Book Review

Living in Earnest

“I’d like to know what my gift is,” said Rose. . . .
“The art of living for others so patiently and sweetly that we enjoy it as we do the sunshine, and are not half grateful enough for the great blessing.”
“It is very kind of you to say so, but I think I’d like a little fun and fame, nevertheless.”
—Louisa May Alcott, Rose in Bloom


“Aunt Betsey, there’s going to be a new Declaration of Independence. . . . I mean that, being of age, I’m going to take care of myself.”
—Louisa May Alcott, Work


“I will make a battering-ram of my head and make a way through this rough-and-tumble world.”
—Louisa May Alcott, letter to Bronson Alcott, 11/29/1856

I read Pollyanna at an impressionable age. Pollyanna, if you’ve never run across her, was an orphan whose missionary father had taught her to play the Glad Game: Try to find something to be glad about in situations no matter how gloomy. When the Christmas missionary barrel brought her crutches instead of a doll for Christmas, she should be glad she didn’t need the crutches! Our house was damaged in Superstorm Sandy, which has given me plenty of opportunities to practice being glad. I’m glad, for instance, that as we moved books off shelves and onto tables, and then into boxes, and then into storage units, and then back into new bookshelves, I got to touch every single one of our books. One subset of childhood books, dear to my heart but long distant from my reading, seems newly interesting to me. They include:

Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903)
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908)
Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna (1913)
Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy (1916)

In brief: Imaginative Rebecca is only half an orphan—her feckless artist father has died and her mother, with many mouths to feed, has sent her to Maine to be brought up by two maiden aunts, one stern and one kind; Rebecca becomes good at household duties and trains to be a teacher; the stern aunt dies, leaving Rebecca the house which will provide money for her family. Red-haired and freckled Anne is an orphan who was adopted by mistake by an unmarried brother (sweet) and sister (tart) on Prince Edward Island; she is fanciful and literary, which leads her into misadventures like dyeing her hair green, but she becomes adept at housework; she goes to college, teaches, and eventually becomes the principal of a school before marriage and motherhood. Sunny Pollyanna gets a lot of practice in being inventively glad with her stern aunt in Vermont—but when she’s hit by a car and loses the use of her legs, even she needs to accept the help of others in her long healing. Betsy is the youngest orphan of this bunch—she’s nine when she leaves her loving but overprotective city aunts and goes to live with cousins in Vermont who expect her to do chores and go for walks outside even when it’s chilly. She discovered she enjoys being strong and competent.

As my descriptions perhaps inadvertently reveal, these books are easy to mock, even if you love them. But for all their somewhat dated charm—and they’re still in print—these books are also bracing. Their shared northerly weather underpins their shared moral seriousness. The children in them are not sheltered from illness or death or economic hardship or hard work—hard work for chores that need to be done, hard work to help others, hard work in pursuit of far-off goals, hard work in shaping their characters. I surely cannot be the only former child who wonders how much of my character was in fact shaped by these books.

There’s a good argument to be made that Louisa May Alcott helped set the conventions of the stories that helped shape my childhood a hundred years later. One branch descends from her most famous book and its sequels: Little Women (1868–69), Little Men (1871), and Jo’s Boys (1886). They chronicle the adventures of the March sisters, especially the imaginative, dramatic, not conventionally pretty, big-hearted second sister Jo, and how they interact with their rich aunt, neighbors, suitors, and aspirations. Descendants in this line of family development include Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did (1872) and Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1881)—I liked these books too. But the Alcott ancestor of the orphan girl books has just been reprinted in the Library of America: Eight Cousins, or The Aunt-Hill (1875) and its sequel Rose in Bloom (1876). They have been matched with Alcott’s Bildungs­roman for adults, Work, with its important original illustrations, and some various writings on topics related to women’s work and educa­tion.[1]

When the first novel opens, Rose is a 13-year-old orphaned girl with many aunts to insist that she wear fashionable clothes and get the expected schooling and so forth; the most vocal aunts view her as “morbid” and “spoilt” and “plainly marked for the tomb.” Into this convention-bound world bursts a bunch of males—her seven male cousins and her new guardian Uncle Alec, a retired sea captain who has returned home to take over Rose’s education. As a good New England miss, Rose consciously tries to “improv[e] her mind” in listening to grown-up conversation, but her motive is less learning for its own sake than showing off “by being able to produce some useful information when reproached for her ignorance.” Her Uncle Alec wonders, “What do you do all day?”

“Oh, I read, and sew a little, and take naps, and sit with auntie.”
“No running about out of doors, or house-work, or riding, hey?”
“Aunt Plenty says I’m not strong enough for much exercise. . . . I am so tired and poorly all the time I can’t do any thing I want to, and it makes me cross.”

You should be able to predict the kind of thing that happens next: Uncle Alec replaces her medicine with pills made out of bread, gives her fresh air and unconstricting clothes; by the seasonally appropriate chapters he has her swimming in salt water and learning to skate. But some of his techniques are less predictable: “It won’t do to begin too energetically, or Rose will be frightened,” he tells himself. “I must beguile her gently and pleasantly along till I’ve won her confidence, and then she will be ready for any thing.” To pique her interest in geography, he gives her exotic fabric and objects from his travels; he introduces her to a Chinaman and his son named (times have changed) Whang Lo and Fun See. He also teaches her the value of money: “I mean that you shall know how your property is managed and do as much of it as you can by and by; then you won’t be dependent on the honesty of other people.”

And it works: by the time she’s grown up, Rose cares for social work as well as nice dresses, and she starts an apartment house for genteel ladies down on their luck. Alcott is too canny a writer to give us a Rose without any thorns—when faced with the “model child of the neighborhood” of wax-work doll perfection, young Rose “longed to give her a pinch and see if she would squeak”; older Rose chafes when the genteel ladies don’t seem grateful enough—but neither Rose nor her life is very thorny. This is a problem in fiction. The March girls’ struggles, both internal and external, while sounding more psychologically melodramatic, in fact were embedded in real calculations of keeping body and soul together. The sacrifices and even self-sacrifices of rich-girl Rose are not as arduous. Where Mrs. March famously persuades her daughters to bring their Christmas dinner to a poor family, Rose reads out loud by her ill cousin Mac’s bedside. Where Jo, giving up her one female vanity, sells her hair to pay for her mother’s voyage to visit their father, wounded in the Civil War, Rose gives up her “dear rings from her ears” in a trade so that her cousin will give up smoking.

Alcott, in the tiny preface to Rose in Bloom, claims “there is no moral to this story. Rose is not designed for a model girl.” Here I think Alcott is teasing us to find out the ways in which she consciously did design Rose to be a model girl: how a girl with no particular genius can still strive to do and be good. As Rose grows in character she too aspires to teach the kind of moral lesson within her small circle that Alcott is doing in her larger one: “Rose was bent on showing her aunt that she could use her influence for the boys’ good.” Thus while Rose’s Bildung is a large part of the story, it’s not the only part; there are many moments in which the novel very explicitly takes up the mantle of how fiction should use its influence to form character. The aunt Rose is eager to please talks to her boys very seriously about what is wrong with “bully” boys’ fiction like Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, about the beggar boot-black who makes good, that first appeared in serial form in 1867: “The writers of these popular stories intend to do good, I have no doubt, but it seems to me they fail because their motto is, ‘Be smart, and you will be rich,’ instead of ‘Be honest, and you will be happy.’”

One of her sons makes the argument from verisimilitude: “A boot-black mustn’t use good grammar, and a newsboy must swear a little, or he wouldn’t be natural.” His mother replies: “But my sons are neither boot-blacks nor newsboys, and I object to hearing them use such words as ‘screamer,’ ‘bully,’ and ‘buster.’” Genteel fictions meet with her disapproval when both the virtue and rewards lack verisimilitude—when boys run away to sea and behave so nobly that Admiral Farragut invites them to dinner. What’s needed, it seems, is the right verisimilitude: “‘It does seem to me that some one might write stories that should be lively, natural, and helpful,—tales in which the English should be good, the morals pure, and the characters such as we can love in spite of the faults that all may have.”

And there’s yet another layer of character formation Alcott is interested in. Beyond personal Bildung, there’s cultural Bildung in a new country. Alcott grew up in Concord, in houses that were a pretty literal stone’s throw from the rude bridge that arched the flood where the shot heard round the world was fired. She worried that the self-awareness and self-management required for American independence can devolve into self-absorption. American children require something different in their literature to correct these tendencies: Aunt Jessie, surely a mouthpiece for Alcott here, says, “‘This love of money is the curse of America, and for the sake of it men will sell honor and honesty, till we don’t know whom to trust, and it is only a genius like Agassiz who dares to say, ‘I cannot waste my time in getting rich.’” In an American variation of a Spartan mother, she also says, “It would be far easier to see you dead if it could be said of you as of Sumner,—‘No man dared offer him a bribe.’” (There are many Sumners in Massachusetts history, but I believe Alcott was referring here to Charles Sumner, the Radical Republican abolitionist. The usually very thorough notes by Susan Cheever are strangely silent here.)

Alcott wants her characters and her readers to take character-formation seriously because she thinks the stakes are high. Alcott’s plan for the character formation of a typical American girl requires Rose to be less individualistic than Jo March. So instead of living independently in the city, trying to earn a living, and marrying an untidy German professor, the external fate Alcott chooses for Rose is the fairly conventional one of being a good helpmeet to her husband (her cousin Mac, a doctor-poet). We know, although we do not feel it the way we do with intense Jo, that internally Rose strives to know herself, the people around her, and her duty. Very few girls can become novelists; all can share Rose’s vow: “I’m going to set about living in earnest.”

Rose has been compared to Austen’s Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich,” but her more restless striving better fits her to be a younger sister to George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, Americanized, with a far more responsible uncle and thus with no need to make a frightful marriage to learn her lesson. She and Dorothea share the same desire for a larger calling in life without being able to name what that vocation might be, and both ultimately find their vocations in marriages to men who also aspire to do good in the world.

Middlemarch had appeared in 1871–72 just a few years before Alcott’s two novels about Rose and coincidentally at the same time as Alcott was finally publishing her best novel for adult readers: Work. Alcott had begun this ambitious Bildungsroman of her heroine Christie more than a decade before. Christie is Christian in a new guise. During her New England pilgrim’s progress she aspires, wanders, sinks, and finally rises thanks to the series of exemplary guides. Symbolically freighted as it is, the novel can be as didactic as a roman à thèse; it is attached to the equally unrealistic incidents and coincidences straight out of the melodramatic fiction that had been Alcott’s chief work for adults up to that point. And yet the allegorical and melodramatic course of the novel is embedded in Alcott’s CV, and the symbolic figures who line Christie’s upward path are based on real people she knew and admired. It is partly this cramming together of the real and the highly symbolic that makes Work a curiously powerful book, still worth reading.

When Christie makes her Declaration of Independence and goes out into the world to take care of herself, she has no genius tugging her and no particular skill, but she is willing to work. She leaves her life as a domestic helper to her (kind) aunt and (dour) uncle to be a servant in a city house. Like Mary Shelley’s monster, she educates herself through the crack in the door from the servants’ section to the reception rooms to hear the poets and music. She also learns something of “that bright bubble called social success.” But she learned more from Hepsey, the illiterate escaped slave who is earning money to buy her old mother. (Hepsey is partially based on Harriet Tubman.) She gets her next job from acting friends at the boarding house, and she becomes an actress of some skill, particularly in comic character parts. Her next jobs are as governess to the spoiled children of a more spoiled mother (this job gives her an opportunity to refuse a glittering proposal of marriage) and nurse-companion to a family with inherited insanity. Back at the boarding house, she temporarily takes a job as a seamstress. In all these jobs Christie has quite a bit of autonomy; sometimes she’s fired, some­times she chooses to leave. She makes some mistakes in judgment but also shrewdly observes the very different worlds in which she finds herself. She is never afraid of making her opinions known, and it is this characteristic in her job at the “well-conducted mantua-makers” that gets her into trouble: there she had befriended the quiet Rachel, who is summarily fired when her secret past as a fallen woman is discovered. Christie pleads eloquently for Christian charity toward her, to no avail—so she quits too. Christie now finds herself isolated and despairing, and even, one night on a bridge, close to committing suicide—saved at the last minute by the miraculously reappearing Rachel.

This opening section of Work, as an early reviewer in Harper’s noted, “is without even the semblance of a plot.” And that’s exactly Alcott’s point. Searching for her plot is Christie’s plot, just as it was Louisa’s and ours too, she rightly presumes. Every job Alcott gives Christie is one she too had done—she’d even worked as an actress, amazingly enough; she had worked as a governess and a Civil War nurse as well. She too had suffered from depression and contemplated suicide. In 1858, not long before she began working on this novel, she had written in a letter to her family, “My courage most gave out, for every one was so busy, & cared so little whether I got work or jumped into the river that I thought seriously of doing the latter. In fact did go over the Mill Dam & look at the water. But it seemed so mean to turn & run away before the battle was over that I went home, set my teeth & vowed I’d make things work in spite of the world, the flesh, and the devil.”

Christie’s inner restlessness has taken her far, but also nowhere. The next part of her journey is symbolically more stationary. Her lessons will not now be governed by external work but by working on herself. Her guides include a powerful but gentle preacher named Mr. Power and a Quaker flower gardener named Mr. Sterling. These models too are based on people Alcott knew: the radical preacher Theodore Parker and Henry David Thoreau. Once Christie has figured herself out with their help, she is ready to put her whole self—ideas and deeds—into practice: marriage, nursing during the war, motherhood, widowhood, social activism, and inspiring others to the quest. The novel ends with Christie’s embrace of the many levels of work, particularly in parallel to God’s work. Where Rose’s story ended in a marriage dedicated to working together, Christie is placed within a community of women working together: “With an impulsive gesture Christie stretched her hands to the friends about her, and with one accord they laid theirs on hers, a loving league of sisters, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, each ready to do her part to hasten the coming of the happy end.”

Alcott constructed her novel to be a model New England exercise in thrift. Nothing from Christie’s experience has been wasted; by the time she is forty, she has found a use for all that she has learnt. Christie’s path was not straightforward, but it turned out she was training herself for a vocation that didn’t come with a name. The lessons in Christie’s case seem obvious to us, just as obvious as didactic children’s fiction. But of course it is quite another matter for us to figure out if the fragments of experience in our own lives are kaleidoscopically beautiful or chaotic. Is our life full of symbols or random clutter? Are we traveling or lost?

In all her fiction, but with particular intensity in Work, Alcott exhorts her readers to have faith that there are patterns and signs to be read in the book of their lives too. One of the most striking techniques she uses is the homely image, objects from daily life read symbolically. They seem to me to be smaller and domesticated cousins of George Eliot’s extended bravura images in Middlemarch such as the random scratches on the pier-glass apparently forming concentric circles around a lit candle. “These things are a parable,” says Eliot’s narrator, “and the candle is the egoism of any person.” Alcott’s narrative interprets some of life’s emblems for us directly—in our first view of Christie she is making bread, “kneading the dough as if it was her destiny, and she was shaping it to suit herself”—but most often the characters themselves show us how to do it, just as presumably little Louisa had learned lessons at her father’s knee on seeing the transcendental in the earthly. Uncle Alec defends his godson Mac’s character development to his father: Mac is “Crude as a green apple now, but sound at the core and only needs time to ripen.” (A later chapter is entitled “Polishing Mac.” Is Alcott nicknaming her unlikely hero, the best apple in the bunch of Campbell boys, after this Northeastern apple? The McIntosh family sold cultivars from 1835 or so. I wonder . . . ) Interpreting life’s emblems forces us to see and to make a point, to think harder about what connects us to the humblest things around us. It is a democratic education accessible to all.

As is the way with emblems, they can be variously interpreted, and that disagreement too can be a lesson. Christie’s aunt asks the funda­mental question in a Bildungsroman—indeed, one of the fundamental questions for all of life: “What do you want, child?” Christie finds herself unable to answer straightforwardly and looks around the room:

“Do you see those two logs? Well that one smouldering dismally away in the corner is what my life is now; the other blazing and singing is what I want my life to be.”

“Bless me, what an idea! They are both a-burnin’ where they are put, and both will be ashes to-morrow; so what difference doos it make?”

Christie smiled at the literal old lady; but, following the fancy that pleased her, she added earnestly:

“I know the end is the same; but it does make a difference how they turn to ashes, and how I spend my life. That log, with its one dull spot of fire, gives neither light nor warmth, but lies sizzling despondently among the cinders. But the other glows from end to end with cheerful little flames that go singing up the chimney with a pleasant sound. Its light fills the room and shines out into the dark; its warmth draws us nearer, making the hearth the rosiest place in the house, and we shall all miss the friendly blaze when it dies. Yes,” she added, as if to herself, “I hope my life may be like that, so that, whether it be long or short, it will be useful and cheerful while it lasts, will be missed when it ends, and leave something behind besides ashes.”

Writing fiction that’s good for you but that still tastes good isn’t easy: Uncle Alec laughs that changing the boys’ diet of the adventures of Dick Deadeye and Sam Soaker “will be like going from raspberry tarts to plain bread and butter; but you will probably save them from a bilious fever.” Alcott took with deep seriousness the imperative to shape healthy characters. And although our vocabulary has undergone many changes in how we talk about the serious matter of how we should lead our lives and how fiction should help us do it, there is still a hunger for good bread and butter with the occasional raspberry tart. In fact, I just learned about another new impulse in the science fiction world—the Superversive Literary Movement. It aims to “storm the moral high ground” with good stories and good messages. If writers today are unabashed about revivifying inspiring moral lessons through well-written books, Alcott’s embers are still burning.


[1] LOUISA MAY ALCOTT: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings, by Louisa May Alcott, ed. by Susan Cheever. The Library of America. $40.00.