The woman who wrote “Little Women”
by Julian Hawthorne
When in the 1860s you thought of the Alcotts, you thought of Louisa; and some malign wit said that she was her father’s best contribution to literature.
Even before she wrote Little Women, she was eminent in her family; though none of the other members of it was negligible. She was a big, lovable, tender-hearted, generous girl, with black hair, thick and long, and flashing, humorous black eyes. Humor she had, and wit too, and dramatic talent; and in spite of what Henry James once told her — I shall tell that story by and by — she did have genius.
All these good qualities and gifts finally assembled themselves in the great gift of story writing — of stories about girls and boys, and addressed to them.
Little Women was published in the late sixties, and a few months ago, I saw a moving picture based upon it; the picture was not so good as the book, but drew big audiences all over the country, and paid more money to the producers, no doubt, than Louisa herself ever made out of the book.
These audiences, which laughed and were tearful by turns, were composed mainly of persons who either in their childhood or in maturity had read the book; and of the residue who had not read it, few, I imagine, failed to get it out of the local lending library immediately afterward.
There is a popularity of more than fifty years, a Victorian success lasting over to our revolutionary and sophisticated twentieth century, and still vigorous and unafraid. A book written just after our Civil War, and seeping sweet and good all through the World War, and likely to survive the next cataclysm, whatever that may be.
Nothing short of genius could achieve such a result; yet it is the simplest, most naive thing imaginable.
Why Little Women is still popular
That, indeed, may partly explain it. The story is made not only of the very stuff of human nature but of the nature of boys and girls, fresh and fragrant, comical and pathetic. The style is as unpretending as family gossip round the fireside, and its material is such as was — and I hope and believe still is — intimately familiar a simple American families from north to south and from east to west. Yes, that kind of families still bounds, in spite of flappers of both sexes, jazz, divorce, curved space, undulating morals, and all the rest of our up-to-date improvements.
There is no doubt a new type of little women who seem to be neither women nor girls, but an amalgam of the least admirable qualities of both, rotten before they are ripe, and pithless before they are rotten; and there are boys to match them. But they are an artificial spawn of the times, with which our current fiction and magazine covers have had a good deal to do, not to mention the movies.
The dissemination of them is wider, one inclines to think, than their numbers are large, or, at any rate, than their survival will be long. This is an age of advertisement, and advertisement can always create interest; the flapper is because she or he is talked of, and will vanish when the talk is talked out.
Whether they read Louisa Alcott I don’t know; perhaps they prefer Elinor Glyn; but tens of thousands do read Louisa, only we don’t hear about it, because newspapers and magazines don’t mention them, and the popular illustrators of the day don’t select them is models for their magazine covers and toilet advertisement pictures.
However, I am not here to write literary criticism, or to discuss New Thought or Fourth Dimension, or to scourge the present generation, or to moralize upon the data of transition. We have people enough and to spare to do those things. But the number of persons who knew Louisa and all her tribe intimately and long, and who are still alive to tell of it, is now so small that an ordinary five-fingered hand would enumerate them twice over; in fact, it is not improbable that I am the only one of them left. So I feel myself under a certain obligation to hand over my memoranda on the subject. It is as interesting as the “inside history ” of the League of Nations, and more edifying; and for me it is a labor of love.
There were in those days three dwellings within a few minutes’ walk of one another on the old Boston highway — that road by which the British marched to Concord by way of Lexington, and at Concord Bridge met the embattled farmers, who fired the shot heard round the world. You will find mention of that episode in Emerson’s verses, read by him at the dedication of the monument erected on the spot, eighty-six years ago, and when Emerson himself was thirty-three years old.
Those eight hundred British lobster-backs — as we called them in those pre-khaki times — passed by these three dwellings, one after the other, little thinking what a famous adventure they were taking part in. The first of the houses was a small frame building close beside the road, at that time occupied — as is the tradition — by a man experimenting in quest of the elixir of life. Long afterward it was occupied, and somewhat enlarged, by the apostle of peace and love, Amos Bronson Alcott, begetter of our Louisa and of her two charming sisters, Abby May and Anne — the other sister, Elizabeth, had died before I knew them. But in 1853 the place was bought from Alcott by my father, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and he named it The Wayside. In the same year he took his family to Europe, and did not return until 1860. He built on additions, and lived and wrote there till his death in 1864.
As for the Alcotts, they moved on to the next house on the road, a picturesque old shanty even then, which Louisa christened Apple Slump, though I believe picked a more dignified name for it. It looks less weatherworn than it did sixty years ago, in my time. In fact, they have transmogrified it into a sort of museum or monument, and a little building in the background was erected some time in the seventies, I think, for the accommodation of the Concord School of Philosophy. Little battalions of late Victorian highbrows used to assemble there to deliver lectures and to listen to them; I was invited there once myself, and discoursed to the audience on the theme of Emerson as an American. The last time I visited Concord, about six years back, we were expected to step softly around the place, with hushed voices and reverent looks. This sort of piety is very American and funny; we are the only sentimental people left on earth.
Three famous neighbor families
To finish these preliminaries, Emerson’s house was half a mile farther along the highway, a foursquare, two-storied edifice, painted white, and shadowed by pines and other trees. When Emerson made his last visit to England this house, during the absence of the family, caught fire and burned down, only some books and furniture being saved. Thereupon the Concord folks, in a spirit of local patriotism and affection, got together and rebuilt the house exactly as it had been before, and presented it to Emerson, with their compliments, on his return. It was a good idea, and to him a pleasant surprise.
Our place and the Alcotts’ adjoined, the houses themselves being less than two hundred yards apart; and when we came back from Europe, in June of 1860, we naturally fraternized with our neighbors, and my two sisters and myself and the Alcott girls were in and out of one another’s houses all the time, almost forming one family. And the three Emerson children, Ellen, Edith and Edward, being but ten minutes’ distant in space and even nearer in amity, were not long in getting into the game — nine of us in all, while our elders looked on approvingly. It was a fine nucleus for good society, and it is surprising, in the retrospect, that so little romance evolved from such a situation. But there were only two males in the combination, and as a matter of fact, the love-making, such as it was, and it was very mild, was restricted to Abby and myself. We kept it secret, and it is now for the first time disclosed.
Anne Alcott married a fellow altogether admirable, whom we called John, and if I ever knew his other name 1 have forgotten it. Abby became the wife of an artist, I believe, long afterward. Edith Emerson married a fine young gentleman, Forbes by name, whose father was rich; Ellen never married, but devoted her life to taking care of her father. My sister Una died unmarried; Rose, in 1860, was less than ten years old. Edward Emerson, after graduating from Harvard, married a Concord girl, Annie Keyes, and he may, for what I know and hope, be living yet, a veteran approaching eighty. That leaves only Louisa and myself to be accounted for; I found a wife in 1870, and Louisa lived and died a maid in 1888. Like Ellen Emerson, she devoted herself to her father and mother — and to the myriad little women and men who read and loved her books.
In no young woman that ever I knew was strength of character more manifest than in Louisa Alcott. Ellen Emerson, of the Concord girls, was nearest her in that respect; but Ellen was aristocratic, while Louisa was a true democrat. Ellen was deep, but narrow; Louisa was both deep and broad; her sympathies were world-wide. Ellen, for all her noble self-dedication to her father, was always conscious of herself; Louisa — aside from her dignity of womanhood — never considered herself at all. Nobody ever ventured to take liberties with the woman, but as Louisa she was hand in glove with us all. Her spirit was high and courageous. She was great in comedy, laughed and inspired laughter, but for a heart so tender as hers tragedy was always near, though she was resolute to smile her tears down for others’ sake.
Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew; yet how could a nature so imaginative, romantic and passionate escape it? Hut her control was greater than her passion, and she could put aside personal felicity for what she deemed just cause. The Alcott girls were society in themselves, and Concord would have been crippled without them. Anne, when she could be spared from her own married sphere, was a precious element; Abby’s enjoyment gave joy to others; and Louisa was the hub of the little universe and kept the wheel in constant activity.
Abby Alcott’s startling question
My first interview with Abby Alcott was on a June day just after our return from Europe. She and I stood on the path skirting the base of the hill between our abodes; we had lately been introduced and she was helping me along, I being a bashful nondescript of fourteen, seven or eight years her junior, and ignorant of American civilization. Abby began by asking me whether I didn’t think it was nice for “ladies and gentlemen to go in bathing together.”
Those were her words. Dear, honest girl, she never suspected the voluptuous shock that her inquiry produced upon my innocent but not unimaginative nature. My conceptions of bathing had till then been confined to the severe isolation of bathrooms, or to hardly less unsocial English sea beaches, where the sexes were rigorously segregated, boxed up in bathing machines — tiny huts on wheels — and clad from neck to heel in shapeless, dark flannel robes; bobbing up and down, thus, in chilly splashings of gray waves, solitary and miserable.
To me, thus barbarously unprepared, were conjured up by her question rosy suggestions of Arcadian freedom in sparkling waters of American midsummer; ladies and gentlemen together and no mention of flannels! I glanced at Abby’s well-turned figure, her clustered yellow ringlets, her cheerful and inviting expression; she was older than I and must know best; one must follow the customs of the country. I stammered, blushed…
Fortunately, she continued: “We and the Emersons often go over to Walden in this hot weather — to the cove where Thoreau used to live; there’s a tent for the girls. We’re going next Thursday; you could have John’s bathing dress; it would be awfully nice!”
I felt guilty, as if I had been caught smuggling a faun of the Prime into a Beacon Street afternoon tea. I have no recollection of the rest of the conversation, but I have no doubt that the Hawthorne children were splashing in Thoreau’s cove that Thursday, with other tritons and naiads, properly draped.
The “tent” proved to be a strip of canvas thirty feet long by eight wide, carried round the boles of four pine trees standing at the corners of a square. In this bower the naiads performed their Eleusinian rites, issuing thence in due time in the irreproachable blue flannels of their British sisters, with their hair hanging down their backs, we men, on the other hand, having withdrawn to a suitable solitude beside the pond to swaddle ourselves in similar mummy wrappings. There were a leaky old punt to dive from, June sunshine, blue diamond water and much jollity.
It was not with the tall, dark-flashing Louisa, however, that I fell in love; she must have been close upon thirty by that time, and besides I had seen Abby first; I was content with an adoring younger-brother attitude toward Louisa. Adoration is not too strong a word; she always equaled and often surpassed anticipation. The Civil War so kindled her that no one was astonished, or ventured to remonstrate, when she took the almost unheard-of decision to volunteer as nurse behind the lines. But it brought the war home to Concord as even the departure of the Concord volunteers for the front, a year before, had hardly done.
After she had gone, our thoughts and love followed her, and almost every week a letter came from her. Wonderful letters they were; they were published afterward, but not in the same form in which we had listened to them as Mrs Alcott, in a voice tremulous sometimes with laughter, sometimes with tears, read them out to us, grouped round the porch of Apple Slump in those fierce, emotional first passages of the war.
Louisa put her heart and soul into them, as she was putting heart and soul into her work in the hospitals. The pathos and the humor both were there; she felt them to her marrow, and in her homely narratives she made us feel them. And this devoted and heroic figure was our own Louisa! She seemed enlarged into something greater than we had suspected. What a dauntless temper, what tenderness and sympathy! Into what scenes of horror and tragedy had she entered, after the ancient peace and amenity of Concord!