Classics Book Group: Jane Hamilton on Louisa May Alcott

Jane Hamilton on Louisa May Alcott, author of 'Little Women'.

Published December 9, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

What is it, after all, that a reader wants from an author? And what should a writer expect from his reader? I found myself asking these elementary questions as I read "An Intimate Anthology," and again when I read, for the first time in my life, at the age of 40, "Little Women." I came to the novel, and to Louisa May Alcott herself, without a badge of girlhood loyalty and love -- those ardent feelings that excuse a multitude of sins. It was without either the benefit or the obstruction of love that I found myself asking, page after page, Where are you, Louisa May Alcott? Who are you? Where is your true voice?

I suspect that many writers hope, and some pray, that their readers will submit to them with a generous and patient spirit, overlooking the gaps in the talent, blind to the chink in the gift. There are very few writers who are able in the same stroke to thrill us with language and tell us a gripping story. And so we excuse our most spirited storytellers their clumsy sentences, and we allow our favorite voices to fill our ears even if the stories have little form, even if the work collapses. In Alcott's sketches it is her voice that leads us on -- and what a tantalizing, wickedly funny voice it is! Her voice is almost the story itself; the sketches almost have no form; her insights are lurking; her talent is there -- almost. In "Little Women" she gives us Jo, her best creation, but to allow Jo to live the adult reader must forgive Alcott everything else in the 502 soppy and moralizing pages.

I wanted to love Alcott's work but instead I ended up loving her, the daughter, the woman, the struggling writer. Her suffering was intense, her striving heroic, her good cheer admirable. But my sort of love is surely not what a writer wants from a reader. Most writers, I'd wager, wish for their words to live on and their scrappy, ordinary or difficult selves to quickly fade away. Burn the letters, burn the journals, the photographs, the lousy first drafts: Let the finished work stand alone and live.

What is both tragic and heroic about Alcott is that she did not follow the vein of her anger and her joy to discover a different code for herself, one that would have allowed her to explore her own rebellious spirit and the morally crippled people in her family and community. She did not have the genius of a Brontk, turning intense unhappiness into a fiercely truthful character like Jane Eyre, nor could she transform her passionate longings into art in the way that Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and many others have done. Alcott felt an obligation not only to earn money but to please her family. So in "Fruitlands," her funniest piece, she cannot help closing with a nauseating family scene, all members wiser and more loving for the failed enterprise. In "Hospital Sketches," where she might have used her subject to vent her feelings about poverty, about patriarchy, about the horror of being alone and unloved, she is jocular and sentimental. "To the serious-minded party," she says, "who objected to the tone of levity in some portions of the Sketches, I can only say that it is a part of my religion to look well after the cheerfulnesses of life, and let the dismals shift for themselves." This, from a woman who not so long after almost threw herself into a stagnant river to end her life.

Thank goodness, however, that Alcott did not live in the Age of the Memoir, that she spared us the unburdening of her deepest feelings and ambivalences, leaving nothing to our imaginations. She lives fully in us precisely because she left out so much in her fiction. It is by working through her sketches, her novels, a biography, her letters, trying to find the real person, the true spirit beyond the sentiment and moralizing, that the reader is able to claim Alcott as his own. Perhaps this is what a reader wants for himself: a handful of best characters to people his heart and mind, someone who is created fully human and given away, a character with strength and wisdom and sufferings like our own, but a little larger than our own selves. Louisa May Alcott is her own great character -- her best gift to us. In "The Intimate Anthology," if we take the time to see beyond her dutiful impressions and her good cheer, there is in her writing the searing wit, the anger and the generosity -- the glimmer of the promise that is never fully realized.

By Jane Hamilton

Jane Hamilton is the author of "The Book of Ruth" and "A Map of the World." Her third novel, "Disobedience," will be published next month.

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