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  • The Cosmopolitical Project of Louisa May Alcott
  • Laura Dassow Walls (bio)

During Louisa May Alcott's lifetime, such innovative technologies as the railroad and steamship combined with an emerging middle-class affluence to enable a new kind of cosmopolitan consumer culture. The housewife could select for her domestic environment the latest British novels, the newest Paris fashions, the most polished mahogany table, the finest China dishes, the best West Indian sugar, the juiciest Cuban oranges. Particularly privileged women could even dream of travel to Europe, a dream Louisa May Alcott gave to Amy of the impoverished March family in Little Women: "[I wish to] go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and be the best artist in the whole world." 1 Indeed, the success of this very book allowed Alcott to put the foundation under her castle in the air: she herself took the grand tour of Europe, together with her real-life sister May, the model for Amy, who did stay on in Rome to study art and do fine pictures.

But as Amy's yearning suggests, this emerging cosmopolitanism reached beyond consumer taste and transoceanic tourism. The political upheavals sparked by the United States' Declaration of Independence had precipitated a cascade of wars and revolutions across both hemispheres, which Alcott herself experienced most immediately in the American Civil War and with the influx of immigrants produced by the Irish and German diasporas. As the political boundaries of the United States expanded—Alcott lived to witness the annexation of Texas, the conquest of Mexico, the acquisition of Oregon [End Page 107] Territory, and the purchase of Alaska—the question of who was "American" and who was "foreign" stayed both unsettled and profoundly unsettling. One response was an intensifying racist nationalism, the now-notorious hallmark of "manifest destiny" and anti-immigration legislation; but another was a nascent cosmopolitan ethos that imagined new forms of social solidarity across differences of race, class, and nation. Louisa's father Bronson Alcott spoke for this second response when he remarked that electricity, the telegraph and the railroad, the press, and the freedom of world travel had brought a new breadth to modern life: "No life is insular now. Every thought resounds throughout the globe." 2 This new mobility of people and ideas had tremendous political consequences: "Our time is revolutionary," Bronson declared, for the "fellowship of all souls" was in his view intent on laying the foundations for new institutions. "The firm of Globe Brothers & Co., prospers in both hemispheres, every citizen being a partner in the concern. The nations are leagued together on the basis of mutual assistance," not of force and fear. 3

Bronson's meditation on a league of nations places him in a long tradition voiced most memorably by Immanuel Kant, who late in the eighteenth century—watching Americans battle for their independence and the French Revolution devolve into yet another bloody world war—had proposed that only the lawful unfolding of human reason and free will could counter the senseless march of war and conquest. Education and self-culture would limit the predatory, expansionist impulses of trade and technology, "leaguing" all nations into a global civil society, "a cosmo-political state" dedicated to protecting the freedom of all its members. 4 Kant's new ethic of "universal hospitality" forbade any nation to conquer or assault any other, for ultimately "a violation of law and right in one place is felt in all others." This was not, in Kant's view, some hazy utopian dream but a practical, even essential, step in human development: as he wrote, "the idea of a cosmopolitan or world law is not a fantastic and utopian way of looking at law, but a necessary completion of the . . . public law of mankind." 5 Following Kant, generations of idealists have sought to realize his cosmopolitan ethic. In the United States, William Ellery Channing, Ralph [End Page 108] Waldo Emerson, and Abigail Alcott's brother Samuel Joseph May all lectured before the American Peace Society, founded in 1828, whose efforts eventually contributed after World War I to the founding of the (painfully short-lived) League of Nations. 6 Cosmopolitanism advanced on the cultural front as well: as soon...


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