Little Women is the story for which Louisa May Alcott is most famous, but it captures just a sliver of her literary charisma. Alcott also wrote poetry, pulp fiction, and fairy stories, all with the same vivacity that made her magnetic to those who knew her. She is among the most beloved writers in the world, and certainly among the most famous ever to have graced the pages of this magazine. Her superstardom seems in retrospect to have been fated. In reality, however, it was not so straightforward.
Alcott spent her childhood surrounded by the transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a founder of The Atlantic, was a dear friend and mentor to her, and she credited him for shaping her literary sensibility since childhood. As a teenager, she wrote him love letters. They are lost to history; Alcott burned them before she could send them. Still, on her frequent moonlit walks she would pick wildflowers and leave them on his doorstep.
In 1860, three years after this magazine’s founding, Alcott—then 27—had her first Atlantic short story published, “Love and Self-Love,” followed by “A Modern Cinderella: Or, the Little Old Shoe” a few months later. When war arrived, in April 1861, Alcott was discouraged that she could not serve in the Union Army. She was a fierce abolitionist and wanted to do her part. As Harriet Reisen wrote in her biography of Alcott, she spent the fall of 1861 feeling stuck—“wrote, read, sewed and wanted something to do.” She had tried teaching and despised it, which only intensified her will to write.
The following year, she submitted a manuscript to The Atlantic called “How I Went Out to Service,” a fictionalized account of her weird, short-lived experience as a domestic servant. The editor at the time, James T. Fields, was less interested in Alcott’s work than the magazine’s founding editor, James Russell Lowell, had been, and he rejected the essay. He advised her: “Stick to your teaching; you can’t write,” and enclosed an unsolicited loan of $40 so she could set up a schoolhouse.
Naturally, Alcott was furious.
“I won’t teach. I can write, and I’ll prove it,” she responded, according to her description of the confrontation in her journal. To friends she complained about The Atlantic being a “slow coach magazine.” Meanwhile, other publications took notice of her talent. She started publishing pulp fiction—tales of “blood and thunder,” as she put it—in numerous popular monthlies and weeklies. Her stories were fantastical, violent, and adventuresome. Wolves, damsels in distress, and pirates leaped off the page. Her career took off too.
By late 1862, still feeling restless, Alcott volunteered to serve as a nurse in the Union Army. She deployed to Washington, D.C., where she was stationed at a Georgetown hotel that had been turned into a hospital. The work was grueling. She dressed horrific wounds, cared for men as they died, comforted them as their limbs were amputated without ether. She was, as she wrote in her diary, “five hundred miles from home, alone, among strangers, doing painful duties all day long, and leading a life of constant excitement in this great house, surrounded by three or four hundred men in all stages of suffering, disease and death.” But, she added, “though often homesick, heart sick, and worn out, I like it.” After six weeks, Alcott fell gravely ill. She was diagnosed with typhoid and treated with mercury, which some scholars speculate may have caused the delirium and hallucinations she suffered. Months passed before she recovered.
Later, reflecting on the trauma of war and her proximity to it, she wrote, “I shall never regret going … for the worth of life lies in the experiences which fill it, and this is one which cannot be forgotten.” Alcott processed what she’d been through the only way she knew how—by writing about it. In 1863, an abolitionist newspaper called The Boston Commonwealth published Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches,” a fictionalized account of her time in Georgetown. It was a sensation. Fields, the Atlantic editor, then sent word that he’d love to publish her after all.
That fall, The Atlantic paid Alcott $10 to publish “Thoreau’s Flute,” a poem she’d written after Henry David Thoreau’s death. The poem was published anonymously (customary for poetry in The Atlantic at the time) and people assumed it had been written by Thoreau’s friend Emerson. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even stopped by the Alcott house with a copy of The Atlantic, raving about Emerson’s latest. As Longfellow began to read the poem aloud to Alcott’s father, he interrupted to reveal with great pride that Louisa was in fact the author. Soon after, The Atlantic published “The Brothers,” a story set in a wartime hospital and narrated by a Civil War nurse.
In 1868, Alcott published Little Women. It was a hit from the start, and went on to become one of the most successful books of all time. It has never been out of print. In 1871, nearly a decade after Fields first rejected her, Alcott finally did the thing she must have been waiting so long to do. She wrote him a brief note and enclosed $40:
Dear Mr. Fields,
Once upon a time you lent me forty dollars, kindly saying that I might return them when I made a “pot of gold.” As the miracle has been unexpectedly wrought I wish to fulfill my part of the bargain, & herewith repay my debt with many thanks.
L. M. Alcott
Alcott’s body of work is among the most important in American letters, but her greatest contribution may be in her imagination for what was possible. “I’d rather be a free spinster,” Alcott once wrote, “and paddle my own canoe.” Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Ursula Le Guin, and too many other great writers to name have cited Alcott as a foundational influence. Her exuberance, her independence, and her acclaim told generations of writers that they, too, could write. They, too, could live.