Louisa May Alcott was a famous writer, who wrote in a variety of genres, ranging from fairy tales and fictional children’s stories to sensational Gothic thrillers for adults. She was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and died on March 6, 1888, in Boston, Massachusetts. Alcott spent most of her childhood in Concord, Massachusetts where American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, educated her. The four Alcott daughters had to go to work at an early age in order to support the family because the Alcott’s did not have much money.
Later, Louisa May Alcott became a Civil War nurse in the Union Hotel Hospital. It was here that she contracted typhoid fever, due to poor sanitation and a bad diet, from which she would never fully recover. Louisa May Alcott used these life experiences a basis to write many books for both adults and children. Although Louisa May Alcott received praise and fame for her children’s stories during her lifetime, her adult books were harshly criticized and were not positively recognized until after her death.
Even though Louisa May Alcott did not set out to be a children’s writer, that is where her greatest popularity was achieved (MacDonald). She first began writing short stories, poems, and fairy tales, and then wrote fictional children’s novels which were largely based on her own childhood. These children’s stories frequently contained morals while still being entertaining and not preachy. They were also praised for their simple language and clear style. Alcott wrote with the idea that a long word never needed to be used when a short one would do as well.
Critics lauded her fast paced, episodic storylines that held the attention of the reader (McMahon 8). Alcott’s characterization also became the subject of many compliments. She developed characters with well-rounded personalities that could think for themselves (MacDonald). Her characters were humanized and showed both the positive and negative traits of children (MacDonald). In one novel, An Old Fashioned Girl, the main character, Polly, was seen as a standard for independent girls with purpose, talent, and ambition (Myerson xxxix).
Louisa May Alcott’s most famous work of children’s literature was Little Women. She wrote this book in only six weeks and yet it became an instant success (McMahon 6). Little Women realistically portrayed the domestic adventures of a New England family, but kept an optimistic outlook that readers could easily identify with (Unger 30). This book was praised for its feminist themes, such as limited financial opportunities for females, and insightful characterization (Unger 31). The characters were honest and forthright and each of the four sisters showed strong individuality (Wells 1).
The most popular character of this novel was Jo. “Jo is a unique creation, the one young woman in 19th century fiction who maintains her individual independence, who gives up no part of her autonomy for being a woman,” (McMahon 7). Little Women was so successful that it was said that reading it would raise standards of home and happiness (Wells 1). While the success of her children’s works was widespread, Louisa May Alcott’s adult literature was not received well by the public.
These Gothic thrillers were stories of intrigue with sensational plots and women who did not give in to the conventions of the time (McMahon 10). However, after the publication of her first novel, Moods, which featured a teenage bride forced into an unhappy marriage, critics attacked Alcott’s ignorance of the passions of love and the institution of marriage and mocked the exaggerated quality of the book. This drove Alcott to remain anonymous and publish her works under pseudonyms, and to write more children’s works that she knew would be acceptable (Unger 35).
Alcott’s most used pseudonym was A. M. Barnard. The works written under this name were rejected in the 1800s because they were considered “smut” by Victorian standards (Wells 1). Frequent themes of these stories were “marital sadism, inherited madness, murder, and drug abuse” (McMahon 10). The male population also criticized them because they went against the conservative standards of the time and condemned a society that refused to acknowledge women as independent and capable beings (Wells 1).
She used determined women who succeeded in manipulating and controlling others to achieve their goals, an inappropriate idea in the 1800s (Magill 45). Louisa May Alcott’s success as an adult writer came posthumously around the mid 1900s. After the women’s rights movement, her novels became popular with female readers because they featured many feminist themes, such as getting out of the house and entering into the world as doctors, writers, and charity workers (Wells 1). In Work, the main character went from job to job looking for female financial independence in a male’s world (Kester-Shelton 11).
Alcott’s novels also featured themes of deception, which helped to create exciting plots that were tight and well paced, and strong female characters (Unger 37). In 1975, several magazine thrillers written by A. M. Barnard were collected into several volumes and published as Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. In Behind a Mask, Alcott used the theme of deception and a femme fatale to create a story in which the conniving heroine manipulates several brothers to fall in love with her in an effort to humble them.
Although the heroine was evil, readers still admired the way she reached her goals through her daring and shrewdness (Magill 45). One previously unknown novel, A Long Fatal Love Chase, became a million-dollar bestseller after it was discovered in 1995. It then spent ten weeks in a row on top of the New York Times bestseller list (McMahon 10). Written in the 1860s, A Long Fatal Love Chase featured a woman being stalked by her ex-lover, a plot that was unfortunately better suited for the 1990s but was able to transcend the decades and still become popular (McMahon 11).
In conclusion, while Louisa May Alcott became famous for her children’s literature and was criticized for her adult novels, her adult works finally received praise and popularity many years after her death. In her children’s novels, her moral themes, simple writing style, and individual characters set standards for the time. While her Gothic literature was rejected at the time for its unconventional themes of deception, drug use, and femme fatales, these same themes made it popular one hundred years later after her works were rediscovered.