read Part One before, Caroline. The book was originally in two volumes, and a lot of readers only are familiar with the first one. Now it's almost always published with both parts in one volume.
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