HER father thought himself a philosopher. His family agreed with him. So did his friend and contemporary, Emerson, and a few others. He was at any rate a philosopher in his complete inability to earn or to keep money. Her mother was by nature a noble and charming woman, by profession a household drudge.
Louisa and her three sisters were born in odd corners between 1830 and 1840 and grew up in Concord and elsewhere. They knew a little, quite enough, about philosophy and a great deal about drudgery. Louisa determined in early youth to eschew philosophy and drudgery both, to be independent, and to earn an honest livelihood for herself and her family. She did it, wrote books that charmed and paid, and died worn out before she was old, but with a comfortable lapful of glory. I do not mean to imply that the Alcott’s poverty was sordid or pitiable.
Innate dignity of character, sweetness and natural cheerfulness, kept it from being anything of the kind. If they had not money, they had high ideals, and high ideals afford a certain substitute for comfort, after they have thrust it out of doors. No doubt, also, the rugged discipline of privation fits souls better for the ups and downs of life, which, for most men and women, mean more hardship than comfort. At the same time, to understand Louisa Alcott, what she did and what she was, we must keep the bitterness of youthful poverty before us, the perpetual strug- gle to get clothes and food and other necessaries, the burden of debts and charity, the fret and strain of nerves worn with anxiety and endeavor, the endless uncertainty about the future. “ It was characteristic of this family that they never were conquered by their surroundings,” says thebiographer. This is true; yet such experiences fray theedges of the soul, when they do not impair its substance.
Louisa’s soul was frayed. Poverty bit her like a north wind, spurred to effort, yet chilled and tortured just the same. “ Little Lu began early to feel the family cares and peculiar trials,” she says of her childhood. In her young-womanhood, when just beginning to sec her way, she is ham- pered in the walks she likes because of “ stockings with a profusion of toe, but no heel, and shoes with plenty of heel, but a paucity of toe. ” Later still, when the world ought to have been going well with her, her cry is: “ If I think of my woes, I fall into a vortex of debts, dishpans, and despond- ency awful to see. ”The nature of these troubles and the depth of them were especially evident to her, because she was born with a shrewd native wit and keen intelligence.
Her education was somewhat erratic, furnished mainly by her father from his wide but heterogeneous store and with eccentric methods. Above all, she employed her brain for practical objects, loved mental system and tidiness. “ 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 house- keeper, and never get my room in nice order. ” And with the same practical tendency she analyzed all things about her and all men and women.
Her father’s various contacts brought many people to his door, and Louisa learned early to distinguish. “ A curious jumble of fools and philosophers,” she says calmly of one of his beloved clubs. Nor was she less ready to analyze herself, as portrayed in one of her stories. “ Much describing of other people’s pas- sions and feelings set her to studying and speculating about her own—a morbid amusement, in which healthy young minds do not indulge.
”What marked her character in all this was honesty, sincerity, straight-forward simplicity. Like Jo, in “ Little Women,” who follows her creatress so closely, Louisa, as a child, had more of the boy than of the girl about her, did not care for frills or flounces, did not care for dances or teas, liked fresh air and fresh thoughts and hearty quarrels and forgetful reconciliations. She would shake your hand and look in your eye and make you trust her. Jo’s wild words were always getting her into scrapes. “ Oh, mytongue, my abominable tongue! Why can t 1 learn to keep it quiet? ” So she sighed, and so Louisa had often sighed before her. But with the outspokenness went a splendid veracity and a loathing for what was false or mean or cowardly.
“ With all her imagination and romance, Miss Alcott was a tremendous destroyer of illusions,” says Mrs. Cheney; “ Oh, wicked L. M. A. , who hates sham and loves a joke,” says Miss Alcott herself. The disposition to excessive analysis and great frankness in expressing the results of the same are not especially favorable to social popularity or success, and it does not appear that Louisa had these things or wished to have them.
Here again Jo renders her creatress very faithfully. She was perfectly capable of having a jolly time in company; in fact, when she was in the mood and with those she liked, she could be full of fun and frolic, could lead everybody in wild laughter and joyous pranks and merriment. She could run into a party of strangers at the seashore and be gay with them. But usually she was shy with strangers, perhaps shyer with people she knew or half knew, had no patience with starched fashions or fine manners, liked quiet, old garments, old habits, and especially the society of her own soul. She complains that her sister “ doesn’t enjoy quiet corners as I do,” and she complains further, through the mouth of Jo, that “ it’s easier to me to risk my life for a person than to be pleasant to him when I don’t feel like it. ”With this disposition we might expect her to have a small list of friends, but those very near and dear.
I do not find it so. “ She did not encourage many intimacies,” says Mrs. Cheney. Though reasonably indifferent to the conventions, she would not have inclined to keep up any especially confidential relations with men. As for women, she wrote of her younger days, “ Never liked girls, or knew many, except my sisters. ” If she did not make women friends in her youth, she was not likely to in age.
All her affection, all her personal devotion, seem to have been concentrated upon her family, and from childhood till death her relations with them were close and unbroken. How dearly she loved her sisters shines everywhere through the faithful family picture preserved in “ Little Women ”; and the peculiar tenderness Jo gave to Beth is but an exact reflection of what the real Elizabeth received from the real Louisa. For her father, as. for her sisters, she cherished a devoted attachment. No doubt in this, as in the other, there were human flaws.
At times she implies a gentle wish that he might have done a little more for the comfort of his family, even if a little less for their eternal salvation. But this was momentary. Her usual attitude was one of tender and affectionate devotion, of entire and reverent appreciation of that pure and unworldly spirit. How admirable in its blending of elements is her picture of his return from one of his unprofitable wanderings: “ His dress was neat and poor.
He looked cold and thin as an icicle, but serene as God. ” To her he was God in a manner, and with reasonable discounts. But with her mother there seem to have been no dis- counts whatever. The affection between them was perfect and holy and enduring.
Her mother understood her, all her wild ways and lawless desires and weaknesses and untrimmed strength. It was to her mother that she turned in joy and trouble and in both she never failed to find the response she looked for. After her mother’s death she writes: I never wish her back, but a great warmth seems gone out of life, and there is no motive to go on now. ”So we see that when Jo cried, in her enthusiastic fashion, “ I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world 1” it was a simple transcript from nature. Also, it is most decidedly to be observed that Louisa’s regard for her family was by no means mere sentiment, but a matter of strenuous practical effort.
Indeed, it is not certain that the conscientious sense of duty is not even more promi- nent in her domestic relations than affection itself. “ Duty’s faithful child,” her father called her, and the faithfulness of her duty meant more to him and his than anything else in the world. I have dwelt already upon her poignant ap- preciation of the hardships and privations of her childhood. Though she bore these with reasonable patience, she early and constantly manifested a distinct determination to escape from them.
“ I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day. ” Note even here that the wish is general and that she wants to save them all from trials as well as herself. Her own comfort and ease she was ready to sacrifice and did sacrifice. Yet she did not relish sacrifice, or ugly things, or petty dependence.
She was bound to get out of the rut she was born in; how, she did not care, so long as she did nothing dishonest or unworthy. Debts, she certainly would not have debts, but comfort she would have and would pay for it. She would prove that “ though an Alcott I can supportborn in; how, she did not care, so long as she did nothing dishonest or unworthy. Debts, she certainly would not have debts, but comfort she would have and would pay for it.
She would prove that “ though an Alcott I can supportmyself. ” When she was but a child, she went out alone into the fields, and vowed with bitter energy: “ I will do something by-and-by. Don’t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous andhappy before I die, see if I won’t. ”It would be of course quite false to imply that Miss Alcott was a wholly practical, even mercenary, person, who lived and wrote for money only, or that the rugged experi- ences of her youth had crushed out of her sensibility andgrace and imagination and all the varied responses which are supposed to constitute the artistic temperament. She had abundance of wayward emotion, and, if she subdued it in one form, it escaped in another.
“ Experiences go deepwith me,” she said, and it was true. It does not appear that she had any especial taste for the arts. Painting she refers to occasionally with mild enthusiasm; music with little more. Nature appealed to her, of course, as itmust have done to the child of Concord and the worshiper of Emerson.
Still, the rendering of it in her writings, “ Flower Stories,” etc. , and even in the best of her poems, “ Thoreau’s Flute,” cannot be said to be pro-found. Her nature feeling is much more attractive in the brief touches of her Journal: “ 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 redleaves I sang for joy, my heart was so bright and the world so beautiful. ”Her sensibility and quick emotion showed, however, far less in esthetic enjoyment than in the inner play and shifting movements of her own spirit. The sudden variety of nature she sees reflected in herself.
“ It was a mild, windyday, very dike me in its fitful changes of sunshine and shade. ” She was a creature of moods and fancies, smiles and tears, hopes and discouragements, as we all are, but more than most of us. From her childhood she liked to wander, hadroaming limbs and a roaming soul. She “ wanted to see everything, do everything, and go everywhere. ” She loved movement, activity, boys’ sports and boys’ exercise: “I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. ” Then she got tired and got cross, and when she was young, said bitter things and repented them, and when she grew older, would have liked to say them, and repented that also.
And the ill temper shifted suddenly and madly to laughter, merry drollery, wild sallies, quips and teasing frolics, full well remembered by lovers of Jo. ” The jocosity of my nature will gush out when it gets a chance,” she says. Also, to be sure, she had always the feeling that she was not doing the best she could and that the money came most freely for the things she was not most proud of. In her early days she wrote and sold sensational stories of a rather cheap order.
Certain features of these pleased her. She confesses quite frankly that she had ” a taste for ghastliness ” and that she was ” fond of the night side of nature. ” But she longed to do something else, and she tried to?in ” Moods ” and ” A Modern Mephistopheles “?perhaps not very well, at any rate not very successfully. Few get the glory they want, but there is probably a peculiar bitter ness in getting the glory you don’t want. Then she hit on a line of work which, if not great or original, was sane and genuine.
She put her own life, her own heart, into her books, and they were read with delight because her heart was like the hearts of all of us. As a child, she wanted to sell her hair to support her family. When she was older, she supported them by selling her flesh and blood, and theirs, but always with a fine and digni fied reserve as well as a charming frankness. Every creative author builds his books out of his own experience. They would be worthless otherwise. But few have drawn upon the fund more extensively and constantly than Miss Alcott.
And she was wise to do it, and when she ceased to do it, she failed. She could allege the great authority of Goethe for her practise: ” Goethe puts his joys and sorrows into poems; I turn my adventures into bread and butter. ” So she coined her soul to pad her purse and, inciden tally, to give solace to many. The worshipers of art for art’s sake may sneer at her, but she remains in excellent company. Scott, Dumas, Trollope, to name no others, col lected cash, as well as glory, with broad and easy negligence.
And the point is that, while doing so, they established them selves securely among the benefactors of mankind. The great thinkers, the great poets, the great statesmen, the great religious teachers sway us upward for our good. But they often lead us astray and they always harass us in the process. I do not know that they deserve much more of our gratitude than those who make our souls forget by telling charming stories.