“Duty chains me to my galley:” Examining the publishing process of Louisa May Alcott – a lecture by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy

The celebration continues on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women. The Concord Free Public Library, home to the largest collection of original Alcott manuscripts, hosted Alcott scholars Joel Myerson from the University of South Carolina and Daniel Shealy from UNC Charlotte, both of whom gave their first joint lecture on Alcott. A video of their lecture appears at the end of this post.

Daniel Shealy and Joel Myerson

Newly discovered manuscripts

The topic surrounded not only the celebration of Little Women’s 150th but the library’s recent acquisitions of manuscripts of Under the Lilacs and Eight Cousins. This most fortunate acquisition not only sheds light on the publishing process of some of Alcott’s works, it also busts wide open the myth (created by Louisa herself according to Shealy) that she did not edit her work.

“Eight Cousins” from St. Nicholas Magazine

Examining “Our Foreign Correspondent”

Shealy began the lecture by examining one of the two existing chapters from Little Women, Part Second (also known as Good Wives), “Our Foreign Correspondent.” He detailed the plot changes that occurred between this writing and the final published book; here Amy had been shown flirting with many men and beginning a relationship with a Captain Lennox whom she had met on the voyage over to Europe. Fred Vaughn, whom she had met earlier at “Camp Lawrence” barely figured in the manuscript version while in the book, Amy expected him to propose (and she planned on accepting). While it is unknown who was involved with these changes as there is no known correspondence between Louisa and Thomas Niles concerning this chapter, the changes were made. Shealy made mention of Anne Boyd Rioux’s plausible explanation as to why (in her book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy), suggesting that Amy had appeared to be too flirtatious and Louisa was concerned that such behavior would put off younger readers.

from Project Gutenberg

Working with illustrators

Louisa May Alcott was also very involved with the illustrators of her book. While she was most displeased with Hammatt Billings’ illustrations for part second of Little Women, she was far more favorably disposed towards Frank T. Merrill who contributed some 200 drawings to a deluxe edition combining parts one and two; it was published by Robert Brothers in 1880. (This version also included word changes, taking out some of the slang that Louisa had put in. The Norton annotated edition of Little Women, edited by Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein details these changes). The Concord Library is in possession of some 60+ drawings by Merrill, all containing comments by Louisa written on the back as to their suitability. In most cases she was very satisfied, calling them “capital” and “lovely” but at times she had suggestions for improvements. What was particularly fascinating was that you could see the evidence of Merrill’s changes, who often pasted over part of the drawing with a new rendition according to Louisa’s directions.

From Project Gutenberg. This is one of the illustrations owned by the Concord Library. In their copy, a new image of Laurie had been pasted over the old image.

Under the Lilacs

Joel Myerson

Joel Myerson then began to lecture on the newly acquired manuscript of Under the Lilacs. Because of notes made in the margins by Louisa, it could be established that this manuscript had been submitted to St. Nicholas Magazine for serialization in 1877 (it was later released in book form in 1878). The copies were fairly clean with few changes indicating this was the copy that compositors used to set the type, letter by letter (they were paid by the word). Myerson theorized that the editor of St. Nicholas, Mary Mapes Dodge (who wrote Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates) retained the manuscripts, an unusual practice as manuscripts were not seen as having any real value in the 19th century once the type was set. It is only recently in the 20th and 21st centuries that collectors have sought such manuscripts thus placing great monetary value on them. It is fortunate for students and scholars of Alcott that Dodge chose to save these manuscripts, giving us a window into Louisa’s thought process as her books were brought to press.

“Under the Lilacs” from St. Nicholas Magazine

Did she edit? How much did she care?

Perhaps the most important aspect of the discovery of these manuscripts was to show that Louisa cared very much about the words she chose and the illustrations drawn for her books. While she had led us to believe that she merely churned out her books as fast as she could without any editing, we now know (with a smile) that she was spinning yet another story and adding to her mythology.

Come and visit

All were encouraged by the curator of Special Collections, Leslie Perrin Wilson, to come and visit the library and see for ourselves these valuable manuscripts which have stories to tell beyond the words scribbled on the page. Myerson and Shealy hoped that their lecture would encourage younger scholars to come forth and study these manuscripts for further information on the prolific author.

The Concord Free Public Library was kind enough to post a video of the lecture; I am grateful to them for giving me permission to post it here:


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