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acter. As for the ever-increasing depth of her regard
for him, it is apparent whenever she mentions his name.
She was nearly forty years old ; she had been through a
wide variety of emotional experiences; she knew the hu
man heart, and here she had found one whose grave
earnestness and loyal affection could be counted upon
in every trial. "Simple, true, delicate, and retiring/
she calls him, in well-weighed w r ords, and adds, " while
some of my friends have thought me exacting, Ossoli
has outgone my expectations in the disinterestedness,
the uncompromising bounty, of his every action." 67

Then she became a mother, and yet one more pro
found chamber of her heart was opened. She had al
ways loved children and had had a peculiar power of
drawing their confidence, as that of their elders. She
longed for motherhood, "my heart was too suffocated
without a child of my own." 68 Yet she longed with
an unusual and beautiful humility: "I am too rough
and blurred an image of the Creator, to become a be-
stower of life." e9 When her son was born, she seemed
almost to forget her existence in his. Her brain was
all plans for rearing and guiding and helping him. His
illness shakes her faith more than anything else had ever


done before. His health and gayety make her gay when
all is troubled around her.

For these strange, new experiences had come to her
in a troubled world. Her husband was thickly con
cerned in the Italian revolution, and she herself gave
all her natural ardor to the coming of a new era in the
country she had loved and known so well. As battles
were fought and men were wounded and suffering, she
visited the hospitals, comforted the dying, cheered and
tended the long and solitary hours of recovery. "A
mild saint and ministering angel: that seems to have
been the impression made by her at Rome upon those
who knew her well," 70 writes one friend. She shrinks
at first: "I had no idea before, how terrible gunshot-
wounds and wound- fever are " ; 71 but these tremors are
instantly overcome, and she shows the same power over
the cruder forms of human suffering that she had
tendered to the wayward struggles of the spirit. " How
long will the Signora stay? When will the Signora
come again?" 72 was the eager murmur from the hearts
she had cheered and comforted.

It will be asked, where was the old Margaret, the
disagreeable Margaret, the harsh, dominating, self-
willed egotism? Not wholly dead, doubtless. She her
self says: "In the foundation of my character, in my


aims I am always the same." 73 So are we all. But
at least her heart had been immensely changed and
modified by love and pity. She had suffered in life
far more than she had enjoyed, she says, and suffering
changes all hearts one way or the other. Ambition?
She still cherishes it in a manner, still hopes to be a
great writer, plans a history of the noble doings in Italy,
which was lost with her, to the regret of many. Self-
culture, all the fine Goethean theories ? ^Oh, perhaps she
has them, but she has at last come to know the great
secret, that the height of self -culture is to forget
culture and to forget self; that he that loseth his
life shall find it. And in the pity of her struggle
struggle with health, struggle with narrow circum
stances, struggle with war and the ruins of war her
courage almost ebbs away in a languishing cry : " Yes ; I
am weary, and faith soars and sings no more. Nothing
is left good of me, except at the bottom of the heart a
melting tenderness." 74 Surely a strange utterance from
the haughty spirit of earlier years.

So the high Italian dream was over. There was noth
ing left for Margaret and her husband among his people,
and her thoughts turned again to home. She would
go back to America, would strive once more to gain
recognition of her powers, aiming rather at others*


profit than her own. She accepted the task, made such
preparations as she could. But her heart was heavy,
weighed down with undue, unreasonable fear. "I am
become a miserable coward. I fear heat and cold and
even mosquitoes. I fear terribly the voyage home, fear
biting poverty." 75 Everything connected with her jour
ney seemed to turn into sad omen, or so she read it in
her doubting soul. At the very last moment the fore
boding was so heavy that she found it difficult to force
herself to go on board the vessel. She did so, and all
her fears were realized. She passed the Atlantic safely,
only to be wrecked on Fire Island beach in July, 1850.
We need not analyze the extensive investigations and
confused narratives of the final disaster. It is enough to
know that Margaret perished with her husband and
child, as she would have wished.

It was a pathetic, tragic end to a tragic career. We
certainly cannot say that Margaret s life was wasted
when we appreciate her immense influence upon her con
temporaries and those who came after her. Yet it does
not seem as if her achievement matched her powers.
She was a woman of marvelous complexity, like all
women, and all men, and her complexity strikes you
with tenfold force because she went out like a candle
when a window is suddenly opened into great night.




Louisa May Alcott

Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, November 29, 1832.

Grew up mainly in Concord and Boston.

Nursed in Washington hospitals, 1862-1863.

"Little Women" published October, 1868.

In Europe, 1865-1866 and 1870-1871,,

Died March 6, 1888.




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 phi
losopher in his complete inability to earn or to keep
money. Her mother was by nature a noble and charm
ing woman, by profession a household drudge. Louisa 1
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 in
dependent, and to earn an honest livelihood for herself
and her family. She did it, wrote books that charmed
and paid, and died wornout before she was old, but with
a comfortable lapful of glory.

I do not mean to imply that the Alcotts poverty was
sordid or pitiable. Innate dignity of character, sweet
ness and natural cheerfulness, kept it from being any
thing 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 struggle 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 the biographer. This is true ; yet such experiences
fray the edges 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 tor
tured just the same. " Little Lu began early to feel the
family cares and peculiar trials," 2 she says of her child
hood. In her young- womanhood, when just beginning
to see her way, she is hampered 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." 3 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 despondency
awful to see." 4

The nature of these troubles and the depth of them
were specially evident to her, because she was born with
a shrewd native wit and keen intelligence. Her edu
cation was somewhat erratic, furnished mainly by her
father from his wide but heterogeneous store and with
eccentric methods. From her childhood she was an im
petuous reader, of all sorts of books and in all sorts of
ways and places. She read stories and poems, and more
serious writings, when the whim seized her. Goethe, for
example, she liked early and praised late, though I do
not know that much of Goethe is to be seen in her life or
in her best-known books. Above all, she employed her
brain for practical objects, loved mental method and
tidiness. "I used to imagine my mind a room in con
fusion, and I was to put it in order ; so I swept out use
less 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." 5 And with the same practi
cal 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 philoso-


phers," 6 she says calmly of one of his beloved clubs. No
doubt she would have given the same verdict on the
world in general and with the same wise caution as to
deciding the proportions. Nor was she less ready to
analyze herself, as portrayed in one of her stories.
"Much describing of other people s passions and feel
ings set her to studying and speculating about her own
a morbid amusement, in which healthy young minds
do not voluntarily indulge." 7

What marked her character in all this was honesty,
sincerity, straightforward 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, my tongue, my abominable tongue !
Why can t I learn to keep it quiet?" 8 So she sighed,
and so Louisa had often sighed before her. But with
the outspokenness went a splendid veracity and a loath
ing for what was false or mean or cowardly. " With all
her imagination and romance, Miss Alcott was a tre
mendous destroyer of illusions," 9 says Mrs. Cheney;


"Oh, wicked L. M. A., who hates sham and loves a
joke," 10 says Miss Alcott herself.

The disposition to excessive analysis and great frank
ness 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. " Found a family
of six pretty daughters, a pleasant mother, and a father
who was an image of one of the Cheeryble brothers.
Had a jolly time boating, driving, charading, dancing,
and picnicking. One mild moonlight night a party of us
camped out on Norman s Woe, and had a splendid time,
lying on the rocks singing, talking, sleeping, and riot
ing up and down." n 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 espe
cially the society of her own soul. She complains that
her sister " does n t enjoy quiet corners as I do," 12 and


she complains further, through the mouth of Jo, that
"it s easier for me to risk my life for a person than to be
pleasant to him when I don t feel like it." 13

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 intima
cies," 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." 14 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 child
hood till death her relations with them were close and
unbroken. How dearly she loved her sisters shines
everywhere through the faithful family picture pre
served 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. In " Little
Women" the affection is made only more genuine by the
trifluig tiffs and jars which always occur in nature, if
not always in books. So in Louisa s journal her admir
able frankness carefully records an occasional freak or,


sparkle of irritation or jealously. "I feel very moral
to-day, having done a big wash alone, baked, swept the
house, picked the hops, got dinner, and written a chapter
in Moods. May gets exhausted with work, though she
walks six miles without a murmur." 15 Again, of the
same younger sister: "How different our lives are just
now! I so lonely, sad, and sick; she so happy, well
and blest. She always had the cream of things, and de
served it. My time is yet to come somewhere else, when
I am ready for it." 16 Perhaps the sympathy between Jo
and Amy in the story was less complete than in the case
of the older sisters. Yet the chief interest of Louisa s
later years was her love for the child her sister May had
left her.

For her fatfier, 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 com
fort of his family even if a little less for their eternal
salvation. But this was momentary. Her usual atti
tude was one of tender and affectionate devotion, of
entire and reverent appreciation of that pure and un
worldly spirit. Emerson tells her that her father might
have talked with Plato. 17 She is delighted and thinks
of him as Plato and often calls him Plato afterward.


How admirable in its blending of elements is her pic
ture of his return from one of his unprofitable wan
derings: "His dress was neat and poor. He looked
cold and thin as an icicle, but serene as God." 1 * To
her he was God in a manner, and with reasonable dis

But with her mother there seem to have been no dis
counts whatever. The affection between them was per
fect and holy and enduring. Her mother understood
her, all her wild ways and lawless desires and weak
nesses 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." 19 Yet if there was nothing left
to do, there was comfort in the thought of what she had
done. For she was able to write, a few years before,
"Had the pleasure of providing Marmee with many
comforts, and keeping the hounds of care and debt from
worrying her. She sits at rest in her sunny room, and
that is better than any amount of fame to me." 20

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!" 21 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 prominent in her domestic
relations than affection itself. " Duty s faithful child," 22
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 appre
ciation of the hardships and privations of her childhood.
Though she bore these with reasonable patience, she
early and constantly manifested a distinct determina
tion to escape from them. " I wish I was rich, I was good,
and we were all a happy family this day." 23 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. Did
May need a new bonnet? She should have it and Louisa
would get on with a refurbished old one. Did money
come in somewhat more freely? Louisa got mighty little
of it herself. There were so many mouths to fill and
clothes to buy and bills to pay. She would give any
thing and give up anything that she had to give or give
up. The sacrifice of hair, which Jo accomplished with
so many tears, was not actually achieved in Louisa s


case, but she was ready to make it, and who doubts
that she would have made it?

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 support myself." 24 When she was but a
child she went out alone into the fields, and voweS 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 11 be rich and famous and happy before I
die, see if I won t." 25


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
experiences of her youth had crushed out of her sensi
bility and grace and imagination and all the varied
responses which are supposed to constitute the artistic
temperament It is true, she had one artistic represen
tative in her family, and the consciousness of old bon
nets refurbished on that account may have somewhat re-


pressed the genial flow of aesthetic impulse in her own
character. But she had abundance of wayward emotion,
nevertheless, and if she subdued it in one form, it es
caped in another. " Experiences go deep with me/ 28 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. Perhaps we cannot quite take the Lavinia of
" Shawl Straps " as autobiographical, but her journal
sounds uncommonly like Louisa: "Acres of pictures.
Like about six out of the lot:" 27 again, "I am glad to
have seen this classical cesspool (Rome), and still more
glad to have got out of it alive." 28 Nature appealed to
her, of course, as it must have done to the child of Con
cord 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 profound. 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 red leaves I sang for joy, my heart was so
bright and the world so beautiful." 29 Also, she had a
keen sense of the pleasant and graceful ornaments of
life, all the more keen because her childhood had been so


barren of such things, " How I wish I could be with
you, enjoying what I have always longed for, fine
people, fine amusements, and fine books." 30 She liked
these things, though she liked other things still more.
"I love luxury, but freedom and independence better." 31
Her sensibility and quick emotion showed, however,
far less in artistic 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, windy day, very like me in its fitful changes of
sunshine and shade." 32 She was a creature of moods
and fancies, smiles and tears, hopes and discourage
ments, as we all are, but more than most of us. From her
childhood she liked to wander, had roaming limbs and
a roaming soul. She "wanted to see every thing, do
every thing, and go every where." 33 She loved move
ment, activity, boys sports and boys exercise: "I al
ways thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some
former state, because it was such a joy to run." 34 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 " Little


Women." "The jocosity of my nature will gush out
when it gets a chance," 3B she says.

Sometimes the same wild spirit would rise higher into
a state of eager exhilaration and excitement. She longed
for change, adventure, even suffering. She put melo
drama into her stories; she would have liked to put it
into her life. When the future seems peculiarly uncer
tain, she writes : "It s a queer way to live, but dramatic,
and I rather like it; for we never know what is to come
next." 36 And again follows the reaction and depres
sion, as deep as the excitement was high and exhila
rating, depression far more serious than mere super
ficial temper, seizing and shaking the root-fibers of the
soul. In her more elaborate novels, " Moods " and " A
Modern Mephistopheles," she has analyzed these spir
itual variations, perhaps with some exaggeration, but
with an evident autobiographical basis ; and her heroine s
miseries certainly reflect her own. Tears she does not
often yield to, but when she weeps, she does it thor
oughly: "As I seldom indulge in this moist misery, I
like to enjoy it with all my might, when I do." 37

Her active conscience prompts her to resist, to bear up
against real trial and the still worse monotony of every
day care. There is an education for her in grief, she
says ; she must make the best of it and profit by it. There


is a pleasure in drudgery, she says, if one can only find
it. " A dull, heavy month, grubbing in the kitchen, sew
ing, cleaning house, and trying to like my duty/ 38 But
she does n t like it, and it wears, and the immortal spirit
loses its lightness and its freshness and is almost ready
to give up the fight : " 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." 39 Even, on one dark day,
all further struggle came to seem impossible, and as she
passed the running tide on her way to Boston, she almost
made up her mind not to pass it. But she did, and her
"fit of despair was soon over . . . and I went home
resolved to take Fate by the throat and shake a living
out of her." 40 Afterwards the little experience served
to make a story, as it has done for other writers and

It will be asked how far matters of the heart entered
into these depressions and despairs in Miss Alcott s
case. Directly, not very much. It is true that in the
story just referred to she suggests love or the lack of it as
the exciting cause for suicide. " It is not always want,
insanity, or sin that drives women to desperate deaths;
often it is a dreadful loneliness of heart, a hunger for
home and friends, worse than starvation, a bitter sense
of wrong in being denied the tender ties, the pleasant


duties, the sweet rewards that can make the humblest life
happy." 41 But there is no indication that, in her own case,
any disappointed love, any ungratified longing, was added
to the otherwise sufficient cares that weighed down her

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Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 9 of 14)