Somehow, during my childhood, I missed out on reading, or
having read to me, Little Women, Alcott's most well-known and beloved book. In my later years, admittedly knowing nothing whatsoever about her, I
spent my life thinking of her as a frumpy old lady who wrote "wholesome" (stuffy) children's books. A couple years ago, I got this one at a Dover sale, for a
dollar, I think. I pulled it out of the box to read because I needed relief from the many ponderous books I've recently tackled.
Oh, my. My, oh my. I believe I may have been in error about her. These stories are anything but stuffy, and neither is she. Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, (now part of Philadelphia), in 1832, the family moved to Boston two years later, then to Concord in 1840. Louisa's father was a Transcendentalist and her mother a social worker. Alcott had three sisters, and Little Women and its sequels are based on her family life.
Alcott's father was unable to provide for the family and his strict views on child rearing created conflicts with himself and the rest of the family. Nonetheless, Louisa grew up surrounded by literary greats. She began doing all sorts of work to help support the family, such as housework and teaching, and eventually her writings brought her critical success. In addition, she was an abolitionist, and her family served as station masters on the Underground Railroad. They supported women's suffrage, and Louisa was the first women to register to vote in Concord for a school board election. She was also known as a feminist, and spent six weeks as a nurse in the Civil War at the Union Hospital in Georgetown, D.C. before contracting typhoid and becoming seriously ill. This experience provided her with materials (taken from her letters written home), for her collection of Hospital Sketches, two of which are included in this little book. I am impressed by her sense of humor, which can quickly shift to heart-breaking tragedy, as she relates stories of her patients and their situations. All of these stories are interesting, and this short book is a quick breeze to read.
As I continued my research, I discovered even more interesting tidbits about this anything-but-stuffy woman. For instance, she may possibly been a lesbian, or maybe bisexual. According to Wikipedia, she said:
"I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul put by some freak of nature into a woman's body . . . because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man."
However, while on Europe, she did have a romance with a young Polish man, Ladislas (Laddie) Wisniewski. But her main reason for not marrying was because she simply did not want to. The fourth work included in this book, Happy Women, is not a story, but an essay on why it is important for women to be true to their inner calling for independence. She gives several examples of women she knew who chose to stay single and were true to themselves by doing so. She relates a story about a poor woman who was pursued by a rich and excellent man who would have ended her struggle with poverty. But in the end, she turns down his proposal because she just didn't love him:
"People tell me that I am foolish to reject this good fortune; that it is my duty to accept it; that I shall get on very well without love, and talk as if it were a business transaction."
But it is the last paragraph in this essay that speaks certainly to my heart and soul:
My sisters, don't be afraid of the words, "old maid," for it is in your power to make this a term of honor, not reproach. It is not necessary to be a sour, spiteful spinster, with nothing to do but brew tea, talk scandal and tend a pocket-handkerchief. No, the world is full of work, needing all the heads, hearts and hands we can bring to it. Never was there so splendid an opportunity for women to enjoy their liberty and prove they deserve it by using it wisely.
Fortunately "old maid" and "spinster" are two words no longer in vogue in this day and age of powerful women.
The first two stories, are from Hospital Sketches. The first one, Obtaining Supplies, is a humorous telling of the frustrations of dealing with people to get the necessities needed, like tickets, to reach her destination. The second, A Night, begins humorous, but ends with the death of a brave and amazing man. Here, she describes the night watchman, Dan, whom she never sees in the light of day, and remembers him mostly for his legs:
But the legs!—very long, very thin, very crooked and feeble, looking like gray sausages in their tight coverings, and finished off with a pair of expansive, green cloth shoes, very much like Chinese junks with the sails down. This figure, gliding noiselessly about the dimly-lighted rooms, was strongly suggestive of the spirit of a beer-barrel mounted on cork-screws, haunting the old hotel in search of its lost mates, emptied and staved in long ago.
Another humorous passage talks about the different snores which she begins to recognize:
After listening for a week to this band of wind instruments, I indulged in the belief that I could recognize each by the snore alone, and was tempted to join the chorus by breaking out with John Brown's favorite hymn: "Blow ye the trumpets, blow!"
The third story, My Contraband is about a mulatto
slave who escapes, and is in the hospital ward as a (free) servant. This one is very poignant and bittersweet, an excellent example of Alcott's perfection of
The last story, How I Went Out to Service, is very funny with a large helping of cynicism, perhaps based on one of Alcott's own experiences.
I highly recommend reading the works of this fascinating lady. I have already downloaded some additional works of hers from Project Gutenberg, including Pauline's Passion and Punishment. Oh yes! Alcott wrote steamy novels, too!. I am now looking for A Long, Fatal Love Chase, published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. You can be sure that many of Alcott's works will make their way onto this site!
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