This post was written by Miranda Schwartz, cataloging technician.
The New-York Historical Society Library has a collection of eighteen letters by Louisa May Alcott, best known as the author of the 1868 novel Little Women, a classic of American children’s literature. The Alcott letters are in the American Historical Manuscripts Collection, a trove of 12,000 small manuscript collections covering hundreds of years of American history.
Alcott, the second oldest of four sisters, grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. Her father, reformer and writer Bronson Alcott, was friends with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but his inability to earn a living meant that the family continually struggled for money. Louisa May Alcott did whatever work a young woman could do to earn money: sewing, teaching, working as a companion. But it was when she turned her hand to writing that Alcott was able to support her family and realize her own creativity. Her first poem was published in 1851; her first story in 1852. She originally published stories under the pseudonym of Flora Fairfield; later she published her “blood & thunder tales” under the name A.M. Barnard. (These Barnard stories are markedly different from Little Women and the later work: Their conniving heroines scheme and plot—a far cry from the domesticity of the March sisters.)
Seventeen of the Library’s eighteen letters are to James Redpath, an abolitionist associate of her father who published some of her work. (The eighteenth letter is to writer/editor Mary Mapes Dodge.) Only one of the letters is dated but they were probably written from 1863 to 1864. They all treat the arcana of book publishing: contracts, copyright, binding, illustrations, etc. Though Alcott deprecates herself in terms of publishing knowledge (“Being lamentably stupid about business of all sorts I’m very much afraid I’m not very clear about the contract”; “I did not mention copyrights because I did not know anything about them”), it is clear that she is more knowledgeable than she cares to let on, having already been published in The Atlantic Monthly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
In these letters to Redpath she is quite decided on her own ideas and market appeal; she peppers her writing with references to publishers Frank Leslie and William Ticknor of Boston’s Ticknor & Fields. She makes a point of telling Redpath about a female illustrator whom she wants to illustrate some fairy tales. She is concerned about the binding of Hospital Sketches, a thinly fictionalized narrative of her brief experience as a nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War: “Having a maternal interest in the clothes my offspring wear & the impression they make I mention these things though I dare say you knew them already.”
Is her attitude in these letters to her publisher that of a woman careful of not seeming too masculine, too informed? (Alcott, like Little Women’s Jo March, had been a notorious tomboy.) Is it part of a deliberate strategy to assure a male business colleague of his superior knowledge? I believe the answer is yes.
But Alcott’s demurely calculated strategy still gives her room for a refreshing bluntness with Redpath: “I’ll try not to be ‘spoilt,’ I think ten or fifteen years of snubbing rather good training for an ambitious body but people mustn’t talk about ‘genius’ for I drove that idea away years ago & don’t want it back again. The inspiration of necessity is all I’ve had, & it is a safer help than any other.”
Alcott did not publish Little Women with Redpath; in the end she felt he was more interested in dividing their shared publishing proceeds among charities than he was in supporting his author. In a foreshadowing of the break in their relationship, she expressly tells him that she devotes “time and earnings to the care of my father & mother, for one possesses no gift for money making & the other is now too old to work any longer…. On this account I often have to deny myself the little I could do for other charities, & seem ungenerous that I may be just.”
There is an early allusion to Little Women in one of the Library’s letters: “Some one said one paper wished I’d write a novel, that is all I know, & I think I’ll gratify them.”
Readers can indeed be gratified that Alcott wrote that novel, as the result of her insightful fictionalizing of her own upbringing gave us a classic American work. We can also be gratified that these letters have survived to show us the keen business side of Louisa May Alcott.
The cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection is being funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.