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!
Louisa Alcott as a war nurse
One week, the customary letter did not arrive, and a hush of suspense fell upon us. Then came an official dispatch from the front: Miss Louisa Alcott had caught the fever, and was being invalided home.
The homeward journey was long, and to our misgivings, it was almost like a funeral, with the pain of uncertainty to boot. On my way home from school, I would call at the house for news, and go away heavy-hearted. Mrs Alcott would shake her head, pale and sad, and Abby’s eyelids were red and her smiles gone.
She came at last, a white, tragic mask of what she had been, but with a glimmer of a smile in the depths of her sunken eyes. Her spirit was indomitable, and it pulled her through. After some weeks she could be carried out of the house to sit in the sunshine; she got well, and her cheeriness and social animation returned, but there were occasional tones in her voice and expressions of eyes and mouth that indicated depths of which she could not speak.
Various little festivals and fairs were got up for the benefit of the soldiers, and Louisa was a natural protagonist. Her histrionic ability was marked, and she and her sisters would play scenes from Dickens; Mrs Gamp was Louisa’s favorite impersonation, and Anne was inimitable as Betsey Prig. Louisa organized the fairs and gatherings, and the “bees” for the making of socks and shirts for the army. Once it was learned that a company of soldiers were to come down the Boston highway — I forget for what reason — and would pass Apple Slump. It was decided that Concord should give them another sort of welcome than that stern one that met the British in 1775.
All households in the neighborhood contributed lemons and sugar, pitchers, bowls and glasses; we all set to work, and before the appointed hour lemonade enough had been made to flavor Walden Pond, almost, had it been emptied into it. Long boards resting on sawbucks served as tables and were placed alongside the road; lumps of ice of all sizes were brought, carefully protected; star-spangled banners filled the air. The Alcott girls and a score more of the prettiest in the village stood in white frocks to serve out the drinks. Louisa, in her hospital costume, conducted the ceremonies.
After anxious waiting outposts reported the appearance of a cloud of dust down the road. The boys in blue were coming! There was a gleam of gun barrels above ranks of bronzed visages and uniforms thick with dust, and the rhythmic undulation of marching men. They came on at a round pace, without music, and silent save for the serried tramp of their feet.
As the commanding officers passed in the lead, we waved our flags and shouted, the girls held up the brimming glasses; I saw a tear run down Louisa’s cheek. But the little column kept on without pausing; every man had his eyes to the front, for after two or three years of war, discipline was in the marrow of every Yankee soldier. There was a moment of consternation in our little group. Could it be that the rigidity of army rule would not permit the acceptance of our offering?
The center and soul of the scene
Suddenly, when the central file of the company was opposite Apple Slump gate, the captain swung round on his heel and drew his sword; he uttered a command, the ranks halted, and out burst the beat and scream of drum and fife. The butts of sixty rifles thumped the ground as one: “Parade rest!” The men-at-arms relaxed into human beings, stretched their shoulders, tipped back their caps, wiped the sweat from their faces, and allowed their thirsty glances to rest upon the ice-tinkling refreshment awaiting them.
A pretty sight it was, those shy, excited, spotless girls fluttering up and down the line, back to the tables and forward again, fetching and carrying the dripping cups to and from the tanned and grimy fellows, who were part of those who stood between our pastoral tranquility and hell! Occasionally, while a man drank, a soft girl hand would venture to stroke the shining shaft of a rifle, or touch the hilt of the belted bayonet, with a caress that the man must have felt was meant for him.
But Louisa was the center and soul of the scene. Her greeting to the officer was cordial but brief; her chosen place was with the rank and file; she mingled and talked with them; those great black eyes of hers dimmed and brightened by turns; she knew the soldiers’ language and was sister and mother to them all.
When one of our young Hebes would seek orders from her for a moment, the look she would turn upon her was unseeing and her words were mechanical; she was far away on the battlefields and in the hospitals, amid the wounded and the dying. Deep tremors passed through her; her smiles had the pathos of remembered pain. A kind of grandeur and remoteness invested her simple, familiar figure; scarlet flushes alternated with pallor in her checks. During that ten minutes’ halt she lived a lifetime.
The commands came sharp and short; the lines reformed instantly, rifles on shoulders, and fife and drum spoke again. The clump of men receded rapidly down the road, the afternoon sun making a vaporous veil of the dust that hung upon their steps. The bevy of girls, boys and old folks gazed after them, waving flags and handkerchiefs, till the soldiers had passed on to their destiny and the throb of music was stilled in the distance. But today, after sixty years, I can hear it, and see the little column turn the bend of the road past Moore’s barn.
The insufferable English visitor
Louisa had been standing a little apart from the rest, one hand resting on a post of her father’s rustic fence. After the column had vanished she didn’t stir for several moments, while we busied ourselves with stripping the tables and removing the half-empty bowls and buckets. At last her old mother went up to her and put an arm gently round her waist. Then the tall girl faltered and drooped, and rested her forehead on her mother’s shoulder; but she recovered herself quickly and passed hurriedly up the pathway to the porch of the old house and disappeared within. We saw no more of her that day.
Pilgrims occasionally came from foreign parts to taste the transcendental springs at their source — Anthony Trollope and others; but they couldn’t divert the attention of us young folks from one another. One episode, however, touched me nearly.
For some days, Abby and Louisa had been letting fall obscure allusions to the anticipated visit at Apple Slump of some relative of theirs, a young Englishman of rank, as I gathered, and distinguished in the London fashionable set. They seemed quite excited about it, Abby especially; he was said to be handsome and fascinating, and what was termed in those days “a sad dog.” As has been stated, I was in love with Abby myself, and I didn’t like her hardly disguised interest in the expected visitor; but I tried to calm myself with the reflection that he would be more apt to admire Louisa.
The date of his arrival was not fixed; March came and went and there was no news of him. I began to hope that his plans might have been changed. On the first day of the next month, the school had to play an important match game of hockey; it was not decided till near sunset, and by the time I came abreast of Apple Slump on my way home it was dusk. At the gate, chatting with Abby, I described a figure who could be no other than the Englishman. Abby beckoned me to approach.
Much as my jealousy bristled against this person, I couldn’t deny his grace, charm and high-society bearing. He was slender and dark, and wore a black broadcloth suit and a soft black felt hat. His waistcoat and cravat, however, were rather too decorative for my taste; he twirled an absurd switch cane and occasionally caressed the points of a tiny black mustache; and as I came up, rough and disheveled in my hockey rig, he inserted a monocle in his right eye and fixed me with what Tennyson would have called “a stony British stare.”
I didn’t like him, the rather that in putting up the monocle he relinquished Abby’s hand, which he couldn’t have been holding without her consent.
On being introduced, however, he greeted me with insufferable condescension, and spoke in an airy, smiling tone, with marked English intonations. Meanwhile, by a quick contraction of the eye, he projected the monocle from its place, and with the easiest air imaginable slipped his arm ’round Abby’s waist. Nor did she flinch from him; on the contrary! I asked her where Louisa was. She said Louisa had to change her dress.
I felt sure I could thrash this fellow — he wasn’t so big as I; but my tenderness for Abby had been kept secret from the world, and one cannot protect the girl he cares for if she obviously does not want to be protected. I stepped back, and haughtily said that I guessed I’d be going home.
“Oh, I say, don’t be in a hurry, my dear child,” drawled this intolerable creature, flirting his cane with an effeminate gesture. “Do you know, I find you quite amusing.”
I stepped up to him again with my fists clenched; my wrath must have been visible in my crimson and distorted countenance. “Child” indeed!
He snatched off his hat and tossed it up in the air, thereby letting a thick mass of black hair fall down to his waist. He and Abby burst into shouts of laughter, and with arms around each other performed a wild saraband.
Then, enchanted with the success of her masquerade, and perhaps embarrassed at her pantaloons, Louisa fled up the path and into the house, “April fool!” coming back to me over her shoulder. Abby leaned against the gate, breathless and giggling; my own emotions were mingled and indescribable. There was not even anybody to be thrashed!
Inside Louisa Alcott’s home
Hitherto I have portrayed the Alcott family outdoors only, where indeed they were very much addicted to being; but their indoor aspects were not less attractive, and readers of Little Women were not denied such more intimate views.
The passage from the front door opened on the right into a large room, or two rooms in one, with the kitchen in the rear. On the left as you entered there was a fireplace of the ancient New England type, round which the family and their friends would gather on winter evenings. This room was also the dining room, and there was a big square table in the center. On the other side of the hallway were the Sage’s apartments, where he thought up and wrote down his orphic wisdom, but into which we never ventured to penetrate.
It was not until the war was over that Louisa could detach herself from that great preoccupation sufficiently to make any sustained attempt at writing in this beloved home of hers. In her girlhood, to be sure, she had competed for and won a hundred dollar prize offered by Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger, for the best short story; and afterward she had composed a novel of moods, highly romantic and emotional, which never made a stir, and I suspect I am the only surviving reader of it.
he herself abhorred recollection of it, but it probably cleared some cobwebs out of her mind. About 1867, however, she began to seclude herself more than usual, and would laughingly reply to our remonstrances that she was “scribbling some rubbish.”
The rubbish was later to be known to the world as Little Women. In its first conception, it was a fanciful, informal drama of New England domestic life, with her sisters and herself and a few of her friends as dramatic persona. I forget the distribution of parts, but I am sure Abby was the heroine, and probably for that reason she felt obliged to select me for Laurie — an amiable idealization of course, she herself being Jo.
But of these details we knew nothing until the book was done, and Louisa read parts of it to us. We all thought it wonderful; she had grave doubts, and was inclined to throw the silly stuff, as she called it, into the fire. She was overruled, with the less difficulty in that the family was sorely in need of money; and she was ready to sell her manuscript outright for a hundred dollars, or even for half that if a publisher could be persuaded.
Her story of Little Women’s success
So one day she took the train to Boston with her package under her arm, wondering whether the outcome of her journey would repay the sixty cents it cost. After some rebuffs, she found her way into the den of the lion and escaped unmaimed; he would look over the stuff when he found leisure; couldn’t think of advancing anything on it; novels were a drug on the market. She returned soberly to Apple Slump, convinced that she had heard the last of Little Women. The sixty cents remained uncovered.
Louisa waited three months for news from her lion’s den, got none, and resolved to visit him once more and know the worst. She was back late that afternoon, and The Wayside received a message to come over to Apple Slump that evening and hear her adventures. Louisa could make even a tragedy amusing in the telling, and over we came.
I can’t reproduce the dash and sparkle of a mountain torrent, or the kaleidoscope of a Roman carnival; still less the words and manner of Louisa’s narration. Mrs. Alcott sat paring apples for a pie; Abby was on the piano stool with her back to the keyboard, but once in a while whirling round to evoke a crash or a crescendo, and at other moments, when attention was focused on the teller, letting her hand slip into mine. The Sage appeared at intervals in the doorway, vaguely suspicious.
Louisa began by saying that the sidewalk in front of the publisher’s shop was cluttered up with packing cases, which truckmen were loading onto drays, and clerks hurrying in and out of the entrance; it was difficult to force her way in. Inside it was worse; she had to edge her way along narrow crevices, colliding with impatient shopmen and porters; she feared the establishment was being seized for debt; probably her manuscript would be in the rubbish heap in the back yard. But her blood was up and she kept on.
Upstairs she found the little office in which her enemy sat curved like a capital G over his desk, his eyes through his spectacles shining with excitement, buttressed behind bills and books, his hand shaking as he dipped a pen in the inkstand to sign a check. Like the Duke of Marlborough, he was riding the whirlwind and directing the storm; something tremendous was evidently going on. Having crossed her Rubicon, however, Louisa had the courage of desperation. “I’ve come to ask you –”
Without looking up, he waved her away. “Go away! I’ve given orders — most important. How did you get in here?”
Louisa’s ire rose. “I want my manuscript!”
He finished signing the check and looked up. “I told you to get out — .” He stopped, petrified as at a Gorgon. Then an exclamation burst from him.
Louisa’s impression was that he vaulted over the desk and landed at her feet, leaving his spectacles in mid-air. He grasped her frenziedly by both elbows; she thought he was going to bite her, and recoiled; the man was plainly mad.
Noises spluttered from him, but to no intelligible purport.
At last her astounded cars caught this: “My dear — dearest Miss Alcott! At such a juncture! You got my letter? No? No matter! Nothing to parallel it has occurred in my experience! All else put aside–street blocked — country aroused–overwhelmed — paralyzed! Uncle Tom’s Cabin backed off the stage! Two thousand more copies ordered this very day from Chicago alone! But that’s a fleabite — tens of thousands — why, dearest girl, it’s the triumph of the century! A great day indeed, Miss Alcott, for us–for you! At this very moment I was writing you a check; but you are here! You prefer cash? Would a thousand dollars — two thousand — name your own figure! Here, boy! Run to the cashier and bring me bank notes and gold; look sharp now!”
So the packing cases and the bustle had been about Louisa’s book!
In spite of all the amusing exaggeration of her spirited account, we realized that Little Women had made a staggering hit, and we were informed that Louisa had come back to Apple Slump with the pockets of her gingham skirt bulging with specie — skirts had pockets in the sixties. Hard times for the Alcott family were over forever. We that evening saw the first flowing of the liberating tide.
The book has charmed the Anglo-Saxon race. It has been translated into all varieties of languages; it has become endemic. Wherever it has gone it has softened human hearts and sweetened human thoughts.
Its victory was followed, as years went by, by other victories, none perhaps quite so renowned, but none, unworthy. They were books that begot personal love for the woman who wrote them, and assurances of this came to her in many thousands of letters, which gave her happiness during her life.
She endowed her family with comfort, gave Abby the art schooling that she aspired to, and supplied the Sage with black suits and white, tailor-made. She never recovered the strength lost in the war, and she died in 1888, when she was but fifty-six years old; her father had died two days before at the age of eighty-nine.
Her meeting with Henry James
I said I would tell the story of her meeting with Henry James. It was in the winter after the publication of Little Women, and Louisa was running the gantlet of receptions and dinners given her by important people in Boston and elsewhere, and her wit and charm won her great popularity, which, however, never turned her head; she kept her own very modest estimate of her achievement.
At one of the first dinners she attended, Henry James was present, and his seat was beside her.
Henry was born in 1843, and was, therefore, eleven years younger than Louisa, but his gravity and reserve were portentous and amply bridged the gap; in fact, he was one of those who get younger and more approachable as their years increase. He was already a reviewer for the New York Nation, and his first novel, entitled Watch and Ward, had either been published or was running serially in the Atlantic.
He took his literature seriously, almost prayerfully, and felt the obligation laid upon him to warn and to command, more than to comfort, his contemporaries in the venerated craft.
The literary fashions in Boston fifty years ago do not appear to our generation frivolous, but to James they were so, and he strove by example and precept to stem and divert the shallow, glittering stream. I doubt whether he had found it possible actually to read Little Women, but he had, as it were, scented it, and his conscience compelled him to let Louisa know that he was unable to join in the vulgar chorus of approval.
He was silent during the opening stages of the dinner, and his gravity deepened as he overheard the compliments which Louisa was absorbing with her wonted humorous discrimination; the ego in her cosmos, as I have intimated, having been long ago licked into modesty by the buffetings of chance, success to her was a happy accident, and laudation nine-tenths whip syllabub. She laughed and smiled, hoped her good luck might continue, and was resolved to do her best to be not undeserving of it.
At length, Henry, from the height of his five-and-twenty winters, felt that it was time to act. He bent toward her and spoke thus: “Louisa — m-my dear girl–er–when you hear people — ah — telling you you’re a genius, you mustn’t believe them; er — what I mean is, it isn’t true!”
Then he relapsed, spoke no more, and — er — declined the pudding.
The last talk with her
Louisa’s mimetic faculty enabled us to see and hear the judge in Apple Slump sitting room, as he handed down his decision. Years afterward, as he and I walked on Hastings Esplanade, in England, I told him the anecdote. He made inarticulate murmurs and smiled thoughtfully, and looked up at the gray sky and along the populous promenade, and he observed, after due consideration, that he couldn’t fix the episode.
“But — well,” he added, rubbing his chin through his clipped dark beard, conscientious to the last, “you know, after all, dear Louisa isn’t.”
But at any rate, Louisa had a delightful talent, and the greater part of human nature, as of the pyramids at Gizeh [Giza], is on lower levels. Those vast underlying courses support the apex and exist for that purpose, though knowing and caring little about it. Moreover, the apex, sublime though it appears, is the first part of the structure to wear away, and when it is cast down it has no honor. Henry James has written exquisite books of which the man in the street knows nothing; but something of whatever is good and sound in the man in the street bestows to influences such as Louisa’s stories bring him.
A dozen years and more after Little Women had become part of American household furniture, I had returned from Europe to New England, and was spending a summer at Nonquitt on Buzzards Bay. Louisa came to visit a friend there, and I walked over to the cottage and sat an hour with her on the veranda.
She was the same tall, rather rustic looking woman, dressed in black silk, her shoulders a little bent, her cheeks somewhat thin, her big black eyes sparkling now and then with humor or irony. The contours of her face had begun to sag a trifle, making her powerful chin more noticeable than of old. She seemed to be happy; she had lived a hard-working, generous life, returning good measure for all she had received. But it seemed to me that I discerned beneath her cheerfulness some veiled sadness; the bright and lively pattern that she showed the world did not wholly hide the pensive background.
“There has never been anything else like our nights at Apple Slump,” I said.
After her smile, the corners of her mouth drooped. “Everything belonging to us, that can be seen and touched, drops away,” she said, “till nothing is left. But maybe the things we wanted and never got are more real than the others, and the rest is just padding.”
“And perhaps the things we never got are waiting for us somewhere?”
“I’ll ask father about that someday — he ought to know!”
I thought of the blameless Sage, blinking blandly round at his little circle of acolytes. He ought to know; but would he? I let the subject drop.