By Roberta Seelinger Trites
Readers familiar with Alcott’s life will recognize the autobiographical undercurrent in “Literary Lessons.” Jo’s first authorial success occurs when she publishes gothic thrillers, although her father gently chides her, “You can do better than this, Jo.” She then revises her first novel and consults with her family about whether to take the publisher’s advice or leave the story to “ripen,” as her father recommends. She shortens the manuscript by a third, omitting much of the description and many comic scenes to emphasize the dramatic and the “metaphysical.” The novel receives mixed reviews, some of which praise the novel for its originality while others condemn it for being “unnatural.” Jo claims—as Alcott herself did of her first novel, Moods—“the parts that were taken straight out of real life are denounced as impossible and absurd, and the scenes that I made up out of my own silly head are pronounced ‘charmingly natural, tender, and true.’” By the end of the chapter, Jo is glad to have had the experience of publishing a novel, but she continues to write sensation stories until Professor Bhaer’s disapprobation in Chapter 34 convinces her to quit writing them. (Apparently, his disapproval is more persuasive than her father’s.)
Julian Hawthorne—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son—reports that Henry James once told Louisa May Alcott: “Louisa — m-my dear girl–er–when you hear people — ah — telling you you’re a genius, you mustn’t believe them; er — what I mean is, it isn’t true!” (203). Julian’s father was widely known for having condemned “the damned mob of scribbling women” in 1855. In other words, Alcott was likely aware that some men had misogynistic attitudes towards women writers.
Adding insult to injury, the omniscient narrator in Chapter 27 reveals that Jo’s father has waited thirty years to publish his own work, which is why Jo’s contributions to the family coffers are all the more necessary. With her writing, she has provided for her family in ways her father has not. The narrative voice even grows a bit bitter: “for by the magic of a pen, her ‘rubbish’ turned into comforts for them all.” Jo’s potboilers may not be of high literary worth, but—as Amy puts it—“I think the money is the best part of it.” Given that Jo thinks of herself as “a power in the house” because of her earnings, Jo clearly regards the money as the “best part,” too.
The phrase “power in the house” gets to the core of this chapter’s tension. Women of the day were meant to be “angels in the house,” to borrow a line from Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem, not “a power in the house.” Little Women consistently diminishes any real power struggle between Jo and her father, but in “Literary Lessons,” the narration subtly critiques her father’s impecuniousness. Jo would be 18 or 19 years old at this point in the novel, so as a young adult who must provide for her family, she has every reason to be proud of her ability to earn money from “a pen”—unlike her father.
Hawthorne, Julian. “Memories of the Alcott Family.” Alcott in Her Own Time, edited by Daniel Shealy, U of Iowa P, 2005, pp. 188-210.
Patmore, Coventry. “An Angel in the House.” Victorian Poetry and Modern Life: The Unpoetical Age, edited by Natasha Moore, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015, p. 29.
Roberta Seelinger Trites is a Distinguished Professor of English at Illinois State University, where she teaches children’s and adolescent literature. She is the author of Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel and Twenty-First Century Feminisms in Children’s and Adolescent Literature.
Illustration by Hammatt Billings (1869).