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  • Saints and Sinners:Uncanny Resemblances between Alcott and Twain and Their Redemptive Adolescent Protagonists
  • Monika Elbert (bio)
Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel, by Roberta Seelinger Trites. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2007.

This book is a welcome and delightful addition to the study of adolescent literature, and by extension, since Alcott and Twain also wrote for the adult market, of nineteenth-century American literature generally. Trites connects two seemingly disparate authors in a most convincing and fascinating manner. At first glance, some of the comparisons may seem arbitrary: both were affected by the Civil War; both wrote nostalgic accounts of their childhoods; both had complicated and nontraditional views of sexuality; both suffered from financial and familial pressures; both had to deal with the burden imposed by fame; both had to contend with a writer's market that had no uniform copyright laws and that privileged writing for adults; both represented innocent, youthful protagonists as the hope for the future, in terms of their ability to bring about reform in the areas of gender and racial equity. Trites even concedes, early on in the book, "Some of the parallels were coincidental, and some of them could be said of virtually any author in nineteenth-century America" (xii). Though she does not mention other such authors, one might immediately think of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Horatio Alger, and one might want to dismiss her claims. However, the parallels she finds are uncanny, and with each chapter one sees more clearly the validity of her approach, as she examines the "social, economic, and psychological factors that led both of them to use adolescence as a platform from which to write about reform" (1).

In the first chapter, "The Fantasy of Self-Reliance: An Introductory Biography," Trites begins by showing the mutual disregard Alcott and Twain had for each other and portrays them at opposite poles in the public's reception of them—with Twain being the "lovable" and "bad boy" type, like Tom Sawyer, and Alcott the "spinster and suffragette" who wrote didactic tales. Although Trites claims that Twain would have seen Alcott as a snob because of her class background (her mother descended from Boston money), she does not seem to take into ac count [End Page 220] the genteel poverty that plagued Alcott throughout her life. Nonetheless, she does grant that Alcott and Twain finally did suffer from the same downward spiral and pecuniary need and from similar psychological backgrounds—Twain, when his father died in 1847, and he had to work as a printer's devil and then steamboat pilot to support his family; Alcott, when her father's transcendentalist projects (among them the Temple School and the utopian community, Fruit-lands) failed. Both Twain and Alcott, then, had to become self-reliant and financially solvent and responsible as a result of the absent father (though absent in different ways). Similarly, both felt guilty or grief-stricken about the death of siblings—Twain as a result of his brother's death on a steamboat (he was not there to save him, having changed his riverboat route days earlier), and Alcott when her sister Elizabeth died of scarlet fever, which Louisa and May had contracted earlier.

Trites's comparison of biographical portraits continues with an examination of their roles in the Civil War. She speculates that Twain felt guilty about having served in the Confederate troops and then also for deserting; this guilt was shared by Huck Finn, who also rejects Southern society by running away. Alcott's experience as a Civil War nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, DC marked her abolitionist politics and influenced the course of her writing career, as she wrote several antislavery stories and her book, Hospital Sketches. Like Twain, Alcott was indelibly scarred, as the mercury poisoning from the calomel administered to her for typhoid ultimately killed her.

Though both authors were inspired by their immediate family members, they often found them a source of anguish, with their illnesses and deaths. However, both tried to pursue the ideal of Emersonian self-reliance, even as others depended on them for their financial needs and physical health. They found...


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pp. 220-227
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