‘I ran in the wind and played be a horse, and had a lovely time in the woods with Anna and Lizzie. We were fairies, and made gowns and paper wings. I “flied” the highest of all.’ This is Louisa Alcott - still famous today for being the author of the American classic Little Women - writing in her diary aged but 11. The diary, apart from documenting her own life, says much about the New England Transcendentalist movement her father was involved with.Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on 29 November 1832. She spent her childhood in Boston and in Concord, Massachusetts, being schooled, with three sisters, at home by her father, a New England Transcendentalist. For three years, they were part of the Utopian Fruitlands community. When this failed, they were helped out by her father’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson; money problems, though, were never far away. Louisa started writing early, mostly poetry and short stories. Flower Fables, her first book, was published when she was just 22.
In 1862, Alcott, an avowed abolitionist, went to Washington to work as a nurse during the Civil War, but her service lasted only a few weeks, as she nearly died from typhoid. She never recovered full health again. A book of her letters at the time, called Hospital Letters, brought her a first taste of literary fame. She began writing stories for Atlantic Monthly. Her most famous work, Little Women, written in 1868, and set at Orchard House, is still popular today. Alcott continued writing children’s books - though she yearned to do more serious fiction - because the family needed the income. In all, she published over 30 books and collections of stories.
Alcott died, aged 55, in 1888, just two days after her father. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the website for Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House (‘one of the oldest, most authentically-preserved historic house museums in America’), www.alcottfilm.com or The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.
From an early age through to the end of her life, Alcott kept a diary which she never intended for publication. Parts of it first appeared a year after her death in Louisa May Alcott Her Life, Letters and Journals edited by Ednah D. Cheney and published by Roberts Brothers in Boston. This book was continually reprinted before and after the publisher was taken over by Little, Brown in 1898. A first unabridged edition of Alcott’s diaries appeared a century later in 1989 when University of Georgia Press brought out The Journals of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madeleine B. Stern. Her Life, Letters and Journals is freely available at Internet Archive, and some of the more recent publication can be previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon.
1 September 1843
‘I rose at five and had my bath. I love cold water! Then we had our singing-lesson with Mr Lane. After breakfast I washed dishes, and ran on the hill till nine, and had some thoughts, it was so beautiful up there. Did my lessons, wrote and spelt and did sums; and Mr Lane read a story, “The Judicious Father”: How a rich girl told a poor girl not to look over the fence at the flowers, and was cross to her because she was unhappy. The father heard her do it, and made the girls change clothes. The poor one was glad to do it, and he told her to keep them. But the rich one was very sad; for she had to wear the old ones a week, and after that she was good to shabby girls. I liked it very much, and I shall be kind to poor people.
Father asked us what was God’s noblest work. Anna said men, but I said babies. Men are often bad; babies never are. We had a long talk, and I felt better after it, and cleared up.
We had bread and fruit for dinner. I read and walked and played till supper-time. We sung in the evening. As I went to bed the moon came up very brightly and looked at me. I felt sad because I have been cross to day, and did not mind Mother. I cried, and then I felt better, and said that piece from Mrs Sigourney, “I must not tease my mother.” I get to sleep saying poetry, I know a great deal.’
14 September 1843
‘Mr Parker Pillsbury came, and we talked about the poor slaves. I had a music lesson with Miss F. I hate her, she is so fussy. I ran in the wind and played be a horse, and had a lovely time in the woods with Anna and Lizzie. We were fairies, and made gowns and paper wings. I “flied” the highest of all. In the evening they talked about travelling. I thought about Father going to England, [. . .]
It rained when I went to bed, and made a pretty noise on the roof.’
8 October 1843
‘When I woke up, the first thought I got was, “It’s Mother s birthday: I must be very good.” I ran and wished her a happy birthday, and gave her my kiss. After breakfast we gave her our presents. I had a moss cross and a piece of poetry for her.
We did not have any school, and played in the woods and got red leaves. In the evening we danced and sung, and I read a story about “Contentment.” I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day.’
4 January 1863
‘I shall record the events of a day as a sample of the days I spend:
Up at six, dress by gaslight, run through my ward and throw up the windows, though the men grumble and shiver; but the air is bad enough to breed a pestilence; and as no notice is taken of our frequent appeals for better ventilation, I must do what I can. Poke up the fire, add blankets, joke, coax, and command; but continue to open doors and windows as if life depended upon it. Mine does, and doubtless many another, for a more perfect pestilence-box than this house I never saw, cold, damp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds, kitchens, wash-rooms, and stables. No competent head, male or female, to right matters, and a jumble of good, bad, and indifferent nurses, surgeons, and attendants, to complicate the chaos still more.
After this unwelcome progress through my stifling ward, I go to breakfast with what appetite I may; find the uninvitable fried beef, salt butter, husky bread, and washy coffee; listen to the clack of eight women and a dozen men, the first silly, stupid, or possessed of one idea; the last absorbed with their breakfast and themselves to a degree that is both ludicrous and provoking, for all the dishes are ordered down the table full and returned empty; the conversation is entirely among themselves, and each announces his opinion with an air of importance that frequently causes me to choke in my cup, or bolt my meals with undignified speed lest a laugh betray to these famous beings that a “chiel’s amang them takin’ notes.”
Till noon I trot, trot, giving out rations, cutting up food for helpless “boys,” washing faces, teaching my attendants how beds are made or floors are swept, dressing wounds, taking Dr F. P.’s orders (privately wishing all the time that he would be more gentle with my big babies), dusting tables, sewing bandages, keeping my tray tidy, rushing up and down after pillows, bed-linen, sponges, books, and directions, till it seems as if I would joyfully pay down all I possess for fifteen minutes’ rest. At twelve the big bell rings, and up comes dinner for the boys, who are always ready for it and never entirely satisfied. Soup, meat, potatoes, and bread is the bill of fare. Charley Thayer, the attendant, travels up and down the room serving out the rations, saving little for himself, yet always thoughtful of his mates, and patient as a woman with their helplessness. When dinner is over, some sleep, many read, and others want letters written. This I like to do, for they put in such odd things, and express their ideas so comically, I have great fun interiorally, while as grave as possible exteriorally. A few of the men word their paragraphs well and make excellent letters. John’s was the best of all I wrote. The answering of letters from friends after some one had died is the saddest and hardest duty a nurse has to do.
Supper at five sets every one to running that can run; and when that flurry is over, all settle down for the evening amusements, which consist of newspapers, gossip, the doctor’s last round, and, for such as need them, the final doses for the night. At nine the bell rings, gas is turned down, and day nurses go to bed. Night nurses go on duty, and sleep and death have the house to themselves.
My work is changed to night watching, or half night and half day, from twelve to twelve. I like it, as it leaves me time for a morning run, which is what I need to keep well; for bad air, food, and water, work and watching, are getting to be too much for me. I trot up and down the streets in all directions, sometimes to the Heights, then half way to Washington, again to the hill, over which the long trains of army wagons are constantly vanishing and ambulances appearing. That way the fighting lies, and I long to follow.
Ordered to keep my room, being threatened with pneumonia. Sharp pain in the side, cough, fever, and dizziness. A pleasant prospect for a lonely soul five hundred miles from home! Sit and sew on the boys’ clothes, write letters, sleep, and read; try to talk and keep merry, but fail decidedly, as day after day goes, and I feel no better. Dream awfully, and wake unrefreshed, think of home, and wonder if I am to die here, as Mrs R., the matron, is likely to do. Feel too miserable to care much what becomes of me. Dr S. creaks up twice a day to feel my pulse, give me doses, and ask if I am at all consumptive, or some other cheering question. Dr O. examines my lungs and looks sober. Dr J. haunts the room, coming by day and night with wood, cologne, books, and messes, like a motherly little man as he is. Nurses fussy and anxious, matron dying, and everything very gloomy. They want me to go home, but I won t yet.’
27 April 1872
‘Mr Emerson died at 9 P.M. suddenly. Our best and greatest American gone. The nearest and dearest friend Father has ever had, and the man who has helped me most by his life, his books, his society. I can never tell all he has been to me, from the time I sang Mignon’s song under his window (a little girl) and wrote letters a la Bettine to him, my Goethe, at fifteen, up through my hard years, when his essays on Self-Reliance, Character, Compensation, Love, and Friendship helped me to understand myself and life, and God and Nature. Illustrious and beloved friend, good-by!’