Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Adventure classics -- The invention of childhood

Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott


Without Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 Little Women, could L.M. Montgomery have written Anne of Green Gables, discussed last Wednesday in this blog? In fact, without Alcott’s groundbreaking work, it’s hard to imagine such classics as The Secret Garden, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wind in the Willows, even the Harry Potter series -- books for children (and what we now call “young adults”) employing as much sophistication as any written for adults.

Because Alcott rode -- in fact, nearly invented -- the new wave of children’s literature in the late nineteenth-century, the era that invented childhood.

Was the increasing concern about childhood the result of educational reforms that kept more young people in school -- and dependent on their parents until well into their teens? Was it an effect of increasing mechanization that devalued unskilled child labor? Perhaps it was even an effect of the Transcendentalism which saw children as beings of “angelic goodness,” as Susan Cheever suggests in Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography.

Whatever the reasons, for the first time in history children began to read literature dealing seriously with their own concerns, not with merely fitting them to become adults.

It wouldn’t be fair, though, to say Alcott saw the future and hopped aboard whole-heartedly. She had been writing professionally for a decade, mainly pseudonymously-published thrillers, which she would describe in deprecating terms in Little Women: “The Duke’s Daughter paid the butcher’s bill, A Phantom Hand put down a new carpet. . . .”
Alcott's childhood home

But she had also attracted favorable attention for her Civil War nursing memoir, Hospital Sketches, and for a now little-remembered first novel, Moods. By 1867, she had a new job -- and more financial stability -- as a contributing editor for a magazine. But when she approached a publisher about a new novel, one asked her to write a book for young
girls. And as Cheever writes, he added more pressure -- offering to publish a manuscript by Bronson Alcott, “consisting of excerpts from Bronson’s diaries arranged by Zodiac signs -- if his daughter wrote the book for young girls.”

Daughter Louisa at last gave in.

“Until she sat down to write a book for children,” Cheever writes, “Louisa May Alcott had been reaching for the extraordinary as she did in her blood-and-thunder tales and even in her serious novel. Now she relaxed.”

The first part of her story about the four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, appeared September 30, 1868. It sold 5,000 copies. Four thousand copies of the second part (beginning with oldest sister Meg’s wedding) were ordered before its publication the following April 14. By the end of that month, an additional 13,000 copies had been sold.

The adventures of the March family and similar children’s stories would keep Alcott busy for the remaining twenty years of her life.

(For more about Alcott's adult-oriented stories, see "The mysterious Miss Alcott," at this site's March 9, 2012, post.  For more about Alcott, including tours of her family home in Concord, Massachusetts, which illustrates this post, see

(Next Wednesday, in a month dedicated to young protagonists, Adventure classics looks at a darker side of growing up in Stephen Crane’s study of young soldiers, The Red Badge of Courage.)

No comments:

Post a Comment