To the Editors:
Suzy Goldman deserves praise for her article "Louisa May Alcott: The Separation Between Art and Family" (I,ii, Fall 1977, 91-97). She has drawn our attention to a dimension of Alcott's work frequently overlooked: that Alcott's women seem forced to choose between work and marriage. In her last paragraph, Ms. Goldman raises several questions for which recent reissues and publications of Alcott material may suggest answers.
Goldman writes that Alcott, though herself successful, never allowed her female characters to choose artistic success. But buried in chapter 13 of An Old-fashioned Girl (1870) is a four-member group of women, mutually supporting each other's goals, who aspire to success as novelist, sculptor, engraver, and artist. Also, Diana and Persis (1978; written 1879), a fragmentary manuscript exhumed from Harvard's Houghton Library by Sarah Elbert, suggests the possibility of combining art and family. But Alcott's real-life model, her sister May Alcott Neiriker, did not live to complete the experiment, and possibly for this reason the work remains incomplete. It was Alcott who financed her sister's art training.
Goldman speculates that public pressure demanded that Alcott marry off her female characters. Alcott confirms this in Life, Letter, and Journals (1892, ed. Ednah P. Cheney), now reissued. Because this pressure was so strong, we must gather all hints that contradict the stereotypes in her work.
Goldman suggests that Alcott may have regretted her own celibacy. But there is, in fact, evidence to the contrary. Of marriage Alcott claimed she knew little save that few were happy.
To Goldman's final speculation that perhaps Alcott was born too soon to envision a marriage of family and art, there is also some contrary evidence, again in Diana and Persis, where Persis, a sculptor, visits Diana, a painter, and now a wife and [End Page 136] mother. Persis catalyzes Diana into artistic activity once again. Also in Jo's Boys (1886), Amy has continued to paint and her daughter Bess shares Amy's talent and interest. In fact Jo herself appears here as a much lionized author, whose "last scrape" was escaping a memento-hunter.
Certainly Goldman is right that family fills Alcott's foreground and artistic success is relegated to the shadows. However, I think we must not be deceived by appearances, and perhaps saying that Alcott's female characters' "full potential is always checked at the altar" is oversimplifying: we need to remember as well her lesser-known works An Old-fashioned Girl (1870), Work* (1873), and Jo's Boys (1886), and also to examine the newly available Gothic thrillers contained in Behind the Mask* (1975) and Plots and Counterplots (1976) plus the fragmentary Diana and Persis. (Asterisked books treat the achievement of a generalized rather than an artistic potential.) Nonetheless Goldman's thoughtful discussion is lively, provocative and important for requiring us to reconsider Alcott's work. I look forward to Suzy Goldman's next work on Alcott. [End Page 137]