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Louisa May Alcott's Juvenilia: Blueprints for the Future
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Louisa May Alcott's Juvenilia:
Blueprints for the Future

Louisa May Alcott describes, in the chapter of Little Women entitled "The P. C. and P. O.," the proceedings of the March girls' Pickwick Club, and she there offers her readers an example of the club's publication: The Pickwick Portfolio. In a parenthetical statement, Alcott assures the readers that the newspaper she describes is indeed "a bona fide copy of one written by bona fide girls once upon a time" (Little Women 119). Alcott was, in a sense, truthful to her readers, for the examples she provides in the classic novel are selections from various copies of the real Pickwick Portfolio, the family newspaper written by the four Alcott sisters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie (Elizabeth), and May, from about 1849 to 1853.

While many children, especially those with literary aspirations, often compose family or neighborhood newspapers, the Alcotts' Pickwick Portfolio is noteworthy. Their papers yield some interesting and previously unknown facts about how the works of the young Alcotts contain the seeds of Louisa May Alcott's literary career and how Alcott would extract material from her childhood writings which she would later use in her adult work. In fact, this material can be seen as a precursor to three types of literature that Alcott would later produce: sensational stories, fantasy tales, and domestic fiction.

Alcott's use of her juvenilia in her adult writings was not confined, however, to the material drawn from the childhood newspapers. In the mid to late 1840s, before embarking on The Pickwick Portfolio, she co-authored plays with her older sister Anna; these youthful dramas also found their way into her work. When the Alcotts returned to Concord in 1845, they purchased the old Cogswell house on Lexington Road and named their new home "Hillside." In the large Hillside barn, the young Alcott girls enacted sensational dramas, penned by Anna and Louisa, such as "Norna; or, The Witch's Curse" and "The Captive of Castile," for neighbors and family. Later, of course, the childhood dramas and experiences would appear in the "Merry Christmas" chapter of Little Women as the March girls present "The Witch's Curse: An Operatic Tragedy." After Louisa's death in 1888, Anna Alcott Pratt collected the manuscript plays in Comic Tragedies Written by "Jo" and "Meg" and Acted by the "Little Women," published in 1893 by Roberts Brothers, Louisa's longtime publisher.

It was during those formative days at Hillside that the young, stagestruck Louisa May Alcott was captivated by the works of Charles Dickens, especially The Pickwick Papers. With the four Alcott sisters assuming the roles of the Dickens characters, Anna (Meg in Little Women) as the editor Samuel Pickwick, Louisa (Jo) as the literary Augustus Snodgrass, Lizzie (Beth) as the rosy Tracy Tupman, and May (Amy) as Nathaniel Winkle, the famous Pickwick Club was re-born—not in Victorian England but in rural Concord, Massachusetts.

The composition of the actual family newspaper, however, appears to have come later and in three forms.1 Although the domestic papers had three different titles, they all were inspired by the Pickwick Club and its members. In November of 1848, the Alcott family left the country life of Concord and moved back to Boston, and in the summer of 1849, they moved in with Samuel Joseph May, Mrs. Alcott's brother. On 19 July 1849, the Alcott girls produced the first issue of a family newspaper called The Olive Leaf. The lead entry, under the section "Poet's Corner," was a poem to Pat Puss, the "family cat", written by Augustus Snodgrass, alias Louisa May Alcott, and recalls the poem entitled "A Lament for S. B. Pat Paw" in the version of The Pickwick Portfolio in Little Women.

By the fall of 1849, however, the paper had changed titles; now it was re-named The Portfolio. One of first surviving manuscripts of this format, dated 24 October 1849, contains an informative notice of the paper's history: "Our paper was commenced last June under the name of the (Olive leaf) but owing to the absence of one of our valued members was dis-continued. We are now again together and...