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mercurial spirit. Though the story of Jo is so largely au
tobiographical, the marriage to Professor Bhaer, in itself
not exceptionally romantic, is pure invention, and there
is nothing else to show that Louisa s heart was ever seri
ously touched. She had at least one offer of marriage,
and considered accepting it as another form of self-sacri
fice for the benefit of her suffering family. 42 From this,
even more disastrous than the projected tonsorial mar
tyrdom, she was happily dissuaded ; and if other similar
opportunities occurred, they are not mentioned.

She would even have us believe and so would her
biographer that she took little interest in love matters
and introduced them in her books for purposes of sale
and popular success. "She always said that she got
tired of everybody," says Mrs. Cheney, a and felt sure
that she should of her husband if she married." 43 Miss
Alcott herself expresses some interest in possible children
of her own and a certain admiration for babies, but she
has observed that few marriages are happy ones 44 and
she thinks that " liberty is a better husband than love to
many of us." 4B


This may be all very true. Nevertheless, it will hardly
be denied that many of her stories reek with amorous
ness. Perhaps this was precisely because the subject
did not naturally interest her, and, being anxious to deal
with it enough to please the public and make money, she
dealt with it too much. But the explanation seems rather
far-fetched, and I am inclined to believe that she had all
a woman s interest in lovers, whatever may have been
her opinion of husbands. Her references to personal
appearance, both her own and others , show a due sensi
tiveness to natural charms and to their possible appeal
to the other sex. If she looks in the glass, she tries " to
keep down vanity about my long hair, my well-shaped
head, and my good nose/ 46 but she is sufficiently aware
of their attraction, all the same. Indeed, in her vicari
ous love-making there is a curious, teasing insistence
that suggests far more than a mere mercenary preoccu
pation ; and in the serious novels, into which she put her
best artistic effort, the almost feverish eroticism would
seem to indicate, as with other unmarried writers, a
constant presence of the woman in her extreme fem
ininity, however obscure and unacknowledged.

As Miss Alcott had all the sensitiveness, the whims
and shifts of mood, the eccentric possibilities, of the
born artist, so she was by no means without the artist s


instinct of ambition and desire for fame. From child
hood she wanted to do something that would make her
great and distinguished and a figure in the mouths and
hearts of men. She wanted to act; wrote plays and pro
duced them in the parlor, as Jo did; had visions of oper
atic and theatrical triumphs. She envied the successes
of great authors. When she read "Jane Eyre," she
writes : " I can t be a C. B., but I may do a little something
yet." 47 Her young friends tease her about being an
authoress. She assures them that she will be, though
she adds modestly to herself, " Will if I can, but some
thing else may be better for me." 48 Not only has she
the theory of authorship, but all her emotions and desires
and fancies naturally seek literary expression. When
she was a child, she wrote verses for the pure delight of
it, not great verses certainly, but they pleased and re
lieved her. When she stood at the other extreme of life,
she wrote verses still. " Father and I cannot sleep, but
he and I make verses as we did when Marmee died." 49
When she was weary or overwrought, she turned to
her pen for distraction, if not for comfort. "Began
a book called Genius. Shall never finish it, I dare say,
but must keep a vent for my fancies to escape at." 50

She viewed life from the artist s angle also, took it
impersonally in its larger relations as well as in its imme-


diate appeal to her. She notes early in her Journal that
she began to see the strong contrasts and the fun and
follies in every-day life. She always saw them and al
ways had the strong impulse to turn them into litera
ture. And her methods were not mechanical, did not
savor of the shop or the workbench. In the interesting
account of them which she jotted down in later years
the marked flavor of inspiration and artistic instinct is
apparent. She never had a study, she says, writes with
any pen or paper that come to hand, always has a head
full of plots and a heart full of passions, works them
over at odd moments and writes them down from mem
ory, as fancy and convenience dictate. Quiet she wants,
an3 solitude, if possible, and a stimulating environment,
or at least not a deadening one. " Very few stories writ
ten in Concord; no inspiration in that dull place. Go to
Boston, hire a quiet room and shut myself in it." 51

If the creative impulse possesses her, it possesses her
wholly. When she can work, she can t wait, she says.
Sleep is of no consequence, food is of no consequence.
She can t work slowly. The ideas boil and bubble and
must find their vent. When she was writing her favorite
" Moods," there was no rest for her. She was tied to her
desk day after day. Her family alternately praised and
worried. Her mother administered tea and her father


red apples. " All sorts of fun was going on ; but I did n t
care if the world returned to chaos if I and my inkstand
only lit in the same place." 52 Then, after the excite
ment of labor came the excitement of glory. Men and
women, well known in her world at any rate, crowded
to praise and compliment. " I liked it, but think a small
dose quite as much as is good for me; for after sitting
in a corner and grubbing a la Cinderella, it rather turns
one s head to be taken out and be treated like a princess
all of a sudden." 53

Nor did she lack the discouragement and depression
inseparable from all artistic effort. There were the end
less external difficulties which every artist knows and
none but artists much sympathize with: the frets, the
home cares, always so much accentuated in the case of a
woman, even when she is unmarried, the perpetual, the
trivial, and more harassing because trivial, interrup
tions. Idle neighbors chat of idle doings; hours slip
away ; when at last the free hour and the quiet spot are
found, weary nerves have no longer any inspiration left
in them. Of one of her books that she loved she says
pathetically : " Not what it should be, too many inter
ruptions. Should like to do one book in peace, and see
if it wouldn t be good." 54 On another occasion she gets
ready for a fit of work. Then John Brown s daughters


come to board ; arrangements have to be made for them
and their comfort provided for. Louisa cries out her
sorrow on the fat ragbag in the garret and sets to work
at housekeeping. " I think disappointment must be good
for me, I get so much of it; and the constant thumping
Fate gives me may be a mellowing process ; so I shall be
a ripe and sweet old pippin before I die." 55

Yet the books get done somehow. Only, when they
are done, the troubles seem just begun rather than
ended. Publishers are refractory, such being their na
ture, like that of other human beings. Stories are ac
cepted and all seems triumphant. But they do not come
out; instead, are held back by long and quite needless
delays, till it is evident that the world is criminally in
different to works that are bound to be immortal. " All
very aggravating to a young woman with one dollar, no
bonnet, half a gown, and a discontented mind." 56

Perhaps worst of all, when you do achieve success and
are read and admired, there comes the deadly doubt
about the value of your own work; for, however much
they may resent the faultfinding of others, authors who
really count are their own severest critics ; and of all the
sorrows of the literary life none is keener than the feel
ing that what you have done is far enough from what
you would have liked to do. In this point, also, Miss


Alcott was an author, and she often indicates what she
expressed freely in regard to some of her minor works.
" They were not good, and though they sold the paper
I was heartily ashamed of them . . . I m glad of the
lesson, and hope it will do me good." 57

So we may safely conclude that it was not only hard
necessity that drove her to write, but that if she had
grown up in all comfort and with abundant means always
at her command, she would still have felt the teasing im
pulses of the literary instinct, still have bound herself to
the staid drudgery of ink and paper and been slave to the
high hopes and deep despairs which mean life and
death to those who are born with the curious long
ing to create things beautiful.


As it was, however, there can be no doubt that the solid
need of earning money was the chief and enduring spur
of her literary effort. She was not essentially and first of
all a preacher, as was Mrs. Stowe. Some may disagree
about this, considering the extreme moralizing of many,
not to say all, of her stories. The moralizing is evident
and undeniable. She not only took pains to avoid what
might be, in her opinion, distinctly injurious, though


there are critics who hold that in this she was far from
successful ; but she rarely misses an opportunity for di
rect preaching. Indeed, in some of her inferior writings
the preaching is so overdone that it surfeits even her most
ardent admirers. She is determined to preach, will not
be hindered from preaching; boys and girls must learn
something good, if they are to linger with her. Yet the
fury of the effort implies something artificial about it.
Her preaching is an acquired habit and discipline, not
an inherited, divine impulse, like Mrs. Stowe s. When
you look carefully into Louisa s religion, you appre
ciate at once what I mean. It was a sturdy, working
religion, solid, substantial, full of good deeds and kind
ness. Her own hard experience had made her eminently
ready to help others. When she gets money, she gives
it, and she gives sympathy always. " I like to help the
class of silent poor to which we belonged for so many
years/ 58 But her own hard experience had been too
closely connected with abstract religion and concrete
philosophers for her to cherish much personal affec
tion for abstract religion and philosophy. In her
thoughtful childhood she did indeed touch God under
the whisper of the great pines: "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 near-


ness all my life." 59 But she was too honest to pay
herself with words, and to her, as to so many of her
contemporaries, religious hope remained simply a glim
mering star to distract thought from dark gulfs that had
no hope in them at all. " Life always was a puzzle to
me, and gets more mysterious as I go on. I shall find it
out by and by and see that it s all right, if I can only
keep brave and patient to the end." 60

Meantime she must earn money. She set out with
that motive in her youth and it abode with her till her
death. Do not take this in any sordid sense. She was as
far as possible from being a miser or a squanderer. She
found no pleasure in the long accumulation of a fortune,
none in the mad spending of it. But the terrible lack of
dollars in her childhood had taught her their value. All
her life she was in need of moderate ease herself and
those she loved needed it far more. Therefore she must
and she would and she did earn money. How she earned
it was of less importance, and she was perfectly ready
to try any of the few forms of earning then accessible
to women. " Tried for teaching, sewing, or any honest
work. Won t go home to sit idle while I have a head and
pair of hands." 61 She takes a place as governess and
goes into ecstasy over her small wages : " Every one of
those dollars cried aloud, What, ho ! Come hither, and


be happy ! " 62 She even goes out as a simple servant,
with disastrous results, as fully related by herself. Teach
ing comes into the list, of course. But she was never
successful at it, and when Fields, with all a publisher s
hearty kindness, says to her, "Stick to your teaching;
you can t write," she murmurs, under her breath,
"I won t teach; and I can write, and I 11 prove it." 63

For, of all the forms of drudgery for money, she
found literature the most acceptable and agreeable. " I
can t do much with my hands ; so I will make a battering-
ram of my head and make a way through this rough-
and-tumble world." 64 She did it; but do not imagine
that the way was easy, that the dollars rolled into her
lap, or that she could escape many hard knocks and stag
gering buffets. Late in her life a young man asked her
if she would advise him to devote himself to authorship.
" Not if you can do anything else, even dig ditches," 65
was the bitter answer. For years she found the upward
road a piece of long and tedious traveling. Hours had
to be snatched where possible, or impossible, necessary
tasks had to be slighted, health had to be risked and
wasted, all to write stories which she knew to be worth
less, but which she hoped would sell. They did sell
after a fashion, brought her five dollars here, ten dollars
there, enough to buy a pair of shoes or stop a gaping


creditor s mouth for a moment. But what vast labor
was expended for petty results or none, what vaster
hopes were daily thrown down, only to be built up again
with inexhaustible endurance and energy !

Even when success came and the five dollars were
transformed into fifty and five hundred, there was strug
gle still, perhaps more wearing than at first. Engage
ments had to be met and publishers satisfied, no matter
how irksome the effort. " I wrote it with left hand in a
sling, one foot up, head aching, and no voice/ 66 she
says of one story. Though money was abundant, it was
never abundant enough: "The family seem so panic-
stricken and helpless when I break down, that I try to
keep the mill going." 67 To be sure, there was glory.
When it began to come, she appreciated it keenly.
" Success has gone to my head, and I wander a little.
Twenty-seven years old, and very happy." It was
pleasant to be widely praised and admired, pleasant to
have compliments from great men and brilliant women,
pleasantest of all, perhaps, to feel that children loved
your books and cried over them and loved you. Yet she
seems to have felt the annoyances of glory more than
most authors and to have savored its sweets less. Per
haps this was because she was early worn out with over
work and over-anxiety. "When I had the youth I


had no money ; now I have the money I have no time ;
and when I get the time, if I ever do, I shall have no
health to enjoy life/ 69 Fame bothered her. She re
sented the intrusions of reporters, even the kindly curi
osity of adoring readers. What right had they to pester
a quiet woman earning her living with desperate effort
in her own way? For the earning, after all, was the side
that appealed to her, the earning with all it meant. " The
cream of the joke is, that we made our own money our
selves, and no one gave us a blessed penny. That does
soothe my rumpled soul so much that the glory is not
worth thinking of." 70

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 " 71 and that she was "fond of
the night side of nature/ 72 But she longed to do some
thing else, and she tried to, in " Moods " and " A Mod
ern Mephistopheles," perhaps not very well, at any
rate not very successfully. Few get the glory they want,
but there is probably a peculiar bitterness 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 al
ways with a fine and dignified reserve as well as a charm
ing 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
practice: " Goethe puts his joys and sorrows into poems;
I turn my adventures into bread and butter." 73 She
could also have alleged the shrewdness and vast human
experience of Voltaire, who said : " Whoever has, as you
have, imagination and common-sense, can find in him
self, without other aid, the complete knowledge of human
nature." 74

So she coined her soul to pad her purse and, incident
ally, 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 negli
gence. And the point is that, while doing so, they estab
lished themselves securely among the benefactors of
mankind. The great thinkers, the great poets, the great
statesmen, the great religious teachers sway us upward
for our goocf. 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. Per
haps " Little Women " does not belong in quite the same
order as " Rob Roy," or " Les Trois Mousquetaires," or
even " Phineas Finn/ But it is not an unenviable fate
to have gained an honest independence by giving profit
and delight to millions. Miss Alcott did it and



Frances Elizabeth Willard

Born in Church ville, New York, September 28, 1839.

Removed to Oberlin, Ohio, 1841.

Removed to Wisconsin, 1846.

At Milwaukee Female College, 1857.

At Northwestern Female College, 1858, 1859.

Taught till 1874.

Entered Temperance Work, 1874.

President National Woman s Christian Temperance Union, 1879,

President World s Woman s Christian Temperance Union, 1888.

Died February 17, 1898.




SHE had the great West behind her; its sky and its
distances, its fresh vigor and its unexampled joy. Her
father carried his New England traditions and his in
fant children from New York in the early forties,
first to Ohio, then to Wisconsin, and- Frances and
her brother and sister were fed full on corn, pork, farm
ing, and religion. She herself cites with entire ap
proval her mother s analysis of the child s fortunate
heredity: "The Thompson generosity, the Willard deli
cacy, the Hill purpose and steadfastness, the French
element coming from the Lewis family, make up an
unique human amalgam." * Whatever her heredity, she
had a sane and healthy childhood. She lived with the ani
mals, and raced and romped and rioted; she lived with
the Bible and with high ideals and direct and pointed
English, and she contracted an abhorrence of whiskey
which supplied her for life with a more eager stimulant
than whiskey could possibly have furnished.

As a consequence of her breeding and surroundings,


she had excellent health. Her mother said that in
childhood Frances was the most delicate of all her chil
dren and that she had an organism exceptionally sus
ceptible to physical pain. 2 She herself enlarges often
upon the exquisite fineness of her sensibility. 3 But fresh
air, exercise, and ample sleep, maintained under even
the greatest pressure of business, gave her a sound and
vigorous body, and no doubt as much as anything else
enabled her to say, near the very end of her career:
"The chief wonder of my life is that I dare to have
so good a time, both physically, mentally, and reli
giously." 4 To have so good a time, remember it.

With the well-nourished body and the firm, sturdy
muscles went an unfailing energy of purpose and of
execution. She was no listless performer of household
duty, no tame dishwasher or bedmaker, doing routine
tasks from day to day, without a thought beyond them.
Her mother says : " I wonder sometimes that I had the
wit to let her do what she preferred instead of obliging
her to take up housework as did all the other girls of
our acquaintance." 5 Wit or not, it was a course ad
mirably suited to Frances. She dodged the dishpan,
milked the cows instead, rode the horses, rode the cows,
too, if the whim seized her, held the plough at need,
and in the intervals roved the fields and pastures, and


let her soul rove even more widely than her feet did.
Routine of all sorts she hated always, and shunned it
when she could. " To be tied to a bell rope," she says,
was "an asphyxiating process from which I vainly
sought escape, changing the spot only to keep the
pain." 6

Everything in her case, you see, favored the building
up of a strong individuality, an ardent, independent will,
and such was the result. She knew her own way and
sought it with tremendous persistence and astonishing
success. She had a spice of temper, which she well
recognized and fought and got the better of, but with
immense struggle. When she was a schoolgirl, she had
an amiable playmate whose amiability irritated her.
She "just stepped on Effie s toes at recess to see if she
wouldn t frown, and sure enough she didn t." 7 All
through life she felt an inclination to step on such
amiable toes. Her willfulness showed in the inclination
and her will in keeping it under.

Souls of this positive, individual temper are not al
ways successful in their relations with others, do not
always care to mingle with others or to frame their
lives in conjunction with their fellow men and women.
Miss Willard s account of herself shows strong symp
toms of this self -withdrawing disposition. She speaks


of her painful shyness in youth, of her difficulties in
meeting people and in adapting herself to them. She
makes an interesting admission, also, which places her
sharply in one of the two great classes into which social
humanity is divided: "I have an unconquerable aver
sion to intercourse with my superiors in position, age,
or education." 8 Such an aversion, like its opposite, is
the key to many lives and furnishes a great help for
understanding Miss Willard s.

On the other hand, she had many striking social quali
ties. Her rush and furious abundance of spirits, her
immense mental activity, naturally sought utterance
with those who would understand her and appreciate
her ardor. She had varied and sparkling wit, could tell
excellent stories and did, stories that were remem
bered and repeated after her. She shone in conversa
tion, real conversation apparently, that is, in which
others did their part as well as she. Her comment
upon Emerson s well-known saying, "we descend to
meet," is curious. She thinks that Emerson lived too
early to know what true meeting was, and that the in
tercourse of advanced, emancipated women almost real
izes the privileges of celestial society. 9 Yet in a milder
moment she herself admits that wholly successful con
versation is possible only with the very limited number


who are akin to us. If she who had talked with thou
sands and thousands could write the following words,
surely there is some excuse for those who find life a
spiritual solitude. "I do not believe that six persons
have ever heard me talk, and not more than three ever
in private converse heard my vox humana, simply be
cause they were not skilled musicians. . . . For myself
I know so little of [perfect response] that only as a
foretaste of heaven s companionships do I think of such
beatitude at all." 10

However unsatisfactory Miss Willard may have
found general society, there is no question as to her

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Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 10 of 14)