- Writing “En Masse”:Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War Experience and the Commonwealth
Louisa May Alcott could not have known that becoming a war nurse would transform her writing career. Seven months after her brief 1863 nursing stint, she had published four installments of “Hospital Sketches” in the abolitionist newspaper the Boston Commonwealth, as well as a full-book version, and, thereafter, she supported herself and her family with her writing. While Alcott had long worked to establish herself as a fiction writer, she gained fame instead by initiating a new genre of Civil War nursing narratives. If not strictly fiction, the sketches were indeed fictionalized. Because they were published in a newspaper, however, these sketches were positioned to be read as authentic accounts of war experience.
Alcott claimed not to understand why, as she put it, “people like a few extracts from topsey turvey letters written on inverted tin kettles, in my pantry, while waiting for gruel to warm or poultices to cool, for boys to wake and be tormented, on stairs, in window seats & other sequestered spots favorable to literary inspiration.”1 This story of the text’s initial production, however, was essential to its appeal. And Alcott’s claim, while perfunctory for a female author presenting herself modestly, also authenticates her writing as an unmediated account of war. She insisted even years later that she wrote “Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys” and crafted an aura of un-crafted war writing each time she revised the sketches for the two book editions of Hospital Sketches, published in 1863 and 1869 respectively.2
This crafted authenticity has led critics to consider Hospital Sketches more of a journalistic account than it really was. Madeleine Stern, for example, credits Hospital Sketches with establishing Alcott’s “reputation as an accurate reporter of realistic war scenes.”3 From contemporary reviews of the book to recent biographies, readers have joined Alcott in emphasizing the sketches’ authenticity—to the point of making errors in the history of the text’s publication; they [End Page 45] have claimed that extracts of Alcott’s letters from the hospital were published in the Commonwealth with little or no editing and that only for the book did she then fictionalize her experiences and transform herself into the character Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle.4
This myth that Alcott wrote directly from the hospital, perpetuated both by Alcott and by literary critics, obfuscates the market-driven forces that shaped her writing and created the desire for the myth. The newspaper sketches were read as authentic war writing because wartime journalistic trends demanded that such accounts should be immediate and unmediated. For readers of wartime periodicals, the more ways in which the war itself influenced the act of writing, the more authentic the text that resulted seemed to be. War correspondents described themselves scribbling in the midst of battles or while surrounded by wounded soldiers; in the words of Andie Tucher, correspondents provided “rough-and-ready, on-the-spot reporting” that readers “accepted as genuine.”5 Alcott’s description of writing the sketches in the busy war hospital’s few “sequestered spots” therefore aligns her work with that of war correspondents, whose writing gained power from close proximity to battlefield events. Moreover, the desire of Commonwealth readers for such “rough-and-ready” writing led them to react to early installments with specific requests for more, which helped shape Alcott’s serialized text. Wartime readers’ influence—determining the kind of news as well as the text’s development—conflicts with the text’s reputation of being penned by a working nurse and then sent off to the newspaper with little or no revision. It was, however, readers’ expectations for the periodical form that reified authenticity as a standard ingredient for the new genre of nursing narratives.
From Hospital to Newspaper to Book
In emphasizing the text’s immediacy, many nineteenth-century reviews of Hospital Sketches focused on the conditions surrounding Alcott’s writing.6 Ednah Cheney, for example, claimed in 1889 that both the newspaper and subsequent book-edition “sketches are almost a literal reproduction of her letters to [Alcott’s] family” and that they “were hastily...