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?


9 Replies to “The always adaptable Louisa May Alcott”

  1. I used to feel that my ideas weren’t valuable because I was not an “expert.” Sometimes experts miss out on new ideas because they work within a circle of knowledge which keeps them from perceiving what is outside that circle. Give it a try.

  2. I totally agree with the above comments and suggest you continue to “think big.” What have you got to lose? Remember, Madeleine Stern was a middle school English teacher before she wrote her Alcott bio – the first since the puff piece of a memoir Ednah Cheney wrote the year after LMA’s death. M.B.S. went on to write quite a few more books and was the founder and dean of LMA studies.

    Madeleine and Leona – I had the honor of getting to know them but that’s a story for another day – encouraged each other. Leona had been denied a PhD by Columbia University because her thesis was about the history of publishing and was deemed not important (after she wrote it)! The next Christmas Madeleine gave her a set of top-of-the-line, beautiful business stationery and forms with the heading “Leona Rostenberg, Dealer in Rare Books” (I’m sure I have the wording wrong). Leona had to use it, and thus made the plunge into a much-wanted career she had been afraid to try.

    Years later, seeing Leona’s accomplishments and reviewing her case, Columbia did give her their degree. I called her Leona when I saw her, but always refer to her in print as Dr. Rostenberg. The two (not romantic partners, by the way) wrote a lovely joint bio called “Old Books, Rare Friends,” in which you find the above anecdotes.

    I’m about the only person I know except for you who loves Madeleine’s book – the style is considered dated – making up dialogue, for example, which I seem to recall she does. But when I consulted other bios for sources, it turned out the middle school teacher was an outstanding scholar and a big help. Daniel Shealy is wonderful that way. His endnotes for the journals and letters suggested all kinds of directions.

    I could say much more, about Moods, LMA’s spirituality, suicide incidents, how we filmed that interview with money we weren’t supposed to use for it etc., but I’ll just tell you that I also met the last in a long line of Stern/Rostenberg dachshounds named Laurie.

    Best, Harriet

    1. Madeleine Stern is my hero! I had no idea about her background but now I want to read that book about her and Dr. Rostenberg. My cousin and her roommate are like Madeleine and Leona, always there for each other through thick and thin – it’s a beautiful relationship.

      Hard to believe her book is no longer appreciated by the general LMA public – they’re really missing something! I read it when it was first reissued in the 1990s and having read very few books, let alone biographies, I didn’t know what was in style then. All I knew was Louisa felt like my friend by the time I finished and I hated to see the book end.

      I am guessing that if I am meant to write something more than this blog that my current direction will take me there, that I’ll be swept into it. I no longer read just to read – I now keep a notebook, not only via this blog, but a written one (thanks to Meg North for the idea). Last fall I tripled my library of LMA books (by and for) and am systematically reading through each one, albeit quite slowly. :-).

      I just need a Leona to push me along (or like you had Nancy Porter). 🙂

      Really appreciate all this feedback and affirmation!

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