Authors’ words often conceal their lives

Louisa May Alcott

I took a brief hiatus from column-writing last week. Life and work overwhelmed me, the waters of inspiration dried up, and I couldn’t think of a single thing from the 19th century (or the 21st for that matter) more interesting than finally getting some sleep.

Now I’m back and I’m thinking about how authors’ words often conceal their lives. My favorite example is Louisa May Alcott.

You remember Louisa May. She brought us Jo, Meg and the rest of the upright, upstanding, slightly uptight March clan in her novel, “Little Women.” If you’ve only read that book, or perhaps its sequel “Little Men,” you might imagine Alcott as a sort of Civil War-era Mary Poppins, dispensing morality with a spoonful of sugar and a smile.

You probably don’t picture her writing a series of lurid “sensation” tales for pulp magazines, working as a servant carrying firewood in the New England winter, or keeping vigil at a Union hospital as a man “shot through the lungs” slowly dies.

Yet all of these things (and many more) were part of the “real” Louisa May. The cause of most of them was her father, Bronson. The Mr. March we meet in Little Women is modeled after the half of Bronson Alcott his daughter admired — the idealistic, willing to risk his life for a cause half. The other half, the one her words seek to conceal, was a much more problematic patriarch.

Bronson was an idealist. He thought he could change the world. And so, in 1843, when Louisa was only 10 years old, he moved his family to a commune he and some friends had dreamed up called Fruitlands. If you think communes today are a little “alternative,” rest assured they’ve got nothing on the Fruitlands folks. Bronson insisted that his family dress only in linen tunics to avoid buying cotton picked by slaves. They were strict vegans (there was a lot of that going around in the mid-19th century) and they refused to use any animals for farming so as not to exploit them. Alcott himself didn’t even believe in killing bugs.

The Fruitland dreamers quickly found that it’s hard to plough a field without a mule and even harder to fertilize it without manure. There was also the small problem that most of them liked writing poetry about working in the fields more than they liked, well, working in the fields. The commune folded quickly, and it became a symbol of the rest of Bronson Alcott’s life. His dreams soared to the skies while his family back on earth fought a never-ending battle with poverty.

It was Louisa who stepped in to make ends meet. She taught school, went out in service, sewed, and most of all, wrote. She read all the magazines, figured out their style, and gave them what they wanted. She wrote thrillers and mysteries, sentimental romances, modern fairy tales, and Gothic horror. Most of it was published under pen-names; all of it was hers.

Perhaps the closest she ever came to revealing the crushing, dispiriting nature of all of this toil is her autobiographical novel “Work,” in which the heroine’s father is conveniently dead before the action starts. Even there, though, she gives herself a happy ending, marrying a handsome, fictional stand-in for Henry David Thoreau. Like her father, it seems, she couldn’t quite let go of the romance of ideals.

If you want to get to know the real Louisa I’d suggest checking out her journals. There’s a wonderful edition of them from the University of Georgia Press edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. I picked them up this week and was inspired by the woman’s tenacity and formidable prolificness. So I vowed, Jo March style, never to complain about writing a column ever again.

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