Literary daybook, Sept. 30

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published September 30, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Sept. 30, 1659, Robinson Crusoe comes ashore on an island after being shipwrecked.
-- "Robinson Crusoe" (1719)
by Daniel Defoe

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1868, Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" was published. It was an immediate bestseller, bringing the 35-year-old Alcott a cult following of teenage girls and a hero status which she grew to regret. In her letters she scorned "the young generation of autograph fiends" that were lionizing her, and when she left for Europe, she took precautions: "Don't give anyone my address," she wrote her publisher, "I don't want the young ladies' notes." But the book -- in all, 35 books and hundreds of stories -- made good the vow she had made to herself early on: that, though a woman, she would make both her own and her parents' living, and that she would do it by writing.

This vow was made necessary by her father, the Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, being a madcap for schemes of high ideal and low pay -- communal farms, lecture tours, schools of philosophy. Its fulfillment required that Alcott set aside her aspirations for serious writing and turn her eye to the market. The year before "Little Women," Alcott's first novel, "Moods," had been panned by the critics as melodramatic and unbelievable. At the urging of her father's publisher, she reluctantly began an autobiographical novel aimed at juvenile girls, assuring the publisher that she would now make her characters "as ordinary as possible," and keeping her unenthusiasm to her journal: "I plod away, though I don't really enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it." Bronson Alcott liked to call his daughter "Duty's Faithful Child," and she dutifully had "Little Women" done in 12 weeks.

Scattered among Alcott's wholesome tales of family life and, at the other extreme, her over-the-top fantasies of passion and possession -- the kind of thing which her "Little Women" heroine might have peddled to "The Weekly Volcano," and of which Alcott herself would scoff, "I can write two a day and keep house between times" -- are other styles, not calculated for profit. One such is "Transcendental Wild Oats," her gently humorous take on father Bronson's short-lived agricultural utopia, Fruitlands:

"They preached vegetarianism everywhere and resisted all temptations of the flesh, contentedly eating apples and bread at well-spread tables, and much afflicting hospitable hostesses by denouncing their food and taking away their appetites, discussing the 'horrors of shambles,' the 'incorporation of the brute in man,' and 'on elegant abstinence the sign of a pure soul.' But, when the perplexed or offended ladies asked what they should eat, they got in reply a bill of fare consisting of 'bowls of sunrise for breakfast,' 'solar seeds of the sphere,' 'dishes from Plutarch's chaste table,' and other viands equally hard to find in any modern market ..."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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