a boys’ school with her husband, Professor Bhaer; Beth, gentle and musical, who succumbs to scarlet fever; and Amy, the artistic and urbaneyoungest, who ultimately marries their rich neighbor, Laurie. The girls’mother, Marmee, shepherds them through the tumult of adolescencewith support from Hannah, their housekeeper, and limited counselfrom Mr. March, who is away as a chaplain in the Union Army for halfthe book and absorbed in his own ministerial and philosophical pursuits for the rest.
I read Little Women for the first time in elementary school. Mymother had already introduced me to the Marches when my school acquired a complete set of Alcott’s children’s books—Under the Lilacs, AnOldFashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom—in matching green-and-gold bindings. I was then, as I am now, fascinated by the mannersand material culture of the nineteenth century, but the books’ storiesof growing up with and despite one’s loved ones also captivated me. Simultaneously serious and playful, Alcott’s books seemed more provocative—or provocative of more interesting questions—than did the sordidSweet Valley High novels shelved nearby. Even now, Little Women, LittleMen, and Jo’s Boys are among the few books I keep in my bedside table.They’ve remained close at hand not just because of my early identification with Jo, the restless writer, but also because of my later interest inAlcott herself, whose life and career I studied in graduate school.
Before Little Women, Alcott aspired to write serious novels foradults—novels of ideas, such as her first foray, Moods, a female bildungsroman. Having had a modest success with Hospital Sketches, a lightlyfictionalized account of her experiences as a Civil War nurse, she waspersuaded by her publisher to try a book for children. The success ofthat attempt set the course for her career. Little Women earned enoughto clear the Alcott family’s persistent debts; what could Louisa do butwrite more like it—write to the point of exhaustion and beyond? Alcott’sdeath at age fifty-five in a convalescent home reflects the physical tollof her chronic illness (long identified as mercury poisoning from thecalomel she was treated with during her Union Army service, thoughmore recently understood as an autoimmune disorder) and of the financial responsibilities she bore throughout her life. At the time of herdeath in 1888, the unmarried Alcott was raising her eight-year-old niece,Lulu, whose mother, May Alcott Nieriker, had died in Paris shortly afterchildbirth. She was also supporting her widowed older sister, Anna, and