Louisa May Alcott:
HER Life, Letters, and Journals.
EDITED BY EDNAH D. CHENEY
LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY
By J. S. P. Alcott.
It is therefore impossible to understand Miss Alcott’s works fully without a knowledge of her own life and experiences. By inheritance and education she had rich and peculiar gifts; and her life was one of rare advantages, as well as of trying difficulties. Herself of the most true and frank nature, she has given us the opportunity of knowing her without disguise; and it is thus that I shall try to portray her, showing what influences acted upon her through life, and how faithfully and fully she performed whatever duties circumstances laid upon her. Fortunately I can let her speak mainly for herself.
Miss Alcott revised her journals at different times during her later life, striking out what was too personal for other eyes than her own, and destroying a great deal which would doubtless have proved very interesting.v
The small number of letters given will undoubtedly be a disappointment. Miss Alcott wished to have most of her letters destroyed, and her sister respected her wishes. She was not a voluminous correspondent; she did not encourage many intimacies, and she seldom wrote letters except to her family, unless in reference to some purpose she had strongly at heart. Writing was her constant occupation, and she was not tempted to indulge in it as a recreation. Her letters are brief, and strictly to the point, but always characteristic in feeling and expression; and, even at the risk of the repetition of matter contained in her journals or her books, I shall give copious extracts from such as have come into my hands.
E. D. C.
Jamaica Plain, Mass., 1889.
TO THE FIRST ROBIN.
Welcome, welcome, little stranger,
Fear no harm, and fear no danger;
We are glad to see you here,
For you sing “Sweet Spring is near.”
Now the white snow melts away;
Now the flowers blossom gay:
Come dear bird and build your nest,
For we love our robin best.
Louisa May Alcott.
MR. ALCOTT had removed to Germantown, Penn, to take charge of a school, and here Louisa was born, Nov. 29, 1832. She was the second daughter, and was welcomed with the same pride and affection as her elder sister had been. We have this pleasant little glimpse of her when she was hardly a month old, from the pen of one of her mother’s friends. Even at that extremely early age love saw the signs of more than usual intelligence, and friends as well as fond parents looked forward to a promising career.
Extract from a Letter by Miss Donaldson.
Germantown, Penn., Dec. 16, 1832.
I have a dear little pet in Mrs. Alcott’s little Louisa. It is the prettiest, best little thing in the world. You will wonder to hear me call anything so young pretty, but it is really so in an uncommon degree; it has a fair complexion, dark bright eyes, long dark hair, a high forehead, and altogether a countenance of more than usual intelligence.
The mother is such a delightful woman that it is a cordial to my heart whenever I go to see her. I went in to see her for a few moments the evening we received your letter, and I think I never saw her in better spirits; and truly, if goodness and integrity can insure felicity, she deserves to be happy.
The earliest anecdote remembered of Louisa is this: When the family went from Philadelphia to Boston by steamer, the two little girls were nicely dressed in clean nankeen frocks for the voyage; but they had not been long on board before the lively Louisa was missing, and after a long search she was brought up from the engine-room, where her eager curiosity had carried her, and where she was having a beautiful time, with “plenty of dirt.”
The family removed to Boston in 1834, and Mr. Alcott opened his famous school in Masonic Temple. Louisa was too young to attend the school except as an occasional visitor; but she found plenty of interest and amusement for herself in playing on the Common, making friends with every child she met, and on one occasion 18falling into the Frog Pond. She has given a very lively picture of this period of her life in “Poppy’s Pranks,” that vivacious young person being a picture of herself, not at all exaggerated.
The family lived successively in Front Street, Cottage Place, and Beach Street during the six succeeding years in Boston. They occasionally passed some weeks at Scituate during the summer, which the children heartily enjoyed.
Mrs. Hawthorne gives a little anecdote which shows how the child’s heart was blossoming in this family sunshine: “One morning in Front Street, at the breakfast table, Louisa suddenly broke silence, with a sunny smile saying, ‘I love everybody in dis whole world.’”
Two children were born during this residence in Boston. Elizabeth was named for Mr. Alcott’s assistant in his school,–Miss E. P. Peabody, since so widely known and beloved by all friends of education. A boy was born only to die. The little body was laid reverently away in the lot of Colonel May in the old burial-ground on the Common, and the children were taught to speak with tenderness of their “baby brother.”
When Louisa was about seven years old she made a visit to friends in Providence. Miss C. writes of her: “She is a beautiful little girl to look upon, and I love her affectionate manners. I think she is more like her mother than either of the others.” As is usually the case, Louisa’s journal, which she began at this early age, speaks more fully of her struggles and difficulties than of the bright, sunny moods which made her attractive. A  little letter carefully printed and sent home during this visit is preserved. In it she says she is not happy; and she did have one trying experience there, to which she refers in “My Boys.” Seeing some poor children who she thought were hungry, she took food from the house without asking permission, and carried it to them, and was afterward very much astonished and grieved at being reprimanded instead of praised for the deed. Miss C. says: “She has had several spells of feeling sad; but a walk or a talk soon dispels all gloom. She was half moody when she wrote her letter; but now she is gay as a lark. She loves to play out of doors, and sometimes she is not inclined to stay in when it is unpleasant.” In her sketches of “My Boys” she describes two of her companions here, not forgetting the kindness of the one and the mischievousness of the other.
Although the family were quite comfortable during the time of Mr. Alcott’s teaching in Boston, yet the children wearied of their extremely simple diet of plain boiled rice without sugar, and graham meal without butter or molasses. An old friend who could not eat the bountiful rations provided for her at the United States Hotel, used to save her piece of pie or cake for the Alcott children. Louisa often took it home to the others in a bandbox which she brought for the purpose.
This friend was absent in Europe many years, and returned to find the name of Louisa Alcott famous. When she met the authoress on the street she was eagerly greeted. “Why, I did not think you would remember me!” said the old lady. 20“Do you think I shall ever forget that bandbox?” was the instant reply.
In 1840, Mr. Alcott’s school having proved unsuccessful, the family removed to Concord, Mass., and took a cottage which is described in “Little Women” as “Meg’s first home,” although Anna never lived there after her marriage. It was a pleasant house, with a garden full of trees, and best of all a large barn, in which the children could have free range and act out all the plays with which their little heads were teeming. Of course it was a delightful change from the city for the children, and here they passed two very happy years, for they were too young to understand the cares which pressed upon the hearts of their parents. Life was full of interest. One cold morning they found in the garden a little half-starved bird; and having warmed and fed it, Louisa was inspired to write a pretty poem to “The Robin.” The fond mother was so delighted that she said to her, “You will grow up a Shakspeare!” From the lessons of her father she had formed the habit of writing freely, but this is the first recorded instance of her attempting to express her feelings in verse.
From the influences of such parentage as I have described, the family life in which Louisa was brought up became wholly unique.
If the father had to give up his cherished projects of a school modelled after his ideas, he could at least conduct the education of his own children; and he did so with the most tender devotion. Even when they were infants he took a great deal of personal care of them, and loved to put the little ones 21to bed and use the “children’s hour” to instil into their hearts lessons of love and wisdom. He was full of fun too, and would lie on the floor and frolic with them, making compasses of his long legs with which to draw letters and diagrams. No shade of fear mingled with the children’s reverent recognition of his superior spiritual life. So their hearts lay open to him, and he was able to help them in their troubles.
He taught them much by writing; and we have many specimens of their lists of words to be spelled, written, and understood. The lessons at Scituate were often in the garden, and their father always drew their attention to Nature and her beautiful forms and meanings. Little symbolical pictures helped to illustrate his lessons, and he sometimes made drawings himself. …
The children were 23always required to keep their journals regularly, and although these were open to the inspection of father and mother, they were very frank, and really recorded their struggles and desires. The mother had the habit of writing little notes to the children when she wished to call their attention to any fault or peculiarity. Louisa preserved many of them,….
A passage in Louisa’s story of “Little Men” (p. 268) describes one of their childish plays. They “made believe” their minds were little round rooms in which the soul lived, and in which good or bad things were preserved. This play was never forgotten in after life, and the girls often looked into their little rooms for comfort or guidance in trial or temptation.
Louisa was very fond of animals, as is abundantly shown in her stories. She never had the happiness of owning many pets, except cats, and these were the delight of the household. The children played all manner of plays with them, tended them in sickness, buried them with funeral honors, and Louisa has embalmed their memory in the story of “The Seven Black Cats” in “Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag.”
Dolls were an equal source of pleasure. The imaginative children hardly recognized them as manufactured articles, but endowed them with life and feeling. Louisa put her dolls through every experience of life; they were fed, educated, punished, rewarded, nursed, and even hung and buried, and then resurrected in her stories. The account of the “Sacrifice of the Dolls” to the exacting Kitty Mouse in “Little Men” delights all children by its mixture of pathetic earnestness and playfulness. It is taken from the experience of another family of children.
Miss Alcott twice says that she never went to any school but her father’s; but there were some slight exceptions to this rule. She went a few months to a little district school in Still River Village. This was a genuine old-fashioned school, 26from which she took the hint of the frolics in “Under the Lilacs.” Miss Ford also kept a little school in Mr. Emerson’s barn, to which the children went; and Mary Russell had a school, which Louisa attended when eight or nine years old. These circumstances, however, had small influence in her education.
During this period of life in Concord, which was so happy to the children, the mother’s heart was full of anxious care. She however entered into all their childish pleasures, and her watchful care over their moral growth is shown by her letters and by Louisa’s journals.
The youngest child, Abba May, who was born in the cottage, became the pet of the family and the special care of the oldest sister, Anna.
Louisa’s childish journal gives us many hints of this happy life. She revised these journals in later years, adding significant comments which are full of interest. She designed them to have place in her autobiography, which she hoped to write.
From three different sources–her journals, an article written for publication, and a manuscript prepared for a friend,–we give her own account of these childish years. She has not followed the order of events strictly, and it has not been possible, therefore, to avoid all repetition; but they give the spirit of her early life, and clearly show the kind of education she received from her father and from the circumstances around her.
Sketch of Childhood, by herself.
One of my earliest recollections is of playing with books in my father’s study,–building houses and bridges of the big dictionaries and diaries, looking at pictures, pretending to read, and scribbling on blank pages whenever pen or pencil could be found. Many of these first attempts at authorship still remain in Bacon’s Essays, Plutarch’s Lives, and other works of a serious nature, my infant taste being for solid literature, apparently.
On one occasion we built a high tower round baby Lizzie as she sat playing with her toys on the floor, and being attracted by something out-of-doors, forgot our little prisoner. A search was made, and patient baby at last discovered curled up and fast asleep in her dungeon cell, out of which she emerged so rosy and smiling after her nap that we were forgiven for our carelessness.
Another memory is of my fourth birthday, which was celebrated at my father’s school-room in Masonic Temple. All the children were there. I wore a crown of flowers, and stood upon a table to dispense cakes to each child as the procession marched past. By some oversight the cakes fell short, and I saw that if I gave away the last one I should have none. As I was queen of the revel, I felt that I ought to have it, and held on to it tightly till my mother said,–
“It is always better to give away than to keep the nice things; so I know my Louy will not let the little friend go without.”
The little friend received the dear plummy cake, and I a kiss and my first lesson in the sweetness of self-denial,–a lesson which my dear mother beautifully illustrated all her long and noble life.
On one of these occasions I passed a varied day with some Irish children, who hospitably shared their cold potatoes, salt-fish, and crusts with me as we revelled in the ash-heaps which then adorned the waste lands where the Albany Depot now stands. A trip to the Common cheered the afternoon, but as dusk set in and my friends deserted me, I felt that home was a nice place after all, and tried to find it. I dimly remember watching a lamp-lighter as I sat to rest on some doorsteps in Bedford Street, where a big dog welcomed me so kindly that I fell asleep with my head pillowed on his curly back, and was found there by the town-crier, whom my distracted parents had sent in search of me. His bell and proclamation of the loss of “a little girl, six years old, in a pink frock, white hat, and new green shoes,” woke me up, and a small voice answered out of the darkness,–
“Why, dat’s me!”
Being with difficulty torn from my four-footed friend, I was carried to the crier’s house, and there feasted sumptuously on bread-and-molasses in a tin plate with the alphabet round it. But my fun ended next day when I was tied to the arm of the sofa to repent at leisure.
I became an Abolitionist at a very early age, but have never been able to decide whether I was made so by seeing the portrait of George Thompson hidden under a bed in our house during the Garrison riot, and going to comfort “the poor man who had been good to the slaves,” or because I was saved from drowning in the Frog Pond some years later by a colored boy. However that may be, the conversion was genuine; and my 29greatest pride is in the fact that I lived to know the brave men and women who did so much for the cause, and that I had a very small share in the war which put an end to a great wrong.
Another recollection of her childhood was of a “contraband” hidden in the oven, which must have made her sense of the horrors of slavery very keen.
I never went to school except to my father or such governesses as from time to time came into the family. Schools then were not what they are now; so we had lessons each morning in the study. And very happy hours they were to us, for my father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child’s nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strasburg goose, with more than it could digest. I never liked arithmetic nor grammar, and dodged those branches on all occasions; but reading, writing, composition, history, and geography I enjoyed, as well as the stories read to us with a skill peculiarly his own.
“Pilgrim’s Progress,” Krummacher’s “Parables,” Miss Edgeworth, and the best of the dear old fairy tales made the reading hour the pleasantest of our day. On Sundays we had a simple service of Bible stories, hymns, and conversation about the state of our little consciences and the conduct of our childish lives which never will be forgotten.
Walks each morning round the Common while in the city, and long tramps over hill and dale when our home was in the country, were a part of our education, as well as every sort of housework,–for which I have always been very grateful, since such knowledge makes one independent 30in these days of domestic tribulation with the “help” who are too often only hindrances.
Needle-work began early, and at ten my skilful sister made a linen shirt beautifully; while at twelve I set up as a doll’s dressmaker, with my sign out and wonderful models in my window. All the children employed me, and my turbans were the rage at one time, to the great dismay of the neighbors’ hens, who were hotly hunted down, that I might tweak out their downiest feathers to adorn the dolls’ headgear.
Active exercise was my delight, from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop round the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening.
I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy.
My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild, learning of Nature what no books can teach, and being led,–as those who truly love her seldom fail to be,–
“Through Nature up to Nature’s God.”
I remember running over the hills just at dawn one summer morning, and pausing to rest in the silent woods, saw, through an arch of trees, the sun rise over river, hill, and wide green meadows as I never saw it before.
Something born of the lovely hour, a happy mood, and the unfolding aspirations of a child’s soul seemed to bring me very near to God; and in the hush of that morning hour I always felt that I “got religion,” as the phrase 31goes. A new and vital sense of His presence, tender and sustaining as a father’s arms, came to me then, never to change through forty years of life’s vicissitudes, but to grow stronger for the sharp discipline of poverty and pain, sorrow and success.
Those Concord days were the happiest of my life, for we had charming playmates in the little Emersons, Channings, Hawthornes, and Goodwins, with the illustrious parents and their friends to enjoy our pranks and share our excursions.
Plays in the barn were a favorite amusement, and we dramatized the fairy tales in great style. Our giant came tumbling off a loft when Jack cut down the squash-vine running up a ladder to represent the immortal bean. Cinderella rolled away in a vast pumpkin, and a long black pudding was lowered by invisible hands to fasten itself on the nose of the woman who wasted her three wishes.
Pilgrims journeyed over the hill with scrip and staff and cockle-shells in their hats; fairies held their pretty revels among the whispering birches, and strawberry parties in the rustic arbor were honored by poets and philosophers, who fed us on their wit and wisdom while the little maids served more mortal food.
[My Note: Fruitlands was the Utopian Transcendental Comm
Early Diary kept at Fruitlands, 1843.
Ten Years Old.
September 1st.–I rose at five and had my bath. I love cold water! Then we had our singing-lesson with Mr. Lane. After breakfast I washed dishes, and ran on the hill till nine, and had some thoughts,–it was so beautiful up there. Did my lessons,–wrote and spelt and did sums; and Mr. Lane read a story, “The Judicious Father”: How a rich girl told a poor girl not to look over the fence at the flowers, and was cross to her because she was unhappy. The father heard her do it, and made the girls change clothes. The poor one was glad to do it, and he told her to keep them. But the rich one was very sad; for she had to wear the old ones a week, and after that she was good to shabby girls. I liked it very much, and I shall be kind to poor people.
We had bread and fruit for dinner. I read and walked and played till supper-time. We sung in the evening. As I went to bed the moon came up very brightly and looked at me. I felt sad because I have been cross to-day, and did not mind Mother. I cried, and then I felt better, and said that piece from Mrs. Sigourney, “I must not tease my mother.” I get to sleep saying poetry,–I know a great deal.
Thursday, 14th.–Mr. Parker Pillsbury came, and we talked about the poor slaves. I had a music lesson with Miss F. I hate her, she is so fussy. I ran in the wind and played be a horse, and had a lovely time in the woods with Anna and Lizzie. We were fairies, and made gowns and paper wings. I “flied” the highest of all. In the evening they talked about travelling. I thought about Father going to England, and said this piece of poetry I found in Byron’s poems:–
“When I left thy shores, O Naxos,
Not a tear in sorrow fell;
Not a sigh or faltered accent
Told my bosom’s struggling swell.”
It rained when I went to bed, and made a pretty noise on the roof.
Sunday, 24th.–Father and Mr. Lane have gone to N. H. to preach. It was very lovely…. Anna and I got supper. In the eve I read “Vicar of Wakefield.” I was cross to-day, and I cried when I went to bed. I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I should be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so am very bad.
October 8th.–When I woke up, the first thought I got was, “It’s Mother’s birthday: I must be very good.” I ran and wished her a happy birthday, and gave her my kiss. After breakfast we gave her our presents. I had a moss cross and a piece of poetry for her.
We did not have any school, and played in the woods and got red leaves. In the evening we danced and sung, and I read a story about “Contentment.” I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day.
Thursday, 12th.–After lessons I ironed. We all went to the barn and husked corn. It was good fun. We worked till eight o’clock and had lamps. Mr. Russell came. Mother and Lizzie are going to Boston. I shall be very lonely without dear little Betty, and no one will be as good to me as mother. I read in Plutarch. I made a verse about sunset:–
Softly doth the sun descend
To his couch behind the hill,
Then, oh, then, I love to sit
On mossy banks beside the rill.
Anna thought it was very fine; but I didn’t like it very well.
Friday, Nov. 2nd.–Anna and I did the work. In the evening Mr. Lane asked us, “What is man?” These were our answers: A human being; an animal with a mind; a creature; a body; a soul and a mind. After a long talk we went to bed very tired.
[No wonder, after doing the work and worrying their little wits with such lessons.–L. M. A.] ….
Tuesday, 20th.–I rose at five, and after breakfast washed the dishes, and then helped mother work. Miss F. is gone, and Anna in Boston with Cousin Louisa. I took care of Abby (May) in the afternoon. In the evening I made some pretty things for my dolly. Father and Mr. L. had a talk, and father asked us if we saw any reason for us to separate. Mother wanted to, she is so tired. I like it, but not the school part or Mr. L.
Eleven years old. Thursday, 29th.–It was Father’s and my birthday. We had some nice presents. We played in the snow before school. Mother read “Rosamond” when we sewed. Father asked us in the eve what fault troubled us most. I said my bad temper.
I told mother I liked to have her write in my book. She said she would put in more, and she wrote this to help me:–
Dear Louy,–Your handwriting improves very fast. Take pains and do not be in a hurry. I like to have you make observations about our conversations and your own thoughts. It helps you to express them and to understand your little self. Remember, dear girl, that a diary should be an epitome of your life. May it be a record of pure thought and good actions, then you will indeed be the precious child of your loving mother.
December 10th.–I did my lessons, and walked in the afternoon. Father read to us in dear Pilgrim’s Progress. 39Mr. L. was in Boston, and we were glad. In the eve father and mother and Anna and I had a long talk. I was very unhappy, and we all cried. Anna and I cried in bed, and I prayed God to keep us all together.
[Little Lu began early to feel the family cares and peculiar trials.–L. M. A.] ….
Wednesday.–Read Martin Luther. A long letter from Anna. She sends me a picture of Jenny Lind, the great singer. She must be a happy girl. I should like to be famous as she is. Anna is very happy; and I don’t miss her as much as I shall by and by in the winter.
I wrote in my Imagination Book, and enjoyed it very much. Life is pleasanter than it used to be, and I don’t care about dying any more. Had a splendid run, and got a box of cones to burn. Sat and heard the pines sing a long time. Read Miss Bremer’s “Home” in the eve. Had good dreams, and woke now and then to think, and watch the moon. I had a pleasant time with my mind, for it was happy.
[Moods began early.–L. M. A.]
January, 1845, Friday.–Did my lessons, and in the p.m. mother read “Kenilworth” to us while we sewed. It is splendid! I got angry and called Anna mean. Father told me to look out the word in the Dic., and it meant “base,” “contemptible.” I was so ashamed to have called my dear sister that, and I cried over my bad tongue and temper.
Wednesday.–I am so cross I wish I had never been born.
Thursday.–Read the “Heart of Mid-Lothian,” and had a very happy day. Miss Ford gave us a botany lesson in the woods. I am always good there. In the evening Miss Ford told us about the bones in our bodies, and how they get out of order. I must be careful of mine, I climb and jump and run so much.
I found this note from dear mother in my journal:–
My dearest Louy,–I often peep into your diary, hoping to see some record of more happy days. “Hope, and keep busy,” dear daughter, and in all perplexity or trouble come freely to your
Dear Mother,–You shall see more happy days, and I will come to you with my worries, for you are the best woman in the world. …
Concord, Thursday.–I had an early run in the woods before the dew was off the grass. The moss was like velvet, and as I ran under the arches of yellow and red leaves I sang for joy, my heart was so bright and the world so beautiful. I stopped at the end of the walk and saw the sunshine out over the wide “Virginia meadows.”
It seemed like going through a dark life or grave into heaven beyond. A very strange and solemn feeling came over me as I stood there, with no sound but the rustle of the pines, no one near me, and the sun so glorious, as for me alone. It seemed as if I felt God as I never did before, and I prayed in my heart that I might keep that happy sense of nearness all my life.
[I have, for I most sincerely think that the little girl “got religion” that day in the wood when dear mother Nature led her to God.–L. M. A., 1885 .]
One of Louisa’s strongest desires at this time was for a room of her own, where she might have the solitude she craved to dream her dreams and work out her fancies. These sweet little notes and an extract from her journal show how this desire was felt and gratified. …
Thirteen Years Old.
March, 1846.–I have at last got the little room I have wanted so long, and am very happy about it. It 48does me good to be alone, and Mother has made it very pretty and neat for me. My work-basket and desk are by the window, and my closet is full of dried herbs that smell very nice. The door that opens into the garden will be very pretty in summer, and I can run off to the woods when I like.
I have made a plan for my life, as I am in my teens and no more a child. I am old for my age, and don’t care much for girl’s things. People think I’m wild and queer; but Mother understands and helps me. I have not told any one about my plan; but I’m going to be good. I’ve made so many resolutions, and written sad notes, and cried over my sins, and it doesn’t seem to do any good! Now I’m going to work really, for I feel a true desire to improve, and be a help and comfort, not a care and sorrow, to my dear mother.
Fifteen Years Old.
Sunday, Oct. 9, 1847.–I have been reading to-day Bettine’s correspondence with Goethe.
She calls herself a child, and writes about the lovely things she saw and heard, and felt and did. I liked it much.
[First taste of Goethe. Three years later R. W. E. gave me “Wilhelm Meister,” and from that day Goethe has been my chief idol.–L. M. A., 1885.]
The experiment at Fruitlands was (outwardly) an utter failure, and had exhausted Mr. Alcott’s resources of mind, body, and estate. Louisa has not exaggerated the collapse which followed. But the brave, loving mother could not give way to despondency, for she had her young to care for. After a few days Mr. Alcott rose from his despair, 49and listened to her counsel. They lived a short time at Still River, and then returned to Concord; but not to the happy little cottage.
Mr. Alcott sought such work as he could find to do with his hands; but it was scanty and insufficient. Mrs. Alcott subdued her proud heart to the necessity of seeking help from friends. They had a few rooms in the house of a kind neighbor, who welcomed them to her house, in addition to her own large family; and there they struggled with the poverty which Louisa for the first time fully realized.
Yet her journal says little of the hardships they endured, but is full of her mental and moral struggles. It was characteristic of this family that they never were conquered by their surroundings. Mr. Alcott might retire into sad and silent musing, Mrs. Alcott’s warm, quick temper, might burst out into flame, the children might be quarrelsome or noisy; but their ideal of life always remained high, fresh, and ennobling. Their souls always “knew their destiny divine,” and believed that they would find fitting expression in life some time. “Chill penury” could not repress “their noble rage,” nor freeze “the genial current” of their souls.
The children escaped from the privations of daily life into a world of romance, and in the plays in the old barn revelled in luxury and splendor. This dramatic tendency was very strong in Louisa, and she never outgrew it. It took various shapes and colors, and at one time threatened to dominate her life.
The education of the children was certainly desultory 50and insufficient; but it was inspiring, and brought out their powers. They learned to feel and to think justly, and to express their thoughts and feelings freely and forcibly, if they did not know well the rules of grammar and rhetoric. Mr. Alcott always loved the study of language, and became a master of it; while Mrs. Alcott had a rich and well-chosen vocabulary, gained from the intelligent companions of her youth and the best literature, which she read freely. Mr. Alcott made great use of the study of language in his teaching, and often employed the definition of a word to convey a lesson or a rebuke. The children were encouraged, and even required, to keep their journals regularly, and to write letters. Their efforts at poetry or the drama were not laughed at, but treasured by their parents as indications of progress. Mr. Alcott’s records of his own theory and practice in the education of children are full of valuable suggestion, and much yet remains buried in his journals. The girls had full freedom to act out their natures, with little fear of ridicule or criticism. An innate sense of dignity and modesty kept them from abusing this liberty; and perhaps nowhere in the world could it have been more safely indulged than in the simple life of Concord, whose very atmosphere seemed then filled with a spiritual presence which made life free, pure, and serene.
Louisa gives this interesting anecdote of their life at that time:–
People wondered at our frolics, but enjoyed them, and droll stories are still told of the adventures of those days. 51Mr. Emerson and Margaret Fuller were visiting my parents one afternoon, and the conversation having turned to the ever interesting subject of education, Miss Fuller said:–
“Well, Mr. Alcott, you have been able to carry out your methods in your own family, and I should like to see your model children.”
She did in a few moments, for as the guests stood on the door-steps a wild uproar approached, and round the corner of the house came a wheelbarrow holding baby May arrayed as a queen; I was the horse, bitted and bridled, and driven by my elder sister Anna; while Lizzie played dog, and barked as loud as her gentle voice permitted.
All were shouting and wild with fun, which, however, came to a sudden end as we espied the stately group before us; for my foot tripped, and down we all went in a laughing heap; while my mother put a climax to the joke by saying, with a dramatic wave of the hand,–
“Here are the model children, Miss Fuller.”
They were undoubtedly very satisfactory to Miss Fuller, who partook largely of the educational views of that time, and who loved to tell anecdotes of this family. One of the sisters writes in her diary: “She said prayers; but I think my resolutions to be good are prayers.”
In 1841 Colonel May, Mrs. Alcott’s father, died and left her a small amount of property. Mrs. Alcott decided to purchase with this a house in Concord, and the addition of five hundred dollars from Mr. Emerson, who was always the good Providence of the family, enabled her in 1845 to buy the place in Concord known as Hillside. This 52house is on the road to Lexington, about one third of a mile from Mr. Emerson’s home. It was afterward occupied by Mr. Hawthorne.
In this house the girlish life of Louisa was passed, which she has represented so fully in “Little Women,” and of which she speaks in her journal as the happiest time of her life. Yet she was not unmindful of the anxiety of her parents; and the determined purpose to retrieve the fortunes of the family and to give to her mother the comfort and ease which she had never known in her married life became the constant motive of her conduct. It is in the light of this purpose alone that her character and her subsequent career can be fully understood. She naturally thought of teaching as her work, and had for a short time a little school in the barn for Mr. Emerson’s children and others.
It was indeed a great comfort to be sure of the house over their heads, but there were still six mouths to be fed, six bodies to be clothed, and four young, eager minds to be educated. Concord offered very little opportunity for such work as either Mr. or Mrs. Alcott could do, and at last even the mother’s brave heart broke down. She was painfully anxious about the support of her household. A friend passing through Concord called upon her, and Mrs. Alcott could not hide the traces of tears on her face. “Abby Alcott, what does this mean?” said the visitor, with determined kindness. The poor mother opened her heart to her friend, and told the story of their privations and sufferings.53
“Come to Boston, and I will find you employment,” said the friend.
The family removed to Boston in 1848, and Mrs. Alcott became a visitor to the poor in the employ of one or more benevolent societies, and finally kept an intelligence office. Her whole heart went into her work; and the children, as well as the mother, learned many valuable lessons from it. Her reports of her work are said to have been very interesting, and full of valuable suggestion.
Mr. Alcott began to hold conversations in West Street. He attracted a small circle of thoughtful men and women about him, who delighted in the height of his aspirations and the originality of his thoughts. It was congenial occupation for him, and thus added to the happiness of the family, though very little to its pecuniary resources. His price of admission was small, and he freely invited any one who would enjoy the meetings although unable to pay for them. He was a great and helpful influence to young minds. Besides the morally pure and spiritually elevated atmosphere of thought to which they were introduced by him, they found a great intellectual advantage in the acquaintance with ancient poets and philosophers, into whose life he had entered sympathetically. His peculiar theories of temperament and diet never failed to call out discussion and opposition. One of my earliest recollections of Louisa is on one of these occasions, when he was emphasizing his doctrine that a vegetable diet would produce unruffled sweetness of temper and disposition. I heard a voice behind me saying to her neighbor: “I don’t know 54about that. I’ve never eaten any meat, and I’m awful cross and irritable very often.”
On her fourteenth birthday her mother wrote her the following poem, with a present of a pen. It was a prophetic gift, and well used by the receiver.
Oh, may this pen your muse inspire,
When wrapt in pure poetic fire,
To write some sweet, some thrilling verse;
A song of love or sorrow’s lay,
Or duty’s clear but tedious way
In brighter hope rehearse.
Oh, let your strain be soft and high,
Of crosses here, of crowns beyond the sky;
Truth guide your pen, inspire your theme,
And from each note joy’s music stream.
[Original, I think. I have tried to obey.–L. M. A., 1885.]
In a sketch written for a friend, Louisa gives this account of the parents’ influence on the children:–
When cautious friends asked mother how she dared to have such outcasts among her girls, she always answered, with an expression of confidence which did much to keep us safe, “I can trust my daughters, and this is the best way to teach them how to shun these sins and comfort these sorrows. They cannot escape the knowledge of them; better gain this under their father’s roof and their mother’s care, and so be protected by these experiences when their turn comes to face the world and its temptations.” Once we carried our breakfast to a starving family; once lent our whole dinner to a neighbor suddenly taken unprepared by distinguished guests. Another time, one snowy Saturday night, when our wood was very low, a poor child came to beg a little, as the baby was 55sick and the father on a spree with all his wages. My mother hesitated at first, as we also had a baby. Very cold weather was upon us, and a Sunday to be got through before more wood could be had. My father said, “Give half our stock, and trust in Providence; the weather will moderate, or wood will come.” Mother laughed, and answered in her cheery way, “Well, their need is greater than ours, and if our half gives out we can go to bed and tell stories.” So a generous half went to the poor neighbor, and a little later in the eve, while the storm still raged and we were about to cover our fire to keep it, a knock came, and a farmer who usually supplied us appeared, saying anxiously, “I started for Boston with a load of wood, but it drifts so I want to go home. Wouldn’t you like to have me drop the wood here; it would accommodate me, and you needn’t hurry about paying for it.” “Yes,” said Father; and as the man went off he turned to Mother with a look that much impressed us children with his gifts as a seer, “Didn’t I tell you wood would come if the weather did not moderate?” Mother’s motto was “Hope, and keep busy,” and one of her sayings, “Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days it will come back buttered.”
THE SENTIMENTAL PERIOD.
A SONG FROM THE SUDS.
Queen of my tub, I merrily sing,
While the white foam rises high,
And sturdily wash, and rinse, and wring,
And fasten the clothes to dry;
Then out in the free fresh air they swing,
Under the sunny sky.
I wish we could wash from our hearts and our souls
The stains of the week away,
And let water and air by their magic make
Ourselves as pure as they;
Then on the earth there would be indeed
A glorious washing-day!
Along the path of a useful life
Will heart’s-ease ever bloom;
The busy mind has no time to think
Of sorrow, or care, or gloom;
And anxious thoughts may be swept away
As we busily wield a broom.
I am glad a task to me is given
To labor at day by day;
For it brings me health, and strength, and hope,
And I cheerfully learn to say,–
“Head, you may think; heart, you may feel;
But hand, you shall work alway!”
THE period of free, happy childhood was necessarily short, and at about the age of fifteen Louisa Alcott began to feel the pressure of thoughts and duties which made life a more solemn matter. 57In spite of the overflowing fun which appears in her books, her nature was very serious, and she could not cast aside care lightly. So many varying tendencies existed in her character that she must have struggled with many doubts and questions before finding the true path. But she always kept the pole-star of right strictly in view, and never failed in truth to that duty which seemed to her nearest and most imperative. If she erred in judgment, she did not err in conscientious fidelity.
Her mother’s rules for her guidance were–
Love your neighbor.
Do the duty which lies nearest you.
She never lost sight of these instructions.
I will introduce this period in her own words, as written later for the use of a friend.
My romantic period began at fifteen, when I fell to writing poetry, keeping a heart-journal, and wandering by moonlight instead of sleeping quietly. About that time, in browsing over Mr. Emerson’s library, I found Goethe’s “Correspondence with a Child,” and at once was fired with a desire to be a Bettine, making my father’s friend my Goethe. So I wrote letters to him, but never sent them; sat in a tall cherry-tree at midnight, singing to the moon till the owls scared me to bed; left wild flowers on the doorstep of my “Master,” and sung Mignon’s song under his window in very bad German.
Not till many years later did I tell my Goethe of this early romance and the part he played in it. He was much amused, and begged for his letters, kindly saying 58he felt honored to be so worshipped. The letters were burnt long ago, but Emerson remained my “Master” while he lived, doing more for me,–as for many another,–than he knew, by the simple beauty of his life, the truth and wisdom of his books, the example of a great, good man, untempted and unspoiled by the world which he made better while in it, and left richer and nobler when he went.
The trials of life began about this time, and happy childhood ended. One of the most memorable days of my life is a certain gloomy November afternoon, when we had been holding a family council as to ways and means. In summer we lived much as the birds did, on our fruit and bread and milk; the sun was our fire, the sky our roof, and Nature’s plenty made us forget that such a thing as poverty existed.
In 1850 she heads her diary “The Sentimental Period.” She was then seventeen years old, but her diary gives no hint of the sentimental notions that often fill the heads of young girls at that period. The experiences of Jo with her charming young neighbor in “Little Women” do not represent hers at all.
One bit of romance was suggested by Goethe’s “Correspondence with a Child.” It may be difficult for readers of to-day to understand the fascination which this book exercised upon young minds of the last generation, yet it is certain that it led more than one young girl to form an ideal attachment to a man far older than herself, but full of nobility and intellectual greatness. Theodore Parker said of letters addressed to him by a young New Hampshire girl, “They are as good as Bettine’s 59without the lies.” This mingling of idealism and hero-worship was strongly characteristic of that transcendental period when women, having little solid education and less industrial employment, were full of noble aspirations and longings for fuller and freer life, which must find expression in some way.
The young woman of to-day, wearing waterproof and india-rubber boots, skating, driving, and bicycling, studying chemistry in the laboratory, exhibiting her pictures in open competition, adopting a profession without opposition, and living single without fear of reproach, has less time for fancies and more regard for facts.
Miss Alcott was safe in choosing her idol. Worship of Emerson could only refine and elevate her thoughts, and her intimate acquaintance with his beautiful home chastened her idolatry into pure reverent friendship which never failed her. She kept her worship to herself, and never sent him the letters in which she poured out the longings and raptures which filled her girlish heart.
Her diary, which was revised by herself in later years, tells the story of this period quite fully. The details may seem trifling, but they help to illustrate this important formative period of her life.
THE SENTIMENTAL PERIOD.
Boston, May, 1850.–So long a time has passed since I kept a journal that I hardly know how to begin. Since coming to the city I don’t seem to have thought much, 60for the bustle and dirt and change send all lovely images and restful feelings away. Among my hills and woods I had fine free times alone, and though my thoughts were silly, I daresay, they helped to keep me happy and good. I see now what Nature did for me, and my “romantic tastes,” as people called that love of solitude and out-of-door life, taught me much.
This summer, like the last, we shall spend in a large house (Uncle May’s, Atkinson Street), with many comforts about us which we shall enjoy, and in the autumn I hope I shall have something to show that the time has not been wasted. Seventeen years have I lived, and yet so little do I know, and so much remains to be done before I begin to be what I desire,–a truly good and useful woman.
In looking over our journals, Father says, “Anna’s is about other people, Louisa’s about herself.” That is true, for I don’t talk about myself; yet must always think of the wilful, moody girl I try to manage, and in my journal I write of her to see how she gets on. Anna is so good she need not take care of herself, and can enjoy other people. If I look in my glass, I try to keep down vanity about my long hair, my well-shaped head, and my good nose. In the street I try not to covet fine things. My quick tongue is always getting me into trouble, and my moodiness makes it hard to be cheerful when I think how poor we are, how much worry it is to live, and how many things I long to do I never can.
So every day is a battle, and I’m so tired I don’t want to live; only it’s cowardly to die till you have done something.
I can’t talk to any one but Mother about my troubles, and she has so many now to bear I try not to add any more. I know God is always ready to hear, but heaven’s 61so far away in the city, and I s[We had small-pox in the family this summer, caught from some poor immigrants whom mother took into our garden and fed one day. We girls had it lightly, but Father and Mother were very ill, and we had a curious time of exile, danger, and trouble. No doctors, and all got well.–L. M. A.]o heavy I can’t fly up to find Him. …
August, 1850.–School is hard work, and I feel as though I should like to run away from it. But my children get on; so I travel up every day, and do my best.
I get very little time to write or think; for my working days have begun, and when school is over Anna wants me; so I have no quiet. I think a little solitude every 63day is good for me. In the quiet I see my faults, and try to mend them; but, deary me, I don’t get on at all.
I used to imagine my mind a room in confusion, and I was to put it in order; so I swept out useless thoughts and dusted foolish fancies away, and furnished it with good resolutions and began again. But cobwebs get in. I’m not a good housekeeper, and never get my room in nice order. I once wrote a poem about it when I was fourteen, and called it “My Little Kingdom.” It is still hard to rule it, and always will be I think.m…
1854.–Pinckney Street.–I have neglected my journal for months, so must write it up. School for me month after month. Mother busy with boarders and sewing. Father doing as well as a philosopher can in a money-loving world. Anna at S.
I earned a good deal by sewing in the evening when my day’s work was done.
In February Father came home. Paid his way, but no more. A dramatic scene when he arrived in the night. We were waked by hearing the bell. Mother flew down, crying “My husband!” We rushed after, and five white figures embraced the half-frozen wanderer who came in hungry, tired, cold, and disappointed, but smiling bravely 70and as serene as ever. We fed and warmed and brooded over him, longing to ask if he had made any money; but no one did till little May said, after he had told all the pleasant things, “Well, did people pay you?” Then, with a queer look, he opened his pocket-book and showed one dollar, saying with a smile that made our eyes fill, “Only that! My overcoat was stolen, and I had to buy a shawl. Many promises were not kept, and travelling is costly; but I have opened the way, and another year shall do better.”
I shall never forget how beautifully Mother answered him, though the dear, hopeful soul had built much on his success; but with a beaming face she kissed him, saying, “I call that doing very well. Since you are safely home, dear, we don’t ask anything more.”
Anna and I choked down our tears, and took a little lesson in real love which we never forgot, nor the look that the tired man and the tender woman gave one another. It was half tragic and comic, for Father was very dirty and sleepy, and Mother in a big nightcap and funny old jacket.
[I began to see the strong contrasts and the fun and follies in every-day life about this time.–L. M. A.]
Anna came home in March. Kept our school all summer. I got “Flower Fables” ready to print.
Louisa also tried service with a relative in the country for a short time, but teaching, sewing, and writing were her principal occupations during this residence in Boston.
These seven years, from Louisa’s sixteenth to her twenty-third year, might be called an apprenticeship to life. She tried various paths, and learned to know herself and the world about her, although 71she was not even yet certain of success in the way which finally opened before her and led her so successfully to the accomplishment of her life-purpose. She tried teaching, without satisfaction to herself or perhaps to others. The kind of education she had herself received fitted her admirably to understand and influence children, but not to carry on the routine of a school. Sewing was her resource when nothing else offered, but it is almost pitiful to think of her as confined to such work when great powers were lying dormant in her mind. Still, Margaret Fuller said that a year of enforced quiet in the country devoted mainly to sewing was very useful to her, since she reviewed and examined the treasures laid up in her memory; and doubtless Louisa Alcott thought out many a story which afterward delighted the world while her fingers busily plied the needle. Yet it was a great deliverance when she first found that the products of her brain would bring in the needed money for family support….
WHEN only twenty-two years old Miss Alcott began her career of authorship by launching a little flower bark, which floated gaily on the stream. She had always written poems, plays, and stories for her own and her friends’ pleasure, and now she gathered up some tales she had written for Mr. Emerson’s daughter, and published them under the name of “Flower Fables.” She received the small amount of thirty-two dollars for the book; but it gave her the great satisfaction of having earned it by work that she loved, and which she could do well. She began to have applications for stories from the papers; but as yet sewing and teaching paid better than writing. While she sewed her brain was busy with plans of poems, plays, and tales, which she made use of at a later period. …
Being behindhand, as usual, I’ll make note of the main events up to date, for I don’t waste ink in poetry and pages of rubbish now. I’ve begun to live, and have no time for sentimental musing.
In October I began my school; Father talked, Mother looked after her boarders, and tried to help everybody. Anna was in Syracuse teaching Mrs. S––’s children.
My book came out; and people began to think that topsey-turvey Louisa would amount to something after all, since she could do so well as housemaid, teacher, seamstress, and story-teller. Perhaps she may.
In February I wrote a story for which C. paid $5, and asked for more.
In March I wrote a farce for W. Warren, and Dr. W. offered it to him; but W. W. was too busy.
Also began another tale, but found little time to work on it, with school, sewing, and house-work. My winter’s earnings are,–
|School, one quarter