Flashbacks July 1995

Louisa May Alcott in The Atlantic

Four short stories in The Atlantic demonstrate Alcott's lesser-known penchant for romantic fantasy.
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For years, Louisa May Alcott's literary reputation has been more or less synonymous with the guileless charm of the perennial favorite, Little Women--a chronicle of four sisters' girlhood and coming of age. But today a very different facet of Alcott's literary oeuvre is gaining attention and emphasis. That she wrote a number of sensationalistic gothic romance novels under a pen name is a fact that has been known for nearly fifty years, but one that has been largely downplayed as merely the consequence of a need to produce commercially appealing work in order to support her financially hapless father. But the recent unearthing and publication of an Alcott novel bearing the provocative title A Long Fatal Love Chase has caused something of a stir. Popular perceptions of Alcott as simply a sympathetic storyteller for young girls are giving way to more sophisticated characterizations of her as a writer who also addressed more adult concerns.

Several stories Alcott published under her own name in The Atlantic in the 1860s reveal her penchant for the spinning of romantic fantasy. Flushed cheeks, longing looks, and wistful sighs abound as characters awaken to burgeoning desires and sort themselves into happy pairs. "A Modern Cinderella: or The Little Old Shoe" (October, 1860) recounts the blossoming of romantic affection between Nan and John, longtime neighbors and former childhood playmates. Readers may discern in the characters of meek, diligent Nan and her sisters--dreamy, artistic, Laura and feisty, bookish Di--prototypes of three of Little Women's March sisters: Beth, Amy and Jo.

In "Debby's Debut" (August, 1863), a socially ambitious woman intent on marrying her attractive young niece into a impressive family brings the girl to an elegant seaside resort. Coveted by many, and pursued with especial fervor by a wealthy young socialite, Debby finds herself--much to her aunt's dismay--becoming involved with a Byronically brooding man of moderate means and negligible social standing. "Love and Self-Love" (March, 1860) tells of heartache inflicted by tragic miscommunication in an unhappy pairing between an orphaned sixteen-year-old and the older man who marries her out of charity. And finally, "The Brothers" (November, 1863), though not a romance per se, depicts charged interactions between a Civil War nurse and her mysteriously secretive half-black attendant. Indeed, the story's melodramatic exchanges--"'Oh! what did you do?' I cried, hot with helpless pain and passion....With a sudden wrench he tore the shirt from neck to waist, and on his strong brown shoulders showed me furrows deeply ploughed..."--seem a far cry from the cozy innocence of family life at the March household.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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