Continuing to trace the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part three: Can you tell what’s real and what is made up?

Little Women  has been called autobiographical because Louisa May Alcott used so many episodes from her own childhood and that of her family to create the story. But where does fact end and fiction begin? Or does it even work like that?

Stern says, “Fact was embedded in fiction, and a domestic novel begun in which the local and the universal were married, in which adolescents were clothed in flesh and blood.”

True or False?

play and amy and joLet’s have a little quiz, True or False – is the following a real episode or fiction? Warning: the answer isn’t always black and white so pick True if it’s more black than white and False if the opposite.

Copy the entire list and then put TRUE or FALSE after the statement and we’ll compare notes.

  1. Hannah the servant
  2. The Christmas play (“The Witches’ Curse, an Operatic Tragedy)
  3. Amy burns Jo’s manuscript
  4. Marmee’s temper
  5. Amy falling through the ice
  6. Jo pinching Meg’s papered locks before the ball
  7. Meg being dressed up as a doll at Annie Moffat’s
  8. Amy bewailing her pickled limes
  9. Beth receiving the piano from Mr. Lawrence
  10. Mr. March’s illness
  11. Jo sells her hair.
  12. Beth wasted away and died peacefully.
  13. Jo published her first story, “The Rival Painters.”
  14. Amy writes her own will.
  15. Jo rejects Laurie’s love.

Answers in the next post. Good luck!

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Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part one

madeleine stern lmaI have always maintained that Madeleine B. Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography is the standard bearer. Tracing the life of Louisa the writer, Stern gives penetrating insight not only into Louisa’s life, but her very essence as a writer. As a writer myself, I have found much wisdom in these pages and have marveled at Louisa’s ability to “simmer a story” in her head while fulfilling duties around the house, and then sitting down later to spill it out, completed on paper, without editing. I try emulate the simmering part, at least, often working out what I want to write vocally as I am driving (yes, I’m one of those crazies you see on the highway, arms flying, face animated with talk. I love my hour long commute!).

The birth of Little Women

little women norton versionRecently I was going through Little Women (Norton Critical Edition) and found Stern’s brilliant chapter on the creation and writing of Little Women. I felt like I was reading it for the first time. I knew I just had to share what I found with you.

Oliver_Optic_-_All_AdriftStern relays the facts of the birth of Little Women, how Thomas Niles of Roberts Bros. urged Louisa to try her hand at a girl’s book, hoping to duplicate the runaway success of the “Oliver Optic” series for boys. I had always wondered why he approached Louisa as she didn’t have any direct experience in writing for juveniles and Stern reveals why:

“She [Louisa] have proved her ability to report observations in Hospital Sketches; she had indicated her powers of appealing to juvenile readers in her editorship of  Merry’s Museum. Could not Miss Alcott combine both talents in a domestic novel that would reflect American life for the enjoyment of American youth? (pg. 434, Little Women, Norton Edition).

Louisa’s unique abilities

merry's museum 1868Louisa saw no trick in writing for children: simply tell the truth. Describe life as it is, using the real language of children (slang and all). For Louisa, it was a simple calculation. Wisely deciding to write what she knew, she drew upon the rich history of her own childhood.

A model family

Stern describes Bronson’s ideal of the “happy, kind and loving family, a home where peace and gentle quiet abode.” (Ibid, pg. 435). Little Women was to be the depiction of that ideal home. Although the Alcott home life was often be fraught with anxiety and chaos due to poverty, there was plenty to build upon in Little Women based upon the ideal that they attempted to live. On occasion, that ideal did play out.

Knowing their angels

Bronson and Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in Louisa’s ability to relate to children; Waldo, who had seen a teenaged Louisa tell stories to his children, had called her the “poet of children, who knew their angels” (Ibid). Certainly Bronson had something to gain by Louisa’s agreeing to write the story as Robert Bros. promised to publish his book, Tablets, if she agreed. But he had urged her for years to write good stories for children as the nurturing of the minds of the young was nearest and dearest to his heart. If he could no longer do it, perhaps his daughter could take up the mantle through her gift with a story.

Where to begin

Stern writes, “The door was Hillside’s.  Could Louisa open it, recover those despised recollections of childhood, and find in the biography of one foolish person the miniature paraphrase of the hundred volumes of the universal history?” (Ibid)

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

We shall see. To be continued.

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Six women writers (including Louisa May Alcott) and their journeys as writers on film

There is a wonderful film online featuring the stories of six prominent women writers (including Louisa May Alcott, of course!. It is called Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write. Here is the summary from the website, Films on Demand Digital Educational Video:

Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write

This program explores the obstacles overcome by six prominent female authors: Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. On-location footage at sites such as Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, complements discussion from an array of critics and experts, including Dr. Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life; Professor Elaine Showalter of Princeton University; Dr. Sarah Elbert, author of A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture; Madeleine Stern, Alcott’s biographer and editor; and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, who, together with Stern, proved that Alcott wrote many sensationalist stories under a pseudonym. Produced by the Open University. (50 minutes)

You can watch the film in its entirety here.

This is a breakdown of the film from Films on Demand:

Women Struggle to Write (04:19) 
Until the mid-twentieth century, women writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austin had to negotiate and justify their desire to write.

Louisa May Alcott (04:39) 
Alcott recreates her life with her three sisters and mother in “Little Women” depicting the hopes and dreams of a house full of females. She negotiates mental and physical space to write her novel.

Emily Dickinson (04:08) 
Dickinson created a reclusive space to write exquisite poetry reflecting women’s culture and women’s inner life. Hundreds of unconventional poems are published posthumously.

Alcott’s Sensation Stories (02:24) 
In the 1970s fascinating research by Stern and Rostenberg discovered Alcott’s sensation stories. Clues in “Little Women” reveal the writing activities of Jo March that parallels Alcott’s life.

Discovery of Letters and Pseudonym (04:13) 
Researchers discover letters to Alcott approving the publication of “Behind the Mask” and evidence of her pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Alcott’s work is autobiographical and controversial.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (04:59) 
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman is about a woman’s stifled creativity and the development of madness from domestic confinement. Gilman escapes her marriage through divorce.

Gilman Inspires Other Women (03:09) 
In the 1890s yellow represented decadence. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes obsessed and lost in it. Gilman continues to inspire women with further political works and feminism.

Virgina Woolf (04:20) 
In Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” she states that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She was a prodigious writer of essays, short stories, and novels.

Sylvia Plath (06:21) 
American writer Sylvia Plath greatly admired Virginia Woolf. In “The Bell Jar” and “Lady Lazarus,” she expresses madness as rage. Like Gilman and Woolf, Plath plans and commits suicide.

Alice Walker (02:04) 
Black women writers have had to deal with issues of gender, race, and class in ways that are not central to white women’s literature or men’s literature. Black tradition influences Alice Walker.

“The Color Purple” (04:09) 
“The Color Purple” is what Walker would call a “womanist” novel including issues of eroticism and a struggle missing from white feminism. Walker gives Celie space through her letters.

Quilting (04:02) 
Walker’s use of quilting is found in “The Color Purple” through the characters in both fragment and form. “Sister’s Choice” is a type of quilt that is a metaphor for the differences of women’s lives.

Watch the entire film here.

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Learning from Louisa: Expanding my writing horizons

I am pleased to announce a new blog, Be As One, conceived and realized because of this blog.

Inspiration

You may recall a previous post where I shared how Louisa May Alcott had inspired me to write and I unveiled an ebook essay, “Game-Changer”.

Since writing that essay, I have felt the pull more and more to write about other things.

Learning from Louisa

Madeleine Stern in Louisa May Alcott: A Biography shows throughout this tour de force how Louisa, the writer operated.

  • How every bit of life down the smallest detail was fodder for a story
  • How writing became an obsession, never far from her thoughts or her heart
  • How she was the consummate professional

Inspired!

I haven’t even gotten halfway through my re-read and yet I found myself getting fired up, desiring more and more to write about many things.

I’ve starting to see stories all around me and I want to write about them.

Great opportunities

This is the best time to be a writer because you don’t have to wait to be published. You can write and immediately share your work with the world, acquiring readers by working hard and exposing your writing on the internet.

How cool is that?

Introducing Be As One

Armed with this fire and a new confidence, I have created Be As One, a personal blog where I explore how to take the various compartments of my life and blend them into one single flow.

In the first post I write:

Over the last two years my life has gone through a quiet and profound transformation.

Emerging from the grief of losing my father in 2003 and then my mother in 2010, I have made some wonderful life-changing discoveries. As I learn to live them out, I am inviting you to come along on the journey and grow with me.

You may find your life changing too.

I endeavor to make Be As One a community of voices, sharing ideas as we strive to be whole people.

We’ll have some fun too, sharing our hobbies and interests.

Great launch day!

The blog launched yesterday with three posts:

It was a tremendous opening day with 779 hits!

Thank you

None of this would have been possible without your support. Thank you! I will continue my commitment to this blog, my “first-born” whom I love.

I invite you to visit Be As One and see what the buzz is all about!

Again, thank you. And thank you Louisa!

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Louisa the rabid fan

Louisa May Alcott hated being famous. Or so she said. Stories abounded of how she often masqueraded as a maid before answering the door at Orchard House to discourage would-be fans. She knew that readers imagined her looking like the dashing young Jo with her two tails of chestnut hair flying behind her when in fact, she was old, frail and sickly.

Benefits and pitfalls

Louisa guarded her privacy jealously and didn’t appreciate the attention of her fans. Still, the fame she had acquired had its benefits, allowing her to meet many of the most prominent writers and reformers of her day.

The object of Louisa’s hero worship

She may have abhorred hero worship but that didn’t stop her from indulging in it herself with her favorite author, Charles Dickens.

Having gratified myself in hero worship through this blog (and having acted on it with numerous visits to Orchard House), I had to smile when I read of “A Dickens Day,” a piece Louisa wrote which became a part of Shawl-Straps, a memoir of her time in Europe.

Touring Dickens’ London

Here Louisa details her sight-seeing trips around London to places immortalized in the books of Charles Dickens.

Sairey Gamp in front of her house

Madeleine Stern in Louisa May Alcott A Biography writes of Louisa seeing the street where Sairey Gamp had lived. Sairey Gamp was one of Louisa’s favorite characters and she often assumed the role to bring humor into difficult situations. Sairey Gamp was in constant demand at the Union Hotel Hospital where Louisa served as a Civil War nurse.

Stern writes,

“The genial Mr. Tyler [Louisa’s guide in the city] was delighted to find that to Louisa St. Paul’s was the place where Ralph Nickleby set his watch, and Westminster Abbey the home of the maid of honor in Mrs. Jarley’s waxworks.” (pg. 158, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Louisa filled her notebooks with such references to Dickens which she later turned into “A Dickens Day.”

Louisa the pilgrim

I have to admit I know little of Dickens so I didn’t recognize most the references Stern made to Dickens characters and sites. But as a fellow hero worshipper, I can surely empathize with the feelings Louisa must have had visiting those places. She went on her pilgrimage just as we have.

Watch what you wish for!

Charles Dickens

Louisa had the one privilege I and other Alcott enthusiasts will never have – meeting the author in person. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky! Louisa was less than enthusiastic seeing Dickens in person. Stern writes,

“… the magic was gone, and in its place was only the foppishness of a red-faced man with false teeth and the voice of a worn-out  actor … there was nothing genuine about him.” (pg. 157, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Louisa was deeply disappointed and, as much as she still loved his books, she would never be able to shake the image of the man.

Respect for her fans?

Perhaps that’s why she herself was so sensitive about the perception her fans had of her. Why dash the image of Jo March, replacing it with a curmudgeon, sick and frail? Let the fans have their dream.

Louisa was probably too hard on herself but as much as she claimed to dislike her fans, she apparently respected them. And she knew who paid the bills!

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comReading Louisa May Alcott A Biography by Madeleine Stern is part of my Louisa May Alcott Summer Challengeare you a part of this challenge and if so, how are you doing?

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Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge Update

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comHow are you doing on the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge? I’ve been pecking away at the Little Women re-read along with a re-read of Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine Stern. I’ve been keeping a casual reading journal for the latter and I’ll share some from that.

Still the best biography

Louisa May Alcott A Biography still stands for me as the definitive biography on Louisa. It was originally published in 1950 and updated in 1996.

Stern doesn’t waste a line – each one is pregnant with information! Yet, as dense as this book is, it doesn’t read as dry or scholarly, but more like a novel, and from the point of view of Louisa.

Reading from different perspectives

The first time I read this book I felt like I got into Louisa’s head and heart, living her life with her. I felt very sad when the book was done because the visit was too. But it was immensely satisfying.

This time I see it a new way. Stern’s thrust for the biography is Louisa the writer.  Every single event in her life revolves around how she can write about it. As an apprentice writer, I find this book to be an amazing teaching tool .

Here’s some examples of how Stern interpreted events as fodder for writing:

Life at Hillside

Stern describes the family’s life at Hillside as the culmination of so many of the things that fed Louisa’s happier writing. Little Women, which was based on part on that life, is a shining example.

Hillside had given Louisa a foundation of  stability to lean on for comfort during the leaner times, and fodder to draw upon for future stories.

Reading leads to doubt

Stern describes a crisis of confidence on young Louisa’s part as she read more and more of Emerson’s books from his library. She saw her limitations and stopped writing in her journal. Abba steps in to encourage her with a note in her journal:

“I’m sure your life has many fine passages well worth revealing and to me they are always precious … Do write a little each day, dear, but if a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won.”

Turning the common into the extraordinary

Stern maps out Louisa’s influences, from Thoreau for Flower Fables to the Music Hall and divas Madame Sontag and Jenny Lind for The Rival Prima Donnas, written for The Saturday Evening Gazette. She writes, “surely no experience was too unimportant to serve as grist for the author’s mill …”

In her twenties, Louisa was leading a fairly uneventful life of hard work, mostly doing things she didn’t want to do. Such a grind could snuff out the inner life but not so with Louisa. Sterns writes of Louisa’s life fueling her ambition all the more: she meant to earn her living as a writer and therefore never missed an opportunity to develop life into a story.

It shows that you can lead a common life and still pull out the uncommon insights that turn these things into the extraordinary. You just need to have the eyes to see. Louisa excelled at that skill.

That’s my update for now. Are you participating in the challenge and if so, what are you reading?

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Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge – What I’m reading

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comThe In The Bookcase blog is holding a Louisa May Alcott summer reading challenge so you know I have to participate! :-)

Here’s what I plan on reading:

1. Finish my re-read of Little Women
(and Little Women (Norton Critical Edition) edited by Gregory Eiselein and Anne K. Phillips)

2. Finish my re-read of Louisa May Alcott:
A Biography
* by Madeleine B. Stern
(Also Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion by Madeline B. Stern and Leona Rostenberg since Leona’s discovering of Louisa’s alter ego, A. M.  Barnard, was made while Madeline was researching her biography)

3. Finish Eight Cousins

4. Read Work: A Story of Experience

5. At least start Louisa M. Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals,
edited by Ednah Cheney

Come and do this with me!

Just click on the picture above to find out more about this challenge. It’s really easy and should make for a nice summer. And, it’s a very appropriate way to celebrate the centennial of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House as a museum. :-)

What do you plan on reading?

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Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.

The always adaptable Louisa May Alcott

Following up on my last post, one of Susan Cheever’s footnotes referred the reader to Madeleine Stern’s tour de force, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography, and the outstanding chapter on Little Women. I read Madeleine Stern’s book several years ago and and it still remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. Now voraciously hungry for every little detail, Stern’s book is even more delicious. The text is positively dense with information and insight! If you haven’t read this book, it is a MUST.

One of my first questions after reading Cheever’s analysis of Louisa’s coming greatness through the writing of Little Women was: how could a woman who wrote sentimental romance novels and sensational blood and thunder stories write for children? And why was she even approached by Thomas Niles for Little Women or Horace Fuller for the children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum?

Stern answers these questions definitively in her chapter on Little Women: Louisa was an eminently practical woman who could adapt herself to whatever job she was asked to do. Considering the fact that she came from probably the most impractical father you could possibly imagine, this is extraordinary – talk about an opposing, even rebellious action on the part of the daughter!

Stern leads you through the process of how Louisa came to write juvenile literature, going through her motivation (mercenary, because she was asked to), her process (having the courage to try – simply writing stories until she hit upon her groove) and her inspiration (her life). The $500 that Fuller offered for editing the magazine was certainly needed – now it would be just a matter of getting down to business. Stern writes:

With the exception of Flower Fables and The Rose Family, Louisa had had no experience in writing for a juvenile public, and wondered how the author of “V.V.” and “The Abbot’s Ghost” would adapt herself to the new enterprise. To try her hand at literature for children, she wrote a story about the German family of Hummels, who lived in an old omnibus on the flats behinds the stables and subsisted on the money that little Fritz earned from selling chips. “Living on an Omnibus” appeared in October . . . it did not noticeably decrease the circulation of Merry’s Museum. Perhaps the editorial work would extend her skill in writing and selecting material. It would at least give her a public that, with the exception of Flower Fables, her stories had never known. Children might prove fruitful critics . . . (pages 163-164)

There’s a lot to be learned here (things I need to take to heart). Louisa never shrunk from a challenge. Her belief in her talent and the need for her work drove her to try just about anything. She wasn’t put off by a new experience; instead she embraced and exploited it (notice how she became a Civil War nurse despite her lack of experience – she adapted to it, embraced it, and it became a transforming life experience). Louisa adapted her writing style which began with the terser, simpler (and more authentic) prose of Hospital Sketches and, with much hard work, created the genius of Little Women simply by reporting what she had lived and seen.

(in the picture, Stern, L and lifelong friend Leona Rostenberg, R)
Stern then goes into a remarkable description of how Little Women essentially wrote itself as Louisa gave in, accepted her assignment, and lost herself in her vortex, reliving her life and the lives of her sisters. Much as she didn’t initially want to write Little Women, once she entered the process, the inspiration came. Stern presented the challenge of Little Women not so much as a thoroughly disagreeable task which Louisa took no creative pleasure in whatsoever, but rather as an assignment, much like a student would receive from a teacher. We all recall in school how we dreaded the writing of long term papers (I remember staying up all night and writing up until 10am when my English class was about to begin, finishing up my thesis on playwright Lillian Hellman); we’d procrastinate, dreading the process. But once giving in, sometimes, the term paper would take on a life of its own and become enjoyable to write. I believe this is what Stern is saying in this chapter and it backs up my claim that Little Women was inspired and that there had to be times when Louisa found it enjoyable to write. Perhaps it wasn’t the writing orgasm that Moods was, but it was still enjoyable.

This is why I love Madeleine Stern. She creates the most balanced picture of Louisa May Alcott and seemed to live inside of Louisa’s head while writing this extraordinary biography. I remember living inside Louisa’s head while reading it, and feeling very sad when the experience was over. I hadn’t read Little Women when I read Louisa May Alcott A Biography so this time, that chapter was especially meaningful.

I have a couple of ideas that I’ve wanted to explore on Louisa’s life that would require writing a paper or book but lack of confidence in my ability (and total lack of experience, plus no real academic background or disposition) has stopped me in my tracks. When I read this chapter in Stern’s book and I see the courage and resourcefulness that Louisa had, and the adaptability she practiced so well (one of her true marks of genius), then I think, why not? Why not give it a go?