Louisa May Alcott: Radical Activist, Lesbian, & Sephardic Jew? Who knew? (Not me)

When I was a little kid in the ’80s I was obsessed with this anime cartoon:

 

Little Women held a special place in my heart even before I could read it. So I was thrilled to pick up this copy on eBay a few weeks ago:

 

Little Women (1871)

Little Women (1871)

LW title page

 

It is not a first edition, but close enough for me– it has the same cover, artwork, and was still printed in two separate volumes like it was originally. And I didn’t have to pay thousands of dollars for it. (A true first edition is from the limited 1868 run; there are some dated 1869 that are claimed as first editions but they’re not.) Unfortunately this is only “Part Second”, but it was a serious bargain so I grabbed it hoping to find a matching 1871 “Part First” later.

And I love this inscription, most likely from the original owner:

LW inscription

“Claudine Milling [?] July 29, 1871″

Louisa May Alcott was one of my childhood (s)heroes, but I’m ashamed to say I never gave her personal life a lot of thought. All I  knew was that she modeled feisty Jo March (my favorite, of course) after herself. When I decided to look a bit deeper, I was afraid I might find something that would ruin my lofty opinion of her. (Kind of like the revelations about H.P. Lovecraft’s horribly bigoted views.) What I found did shock me, but only in the best way. In fact she’s been given a permanent spot on my fantasy dinner party list.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott at age 25

Alcott was not a wealthy New Englander who worried about getting her gloves dirty. She grew up poverty, eating nothing but bread and water for long periods of time, and was known for her love of running– not a “ladylike” pastime in the 19th century. Despite being poor, she was surrounded by an abundance of intellectual resources. Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, was an educator and an activist. But like many educators and activists today, he struggled to pay the bills. In 1834 he managed to open a school based on a radically progressive (at the time) co-ed curriculum, but his discipline methods and open discussions about religion caused him (and his school) to be denounced in the press and by the community. It closed for good after he refused to dismiss a black student he’d admitted and white parents withdrew their children. Bronson was forced to move onto other projects.

Curriculum from Bronson Alcott's Temple School

The progressive curriculum from Bronson Alcott’s short-lived Temple School (click for source)

 

“Bronson and an English reformer, Charles Lane, cofounded a utopian community called Fruitlands, whose members swore off all animal products, as well as coffee, tea, and any commodity generated by slavery.”-Little Woman: The Devilish, Dutiful Daughter Louisa May Alcott

Bronson Alcott was an ardent abolitionist. But like his school, the utopian community he co-founded didn’t last long. His activism did have a lasting effect on his daughter, though.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Alcott was eager to do her part. She had long attended antislavery meetings and fairs. “I became an Abolitionist at an early age,” she wrote, “but have never been able to decide whether I was made so by seeing the portrait of George Thompson [the British abolitionist] hidden under a bed in our house during the Garrison riot . . . or because I was saved from drowning in the Frog Pond some years later by a colored boy. However that may be, the conversion was genuine; and my greatest pride is in the fact that I lived to know the brave men and women who did so much for the cause, and that I had a very small share in the war which put an end to a great wrong.”

Alcott gave her energy to practical reforms, women’s rights and temperance. She attended the Women’s Congress of 1875 in Syracuse, New York, where she was introduced by Mary Livermore. She contributed to Lucy Stone’s Woman’s Journal while organizing Concord women to vote in the school election. “Was the first woman to register my name as a voter,” she wrote. “Drove about and drummed up women to my suffrage meeting. So hard to move people out of the old ruts.” And again, “Helped start a temperance society much needed in C[oncord]. I was secretary, and wrote records, letters, and sent pledges, etc.”

Dictionary of Unitarian&Universalist Biography

 

Mr. Alcott’s friends– Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson– made frequent appearances at the family home, even mentoring young Louisa.

But she didn’t spend her time writing  flowery poetry. Alcott wrote a lot of smut to support her family before the PG-rated young adult fare that made her famous.

“Louisa made herself a brand,” Reisen tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer. “She suppressed the fact that she had written pulp fiction that included stories about spies and transvestites and drug takers.” – Alcott: ‘Not The Little Woman You Thought She Was’

She also struggled with Victorian expectations of women. Alcott never married, saying she preferred the freedom of the “spinster” life to the constraints of marriage. She may have had another motivation to avoid marriage:

“I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” -Louisa May Alcott interview with Louise Chandler Moulton (1883)

That doesn’t necessarily mean she was a lesbian, but why not? Many people were. If Louisa May Alcott says she has fallen in love with many pretty girls and never any man, I’m going to take her word for it. (Though that statement conflicts somewhat with reports of her rumored love affairs.)

"Louisa much admired actress Charlotte Cushman, who played Hamlet and Macbeth in male costume"

“Louisa much admired actress Charlotte Cushman, who played Hamlet and Macbeth in male costume” (click for source)

All quite fascinating, but this is what finally pushed me to sit down and compose this post:

“Little Women” has served some Jewish immigrants to America as a tool of assimilation. But, as it turns out, the novel’s author Louisa May Alcott came from Sephardic Jewish ancestry. -Jewish Daily Forward

I could just plotz! Ok, so maybe it was rather distant ancestry, and she definitely was not a practicing Jew, but I’m more than willing to claim her as a Member of the Tribe anyway. (By the way, the article is worth a read, not just for that tidbit about Alcott’s genealogy, but for the explanation of Portugese Jewish history.)

Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote "Little Women"

Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women”

 

Someday I’d like to go to Massachusetts and visit Orchard House, where Alcott (reluctantly) wrote the novel that made her famous. In the meantime I still want to know more about this remarkable woman, so I ordered Harriet Reisen’s award winning book Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women and I’m going to seek out the corresponding documentary as well. Somehow I missed their release a few years ago but I’ll chalk it up to being distracted with a new baby. Better late than never!

LMA book

Note: I realize there is some language in quotes that are offensive to readers, i.e. Alcott’s use of “colored”; Reisen’s reference to “transvestite”. This is dated language I would not personally use. 

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Lit lover, history aficionado, baked goods enthusiast, INTP, writer of many things, mom to three.

One Response to Louisa May Alcott: Radical Activist, Lesbian, & Sephardic Jew? Who knew? (Not me)

  1. Pingback: And here are even more radical Jews we completely forgot to mention last time | jewdas

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