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42 Chapter 3 LOUISAMAYALCOTT’SWORK ANEWTRUEWORKINGWOMAN Nancy Myers Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A Story of Experience (hereafter Work) was morally praised and literarily chided when it appeared five years after her acclaimed Little Women. First published in serial form in 1872, then as a complete text in 1873, this narrative is often labeled as a partially autobiographical novel based on Alcott’s own work experiences in Boston (Kasson xi). Always compared to Little Women’s success, Work was either applauded for its moral integrity and wholesomeness for children (Rev. of Work, British Quarterly 589) or disdained for its failure to meet the aesthetic standards of her previously published Little Women, Little Men, and An Old-Fashioned Girl. As one reviewer notes, “Miss Alcott’s name will give to this pleasant story a circulation and a celebrity which otherwise it would not attain” (Rev. of Work, Harper’s 186), suggesting that the author’s renown rather than the novel’s quality would draw the readers. In stark contrast to Little Women’s focus on the domesticity of a specific family and their small rural community, Work shows women in various work environments in urban and agrarian communities and mostly outside the home. Little Women centers on the woman’s home, but Work’s core is woman’s experience in paid labor. Elizabeth Langland states that “in Work, Alcott’s little women have grown up and taken their place in the world” (“Female Stories” 127). Alcott sets the novel in a period when the Civil War “opened up job opportunities to women never before seen in the country” and when New England women were advocating for work-related rights such as reasonable workplace pay and safe labor conditions (Maibor 102). This setting combined with her own work experiences provides Alcott with an outlet to promote her social views, reaching thousands of readers across the United States and Europe. Lynn M. Alexander describes Alcott’s social agenda as one of reform in that women’s employment should “be seen as an option for all who desire to work, regardless of their economic circumstances” (595). Work demonstrates how and why young middle-class women might respond to 43 Louisa May Alcott’s Work various workplace situations in ways that conduct books, encyclopedias, and memoirs might not. I argue that Alcott’s intermingling of novelistic features with her lived work experience operates as rhetorical invention in two ways. First, with her construction of what I refer to as a New True Woman character, Alcott employs the strategies of minimization and redirection to blend the social ideals of the True Woman’s feminine domesticity with the New Woman’s desire for financial independence and self-fulfillment.1 Alcott’s belief in the moral value of work is apparent in the ways she has her protagonist Christie Devon grapple with and ultimately adapt respectable social and moral values as the character moves from the domestic homeplace through multiple paid positions then returns to an altered type of domesticity. Second, Work demonstrates women’s rhetorical invention in the workplace through Christie’s use of resourcefulness and reflection. Both resourcefulness and reflection operate as critical thinking strategies for problem solving and for achieving an ethical autonomy. Rhetorical invention involves construction and innovation when communicating with others, and Work offers both in Alcott’s combining of an alternative vision for women with her illustration of its enactment. Janice M. Lauer explains rhetorical invention as involving the acts of “initiating discourse , exploring alternatives, framing and testing judgments, interpreting texts, and analyzing audiences” (2). These acts are inventive strategies that Alcott argues for and that her protagonist Christie enacts. Work’s rhetorical invention instructs its readers through examples of the main character’s experiential learning. As a woman rhetor, Christie operates resourcefully, reflects on and learns from her experiences, and rhetorically acts on that learning. As a middle-class white woman determined to be financially independent, she not only builds her rhetorical knowledge to more effectively interact in the workplace but also uses that knowledge to bridge the social class divides for a community of women. This rhetorical inventiveness opens the way for like-minded women across racial and class lines to share their labor experiences in a community of women determined not only to survive but also to thrive. Work traces the protagonist Christie over a period of almost twenty years while she labors as a servant, actress, governess, companion, seamstress, nurse, agricultural entrepreneur, activist, and philanthropist. Orphaned and living...


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