Louisa May Alcott’s enduringly popular novel Little Women is no stranger to adaptation. Over the past century, the classic American coming-of-age story (published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869) has graced the silver screen six times. The latest adaption by director Greta Gerwig was just released in theaters, and its star-studded cast includes Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep. The film’s release is the perfect time to revisit how Alcott herself both reified and bucked gender norms of the late 19th century—and a small collection of letters from Alcott held at the New-York Historical Society sheds light on this seeming contradiction.
It is easy to romantically envision Alcott as a secluded artist, hemmed in by the restrictive social values of her time, writing solely for diversion or sociability. Her correspondence paints a very different picture of a worldly woman interacting with the public and actively managing her career.
Little Women follows the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—as they grow to womanhood in New England in the wake of the Civil War. It is a semi-autobiographical novel, with Alcott (1832- 1888) drawing inspiration from her childhood in Concord, MA. (She was born in 1832, the second of four daughters whose parents were the radical social reformers Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail May.) The March sisters are loosely based on Alcott and her sisters, with each modeling a different mode of womanhood: Meg, a dutiful traditionalist, Jo, a tomboyish writer, Beth, a demurring peacemaker, and Amy, a vain materialist. Together, they weather poverty, sickness, marriage, motherhood, and death in a time when gender norms were rapidly changing. The second half of the 19th century saw the ascendance of industrial capitalism. This new economic order, as historian and N-YHS Center for Women’s History Scholarly Advisory Board member Caroll Smith-Rosenberg has noted, disturbed the boundary drawn by Victorians between the “public sphere” that belonged solely to men and the “private” sphere for women. Women who had been consigned to the apolitical “private sphere” found themselves drawn out of the domesticity of the home into the worlds of wage labor and social reform.
Alcott’s own life reflected this shifting culture. As her always financially insecure parents aged, she supported them and made a living for herself by writing and publishing poems, short stories, and fairy tales for children. When editor Thomas Niles approached her in 1868 to persuade her to write Little Women, Alcott had been publishing her work in literary magazines like Atlantic Monthly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for 17 years.
New-York Historical’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library holds 18 letters penned by Louisa May Alcott. Though only one of the letters is dated, they were probably all written between 1863 and 1864, several years before she would write Little Women. Seventeen out of 18 are addressed to James Redpath, an abolitionist who published some of her short stories, including “Hospital Sketches” (1863) and “On Picket-Duty” (1864). In these letters, Alcott confidently dictates to Redpath her opinions on illustrations, bindings, corrections, arrangements, and, of course, payment for her work. At each juncture, Alcott demonstrated how seriously she took her career as a writer.
For example, when the Monitor literary magazine failed, she asserted that the story she submitted, “King of Clubs and Queen of Hearts,” “was rather wasted on the desert air, & that there would be no harm in republishing it” and thus being compensated again by a new publisher.
In another letter, this one dated Dec. 2, Alcott seeks Redpath’s advice on negotiating competing offers to publish her writing:
“Leslie asks for several more tales…& Richardson the unknown makes a proposal which I send for you to see & if you will be so kind to give me your opinion of the enterprise. Are they clever people? & is it worth my while to accept? I suppose if my stories are printed in the “Dime Set” they can still be gathered into one volume at some time with others, if we think best.”
Alcott demonstrates her understanding of the publishing landscape by expressing her distaste for “Yankee” publishers in a letter dated to May 18:
“My dealings with New York have not given me much faith in the editors of that city, but its publishers may do better & if you choose to try I’m willing though if you prefer to do it let it be so.”
Alcott also reflected upon how her audience responded to her stories and how she could strategically render them more marketable:
“Mother thinks a volume of my best or rather most popular stories might do better, & could easily be arranged as I have printed copies of most all of them. There is one Mr. Parker liked, another Mr. Emerson praised”
Yet, in these letters, Alcott did not always project the confidence of a professional writer. In more than one letter, she claimed to be “lamentably stupid about business of all sorts.” When faced with a contract, she purported to “have puzzled my stupid head till I believe I understand it.” In light of her sophisticated knowledge of the field of publishing expressed in her other letters, these may be examples of Alcott dissembling. That is, Alcott may have purposefully concealed the extent of her knowledge with the aim of keeping her male correspondent at ease. Dissembling was a necessary skill for women in the patriarchal society of the late 19th century that did not always welcome women’s incursions into the world of business.
If you catch a screening of the latest Little Women this holiday season, remember that the March sisters came to life through the combination of Louisa May Alcott’s sparkling creativity and business acumen.
Read more about the collection of Louisa May Alcott letters at the New-York Historical Society Library here.
Written by Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History, New-York Historical Society