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A short story by Kate Dickinson Sweetser

Louisa M. Alcott: Author Of "Little Women"

Title:     Louisa M. Alcott: Author Of "Little Women"
Author: Kate Dickinson Sweetser [More Titles by Sweetser]

In a pleasant, shady garden in Concord, Massachusetts, under a gnarled old apple-tree, sat a very studious looking little person, bending over a sheet of paper on which she was writing. She had made a seat out of a tree stump, and a table by laying a board across two carpenter's horses, whose owner was working in the house, and no scholar writing a treatise on some deep subject could have been more absorbed in his work than was the little girl in the garden.

For a whole long hour she wrote, frequently stopping to look off into the distance and bite the end of her pencil with a very learned look, then she would bend over her paper again and write hard and fast. Finally, she laid down her pencil with an air of triumph, jumped up from the stump and rushed toward the house.

"Mother! Anna! I've written a poem about the robin we found this morning in the garden!" Dashing into the library she waved the paper in the air with a still more excited cry: "Listen!" and dropped on the floor to read her poem to a much thrilled audience of two. With great dramatic effect she read her lines, glancing up from time to time to see that she was producing the proper effect. This is what she read:


Welcome, welcome, little stranger,
Fear no harm and fear no danger,
We are glad to see you here,
For you sing "Sweet Spring is near."

Now the white snow melts away,
Now the flowers blossom gay,
Come, dear bird, and build your nest,
For we love our robin best.

She finished with an upward tilt of her voice, while her mother excitedly flourished the stocking she was darning over her head, crying: "Good! Splendid!" and quiet Anna echoed the words, looking with awe at her small sister, as she added, "It's just like Shakespeare!"

The proud mother did not say much more in praise of the budding poetess's effort, for fear of making her conceited; but that night, after the verses had been read to a delighted father, and the young author had gone happily off to bed, the mother said:

"I do believe she is going to be a genius, Bronson!"

Yet, despite the prediction, even an appreciative parent would have been more than surprised had she been able to look into the future and had seen her daughter as one of the most famous writers of books for young people of her generation. The little girl who sat under the apple-tree on that day in early spring and wrote the verses was no other than Louisa May Alcott, and her tribute to the robin was to be treasured in after years as the first evidence of its writer's talent.

Louisa, the second daughter of Amos Bronson and Abba May Alcott, was born in Germantown, Pa., on the 29th of November, 1832, and was fortunate in being the child of parents who not only understood the intense, restless and emotional nature of this daughter, but were deeply interested in developing it in such a way that her marked traits would be valuable to her in later life. To this unfailing sympathy of both father and mother the turbulent nature owed much of its rich achievement, and Louisa Alcott's home surroundings and influences had as much to do with her success as a writer as had her talent, great as that was.

At the time of her birth her father was teaching school in Germantown, but he was a man whose ideas were original and far in advance of his time, and his way of teaching was not liked by the parents of his pupils, so when Louisa was two years old and her older sister, Anna, four, the family went to Boston, where Mr. Alcott opened his famous school in Masonic Temple, and enjoyed teaching by his own new methods, and when he was happy his devoted wife was equally contented.

Louisa was too young to go to school then, except as a visitor, but her father developed her young mind at home according to his own theories of education, and during the remainder of the all-too short days the active child was free to amuse herself as she chose. To play on the Common was her great delight, for she was a born investigator, and there she met children of all classes, who appealed to her many-sided nature in different ways. Louisa was never a respecter of class distinctions--it did not matter to her where people lived, or whether their hands and faces were dirty, if some personal characteristic attracted her to them, and from those early days she was unconsciously studying human nature, and making ready for the work of later years.

In her own sketch of those early days, she says:

"Running away was one of my great delights, and I still enjoy sudden flights out of the nest to look about this very interesting world and then go back to report!"

On one of her investigating tours, she met some Irish children whose friendliness delighted her, and she spent a wonderful day with them, sharing their dinner of cold potatoes, salt fish and bread crusts. Then--delightful pastime--they all played in the ash-heaps for some time, and took a trip to the Common together. But when twilight came, her new friends deserted her, leaving her a long way from home, and little Louisa began to think very longingly of her mother and sister. But as she did not know how to find her way back she sat down on a door-step, where a big dog was lying. He was so friendly that she cuddled up against his broad back and fell asleep. How long she slept she did not know, but she was awakened by the loud ringing of a bell, and a man's deep voice calling:

"Little girl lost! Six years old--in a pink frock, white hat and new green shoes. Little girl lost! Little girl lost!"

It was the town crier, and as he rang his bell and gave his loud cry, out of the darkness he heard a small voice exclaim:

"Why, dat's me!"

With great difficulty the crier was able to persuade the child to unclasp her arms from the neck of the big friendly dog, but at last she left him, and was taken to the crier's home and "feasted sumptuously on bread and molasses in a tin plate with the alphabet round it," while her frantic family was being notified. The unhappy ending to that incident is very tersely told by Louisa, who says: "My fun ended the next day, when I was tied to the arm of the sofa to repent at leisure!"

That the six years spent in Boston were happy ones, and that the budding spirit of Louisa was filled with joy at merely being alive, was shown one morning, when, at the breakfast table, she suddenly looked up with an all-embrasive smile and exclaimed:

"I love everybody in dis whole world!"

Despite the merriment which was always a feature of the Alcott home, as they were all blessed with a sense of humor which helped them over many a hard place, there was an underlying anxiety for Mr. and Mrs. Alcott, as the school was gradually growing smaller and there was barely enough income to support their family, to which a third daughter, Elizabeth, the "Beth" of Little Women, had been added recently. During those days they lived on very simple fare, which the children disliked, as their rice had to be eaten without sugar and their mush without butter or molasses. Nor did Mr. Alcott allow meat on his table, as he thought it wrong to eat any creature which had to be killed for the purpose. An old family friend who lived at a Boston hotel sympathized strongly with the children's longing for sweets, and every day at dinner she saved them a piece of pie or cake, which Louisa would call for, carrying a bandbox for the purpose. The friend was in Europe for years, and when she returned Louisa Alcott had become famous. Meeting her on the street one day, Louisa greeted her old friend, eagerly:

"Why, I did not think you would remember me!" said the old lady.

"Do you suppose I shall ever forget that bandbox!" was the quick reply.

As time went on, Mr. Alcott's school dwindled until he had only five scholars, and three of them were his own children. Something new had to be tried, and quickly, so the family moved out of the city, into a small house at Concord, Mass., which had an orchard and a garden, and, best of all, the children had a big barn, where they gave all sorts of entertainments; mostly plays, as they were born actors. Their mother, or "Marmee," as the girls called her, loved the fun as well as they did, and would lay aside her work at any moment to make impossible costumes for fairies, gnomes, kings or peasants, who were to take the principal parts in some stirring melodrama written by the girls themselves, or some adaptation of an old fairy tale. They acted Jack the Giant-killer in fine style, and the giant came tumbling headlong from a loft when Jack cut down the squash-vine running up a ladder and supposed to represent the immortal beanstalk. At other performances Cinderella rolled away in an impressive pumpkin, and one of their star plays was a dramatic version of the story of the woman who wasted her three wishes, in which a long black pudding was lowered by invisible hands and slowly fastened onto her nose.

But though the big barn often echoed with the sound of merry voices, at other times the girls dressed up as pilgrims, and journeyed over the hill with scrip and staff, and cockle shells in their hats; fairies held their revels among the whispering birches, and strawberry parties took place in the rustic arbor of the garden.

And there we find eight-year-old Louisa writing her verses to the robin, with genius early beginning to burn in the small head which later proved to be so full of wonderful material for the delight of young people.

"Those Concord days were the happiest of my life," says Miss Alcott. "We had charming playmates in the little Emersons, Channings, Goodwins and Hawthornes, with the illustrious parents and their friends to enjoy our pranks and share our excursions.... My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild, learning of Nature what no books can teach, and being led--as those who truly love her seldom fail to be--'through Nature up to Nature's God.'"

The Alcott children were encouraged to keep diaries in which they wrote down their thoughts and feelings and fancies, and even at that early age Louisa's journal was a record of deep feelings and of a child's sacred emotions. In one of her solemn moods, she makes this entry:

"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 arch of yellow and red leaves I sang for joy, my heart was so bright and the world so beautiful. I stopped at the end of the walk and saw the sunshine out over the wide 'Virginia meadows.'

"It seemed like going through a dark life or grave into heaven beyond. A very strange and solemn feeling came over me as I stood there, with no sound but the rustle of the pines, no one near me, and the sun so glorious, as for me alone. 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 nearness all my life."

To that entry there is a note added, years later: "I have, for I most sincerely think that the little girl 'got religion' that day in the wood, when dear Mother Nature led her to God."--L. M. A. 1885.

That deep religious note in Louisa Alcott's nature is very marked and is evident in all of her work, but, on the other hand, she had a sparkling wit and such a keen sense of humor that in her blackest moods she could always see something funny to amuse her, and frequently laughed at her own expense.

That her conscience was as active as her mind and her body is shown by one of her "private plays," which she makes Demi describe in Little Men. He says:

"I play that my mind is a round room, and my soul is a little sort of creature with wings that lives in it. The walls are full of shelves and drawers, and in them I keep my thoughts, and my goodness and badness and all sorts of things. The goods I keep where I can see them, and the bads I lock up tight, but they get out, and I have to keep putting them in and squeezing them down, they are so strong. The thoughts I play with when I am alone or in bed, and I make up and do what I like with them. Every Sunday I put my room in order, and talk with the little spirit that lives there, and tell him what to do. He is very bad sometimes and won't mind me, and I have to scold him."

Truly a strange game for a child to play, but the Alcotts were brought up to a reverent knowledge of their souls as well as their bodies, and many a sober talk at twilight did mother or father have with the daughters to whom the experience of the older generation was helpful and inspiring. A very happy family they were, despite frequent lack of luxuries and even necessities, but loyalty and generosity as their marked characteristics. No matter how little money or food an Alcott had, it was always shared with any one who had less, and the largest share was usually given away.

On Louisa's fourth birthday, she tells of a feast given in her honor in her father's school-room in Masonic Temple. All the children were there, and Louisa wore a crown of flowers and stood upon a table to give a cake to each child as they all marched around the table. "By some oversight," says Louisa, "the cakes fell short, and I saw that if I gave away the last one, I should have none. As I was queen of the revel, I felt that I ought to have it, and held on to it tightly, until my mother said: 'It is always better to give away than to keep the nice things; so I know my Louy will not let the little friend go without.'" She adds: "The little friend received the dear plummy cake, and I ... my first lesson in the sweetness of self-denial--a lesson which my dear mother illustrated all her long and noble life."

At another time a starving family was discovered, when the Alcotts, forming in a procession, carried their own breakfast to the hungry ones. On one occasion, when a friend had unexpected guests arrive for dinner, too late to secure any extra provisions, the Alcotts with great glee lent their dinner to the thankful hostess, and thought it a good joke. Again, on a snowy Saturday night, when their wood-pile was extra low, and there was no way of getting any more that week, a poor child came to beg a little, as their baby was sick and the father on a spree with all his wages. At first Mrs. Alcott hesitated, as it was bitterly cold and Abba May, the little baby sister, was very young, but Mr. Alcott decided the matter with his usual kindly optimism.

"Give half our stock and trust in Providence; the weather will moderate or wood will come," he declared. And the wood was lent, Mrs. Alcott cheerily agreeing: "Well, their need is greater than ours. If our half gives out we can go to bed and tell stories!"

A little later in the evening, while it was still snowing heavily, and the Alcotts were about to cover their fire to keep it, a farmer who was in the habit of supplying them with wood knocked at the door and asked anxiously:

"Wouldn't you like me to drop my load of wood here? It would accommodate me, and you need not hurry to pay for it. I started for Boston with it but the snow is drifting so fast, I want to go home."

"Yes," answered Mr. Alcott, and as the man went away, he turned to his wife and exclaimed: "Didn't I tell you that wood would come if the weather didn't moderate?"

Again, a tramp asked Mr. Alcott to lend him five dollars. As he had only a ten-dollar bill, the dear man at once offered that, asking to have the change brought back as soon as possible. Despite the disbelief of his family in the tramp's honesty, the man did bring the five-dollar bill soon with profuse thanks, and the gentle philosopher's faith in human nature was not crushed.

Still another experiment in generosity proved a harder one in its results to the Alcotts, when Mrs. Alcott allowed some poor emigrants to rest in her garden while she treated them to a bountiful meal. Unfortunately for their generous benefactor, in return they gave small-pox to the entire family, and, although the girls had light cases, Mr. and Mrs. Alcott were very sick and, as Miss Alcott records later: "We had a curious time of exile, danger and trouble." She adds: "No doctors and all got well."

When Louisa Alcott was almost ten years old, and Anna twelve, Mr. Alcott took a trip to England, hoping to interest the people there in his new theories of education and of living. So enthusiastically and beautifully did he present his theories that he won many converts, and one of them, a Mr. Lane, returned to America with him to help him found a colony on the new ideas, which were more ideal than practical, and so disapproved of by Mr. Alcott's friends, who thought him foolish to waste time and money on them.

However, after months of planning, Mr. Alcott, Mr. Lane and other enthusiasts decided to buy an estate of one hundred acres near Harvard Village, Mass., and establish the colony. The place was named "Fruitlands," in anticipation of future crops, and the men who were to start the community were full of hope and enthusiasm, in which Mrs. Alcott did not share, as she knew her husband's visionary nature too well not to fear the result of such an experiment. However, she aided in making the plan as practical as she could, and drew such a rosy picture of their new home to the children that they expected life at Fruitlands to be a perpetual picnic.

Alas for visions and for hopes! Although life at Fruitlands had its moments of sunshine and happiness, yet they were far overbalanced by hard work, small results and increasing worry over money matters, and at last, after four years of struggle to make ends meet, Mr. Alcott was obliged to face the fact that the experiment had been an utter failure, that he had exhausted his resources of mind, body and estate. It was a black time for the gentle dreamer, and for a while it seemed as if despair would overwhelm him. But with his brave wife to help him and the children's welfare to think of, he shook off his despondency bravely, and decided to make a fresh start. So Mrs. Alcott wrote to her brother in Boston for help, sold all the furniture they could spare, and went to Still River, the nearest village to Fruitlands, and engaged four rooms. "Then on a bleak December day the Alcott family emerged from the snowbank in which Fruitlands, now re-christened Apple Stump by Mrs. Alcott, lay hidden. Their worldly goods were piled on an ox-sled, the four girls on the top, while father and mother trudged arm in arm behind, poorer indeed in worldly goods, but richer in love and faith and patience, and alas, experience."

After a winter in Still River they went back to Concord, where they occupied a few rooms in the house of a sympathetic friend--not all their friends were sympathetic, by any means, as most of them had warned Mr. Alcott of this ending to his experiment. But all were kindly as they saw the family take up life bravely in Concord again, with even fewer necessities and comforts than before. Both Mr. and Mrs. Alcott did whatever work they could find to do, thinking nothing too menial if it provided food and clothing for their family. Naturally the education of the children was rather fragmentary and insufficient, but it developed their own powers of thinking. Through the pages of their diaries in which they wrote regularly, and which were open to their mother and father, they learned to express their thoughts clearly on all subjects. Also they were encouraged to read freely, while only the best books were within their reach. Louisa's poetic and dramatic efforts were not ridiculed, but criticized as carefully as if they had been masterpieces, so she had no fear of expressing her deepest thoughts, but acted out her own nature freely and fearlessly.

In fact the four daughters were happy, wholesome, hearty girls, whose frolics and pastimes took such unique forms that people wondered whether they were the result of Mr. Alcott's theories, and Miss Alcott tells of one afternoon when Mr. Emerson and Margaret Fuller were visiting her mother and the conversation drifted to the subject of education. Turning to Mr. Alcott, Miss Fuller said:

"Well, Mr. Alcott, you have been able to carry out your methods in your own family; I should like to see your model children."

A few moments later, as the guests stood on the door-step, ready to leave, there was a wild uproar heard in the near distance and round the corner of the house came a wheel-barrow holding baby May, dressed as a queen; Miss Alcott says: "I was the horse, bitted and bridled, and driven by my sister Anna, while Lizzie played dog and barked as loud as her gentle voice permitted.

"All were shouting and wild with fun, which, however, came to a sudden end, for my foot tripped and down we all went in a laughing heap, while my mother put a climax to the joke by saying with a dramatic wave of the hand:

"'Here are the model children, Miss Fuller!'"

When Mrs. Alcott's father, Colonel May, died, he left his daughter a small property, and she now determined to buy a house in Concord with it, so that whatever the varying fortunes of the family might be in future they would at least have a roof over their heads. An additional amount of five hundred dollars was added by Mr. Emerson, who was always the good angel of the family, and the place in Concord known as "Hillside" was bought, where life and work began in earnest for Louisa and her sisters, for only too clearly they saw the heavy weight that was being laid on their mother's shoulders.

Louisa was growing in body and spirit in those days, stretching up physically and mentally, and among the sources of her finest inspiration was the gentle reformer, philosopher and writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was ever her father's loyal friend and helper. Louisa's warm little heart enshrined the calm, great-minded man who always understood things, and after she had read Goethe's correspondence with Bettine, she, like Bettine, placed her idol on a pedestal and worshipped him in a truly romantic fashion. At night, after she had gone to her room, she wrote him long passionate letters, expressing her devotion, but she never sent the letters--only told him of them in later years, when they laughed together over her girlish fancy. Once, she confessed to having sat in a tall cherry-tree at midnight and sung to the moon until the owls scared her to bed; and of having sung Mignon's song under his window in very bad German, and strewed wild flowers over his door-step in the darkness. This sounds very sentimental and silly, but Louisa was never that. She had a deep, intense nature, which as yet had found no outlet or expression, and she could have had no safer hero to worship than this gentle, serene, wise man whose friendship for her family was so practical in its expression. Also at that period, which Louisa herself in her diary calls the "sentimental period," she was strongly influenced by the poet and naturalist, Thoreau. From him she learned to know Nature in a closer and more loving intimacy. Thoreau was called a hermit, and known as a genius, and more often than not he could be found in his hut in the woods, or on the river bank, where he learned to look for the bright-eyed "Alcott girl," who would swing along his side in twenty-mile tramps, eager and inquisitive about everything, learning new facts about flowers and trees and birds and insects from the great man at her side. Truly a fortunate girl was Louisa, with two such friends and teachers as the great Emerson and Thoreau. Hawthorne, too, fascinated her in his shy reserve, and the young girl in her teens with a tremendous ability to do and to be something worth while in life could have had no more valuable preface to her life as a writer than that of the happy growing days at Concord, with that group of remarkable men.

At that time she did not think seriously of having talent for writing, as she had only written a half-dozen pieces of verse, among them one called "My Kingdom," which has been preserved as a bit of girlish yearning for the best in religion and in character, sweetly expressed, and some thrilling melodramas for the "troupe" in the barn to act. These were overflowing with villains and heroes, and were lurid enough to satisfy the most intense of her audience. Later some of them were collected under the title of "Comic Tragedies"--but at best they only serve to show how full of imaginative possibilities the girl's nature was.

Although the Alcotts had their own home in Concord now, it was yet almost impossible to make ends meet, and with the sturdy independence which proved to be one of her marked traits, Louisa determined to earn some money and add to the family income. It was no easy thing to do, for there were few avenues of work open to girls in that day. But she could teach, for it was quite a popular resource to open a small school in some barn, with a select set of pupils. Louisa herself had been to one of these "barn schools," and now she opened one in Mr. Emerson's barn, but it paid very poorly, as did everything which the Alcotts attempted to do. The brave mother was so completely discouraged, that when one day a friend passing through Concord called on her, Mrs. Alcott confessed the state of her financial affairs. As a result of that confession, the family once more migrated to Boston, leaving the Hawthornes as occupants of "Hillside." In the city Mrs. Alcott was given a position as visitor to the poor by a benevolent association, and she also kept an employment agency--a more respectable occupation than it was in later years. Once more there was money in the treasury, and with their usual happy optimism the family cheered up and decided that life was worth living, even under the most trying circumstances. While his wife was busy in that way, Mr. Alcott gradually drew a circle of people around him to whom his theories of life were acceptable, and who paid a small price to attend the "conversations" he held on subjects which interested him to discuss. Being appreciated, even by a small audience, was balm to the wounded spirit of the gentle philosopher, whose "Fruitlands" experiment had been such a bitter one, and now he was as happy as though he were earning large amounts by his work, instead of the meager sum paid by his disciples to hear him talk of his pet theories. But he was contented, and his happiness was reflected by his adoring family. Mrs. Alcott, too, was satisfied with the work she was doing, so for a time all went well with the "Pathetic Family" as Louisa had christened them.

Louisa, meanwhile, was learning many lessons as she traveled slowly up the road to womanhood--learning courage and self-denial, linked with cheerfulness from mother and father, and enjoying a wholesome comradeship in the home life with her sisters.

Anna, the oldest daughter, was much like her father. She never worried about her soul or her shortcomings as Louisa did; she accepted life as it came, without question, and was of a calm nature, unlike turbulent, questioning Louisa, who had as many moods as there were hours in a day and who found ruling her tempestuous nature the hardest piece of work life offered her. She confesses in her diary: "My quick tongue is always getting me into trouble, and my moodiness makes it hard to be cheerful when I think how poor we are, how much worry it is to live, and how many things I long to do--I never can. 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." Having made this confession to an unresponsive page of her journal, the restless nature gave up the desire to be a coward, and turned to achieving whatever work might come to her hand to do, little dreaming what was before her in the coming years. She was very fine looking, of which she evidently was conscious, for she says in her diary:

"If I look in my glass I try to keep down vanity about my long hair, my well-shaped head, and my good nose." Besides these good points of which she speaks so frankly, she was tall and graceful, with a heavy mass of glossy, chestnut-brown hair. Her complexion was clear and full of color, and her dark-blue eyes were deep-set and very expressive.

During those years in Boston, the Alcotts spent two summers in an uncle's roomy house, where they enjoyed such comforts as had not before fallen to their lot, and calm Anna, sweet retiring Beth, or Betty, as she was called, and artistic May, the youngest of the flock, revelled in having rooms of their own, and plenty of space for their own belongings. May was a pretty, golden-haired, blue-eyed child with decided tastes, and an ability to get what she most wanted in life without much effort--an ability which poor Louisa entirely lacked, for her success always came as the result of exhausting work.

Louisa was now seventeen years old, and Anna nineteen. At that time came the small-pox siege, and after Anna had recovered partially she was obliged to take a rest, leaving her small school in Louisa's charge. There were twenty scholars, and it was a great responsibility for the girl of seventeen, but she took up the work with such enthusiasm that she managed to captivate her pupils, whose attention she held by illustrating many of their lessons with original stories, telling them in a way they would never forget. When Anna came back the school was so flourishing that Louisa continued to help with the teaching, and it seemed probable that she had found her greatest talent, although little did she guess how many interesting avenues of experience were to widen before her wondering eyes before she was to settle down to her life-work.

Meanwhile she kept on helping Anna with her school, and to liven up the daily routine of a rather dull existence she began to write thrilling plays, which she always read to Anna, who criticized and helped revise them with sisterly severity. The plays were acted by a group of the girls' friends, with Anna and Louisa usually taking the principal parts. From creating these wonderful melodramas, which always won loud applause from an enthusiastic audience, and because of her real ability to act, Louisa now decided that she would go on the real stage. "Anna wants to be an actress, and so do I," she wrote in her diary. "We could make plenty of money perhaps, and it is a very gay life. Mother says we are too young, and must wait."

Wise mother, and firm as wise! The girls were obliged to accept her decree, and Louisa was so depressed by it that for a time she made every one miserable by her downcast mood. Then, fortunately, an interested relative showed one of her plays to the manager of the Boston Theater. He read "The Rival Prima Donnas" with kindly eyes, and offered to stage it. Here was good luck indeed! The entire Alcott family held as great a jubilation when they heard the news as if they had fallen heir to a fortune, and Louisa at once forgot her ambition to act, in her ambition to be known as a successful play-wright.

Unfortunately, there was some hitch in the arrangements, and the play was never produced, but the manager sent Louisa a free pass to the theater, which gave her a play-wright's pride whenever she used it, and her enjoyment in anticipating the production had been so great that she was able to bear the actual disappointment with real philosophy. And by that time her mood had changed. Although she always loved to act, and acted well, her own good sense had asserted itself, and she had set aside a dramatic career, realizing that it included too many difficulties and hardships.

Her next adventure was quite different. To her mother's employment office came a gentleman who wished a companion for his old father and sister. The position offered only light work, and seemed a good one in every respect, and impulsive Louisa, who happened to hear the request, asked her mother, eagerly: "Can't I go? Oh, do let me take it!" Her mother, thinking the experience would not be harmful, let her accept the position, and as a result she had two of the most disillusioning and hard months of her life. She had her revenge later by writing a story called "How I Went Out to Service," in which she described the experience in a vivid way.

An extract from her "heart journal," as she now called her diary, is a revelation of home life which gave to Louisa much of that understanding of human nature which has made her books so popular. She says: "Our poor little home had much love and happiness in it, and was a shelter for lost girls, abused wives, friendless children and weak or wicked men. Father and mother had no money to give, but gave their time, sympathy, help, and if blessings would make them rich they would be millionaires. This is practical Christianity."

At that time they were living in a small house, with Beth as housekeeper, while Anna and Louisa taught, May went to school, and the mother attended to her own work. Mr. Alcott, too, was doing all he could to add to the family income by his lectures, and by writing articles on his favorite subjects, so all together, they managed to live in some sort of fashion. But Louisa had now made up her mind that she must do more for the comfort of the beloved mother, who was always over-worked and worried, despite her courage and cheery manner, and she decided to try to publish a story.

Full of the intention, one night, she sat down on the floor and searched through the pile of papers which included most of her "scribblings" since her first use of a pen. Plays, poems and many other closely written sheets were thrown aside. At last she found what she was looking for, and read and re-read it three times, then set it aside until morning, when, with the greatest possible secrecy, she put it in an envelope, sealed, addressed and mailed it. From that time she went about her work with the air of one whose mind is on greater things, but she was always wide awake enough when it came time for some one to go for the mail, and her sisters joked her about her eagerness for letters, which she bore good-naturedly enough. Then came a wonderful day when she was handed a letter from a well-known firm of publishers. Her hand shook as she opened it, and she gave a suppressed cry of joy as she read the short note, and looked with amazement at the bit of paper enclosed.

Later in the day, when the housework was done and school was over, she sauntered into the room where the family was gathered in a sewing-bee. Throwing herself into a chair with an indifferent air, she asked:

"Want to hear a good story?"

Of course they did. The Alcotts were always ready for a story, and Louisa read extremely well. Her audience listened to the thrilling tale with eager attention, and at the end there was a chorus of cries: "How fine! How lovely! How interesting!" Then Anna asked: "Who wrote it?" With shining eyes and crimson cheeks Louisa jumped to her feet and, waving the paper overhead, cried:

"Your sister! I wrote it! Yes, I really did!"

One can imagine the great excitement of the group who then clustered around the authoress and asked questions all at once.

That first published story was pronounced by its creator to be "great rubbish," and she only received the sum of five dollars for it, but it was a beginning, and from that time in her active brain plots for stories long and short began to simmer, although she still taught, and often did sewing in the evenings, for which she was fairly well paid.

In mid-winter of 1853 Mr. Alcott went West on a lecture tour, full of hope for a financial success. He left the home group as busy as usual, for Mrs. Alcott had several boarders, as well as her employment office. Anna had gone to Syracuse to teach in a school there, Louisa had opened a home school with ten pupils, and the calm philosopher felt that he could leave them with a quiet mind, as they were all earning money, and this was his opportunity to broaden the field in which the seeds of unique ideas were sown.

So off he went, full of eager courage, followed by the good wishes of the girls, who fondly hoped that "father would be appreciated at last." Alas for hopes! On a February night, when all the household were sleeping soundly, the bell rang violently. All were awakened, and Louisa says, "Mother flew down, crying 'my husband!' We rushed after, and five white figures embraced the half-frozen wanderer who came in tired, hungry, cold and disappointed, but smiling bravely, and as serene as ever. We fed and warmed and brooded over him," says Louisa, "longing to ask if he had made any money, but none did till little May said, after he had told all the pleasant things: 'Well, did people pay you?' Then, with a queer look, he opened his pocket-book and showed one dollar, saying with a smile that made our eyes fill: 'Only that! My overcoat was stolen, and I had to buy a shawl. Many promises were not kept, and traveling is costly, but I have opened the way, and another year shall do better.'

"I shall never forget," adds Louisa, "how beautifully mother answered him, though the dear hopeful soul had built much on his success; but with a beaming face she kissed him, saying, 'I call that doing very well. Since you are safely home, dear, we don't ask anything more.'

"Anna and I choked down our tears, and took a lesson in real love which we never forgot.... It was half tragic and comic, for father was very dirty and sleepy, and mother in a big night-cap and funny old jacket."

Surely no one ever had a better opportunity to probe to the heart of the real emotions that make up the most prosaic as well as the most heroic daily lives than a member of that generous, happy, loving Alcott family.

And still Louisa kept on doing other things besides the writing, which was such a safety valve for her intense nature. For a short time she worked for a relative in the country, and she also taught and sewed and did housework, and made herself useful wherever her strong hands and willing heart could find some way of earning a dollar.

The seven years spent in Boston had developed her into a capable young woman of twenty-two, who was ready and eager to play her part in the great drama of life of which she was an interested spectator as she saw it constantly enacted around her.

Even then, before she had stepped across the threshold of her career, she unconsciously realized that the home stage is the real background of the supreme world drama, and she shows this by the intimate, tender domestic scenes which made all of her stories bits of real life, with a strong appeal to those whose homes are joyous parts of the present, or sacred memories.

When she was determined to achieve an end, Louisa Alcott generally succeeded, even in the face of obstacles; and now having decided to take on her own broad shoulders some of the burdens which were weighing heavily on her beloved mother, she turned to the talent which had recently yielded her the magnificent sum of five dollars. In the days at Concord she had told many stories about fairies and flowers to the little Emerson children and their friends, who eagerly drank in all the mystic tales in which wood-nymphs, water sprites, giants and fairy queens played a prominent part, and the stories were thrilling, because their teller believed absolutely in the fairy creatures she pictured in a lovely setting of woodland glades and forest dells. These stones, which she had written down and called "Flower Fables," she found among her papers, and as she read them again she felt that they might interest other children as they had those to whom they were told. She had no money to publish them, however, and no publisher would bear the expense of a venture by an untried writer. But it took more than that to daunt Louisa when her mind was made up. With great enthusiasm she told a friend of the family, Miss Wealthy Stevens, of her desire, and she generously offered to pay for publication, but it was decided not to tell the family until the book should come out. Then in radiant secrecy Louisa burned the midnight oil and prepared the little book for the press. One can fancy the proud surprise of Mrs. Alcott when, on the following Christmas morning, among her pile of gifts she found the little volume with this note:

December 25, 1854.


Into your Christmas stocking I have put my first-born, knowing that you will accept it with all its faults (for grandmothers are always kind) and look upon it merely as an earnest of what I may yet do; for with so much to cheer me on, I hope to pass in time from fairies and fables to men and realities. Whatever beauty or poetry is to be found in my little book is owing to your interest in, and encouragement of, my efforts from the first to the last, and if ever I do anything to be proud of, my greatest happiness will be that I can thank you for that, as I may do for all the good there is in me, and I shall be content to write if it gives you pleasure.

Jo is fussing about,
My lamp is going out.

To dear mother, with many kind wishes for a Happy New Year and Merry Christmas,

I am ever your loving daughter,


Recompense enough, that note, for all a loving mother's sacrifices and attempts to give her daughter understanding sympathy and love--and it is small wonder if that Christmas gift always remained one of her most precious possessions.

Six hundred copies of the little "Flower Fables" were published, and the book sold very well, although their author only received the sum of $32 for them, which was in sharp contrast, she says in her journal, "to the receipts of six months only in 1886, being eight thousand dollars for the sale of books and no new one; but" she adds, "I was prouder over the thirty-two dollars than the eight thousand."

Louisa Alcott was now headed toward her destiny, although she was still a long way from the shining goal of literary success, and had many weary hills yet to climb.

As soon as Flower Fables was published, she began to plan for a new volume of fairy tales, and as she was invited to spend the next summer in the lovely New Hampshire village of Walpole, she thankfully accepted the invitation, and decided to write the new book there in the bracing air of the hill town. In Walpole, she met delightful people, who were all attracted to the versatile, amusing young woman, and she was in great demand when there was any entertainment on foot. One evening she gave a burlesque lecture on "Woman, and Her Position, by Oronthy Bluggage," which created such a gale of merriment that she was asked to repeat it for money, which she did; and so there was added to her store of accomplishments another, from which she was to reap some rewards in coming years.

Her enjoyment of Walpole was so great that her family decided to try its fine air, as they were tired of city life and needed a change of scene. A friend offered them a house there, rent free, and in their usual impromptu way they left Boston and arrived in the country village, bag and baggage. Mr. Alcott was overjoyed to have a garden in which to work, and Mrs. Alcott was glad to be near her niece, whose guest Louisa had been up to that time.

Louisa's comment on their arrival in her diary was:

"Busy and happy times as we settle in the little house in the lane, near by my dear ravine--plays, picnics, pleasant people and good neighbors." Despite the good times, it is evident that she was not idle, for she says, "Finished fairy book in September.... Better than Flower Fables. Now, I must try to sell it."

In September Anna had an offer to become a teacher in the great idiot asylum in Syracuse. Her sensitive nature shrank from the work, but with real self-sacrifice she accepted it for the sake of the family, and went off in October. Meanwhile Louisa had been thinking deeply about her future, and her diary tells the story of a decision she made, quite the most important one of her life. She writes:

"November; decided to seek my fortune, so with my little trunk of home-made clothes, $40 earned by stories sent to the Gazette, and my MSS., I set forth with mother's blessing one rainy day in the dullest month in the year."

She went straight to Boston, where she writes:

"Found it too late to do anything with the book (the new one she had written at Walpole) so put it away and tried for teaching, sewing, or any honest work. Won't go home to sit idle while I have a head and a pair of hands."

Good for you, Louisa--you are the stuff that success is made of! That her courage had its reward is shown by the fact that her cousins, the Sewalls, generously offered her a home for the winter with them which she gratefully accepted, but insisted on paying for her board by doing a great deal of sewing for them. She says in her diary: "I sew for Mollie and others and write stories. C. gave me books to notice. Heard Thackeray. Anxious times; Anna very home-sick. Walpole very cold and dull, now the summer butterflies have gone. Got $5 for a tale and $12 for sewing; sent home a Christmas box to cheer the dear souls in the snow-banks."

In January she writes: "C. paid $6 for A Sister's Trial, gave me more books to notice, and wants more tales." The entries that follow give a vivid picture of her pluck and perseverance in that first winter of fortune-seeking, and no record of deeds could be more graphic than the following entries:

"Sewed for L. W. Sewall and others. Mr. Field took my farce to Mobile to bring out; Mr. Barry of the Boston Theater has the play. Heard Curtis lecture. Began a book for summer, Beach Bubbles. Mr. F. of the Courier printed a poem of mine on 'Little Nell'. Got $10 for 'Bertha' and saw great yellow placards stuck up announcing it. Acted at the W's. March; got $10 for 'Genevieve'. Prices go up as people like the tales and ask who wrote them.... Sewed a great deal, and got very tired; one job for Mr. G. of a dozen pillow-cases, one dozen sheets, six fine cambric neck-ties, and two dozen handkerchiefs, at which I had to work all one night to get them done, ... I got only $4.00." The brave, young fortune-seeker adds sensibly, "Sewing won't make my fortune, but I can plan my stories while I work."

In May she had a welcome visit from Anna on her way home from Syracuse, as the work there was too hard for her, and the sisters spent some happy days together in Boston. Then they were obliged to go home, as dear little Beth was very sick with scarlet-fever which she caught from some poor children Mrs. Alcott had been nursing. Both Beth and May had the dangerous disease, and Beth never recovered from the effects of it, although she lived for two years, a serene, patient invalid, who shed a benediction on the sorrowing household. That summer was an anxious time for the family. In her usual way Louisa plunged headlong into housework and nursing, and when night came she would scribble one of the stories which the papers were now glad to accept whenever she could send them. So with varying degrees of apprehension and rejoicing, the weary months passed, and as Beth was slowly improving and she was not needed at home, Louisa decided to spend another winter in the city. Her diary says:

"There I can support myself and help the family. C. offers $10 a month and perhaps more.... Others have plenty of sewing; the play may come out, and Mrs. R. will give me a sky-parlor for $3 a week, with fire and board. I sew for her also." With practical forethought, she adds, "If I can get A. L. to governess I shall be all right."

Then in a burst of the real spirit which had animated her ever since she first began to write and sew and teach and act, and make over old clothes given her by rich friends that she need not spend any money on herself, she declares in her diary:

"I was born with a boy's spirit under my bib and tucker. I can't wait when I can work; so I took my little talent in my hand and forced the world again, braver than before, and wiser for my failures."

That the decision was no light one, and that the winter in Boston was not merely an adventure, is shown by her declaration:

"I don't often pray in words; but when I set out that day with all my worldly goods in the little old trunk, my own earnings ($25) in my pocket, and much hope and resolution in my soul, my heart was very full, and I said to the Lord, 'Help us all, and keep us for one another,' as I never said it before, while I looked back at the dear faces watching me, so full of love, and hope, and faith."

Louisa Alcott's childhood and girlhood, with all the hardships and joys which went into the passing years, had been merged in a triumphant young womanhood--a fitting preface to the years of fame and fortune which were to follow. A brave, interesting girl had become a courageous older woman, who faced the untried future with her small earnings in her pocket, her worldly goods in her trunk, and hopeful determination in her heart to do some worth-while thing in the world, for the sake of those she dearly loved. She had started up the steep slope of her life's real adventuring, and despite the rough paths over which she must still travel before reaching her goal, she was more and more a sympathetic comrade to the weak or weary, ever a gallant soldier, and a noble woman, born to do great deeds. So enthusiastic was she in playing her part in the world's work, that when she was twenty-seven years old, and still toiling on, with a scant measure of either wealth or fame, she exclaimed at a small success:

"Hurrah! My story was accepted and Lowell asked if it was not a translation from the German, it was so unlike other tales. I felt much set up, and my fifty dollars will be very happy money.... I have not been pegging away all these years in vain, and I may yet have books and publishers, and a fortune of my own. Success has gone to my head, and I wander a little.

"Twenty-seven years old and very happy!"

* * * * *

The prediction of "books, publishers and a fortune" came true in 1868, when a Boston firm urged her to write a story for girls, and she had the idea of describing the early life of her own home, with its many episodes and incidents. She wrote the book and called it Little Women, and was the most surprised person in the world, when from her cozy corner of Concord she watched edition after edition being published, and found that she had become famous. From that moment Louisa Alcott belonged to the public, and one has but to turn to the pages of her ably edited Life, Letters and Journals, to realize the source from which she got the material for her "simple story of simple girls," bound by a beautiful tie of family love, that neither poverty, sorrow nor death could sever. Four little pilgrims, struggling onward and upward through all the difficulties that beset them on their way, in Concord, Boston, Walpole and elsewhere, had provided human documents which the genius of Louisa Alcott made into an imperishable story for the delight and inspiration of succeeding generations of girls.

Little Women was followed by Little Men, Old Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, and a long line of other charming books for young people. And, although the incidents in them were not all taken from real life as were those of her first "immortal," yet was each and every book a faithful picture of every-day life. That is where the genius of Louisa Alcott came in. From the depicting of fairies and gnomes, princes and kings, she early turned to paint the real, the vital and the heroic, which is being lived in so many households where there is little money and no luxury, but much light-hearted laughter, tender affection for one another, and a deep and abiding love of humanity.

Well may all aspiring young Americans take example from the author of Little Women, and when longing to set the world on fire in the expression of their genius, learn not to despise or to turn away from the simple, commonplace details of every-day life.

And for successful life and work, there is no better inspiration than the three rules given Louisa Alcott in girlhood for her daily guidance:

Rule yourself;
Love your neighbor;
Do the duty which lies nearest you.

[The end]
Kate Dickinson Sweetser's short story: Louisa M. Alcott: Author Of "little Women"