Unpublished Alcott Letters: New letter from Louisa to Little Women publisher Thomas Niles discovered

Here’s a good reason to join the Louisa May Alcott Society (and only for $10 per year).

Newly discovered letter

little women annotatedI recently received the quarterly newsletter to read an article by scholar Daniel Shealy (best known for his brilliant annotated edition of Little Women) reporting on the discovery of a new letter by Louisa May Alcott, addressed to her publisher, Thomas Niles. The letter was written in the summer of 1868. Shealy reveals, “The letter’s content reveals hithero unknown information regarding Alcott’s thoughts on the novel’s title and May Alcott’s work on the illustrations.” (from The Portfolio, Newsletter of the Louisa May Alcott Society, No. 14, Spring 2013).

illustration by Norman Rockwell for the Women's Home Companion series, "The Most Beloved American Writer" authored by Katharine Anthony
illustration by Norman Rockwell for the Women’s Home Companion series, “The Most Beloved American Writer” authored by Katharine Anthony

What will the title be?

Niles had proposed the title of the book in a letter dated June 16, 1868 (found in the Houghton Library, bMS Am 1130.8 [1-44]) and this letter appears to be the reply according to Shealy.

Talking over the particulars

from Wikipedia on Abigail May Alcott Nieriker
One of May Alcott’s illustrations for Little Women (Roberts Brothers, 1868), from Wikipedia on Abigail May Alcott Nieriker

He writes, “The letter begins with Alcott writing in the first paragraph that she is ‘send[ing] the design with May’s alterations.’ She notes, ‘She cannot do much but has put a snood on to Meg, & shaded here and there.”

Louisa’s wish

Louisa responds to Niles’ suggestion for the title in the second paragraph “About the title, we think that if a second one is needed ‘Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy’ simply, is enough, for it isn’t the story of their [sic] lives, & any thing like ‘the story of a year of their [sic] times is suggestive of Leslie Goldthwaite [referring to A Summer in Leslie Goldthwaite’s Life by then popular children’s author A. T. Whitney, published in 1866 (Ibid)].”

Roberts Brothers did originally promote Louisa’s book as Little Women; Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy the Story of Their Lives but eventually did give in to Louisa’s wish.

little women 1868

May apart from Amy

Shealy then writes, “An even more intriguing statement closes the letter’s second paragraph. Alcott writes, ‘My sister does not want to be identified as one of the little women & prefers to have it stand – ‘illustrated by May Alcott.’’ Why did May not want to be known as one of the little women? Did she simply think it would be more professional to be listed as the illustrator? Did she not want to be identified as Amy, the sister who comes off the worse in the first part of the novel?” (Ibid)

Life gets in the way

Louisa ends her letter apologizing to Niles for the messiness of the writing because “my small nephew in my map recovering from a tumble & and his gambols are not conducive to elegance of handwriting.”

Every detail matters

Shealy believes the letter shows Louisa’s active engagement with the book’s progress as it was being readied for the press. She was all business when it came to her writing.

It’s items like these that make me glad I am a member of the Louisa May Alcott Society. The message board is worth the price of admission alone. Visit their website at www.louisamayalcottsociety.org for more information.

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7 Replies to “Unpublished Alcott Letters: New letter from Louisa to Little Women publisher Thomas Niles discovered”

    1. Good question, I’ll have to write to Daniel and ask him. He says the following in his article: “The letter … was sold at Skinner, Inc. on 1 June 2013 in Boston. The bifolium, inscribed in Alcott’s hand on all four sides, sold for $10,000, with a $2,000 buyers premium, bringing the total cost to $12,000.” (from The Portfolio, No. 14, Spring 2013)

    1. Actually I heard from Daniel yesterday. The letter was purchased through an auction house and the owner therefore cannot be revealed. Hopefully said owner will make the letter public!

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