American Literature Louisa May Alcott
by
Anne K. Phillips
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0209

Introduction

Louisa May Alcott (b. 1832–d. 1888) is among the most enduring of 19th-century American authors. Publishing in diverse genres, including fantasy, realism, gothic fiction, sketches, and poetry, she found favor with broad audiences. Her first notable success, Hospital Sketches (1863), reflected her experiences as a nurse during the Civil War. In the same period, she won a $100 prize from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” one of the sensation stories featuring drug use, murder, and other illicit activities that she published anonymously or pseudonymously. Having also placed her work in respected literary magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Alcott built relationships with the leading editors of her era. In 1867, editor Thomas Niles of the Boston publishing firm Roberts Brothers invited Alcott to write a novel for girls that might compete with books for boys produced by authors such as Horatio Alger and “Oliver Optic” (William T. Adams). Alcott demurred for months until driven by her family’s chronic poverty to accept Niles’ offer. Volume 1 of Little Women (1868) introduces adolescent sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March as well as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, their wealthy, attractive neighbor. Encouraged by the girls’ wise, loving mother Marmee, they nurture artistic aspirations despite social, economic, and gender constraints. Readers immediately demanded a sequel. In the subsequent volume (1869), Alcott’s protagonists maintain to varying degrees their artistic ambitions and dreams while moving beyond the boundaries of family and home. Little Women spawned two sequels, Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886), among other fiction. Although she later famously dismissed such work as “moral pap for the young,” Alcott nonetheless offered in it distinctive, lively representations of American youth and domestic life. Her work contrasts with other writings for young readers of the era, which was far more pious and lachrymose. The rediscovery of her lurid sensation stories in the 1940s and their republication in the 1970s provided scholars with new insights into Alcott’s life and writings, highlighting layers of anger, satire, and subversion in her work. Alcott advocated in her writings progressive causes such as educational reform, dress reform, temperance, suffrage, and racial equality. Among other works, An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869), Eight Cousins (1875), and Rose in Bloom (1876), as well as Alcott’s novels for adults Moods (1864) and Work: A Story of Experience (1873), continue to attract avid interest from scholars and enduring enthusiasm from fans.

General Overviews

A number of resources serve as useful introductions to Louisa May Alcott’s life, works, and significance. Written for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Doyle 2001 provides essential details of Alcott’s life and writings. Elbert 1984 offers an early book-length examination of Alcott’s inscription in writing of her awareness of the constraints imposed on women in 19th-century America and her strong support for measures that would liberate them and strengthen their access to education, suffrage, and other fundamental human rights. Strickland 1985 focuses on the dynamics of the Alcott family and the way that Louisa responds to and processes her family’s relationships and experiences in her fiction. Keyser 1993 interweaves analysis of Alcott’s sensation stories, her children’s fiction, her works for adults, and other writings, fully engaging with those literary works and revealing new depths and layers of meaning within them. Doyle 2000 places Alcott’s life and works in conversation with the life and works of Charlotte Brontë, tracing Alcott’s complex “transatlantic translation” of Brontë’s work. Trites 2007 engages specifically with the fiction written by Alcott for adolescent audiences, placing that work and Alcott’s experiences that led to it in proximity to the writings and life of Mark Twain. Both Alcott and Twain, according to Trites, position adolescence as a site for considerations of reform and social justice. A few volumes, including Doyle and Phillips 2006 and Phillips and Eiselein 2016, amass myriad resources for consideration of Alcott’s life and works, incorporating a range of scholarly and theoretical perspectives. Shealy 1998 comprehensively sums up 19th- and 20th-century scholarship in Alcott studies and delineates productive paths for 21st-century scholars to follow. Eiselein and Phillips 2019 features seven original essays by distinguished Alcott scholars that focus on “the newness of Little Women.”

  • Doyle, Christine. Louisa May Alcott & Charlotte Brontë: Transatlantic Translations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000.

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    Considers the influence of Charlotte Brontë’s life and works on Alcott’s writings across genres. Doyle addresses not only Alcott’s identification with her British predecessor but also her resistance: “to trace the ways in which Alcott manipulates her allusions to Charlotte Brontë is to trace Alcott’s own development as an American woman writer of increasingly independent power and ultimately to place her more accurately within her own literary tradition” (p. 24).

  • Doyle, Christine. “Louisa May Alcott.” In American Women Prose Writers, 1820–1870. Vol. 239 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Edited by Amy E. Hudock and Katharine Rodier, 3–23. Detroit: Gale, 2001.

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    Includes a bibliography, biography, scholarly assessment, and relevant images. Excellent introduction to Alcott’s life, works, and reception.

  • Doyle, Christine, and Anne K. Phillips, eds. Special Issue: Children’s Literature 34 (2006).

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    Includes seven articles and two varia essays on Alcott and her works. Essays address Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys, as well as Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, and “Eli’s Education.” Contributors assess the literature through diverse lenses, including object-relations theory, landscape art and travel writing, Toni Morrison’s theory of “American Africanism,” modernity, performance and virtue, gender and disability studies, and textual scholarship.

  • Eiselein, Gregory, and Anne K. Phillips, eds. Special Issue: The Newness of Little Women. Women’s Studies 48.4 (2019).

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    Seven articles on the theme “the newness of Little Women,” including Shealy on marriage, Wadsworth on heterosexual friendship; Clark, West, and Hooper on post-2014 print and film adaptations (also see Clark 2019, under Adaptations of Little Women), Daly-Galeano on mashups and Little Women, and Hubler, Walls, and Pennell on teaching Alcott’s novel in gender studies, American Renaissance, and other literary contexts. Includes reviews of relevant print and film resources.

  • Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.

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    This study reclaims Alcott as a feminist writer, demonstrating her insistence throughout her literary works that women had fundamental rights to attain individuality, to be educated, to participate in democracy, to hold property, and more. Moving beyond the Romantic, Transcendental beliefs that suffused her childhood, Alcott thus espouses in her fiction a more rational, practical, constructive American identity.

  • Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

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    Recipient of the Children’s Literature Association’s Book Award, this study locates imagination, ambition, rage, realism, reform impulses, and other signature motifs throughout Alcott’s works across genres. Keyser argues for Alcott’s “stature as an artist of considerable range” (p. xi), tracing the way that her works “consistently supply the means for dismantling the system of values that her more or less conventional plots, characters, and narrators appear to support” (p. xv).

  • Phillips, Anne K., and Gregory Eiselein, eds. Critical Insights: Louisa May Alcott. Ipswich, MA: Salem Press, 2016.

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    Containing sixteen essays on Alcott’s life and writings, the volume examines Alcott’s feminism; poverty and social critique in works by Alcott and Twain; genius in works by Hawthorne and Alcott; nursing; Civil War motifs; Margaret Fuller’s influence on Alcott; Biblical allusions in Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom; Alcott’s dispute with Henry James about the purpose of fiction; and Alcott’s influence on Patti Smith and punk rock.

  • Shealy, Daniel. “Prospects for the Study of Louisa May Alcott.” Resources for American Literary Study 24.2 (1998): 157–176.

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    Comprehensively summarizes the scholarship on Alcott generated during the last few decades of the 20th century and articulates in detail the paths that scholars might follow to productively expand Alcott studies in the 21st century.

  • Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

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    Situates the Alcotts within the larger context of 19th-century American domestic culture, tracing in particular the tension between sentimental ideals and the realities of daily life in that era. Applying historical, literary, and psychological lenses, this volume is invaluable in conceptualizing the Alcotts’ social dynamics and Louisa’s practical, if not pessimistic, re-envisioning and adapting of those dynamics in her writings.

  • Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007.

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    While Twain and Alcott wrote works for youths that were critical of culture and postulated reform strategies, they rarely have been assessed in relation to each other. Further, their writings have significantly influenced ensuing literature for adolescents. Trites considers the connections between these authors, their relationships to their eras, their mutual use of adolescence as metaphor, their educational ideologies and other reform gestures, and their influence.

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