Madeleine B. Stern’s Brilliant Analysis of Little Women

Louisa May Alcott - a biography by Madeleine B. Stern

Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine B. Stern (1999) is considered the definitive biography of the famous author of Little Women (1868). Tracing the life of Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888) the writer, Stern gives penetrating insight not only into Alcott’s life, but her very essence as a writer.

As a writer myself, I have found much wisdom in these pages and have marveled at Alcott’s ability to “simmer a story” in her head while fulfilling duties around the house, and then later sitting down to spill it out on paper to submit without editing.

Stern’s brilliant chapter on the creation and writing of Little Women analyzes the creation of the book, how Alcott wove fact and fiction together, and why the book has such universal appeal, transcending not only gender and age, but time.

 

A request for Louisa May Alcott from a publisher

Stern begins with Thomas Niles of Roberts Bros. urging Louisa to try her hand at a girl’s book, hoping to duplicate the runaway success of the “Oliver Optic” series for boys. Impressed by the success of Hospital Sketches, Alcott’s first foray into realism, Niles hoped to capitalize on that style and the author’s recent success for the juvenile market.

I had always wondered why he approached Louisa as she didn’t have any direct experience in writing for juveniles and Stern reveals why: “She [Louisa] have proved her ability to report observations in Hospital Sketches; she had indicated her powers of appealing to juvenile readers in her editorship of Merry’s Museum.

Could not Miss Alcott combine both talents in a domestic novel that would reflect American life for the enjoyment of American youth?

 

How she wrote for children

Louisa saw no trick in writing for children: simply tell the truth. Describe life as it is, using the real language of children (slang and all). For Louisa, it was a simple calculation. Wisely deciding to write what she knew, she drew upon the rich history of her own childhood.

Stern describes Bronson’s ideal of the “happy, kind and loving family, a home where peace and gentle quiet abide.” Little Women was to be the depiction of that ideal home.

Although the Alcott home life was often fraught with anxiety and chaos due to their poverty, there was plenty to build upon in Little Women based upon the ideal that they attempted to live. On occasion, that ideal did play out.

 

Carrying on the family work

Bronson and Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in Louisa’s ability to relate to children; Waldo had called her the “poet of children, who knew their angels” (Ibid). Certainly Bronson had something to gain by Louisa’s agreeing to write the story as Robert Bros. promised to publish his book, Tablets, if she agreed.

But he had urged her for years to write good stories for children as the nurturing of the minds of children was nearest and dearest to his heart. If he could no longer do it, his daughter could take up the mantle through her gift with a story.

Stern writes, “The door was Hillside’s. Could Louisa open it, recover those despised recollections of childhood, and find in the biography of one foolish person the miniature paraphrase of the hundred volumes of the universal history?”

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Little women illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

Little Women: A Book I Come Back to for Comfort and Guidance
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Mixing fiction seamlessly with fact

Mining her vast storehouse of memories, Louisa transcribed her childhood, mixing fiction seamlessly with fact to create a compelling story. Both she and Thomas Niles, her publisher, felt the book was “dull” after the first twelve chapters, but Niles’ niece and other children who read the manuscript had different ideas.

Louisa may not have enjoyed the creative satisfaction of churning out Little Women as she had with her A. M. Barnard thrillers, but her pen was creating sheer lightning in the guise of simple truth and family devotion.

Characters and settings from the book were composites of real people and events. Stern writes of Laurie: “Laurie would inherit from Ladislas [Wisniewski, Louisa’s love interest from her first tour of Europe] his curly black hair and big black eyes, his musical skill, and his foreign background, while Alf [Whitman, a lifelong friend from Louisa’s theater days] would endow him with high spirits and a sober kind of fascination.”

Mr. March’s letters came from Bronson’s writings while living at “Concordia” (just before they embarked on Fruitlands) while Marmee’s notes to her daughters originated from jottings in the girls’ various journals.

Louisa’s “The Olive Leaf,” a family newspaper created while the family lived in destitution in Boston as a means of entertainment, became “The Pickwick Portfolio,” carrying with it the various Dickensian characters.

What was real and what was fiction? Did Amy (May) really burn Jo’s (Louisa’s) manuscript? Did she really fall through the ice? Did Anna have the experience of Meg, being dressed up like a doll by her wealthy friends?

Stern writes, “It scarcely mattered. Fact was embedded into fiction, and a domestic noel begun in which the local and the universal were married, in which adolescents were clothed in flesh and blood.”

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marmee reads a letter Little Women Louisa May Alcott

Illustrations for Little Women by Jessie Wilcox Smith
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Creation of an American classic

Little did Louisa know that this story based her own family life and their “queer” adventures would become the story that was on the heart of all Americans.

It was time America had its own literature, its own family. The March family was quintessential New England and yet their story transcended New England, having, as Madeleine Stern put it, “a more universal reality than that of a single village.”

For the first time teenage readers met themselves: adolescent characters navigating through the daily trials and triumphs, emerging into adulthood. Meg begins her own family with John. Jo strikes out on her own as a working woman and writer, living far away from home New York City.

Amy evolves into a woman of grace, leaving behind selfish impulses and eventually leading Laurie to his better self. Beth was not destined to enter the world of adults but left behind an example and a spirit that guided her sister Jo to a place where she could reconcile her ambitions with her love of family.

Stern writes, “Then the families of the nation might open the door of Hillside to find not the Marches, but themselves waiting within. Under to roof of one New England home, they would see all the homes of America.”

 

To marry or not to marry …

Part two of Little Women, dubbed Good Wives, was written not at Orchard House but in Boston on Brookline Street. The demands of readers were great; such was the price of success, a success she had dreamt of since being a teenager herself.

Yes, the girls would marry even though she wished that Jo could have remained like herself, a “literary spinster.” It was not from lack of suitors. George Bartlett, a fellow actor in the local theatricals, offered his help in reading the proofs of the first part of the book and his help was gratefully accepted. His attentions upon the “chronic old maid,” however were politely rebuffed.

 

Monies earned, stories told

Moving with May into the new Bellevue Hotel on Beacon Street, Louisa continue work on the second half of the book while receiving her first royalties totally three hundred dollars for three thousand copies sold.

Here she relived the pain of Lizzie’s death, brought Amy and Laurie together in a boat they would pull together and had Professor Bhaer serenade Jo with the song Louisa herself had sung for Mr. Emerson.

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Louisa May Alcott - a biography by Madeleine B. Stern

Louisa May Alcott: A biography by Madeleine B. Stern on Amazon
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A timely restorative to the Alcott family

Stern writes, “Devoutly Louisa hoped that the new year of 1869 would bring to the Orchard House a happy harvesting from the tears and laughter she had sowed in the book where she had found her style at last.”

It would come to pass with a harvest pressed down, shaken together, and running over, as it says in the scriptures. “The long-standing hurts were healed, the reception of the March family into the hearts of New England proved a timely restorative to one who had created that family.”

— Contributed by Susan Bailey,  a writer and lifelong student of Louisa May Alcott. She maintains the only blog devoted exclusively to Alcott, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion.

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