The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Alcott, Louisa May

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Alcott, Louisa May
Edition of 1920. See also Louisa May Alcott on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

ALCOTT, Louisa May, American novelist, daughter of A. B. Alcott: b. Germantown, Pa., 29 Nov. 1832; d. Boston, Mass., 6 March 1888. two days after her father. She was two years old when her parents moved to Boston; eight when they went to Concord. Her father was her chief teacher, on the system of his famous infant schools; as the latter developed no other geniuses, probably nature was responsible for hers. Thoreau also taught her for a time. She had always creative facility and sense of literary form, and began writing in early youth; at first for pleasure, then at 16 for periodicals to help support the struggling family, whose mainstay she continued all her life, her father's superiorities not being of the money-making order. But for many years afterward she groped for her true field, starting with sensational stories of no permanent merit. For 10 years she was a school-teacher. In 1862 she went to Washington as a war hospital nurse and wrote letters thence to her mother and sisters; on her return in 1863 she recast these into a volume entitled ‘Hospital Sketches,’ as the easiest available literary capital, not suspecting that she had found her kingdom. In these was first revealed her peculiar power of sketching commonplace people and scenes in all their commonplaceness, yet by the play of genial humor and rare selective art making them as charming as the best creations of the fancy. The success of these stimulated the publication of ‘Little Women’ (written 1867, after return from a year's European trip for impaired health, published 1863), which sold 60,000 copies the first year, and which still remains one of the best copyrights in American literature. It raised her at once and justly to one of the front places in American authorship, and remains the one work of hers the world would much regret losing. In formal art it has no merits; there is no structure and no climax, merely detached scenes of an uneventful life; little delicacy of touch, though there are passages of much tenderness and pathos; but the healthy sense and stereoscopic lifelikeness make it rather an addition to people's actual experiences than their memories of fiction; and the girls, despite the blunt portrayal of surface faults and even over-harsh lack of idealisation, are loved like sisters by millions. It is the world-photograph of the New England home and the American girl. This was her great opportunity; her own family and friends to “compose” and adorn, with scant need for imagination, of which she had little, or plot, in which she was very deficient After this, with the necessity of inventing a set story, and her personal life mostly wrought into her previous work, her limitations were strongly apparent: ‘An Old-Fashioned Girl’ (1869), ‘Little Men’ (1871) and a series of later juveniles, though only less popular with the young than ‘Little Women,’ add nothing to her real reputation. They are also deformed by two unwholesome qualities: one derived from her father, — representing grown people mainly as vexatious interferences with children's enjoyment and the latter as quite capable of teaching wisdom to their elders; the other a proof how much feminine craving lay underneath her spinster life, — making love-sentiment a sauce to everything from the kindergarten up, and the world one vast scene of “philandering.” But these pot-boilers had a higher motive and result than most money-earning, for they enabled her father to live his serene life. She adopted at different times a son of her sister, Mrs. John Pratt (“Meg”) and the orphaned daughter of her artist sister, Mme. Nieriken (“Amy”); and kept house for them and her father in vigorous New England fashion, caring for the latter like a baby. Fatigue and excitement during his last hours laid her low with a fatal brain fever. Besides the books above mentioned she published ‘Flower Fables or Fairy Tales’ (1855); ‘Moods’ (1864, revised 1881); a series, ‘Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag’ (1871-82); ‘Work, a Story of Experience’ (1873); ‘Eight Cousins’ (1874); ‘Rose in Bloom’ (1876); ‘Silver Pitchers’ (1876); ‘Under the Lilacs’ (1878); ‘Jack and Jill’ (1880); ‘Proverb Stories’ (1882); ‘Spinning-Wheel Stories’ (1884); ‘Lulu's Library’ (1885).