Louisa May Alcott: The woman who wrote “Little Women” (1922)

Orchard House, Concord, home of the Alcotts 1900

Photo: Alcott family home (Orchard House, in Concord, Mass), where Little Women was set

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, Moods, highly romantic and emotional, which never made a stir, and I suspect I am the only surviving reader of it. She 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 dramatis 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.

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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!

little-women-1868

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.

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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.

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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.

Louisa May Alcott The woman who wrote “Little Women” (1922)

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