Yesterday (November 29th) was Louisa May Alcott’s birthday (happy 183rd!). Some years ago, I wrote an article about why slavery was absent from Alcott’s most famous book, Little Women (1868). Although the first half of the novel is set during the Civil War, and the March girls’ father is a chaplain with the army, the issue that engulfed the United States in war and threatened its union does not form a focus for the story. The Alcotts, were well-known abolitionists, and even admitted an African-American child to Bronson Alcott’s school at one point; Louisa counted abolition as one of her causes, along with feminism—although she tended to embrace feminist causes more openly in her work, both because slavery was abolished by the time she found success as a children’s writer, and because she could relate more directly to women’s causes. She did include reference to slavery in Little Women, but cautiously. She had learned from past experience what it meant to be a public supporter of abolition.
In 1863, Alcott published two works that directly dealt (at least in part) with slavery: her autobiographical sketch of her own wartime nursing experiences, Hospital Sketches, and a story, “My Contraband,” published in The Atlantic (which supported abolitionist causes). In both these stories, the white woman who is the main focus of the narrative is an abolitionist, but is aware of how that makes her appear in the eyes of most people in the nation (north and south). Nurse Faith Dane, in “My Contraband,” is asked to take on a rebel patient and an African-American “contraband” (a slave captured by the Union forces and used by them, like other goods and property). She agrees, saying, “some of these people think that because I’m an abolitionist I am also a heathen, and I should rather like to show them, that, though I cannot quite love my enemies, I am willing to take care of them.” In her account of her own nursing, Hospital Sketches, Alcott recalls being seen by a fellow nurse cuddling an African-American baby: “my comrade henceforth regarded me as a dangerous fanatic”. Fanatics, and heathens, and those publicly perceived as such, did not write literature for children. Despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation, promoted and supported by abolitionists, was signed by Lincoln in 1863, war-weariness and fear of violence began to affect the public view of the anti-slavery campaigners. Race riots broke out in New York following the proclamation, when some white soldiers found out they might have to serve with African-Americans. Freedom was one thing; race-mixing (of any kind) something completely different.
|Image from the Race Riots of 1863 (New York Historical Society archives).|
The end of the war only intensified this feeling. Former slaves were now free to run from the Ku Klux Klan, which had been formed in 1866; race riots broke out across the South that same year. Alcott revised Hospital Sketches for a new publisher to make the book more nationally-acceptable; Roberts Brothers asked her to remove many of the harsher references to Confederate soldiers. The national mood was nervous; those who had embraced abolition were silenced by the racial violence that regularly cropped up around the country, and by the loud calls to “heal the nation” and forget the South’s past wrongs.
The Boston publishing firm who republished Hospital Sketches would later ask Alcott to write another story, this time a girls’ story. Alcott famously didn’t want to, but wrote it for the money; her mother was sick and Alcott longed for the independence that money could bring. She was writing a book to order, and Roberts Brothers had already made it clear that they did not want anything that would enflame racial tensions. For most of its history, the novel has been viewed as semi-autobiographical, but even her young childhood was far more radical than any of the incidents in Little Women. The African-American that the Alcotts admitted to their school almost ruined the family: when Alcott’s father really admitted African-American Susan Robinson to his Temple School in the 1830s, the other pupils left. The Alcotts were forced to close the school and leave Boston, and Alcott’s mother predicted “they were likely to starve”. Alcott inverts this in Little Women, however. When Jo admits a “merry quadroon” into her school at the very end of the novel, she can finally reap the rewards of virtue. Her mother predicts that her “harvest will be a good crop.” Coming as it does after the end of the war and just a couple of years after Walt Whitman had, in “Leaves of Grass,” embraced the reunion of America through a description of the autumn harvest, Alcott’s image is poignant. The nation, as represented by Jo’s school of boys from all walks of life, has hope that reconstruction may be a success.
Alcott herself never had much contact with African-Americans, and her real-life experience of abolition had shown her that abolitionists were shunned by society, regarded as potentially dangerous. She would work for the benefit of slaves before and during the war, and for freed blacks after the Civil War ended, but only when her work did not result in the impoverishment of her own family; she would not repeat her father’s “mistakes”. But she did provide a vision in Little Women of a different kind of society, one in which those who supported causes like abolition would succeed, financially and morally, and the nation would prosper because of it. It was not the vision of reform that she had experienced, but it was a brighter prospect to offer the child reading public. And unlike the work of today’s birthday boy (happy 180th, Mark Twain), it was packaged in a way that was more acceptable to the children’s book-buying parents.
If you’re interested in reading my article (which discusses Alcott’s novel and abolition in more detail), here is the citation: “Anything to Suit Customers: Antislavery and Little Women.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.1 (2001): 33-38.