edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, associate editor Madeleine B. Stern: Little, Brown; 352 pages .
In reading these 271 well-selected and meticulously edited letters, no one can doubt which of the four sisters in Little Women is based on its author, Louisa May Alcott. Louisa is Jo—smart, funny, fiery-spirited, often disrespectful, and determinedly independent. Her earliest letter, written in 1843, when she was eleven, rails at her older sister, Anna, who does “every thing to trouble me” and is “to |sic] lazy” to play the games Louisa wants. A few years later she writes a pious note to her mother, still misspelled, saying, “I have tryed to be more contented and … I have been thinking about my little room which I suppose I shall never have.” As a young woman she characterizes a nosy neighbor as a woman who “gobbles all day like a milk clapper.” Even when commenting on so revered a friend as Emerson, she is not sycophantic. Describing Emerson’s eulogy at Thoreau’s funeral, Louisa calls it “good in itself but not appropriate to the time or place.”
Much of her life was a struggle for money to support not only herself but her beloved mother and father. Bronson Alcott lived with a bland disregard for material matters—creating a trail of debts to be paid by others, mostly Louisa. Her first earnings were from hiring out as a domestic, followed by sewing, teaching, and finally writing. At first she was gleeful when she was paid ten dollars for a story. Later, starting with the publication of Little Women in 1868, she became increasingly affluent, able to travel abroad and, with her sister, to buy a house (formerly owned by Thoreau) in Concord, Massachusetts, for her parents.
During the Civil War she went to Washington to serve as a nurse and came down with a serious illness, probably typhoid, which affected her general health for the rest of her life.
For someone who was turning out books and stories as fast as she was, and often feeling unwell, the volume of her correspondence is remarkable. She chronicled humorously and sharply the whole scene in Boston and various places she visited; she wrote parodies (calling herself at various times “Tribulation Periwinkle” and “Minerva Moody”) for journals; in letters to sisters and cousins she referred affectionately to her insolvent parents as the “Pathetic Family”; and she kept everyone apprised of one another’s doings. In 1887 she adopted her nephew so that he could apply for renewal of her copyrights if they expired after her death— a move she felt would assure a continued income for all her close relations. She died, probably of intestinal cancer, in 1888, two days after the death of her father.
Readers who have always objected to the romantic, even sugary, quality of Little Women, Little Men , and Jo’s Boys will find this collection of letters refreshingly free of sentimentality. In fact, this handsomely produced volume should win for Louisa May Alcott a whole new set of admirers.