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Louisa May Alcott by Sarah Knowles Bolton

by Sarah Knowles Bolton

A dozen of us sat about the dinner-table at the Hotel Bellevue, Boston. One was the gifted wife of a gifted clergyman; one had written two or three novels; one was a journalist; one was on the eve of a long journey abroad; and one, whom we were all glad to honor, was the brilliant author of Little Women. She had a womanly face, bright, gray eyes, that looked full of merriment, and would not see the hard side of life, and an air of common sense that made all defer to her judgment. She told witty stories of the many who wrote her for advice or favors, and good-naturedly gave bits of her own personal experience. Nearly twenty years before, I had seen her, just after her Hospital Sketches were published, over which I, and thousands of others, had shed tears. Though but thirty years old then, Miss Alcott looked frail and tired. That was the day of her struggle with life. Now, at fifty, she looked happy and comfortable. The desire of her heart had been realized,--to do good to tens of thousands, and earn enough money to care for those whom she loved.

Louisa Alcott's life, like that of so many famous women, has been full of obstacles. She was born in Germantown, Pa., Nov. 29, 1832, in the home of an extremely lovely mother and cultivated father, Amos Bronson Alcott. Beginning life poor, his desire for knowledge led him to obtain an education and become a teacher. In 1830 he married Miss May, a descendant of the well-known Sewells and Quincys, of Boston. Louise Chandler Moulton says, in her excellent sketch of Miss Alcott, "I have heard that the May family were strongly opposed to the union of their beautiful daughter with the penniless teacher and philosopher;" but he made a devoted husband, though poverty was long their guest.

For eleven years, mostly in Boston, he was the earnest and successful teacher. Margaret Fuller was one of his assistants. Everybody respected his purity of life and his scholarship. His kindness of heart made him opposed to corporal punishment, and in favor of self-government. The world had not come then to his high ideal, but has been creeping toward it ever since, until whipping, both in schools and homes, is fortunately becoming one of the lost arts.

He believed in making studies interesting to pupils; not the dull, old-fashioned method of learning by rote, whereby, when a hymn was taught, such as, "A Charge to keep I have," the children went home to repeat to their astonished mothers, "Eight yards to keep I have," having learned by ear, with no knowledge of the meaning of the words. He had friendly talks with his pupils on all great subjects; and some of these Miss Elizabeth Peabody, the sister of Mrs. Hawthorne, so greatly enjoyed, that she took notes, and compiled them in a book.

New England, always alive to any theological discussion, at once pronounced the book unorthodox. Emerson had been through the same kind of a storm, and bravely came to the defence of his friend. Another charge was laid at Mr. Alcott's door: he was willing to admit colored children to his school, and such a thing was not countenanced, except by a few fanatics(?) like Whittier, and Phillips, and Garrison. The heated newspaper discussion lessened the attendance at the school; and finally, in 1839, it was discontinued, and the Alcott family moved to Concord.

Here were gifted men and women with whom the philosopher could feel at home, and rest. Here lived Emerson, in the two-story drab house, with horsechestnut-trees in front of it. Here lived Thoreau, near his beautiful Walden Lake, a restful place, with no sound save, perchance, the dipping of an oar or the note of a bird, which the lonely man loved so well. Here he built his house, twelve feet square, and lived for two years and a half, giving to the world what he desired others to give,--his inner self. Here was his bean-field, where he "used to hoe from five o'clock in the morning till noon," and made, as he said, an intimate acquaintance with weeds, and a pecuniary profit of eight dollars seventy-one and one-half cents! Here, too, was Hawthorne, "who," as Oliver Wendell Holmes says, "brooded himself into a dream-peopled solitude."

Here Mr. Alcott could live with little expense and teach his four daughters. Louisa, the eldest, was an active, enthusiastic child, getting into little troubles from her frankness and lack of policy, but making friends with her generous heart. Who can ever forget Jo in Little Women, who was really Louisa, the girl who, when reproved for whistling by Amy, the art-loving sister, says: "I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits! I'm not a young lady; and if turning up my hair makes me one, I'll wear it in two tails till I'm twenty. I hate to think I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a china-aster! Its bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy's games and work and manners!"

At fifteen, "Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt; for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce or funny or thoughtful. Her long, thick hair was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net to be out of her way. Round shoulders had Jo, and big hands and feet, a fly-away look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman, and didn't like it."

The four sisters lived a merry life in the Concord haunts, notwithstanding their scanty means. Now, at the dear mother's suggestion, they ate bread and milk for breakfast, that they might carry their nicely prepared meal to a poor woman, with six children, who called them Engel-kinder, much to Louisa's delight. Now they improvised a stage, and produced real plays, while the neighbors looked in and enjoyed the fun.

Louisa was especially fond of reading Shakespeare, Goethe, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Miss Edgeworth, and George Sand. As early as eight years of age she wrote a poem of eight lines, To a Robin, which her mother carefully preserved, telling her that "if she kept on in this hopeful way, she might be a second Shakespeare in time." Blessings on those people who have a kind smile or a word of encouragement as we struggle up the hard hills of life!

At thirteen she wrote My Kingdom. When, years afterward, Mrs. Eva Munson Smith wrote to her, asking for some poems for Woman in Sacred Song, Miss Alcott sent her this one, saying, "It is the only hymn I ever wrote. It was composed at thirteen, and as I still find the same difficulty in governing my kingdom, it still expresses my soul's desire, and I have nothing better to offer."

"A little kingdom I possess
Where thoughts and feelings dwell,

And very hard the task I find
Of governing it well;

For passion tempts and troubles me,
A wayward will misleads,

And selfishness its shadow casts
On all my words and deeds.


"How can I learn to rule myself,
To be the child I should,

Honest and brave, and never tire
Of trying to be good?

How can I keep a sunny soul
To shine along life's way?

How can I tune my little heart
To sweetly sing all day?


"Dear Father, help me with the love
That casteth out my fear;

Teach me to lean on Thee, and feel
That Thou art very near:

That no temptation is unseen,
No childish grief too small,

Since Thou, with patience infinite,
Doth soothe and comfort all.


"I do not ask for any crown,
But that which all may win;

Nor try to conquer any world
Except the one within.

Be Thou my guide until I find,
Led by a tender hand,

Thy happy kingdom in myself,
And dare to take command."

Louisa was very imaginative, telling stories to her sisters and her mates, and at sixteen wrote a book for Miss Ellen Emerson, entitled Flower Fables. It was not published till six years later, and then, being florid in style, did not bring her any fame. She was now anxious to earn her support. She was not the person to sit down idly and wait for marriage, or for some rich relation to care for her; but she determined to make a place in the world for herself. She says in Little Women, "Jo's ambition was to do something very splendid; what it was she had no idea, as yet, but left it for time to tell her," and at sixteen the time had come to make the attempt.

She began to teach school with twenty pupils. Instead of the theological talks which her father gave his scholars, she told them stories, which she says made the one pleasant hour in her school-day. Now the long years of work had begun--fifteen of them--which should give the girl such rich yet sometimes bitter experiences, that she could write the most fascinating books from her own history. Into her volume called Work, published when she had become famous, she put many of her own early sorrows in those of "Christie."

Much of this time was spent in Boston. Sometimes she cared for an invalid child; sometimes she was a governess; sometimes she did sewing, adding to her slender means by writing late at night. Occasionally she went to the house of Rev. Theodore Parker, where she met Emerson, Sumner, Garrison, and Julia Ward Howe. Emerson always had a kind word for the girl whom he had known in Concord, and Mr. Parker would take her by the hand and say, "How goes it, my child? God bless you; keep your heart up, Louisa," and then she would go home to her lonely room, brave and encouraged.

At nineteen, one of her early stories was published in Gleason's Pictorial, and for this she received five dollars. How welcome was this brain-money! Some months later she sent a story to the Boston Saturday Gazette, entitled The Rival Prima Donnas, and, to her great delight, received ten dollars; and what was almost better still, a request from the editor for another story. Miss Alcott made the Rival Prima Donnas into a drama, and it was accepted by a theatre, and would have been put upon the stage but for some disagreement among the actors. However, the young teacher received for her work a pass to the theatre for forty nights. She even meditated going upon the stage, but the manager quite opportunely broke his leg, and the contract was annulled. What would the boys and girls of America have lost, had their favorite turned actress!

A second story was, of course, written for the Saturday Evening Gazette. And now Louisa was catching a glimpse of fame. She says, "One of the memorial moments of my life is that in which, as I trudged to school on a wintry day, my eye fell upon a large yellow poster with these delicious words, 'Bertha, a new tale by the author of The Rival Prima Donnas, will appear in the Saturday Evening Gazette.' I was late; it was bitter cold; people jostled me; I was mortally afraid I should be recognized; but there I stood, feasting my eyes on the fascinating poster, and saying proudly to myself, in the words of the great Vincent Crummles, 'This, this is fame!' That day my pupils had an indulgent teacher; for, while they struggled with their pot-hooks, I was writing immortal works; and when they droned out the multiplication table, I was counting up the noble fortune my pen was to earn for me in the dim, delightful future. That afternoon my sisters made a pilgrimage to behold this famous placard, and finding it torn by the wind, boldly stole it, and came home to wave it like a triumphal banner in the bosom of the excited family. The tattered paper still exists, folded away with other relics of those early days, so hard and yet so sweet, when the first small victories were won, and the enthusiasm of youth lent romance to life's drudgery."

Finding that there was money in sensational stories, she set herself eagerly to work, and soon could write ten or twelve a month. She says in Little Women: "As long as The Spread Eagle paid her a dollar a column for her 'rubbish,' as she called it, Jo felt herself a woman of means, and spun her little romances diligently. But great plans fermented in her busy brain and ambitious mind, and the old tin kitchen in the garret held a slowly increasing pile of blotted manuscript, which was one day to place the name of March upon the roll of fame."

But sensational stories did not bring much fame, and the conscientious Louisa tired of them. A novel, Moods, written at eighteen, shared nearly the same fate as Flower Fables. Some critics praised, some condemned, but the great world was indifferent. After this, she offered a story to Mr. James T. Fields, at that time editor of the Atlantic Monthly, but it was declined, with the kindly advice that she stick to her teaching. But Louisa Alcott had a strong will and a brave heart, and would not be overcome by obstacles.

The Civil War had begun, and the school-teacher's heart was deeply moved. She was now thirty, having had such experience as makes us very tender toward suffering. The perfume of natures does not usually come forth without bruising. She determined to go to Washington and offer herself as a nurse at the hospital for soldiers. After much official red tape, she found herself in the midst of scores of maimed and dying, just brought from the defeat at Fredericksburg. She says: "Round the great stove was gathered the dreariest group I ever saw,--ragged, gaunt, and pale, mud to the knees, with bloody bandages untouched since put on days before; many bundled up in blankets, coats being lost or useless, and all wearing that disheartened look which proclaimed defeat more plainly than any telegram, of the Burnside blunder. I pitied them so much, I dared not speak to them. I yearned to serve the dreariest of them all.

"Presently there came an order, 'Tell them to take off socks, coats, and shirts; scrub them well, put on clean shirts, and the attendants will finish them off, and lay them in bed.'

"I chanced to light on a withered old Irishman," she says, "wounded in the head, which caused that portion of his frame to be tastefully laid out like a garden, the bandages being the walks, and his hair the shrubbery. He was so overpowered by the honor of having a lady wash him, as he expressed it, that he did nothing but roll up his eyes and bless me, in an irresistible style which was too much for my sense of the ludicrous, so we laughed together; and when I knelt down to take off his shoes, he wouldn't hear of my touching 'them dirty craters.' Some of them took the performance like sleepy children, leaning their tired heads against me as I worked; others looked grimly scandalized, and several of the roughest colored like bashful girls."

When food was brought, she fed one of the badly wounded men, and offered the same help to his neighbor. "Thank you, ma'am," he said, "I don't think I'll ever eat again, for I'm shot in the stomach. But I'd like a drink of water, if you ain't too busy."

"I rushed away," she says; "but the water pails were gone to be refilled, and it was some time before they reappeared. I did not forget my patient, meanwhile, and, with the first mugful, hurried back to him. He seemed asleep; but something in the tired white face caused me to listen at his lips for a breath. None came. I touched his forehead; it was cold; and then I knew that, while he waited, a better nurse than I had given him a cooler draught, and healed him with a touch. I laid the sheet over the quiet sleeper, whom no noise could now disturb; and, half an hour later, the bed was empty."

With cheerful face and warm heart she went among the soldiers, now writing letters, now washing faces, and now singing lullabies. One day a tall, manly fellow was brought in. He seldom spoke, and uttered no complaint. After a little, when his wounds were being dressed, Miss Alcott observed the big tears roll down his cheeks and drop on the floor.

She says: "My heart opened wide and took him in, as, gathering the bent head in my arms, as freely as if he had been a child, I said, 'Let me help you bear it, John!' Never on any human countenance have I seen so swift and beautiful a look of gratitude, surprise, and comfort as that which answered me more eloquently than the whispered--

"'Thank you, ma'am; this is right good! this is what I wanted.'

"'Then why not ask for it before?'

"'I didn't like to be a trouble, you seemed so busy, and I could manage to get on alone.'"

The doctors had told Miss Alcott that John must die, and she must take the message to him; but she had not the heart to do it. One evening he asked her to write a letter for him. "Shall it be addressed to wife or mother, John?"

"Neither, ma'am; I've got no wife, and will write to mother myself when I get better. Mother's a widow; I'm the oldest child she has, and it wouldn't do for me to marry until Lizzy has a home of her own, and Jack's learned his trade; for we're not rich, and I must be father to the children and husband to the dear old woman, if I can."

"No doubt you are both, John; yet how came you to go to war, if you felt so?"

"I went because I couldn't help it. I didn't want the glory or the pay; I wanted the right thing done, and people kept saying the men who were in earnest ought to fight. I was in earnest, the Lord knows! but I held off as long as I could, not knowing which was my duty. Mother saw the case, gave me her ring to keep me steady, and said 'Go'; so I went."

"Do you ever regret that you came, when you lie here suffering so much?"

"Never, ma'am; I haven't helped a great deal, but I've shown I was willing to give my life, and perhaps I've got to.... This is my first battle; do they think it's going to be my last?"

"I'm afraid they do, John."

He seemed startled at first, but desired Miss Alcott to write the letter to Jack, because he could best tell the sad news to the mother. With a sigh, John said, "I hope the answer will come in time for me to see it."

Two days later Miss Alcott was sent for. John stretched out both hands as he said, "I knew you'd come. I guess I'm moving on, ma'am." Then clasping her hand so close that the death marks remained long upon it, he slept the final sleep. An hour later John's letter came, and putting it in his hand, Miss Alcott kissed the dead brow of the Virginia blacksmith, for his aged mother's sake, and buried him in the government lot.

The noble teacher after a while became ill from overwork, and was obliged to return home, soon writing her book, Hospital Sketches, published in 1865. This year, needing rest and change, she went to Europe as companion to an invalid lady, spending a year in Germany, Switzerland, Paris, and London. In the latter city she met Jean Ingelow, Frances Power Cobbe, John Stuart Mill, George Lewes, and others, who had known of the brilliant Concord coterie. Such persons did not ask if Miss Alcott were rich, nor did they care.

In 1868 her father took several of her more recent stories to Roberts Brothers to see about their publication in book form. Mr. Thomas Niles, a member of the firm, a man of refinement and good judgment, said: "We do not care just now for volumes of collected stories. Will not your daughter write us a new book consisting of a single story for girls?"

Miss Alcott feared she could not do it, and set herself to write Little Women, to show the publishers that she could not write a story for girls. But she did not succeed in convincing them or the world of her inability. In two months the first part was finished, and published October, 1868. It was a natural, graphic story of her three sisters and herself in that simple Concord home. How we, who are grown-up children, read with interest about the "Lawrence boy," especially if we had boys of our own, and sympathized with the little girl who wrote Miss Alcott, "I have cried quarts over Beth's sickness. If you don't have her marry Laurie in the second part, I shall never forgive you, and none of the girls in our school will ever read any more of your books. Do! do! have her, please."

The second part appeared in April, 1869, and Miss Alcott found herself famous. The "pile of blotted manuscript" had "placed the name of March upon the roll of fame." Some of us could not be reconciled to dear Jo's marriage with the German professor, and their school at Plumfield, when Laurie loved her so tenderly. "We cried over Beth, and felt how strangely like most young housekeepers was Meg. How the tired teacher, and tender-hearted nurse for the soldiers must have rejoiced at her success! "This year," she wrote her publishers, "after toiling so many years along the uphill road, always a hard one to women writers, it is peculiarly grateful to me to find the way growing easier at last, with pleasant little surprises blossoming on either side, and the rough places made smooth."

When Little Men was announced, fifty thousand copies were ordered in advance of its publication! About this time Miss Alcott visited Rome with her artist sister May, the "Amy" of Little Women, and on her return, wrote Shawl-straps, a bright sketch of their journey, followed by an Old-Fashioned Girl; that charming book Under the Lilacs, where your heart goes out to Ben and his dog Sancho; six volumes of Aunt Jo's Scrap-bagJack and Jill; and others. From these books Miss Alcott has already received about one hundred thousand dollars.

She has ever been the most devoted of daughters. Till the mother went out of life, in 1877, she provided for her every want. May, the gifted youngest sister, who was married in Paris in 1878 to Ernst Nieriker, died a year and a half later, leaving her infant daughter, Louisa May Nieriker, to Miss Alcott's loving care. The father, who became paralyzed in 1882, now eighty-six years old, has had her constant ministries. How proud he has been of his Louisa! I heard him say, years ago, "I am riding in her golden chariot."

Miss Alcott now divides her time between Boston and Concord. "The Orchards," the Alcott home for twenty-five years, set in its frame of grand trees, its walls and doors daintily covered with May Alcott's sketches, has become the home of the "Summer School of Philosophy," and Miss Alcott and her father live in the house where Thoreau died.

Most of her stories have been written in Boston, where she finds more inspiration than at Concord. "She never had a study," says Mrs. Moulton; "any corner will answer to write in. She is not particular as to pens and paper, and an old atlas on her knee is all the desk she cares for. She has the wonderful power to carry a dozen plots in her head at a time, thinking them over whenever she is in the mood. Often in the dead waste and middle of the night she lies awake and plans whole chapters. In her hardest working days she used to write fourteen hours in the twenty-four, sitting steadily at her work, and scarcely tasting food till her daily task was done. When she has a story to write, she goes to Boston, hires a quiet room, and shuts herself up in it. In a month or so the book will be done, and its author comes out 'tired, hungry, and cross,' and ready to go back to Concord and vegetate for a time."

Miss Alcott, like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, is an earnest advocate of woman's suffrage, and temperance. When Meg in Little Women prevails upon Laurie to take the pledge on her wedding-day, the delighted Jo beams her approval. In 1883 she writes of the suffrage reform, "Every year gives me greater faith in it, greater hope of its success, a larger charity for those who cannot see its wisdom, and a more earnest wish to use what influence I possess for its advancement."

Miss Alcott has done a noble work for her generation. Her books have been translated into foreign languages, and expressions of affection have come to her from both east and west. She says, "As I turn my face toward sunset, I find so much to make the down-hill journey smooth and lovely, that, like Christian, I go on my way rejoicing with a cheerful heart."

* * * * *

Miss Alcott died March 6, 1888, at the age of fifty-five, three days after the death of her distinguished father, Bronson Alcott, eighty-eight years old. She had been ill for some months, from care and overwork. On the Saturday morning before she died, she wrote to a friend: "I am told that I must spend another year in this 'Saint's Rest,' and then I am promised twenty years of health. I don't want so many, and I have no idea I shall see them. But as I don't live for myself, I will live on for others."

On the evening of the same day she became unconscious, and remained so till her death, on Tuesday morning.