Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals

by Louisa May Alcott

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



On His Eighty-Sixth Birthday

Dear Pilgrim, waiting patiently,
The long, long journey nearly done,
Beside the sacred stream that flows
Clear shining in the western sun;
Look backward on the varied road
Your steadfast feet have trod,
From youth to age, through weal and woe,
Climbing forever nearer God.

Mountain and valley lie behind;
The slough is crossed, the wicket passed;
Doubt and despair, sorrow and sin,
Giant and fiend, conquered at last.
Neglect is changed to honor now;
The heavy cross may be laid down;
The white head wins and wears at length
The prophet's, not the martyr's, crown.

Greatheart and Faithful gone before,
Brave Christiana, Mercy sweet,
Are Shining Ones who stand and wait
The weary wanderer to greet.
Patience and Love his handmaids are,
And till time brings release,
Christian may rest in that bright room
Whose windows open to the east.

The staff set by, the sandals off,
Still pondering the precious scroll,
Serene and strong, he waits the call
That frees and wings a happy soul.
Then, beautiful as when it lured
The boy's aspiring eyes,
Before the pilgrim's longing sight
Shall the Celestial City rise.

November 29, 1885.L. M. A.

MISS ALCOTT'S appearance was striking and impressive rather than beautiful. Her figure was tall and well-proportioned, indicating strength and activity, and she walked with freedom and majesty. Her head was large, and her rich brown hair was long and luxuriant, giving a sense of fulness and richness of life to her massive features. While thoroughly unconventional, and even free and easy in her manner, she had a dignity of deportment which prevented undue liberties, and made intruders stand in awe of her. Generous in the extreme in serving others, she knew her own rights, and did not allow them to be trampled on. She repelled "the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes," and had much of the Burns spirit that sings "A man's a man for a' that" in the presence of insolent grandeur.

Miss Alcott always took her stand not for herself, but for her family, her class, her sex. The humblest writer should not be imposed upon in her person; every woman should be braver and stronger from her attitude. She was careless of outward distinctions; but she enjoyed the attentions which her fame brought her with simple pleasure, and was delighted to meet bright, intelligent, distinguished people, who added to her stores of observation and thought. She had the rare good fortune, which an heir of millions might envy, of living all her life in the society of the noblest men and women. The Emersons, the Thoreaus, the Hawthornes, and Miss Elizabeth Peabody were the constant companions of her childhood and youth. It was from them 389 that her standard of character was formed, and she could never enter any circle higher than that in which she had breathed freely from a child. She was quite capable of hero-worship, but her heroes were few.

With all her imagination and romance, Miss Alcott was a tremendous destroyer of illusions; she remorselessly tore them away from herself, persisting in holding a lens before every fault and folly of her own, and she did the same for those she loved best. Only what was intrinsically noble and true could stand the searching test of her intellectual scrutiny and keen perception of the incongruous and ridiculous.

This disposition was apparent in Louisa's relation to her father, whom she did not always fully understand. Perhaps he had a perception of this when he wrote–

"I press thee to my heart, as Duty's faithful child."

She had little sympathy with his speculative fancy, and saw plainly the impracticability of his schemes, and did not hesitate to touch with light and kindly satire his little peculiarities; yet in her deepest heart she gave him not only affection, but deep reverence. She felt the nobility and grandeur of his mind and heart. In "Little Women" the portrait of the father is less vivid and less literal than that of any other member of the family, and is scarcely recognizable; but it was impossible to make the student and idealist a part of the family life as she painted it,–full of fun, frolic, and adventure. In the second part she has taken pains 390 to make up for this seeming neglect, and pays homage to the quiet man at the end of the house, whose influence was so potent and so sweet over all within it.

Mrs. Alcott was a rich and noble nature, full of zeal and impulse, daily struggling with a temper threatening to burst out into fire, ready to fight like a lioness for her young, or to toil for them till Nature broke down under the burden. She had a rich appreciation of heroism and beauty in all noble living, a true love of literature, and an overflowing sympathy with all suffering humanity, but was also capable of righteous indignation and withering contempt. To this mother, royal in her motherhood, Louisa was bound by the closest ties of filial love and mutual understanding. She early believed herself to be her mother's favorite child, knew she was close to her heart, her every struggle watched, her every fault rebuked, every aspiration encouraged, every effort after good recognized. I think Louisa felt no pride in this preference. She knew that she was dear to her mother, because her stormy, wayward heart was best understood by her; and hence the mother, wiser for her child than for herself, watched her unfolding life with anxious care. Throughout the childish journal this relation is evident: the child's heart lies open to the mother, and the mother can help her because she understands her, and holds sacred every cry of her heart.

Such a loving relation to a mother–so rich, so full, so enduring–was the greatest possible blessing to her life. And richly did Louisa repay the 391 care. From her earliest years she was her mother's confidante, friend, and comforter. Her dream of success was not of fame and glory, but of the time when she could bring this weary pilgrim into "that chamber whose name is Peace," and there bid her sit with folded hands, listening to the loving voices of her children, and drinking in the fulness of life without care or anxiety.

And it all came true, like the conclusion of a fairy story; for good fairies had been busy at work for many years preparing the way. Who that saw that mother resting from her labors, proud in her children's success, happy in her husband's contentment, and in the love that had never faltered in the darkest days, can ever forget the peace of her countenance, the loving joy of her heart?

The relation of Miss Alcott to her older sister was of entire trust and confidence. Anna inherited the serene, unexacting temper of her father, with much of the loving warmth of her mother. She loved to hide behind her gifted sister, and to keep the ingle-side warm for her to retreat to when she was cold and weary. Anna's fine intellectual powers were shown more in the appreciation of others than in the expression of herself; her dramatic skill and her lively fancy, combined with her affection for Louisa, made her always ready to second all the plans for entertainment or benevolence. She appears in her true light in the sweet, lovable Meg of "Little Women;" and if she never had the fame and pecuniary success of her sister, she had the less rare, but equally satisfying, 392 happiness of wifehood and motherhood. And thus she repaid to Louisa what she had so generously done for the family, by giving her new objects of affection, and connecting her with a younger generation.

Louisa was always very fond of boys, and the difference of nature gave her an insight into their trials and difficulties without giving her a painful sense of her own hard struggles. In her nephews she found objects for all her wise and tender care, which they repaid with devoted affection. When boys became men, "they were less interesting to her; she could not understand them."

Elizabeth was unlike the other sisters. Retiring in disposition, she would gladly have ever lived in the privacy of home, her only desire being for the music that she loved. The father's ideality was in her a tender religious feeling; the mother's passionate impulse, a self-abnegating affection. She was in the family circle what she is in the book,–a strain of sweet, sad music we long and love to hear, and yet which almost breaks the heart with its forecasting of separation. She was very dear to both the father and mother, and the picture of the father watching all night by the marble remains of his child is very touching. He might well say,–

"Ah, me! life is not life deprived of thee."

Of the youngest of all,–bright, sparkling, capricious May,–quick in temper, quick in repentance, affectionate and generous, but full of her own plans, and quite inclined to have the world go on according 393 to her fancies,–I have spoken elsewhere. Less profound in her intellectual and religious nature than either of her sisters, she was like a nymph of Nature, full of friendly sportiveness, and disposed to live out her own life, since it might be only a brief summer day. She was Anna's special child, and Louisa was not always so patient with her as the older sister; yet how well Louisa understood her generous nature is shown by the beautiful sketch she has made of her in "Little Women." She was called the lucky one of the family, and she reaped the benefit of her generous sister's labors in her opportunities of education.

Miss Alcott's literary work is so closely interwoven with her personal life that it needs little separate mention. Literature was undoubtedly her true pursuit, and she loved and honored it. That she had her ambitious longings for higher forms of art than the pleasant stories for children is evident from her journals, and she twice attempted to paint the life of mature men and women struggling with great difficulties. In "Moods" and "A Modern Mephistopheles" we have proof of her interest in difficult subjects. I have spoken of them in connection with her life; but while they evince great power, and if standing alone would have stamped her as an author of original observation and keen thought, they can hardly be considered as thoroughly successful, and certainly have not won the sanction of the public like "Hospital Sketches" and "Little Women." Could she ever have commanded quiet leisure, with a tolerable degree of health, she might have wrought her fancies into a finer fabric, and achieved the success she aimed at.

Much as Miss Alcott loved literature, it was not an end in itself to her, but a means. Her heart was so bound up in her family,–she felt it so fully to be her sacred mission to provide for their wants,–that she sacrificed to it all ambitious dreams, health, leisure,–everything but her integrity of soul. But as "he that loseth his life shall find it," she has undoubtedly achieved a really greater work than if she had not had this constant stimulus to exertion. In her own line of work she is unsurpassed. While she paints in broad, free strokes the life of her own day, represented mostly by children and young people, she has always a high moral purpose, which gives strength and sweetness to the delineation; yet one never hears children complain of her moralizing,–it is events that reveal the lesson she would enforce. Her own deep nature shines through all the experiences of her characters, and impresses upon the children's hearts a sense of reality and truth. She charms them, wisely, to love the common virtues of truth, unselfishness, kindness, industry, and honesty. Dr. Johnson said children did not want to hear about themselves, but about giants and fairies; but while Miss Alcott could weave fairy fancies for them, they are quite as pleased with her real boys and girls in the plainest of costumes.

An especial merit of these books for young boys and girls is their purity of feeling. The family affection which was so predominant in the author's own life, always appears as the holiest and sweetest phase of human nature. She does not refuse to paint the innocent love and the happy marriage which it is natural for every young heart to be interested in, but it is in tender, modest colors. She does not make it the master and tyrant of the soul, nor does she ever connect it with sensual imagery; but it appears as one of "God's holy ordinances,"–natural and beautiful,–and is not separated from the thought of work and duty and self-sacrifice for others. No mother fears that her books will brush the bloom of modesty from the faces of her young men or maidens.

Even in the stories of her early period of work for money, which she wisely renounced as trash, while there is much that is thoroughly worthless as art, and little that has any value, Miss Alcott never falls into grossness of thought or baseness of feeling. She is sentimental, melodramatic, exaggerated, and unreal in her descriptions, but the stories leave no taint of evil behind them. Two of these stories, "The Baron's Gloves" and "A Whisper in the Dark," have been included in her published works, with her permission. Her friends are disposed to regret this, as they do not add to her reputation; but at least they serve to show the quality of work which she condemned so severely, and to satisfy the curiosity of readers in regard to it. It would be easy to point out defects in her style, and in some of her books there is evidence of the enforced drudgery of production, instead of the spontaneous flow of thought. The most serious defect is in her style of expression, which certainly passes the 396 fine line between colloquial ease and slang; it is her own natural, peculiar style, which appears in her journals and letters. That it is attractive to children is certain, but it offends the taste of those who love purity and elegance of speech. It does not appear in Louisa's more ambitious novels; here she sometimes falls into the opposite extreme of labored and stilted expression. But much of these books is written in a pure and beautiful style, showing that she could have united ease with elegance if she had not so constantly worked at high speed and with little revision. She was a great admirer of Dickens's writings; and although she has never imitated him, she was perhaps strengthened in her habit of using dashing, expressive language by so fascinating a model.

I have placed at the head of each chapter one of Miss Alcott's own poems, usually written at the period of which the chapter treats, and characteristic of her life at that time. Her first literary essay was the "Little Robin." But although her fond mother saw the future of a great poet in these simple verses, Louisa never claimed the title for herself. Her thoughts ran often into rhyme, and she sent many birthday and Christmas verses to her friends and especially to her father. They are usually playful. She always wrote to express some feeling of the hour, and I find no objective or descriptive poetry. But a few of her sacred poems, for we may certainly call them so, are very tender and beautiful, and deserve a permanent place among the poems of feeling,–those few poems which a true heart writes for itself. "Thoreau's Flute" was originally 397 published in the "Atlantic Monthly." It is the least personal of her poems. The lines to her father on his eighty-sixth birthday, the verses dedicated to her mother, and "My Prayer," the last poem that she wrote, breathe her deepest religious feeling in sweet and fitting strains. They will speak to the hearts of many in the hours of trial which are common to humanity. The long playful poem called "The Lay of the Golden Goose" was sent home from Europe as an answer to many questions from her admirers and demands for new stories. It has never been published, and is an interesting specimen of her playful rhyming.

While to Miss Alcott cannot be accorded a high rank as a poet,–which, indeed, she never claimed for herself,–it would be hard to deny a place in our most select anthology to "Thoreau's Flute" or "Transfiguration," the "Lines to my Father on his Eighty-sixth Birthday" and "My Prayer." I have therefore thought it well to preserve her best poems in connection with her life, where they properly belong; for they are all truly autobiographical, revealing the inner meaning of her life.

The pecuniary success of Miss Alcott's books enabled her to carry out her great purpose of providing for the comfort and happiness of her family. After the publication of "Little Women," she not only received a handsome sum for every new story, but there was a steady income from the old ones. Her American publishers estimate that they "have sold of her various works a million volumes, and that she realized from them more than two hundred 398 thousand dollars." While her own tastes were very simple, her expenses were large, for she longed to gratify every wish of those she loved, and she gave generously to every one in need. She had a true sense of the value of money. Her early poverty did not make her close in expending it, nor her later success lavish. She never was enslaved by debt or corrupted by wealth. She always held herself superior to her fortune, and made her means serve her highest purposes.

Of Miss Alcott's own reading she says:–

"Never a student, but a great reader. R. W. E. gave me Goethe's works at fifteen, and they have been my delight ever since. My library consists of Goethe, Emerson, Shakespeare, Carlyle, Margaret Fuller, and George Sand. George Eliot I don't care for, nor any of the modern poets but Whittier; the old ones–Herbert, Crashaw, Keats, Coleridge, Dante, and a few others–I like."

She gives this account of the beginning of her literary career:–

"This gem ['The Robin'] my proud mother preserved with care, assuring me that if I kept on in this way I might be a second Shakespeare in time. Fired with this modest ambition, I continued to write poems upon dead butterflies, lost kittens, the baby's eyes, and other simple subjects till the story-telling mania set in; and after frightening my sisters out of their wits by awful tales whispered in bed, I began to write down these histories of giants, ogres, dauntless girls, and magic transformations till we had a library of small paper-covered volumes illustrated by the author. Later the poems grew gloomy and 399 sentimental, and the tales more fanciful and less tragic, lovely elves and spirits taking the places of the former monsters."

Of her method of work she says:–

"I never had a study. Any pen and paper do, and an old atlas on my knee is all I want. Carry a dozen plots in my head, and think them over when in the mood. Sometimes keep one for years, and suddenly find it all ready to write. Often lie awake and plan whole chapters word for word, then merely scribble them down as if copying.

"Used to sit fourteen hours a day at one time, eating little, and unable to stir till a certain amount was done.

"Very few stories written in Concord; no inspiration in that dull place. Go to Boston, hire a quiet room and shut myself up in it."

The following letter gives her advice to young writers:–

To Mr. J. P. True.

Concord, October 24.

Dear Sir,–I never copy or "polish," so I have no old manuscripts to send you; and if I had it would be of little use, for one person's method is no rule for another. Each must work in his own way; and the only drill needed is to keep writing and profit by criticism. Mind grammar, spelling, and punctuation, use short words, and express as briefly as you can your meaning. Young people use too many adjectives and try to "write fine." The strongest, simplest words are best, and no foreign ones if it can be helped. 400

Write, and print if you can; if not, still write, and improve as you go on. Read the best books, and they will improve your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you have a style and place of your own, and can command good pay for the same things no one would take when you were unknown.

I know little of poetry, as I never read modern attempts, but advise any young person to keep to prose, as only once in a century is there a true poet; and verses are so easy to do that it is not much help to write them. I have so many letters like your own that I can say no more, but wish you success, and give you for a motto Michael Angelo's wise words: "Genius is infinite patience."

Your friend,

L. M. Alcott.

P. S.–The lines you send are better than many I see; but boys of nineteen cannot know much about hearts, and had better write of things they understand. Sentiment is apt to become sentimentality; and sense is always safer, as well as better drill, for young fancies and feelings.

Read Ralph Waldo Emerson, and see what good prose is, and some of the best poetry we have. I much prefer him to Longfellow.

"Years afterward," says Mr. True, "when I had achieved some slight success, I once more wrote, thanking her for her advice; and the following letter shows the kindliness of heart with which she extended ready recognition and encouragement to lesser workers in her chosen field:"– 401

Concord, Sept. 7, 1883.

My Dear Mr. True,–Thanks for the pretty book, which I read at once and with pleasure; for I still enjoy boys' pranks as much as ever.

I don't remember the advice I gave you, and should judge from this your first story that you did not need much. Your boys are real boys; and the girls can run,–which is a rare accomplishment nowadays I find. They are not sentimental either; and that is a good example to set both your brother writers and the lasses who read the book.

I heartily wish you success in your chosen work, and shall always be glad to know how fast and how far you climb on the steep road that leads to fame and fortune.

Yours truly,

L. M. Alcott.

Roberts Brothers, Miss Alcott's publishers for nearly twenty years, have collected all her stories in a uniform edition of twenty-five volumes. They are grouped into different series according to size and character, from her novels to "Lulu's Library" for very small children, and may be enumerated as follows:–

Novels (four volumes).–Work, Moods, A Modern Mephistopheles, Hospital Sketches.

Little Women Series (eight volumes).–Little Women, An Old-Fashioned Girl, Little Men, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, Jack and Jill, Jo's Boys.

Spinning-Wheel Stories Series (four volumes).–Silver Pitchers, Proverb Stories, Spinning-Wheel Stories, A Garland for Girls.

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag (six volumes).–My Boys, Shawl-Straps, 402 Cupid and Chow-Chow, My Girls, Jimmy's Cruise in the Pinafore, An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving.

Lulu's Library (three volumes).

Many of these stories were originally published in various magazines,–the popular "St Nicholas," for which Miss Alcott wrote some of her best things in her later years, the "Youth's Companion," and others. Her works have been republished in England; and through her English publishers, Messrs. Sampson Low and Company, of London, she has reaped the benefit of copyright there, and they have been translated into many languages. Her name is familiar and dear to the children of Europe, and they still read her books with the same eagerness as the children of her own land.

This extract from a letter written by the translator of Miss Alcott's books into Dutch will show how she is esteemed in Holland:–

"Miss Alcott was and is so much beloved here by her books, that you could scarce find a girl that had not read one or more of them. Last autumn I gave a translation of 'Lulu's Library' that appeared in November, 1887; the year before, a collection of tales and Christmas stories that appeared under the name of 'Gandsbloempje' ('Dandelion'). Yesterday a young niece of mine was here, and said, 'Oh, Aunt, how I enjoyed those stories! but the former of "Meh Meh" I still preferred.' A friend wrote: 'My children are confined to the sickroom, but find comfort in Alcott's "Under the Lilacs."' Her fame here was chiefly caused by her 'Little Women' 403 and 'Little Women Wedded,' which in Dutch were called 'Under Moedervleugels' ('Under Mother's Wings') and 'Op Eigen Wieken' ('With Their Own Wings'). Her 'Work' was translated as 'De Hand van den Ploey' ('The Hand on the Plough')."

How enduring the fame of Louisa M. Alcott will be, time only can show; but if to endear oneself to two generations of children, and to mould their minds by wise counsel in attractive form entitle an author to the lasting gratitude of her country, that praise and reward belong to Louisa May Alcott.


© 2022 AmericanLiterature.com