Friday, July 18, 2008

Louisa May Alcott: "I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls"

"I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman's body ... because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man."

(from an 1883 interview with Louise Chandler Moulton)

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Daughter of educator and reformer Bronson Alcott, raised in the heady intellectual milieu of midcentury Concord, Louisa May Alcott was encouraged in her literary aspirations to a degree unusual in Victorian America. Yet that encouragement was qualified in a variety of ways. Since Bronson and Abba May Alcott strictly monitored their four daughters' development, Louisa's work had to satisfy strict parental standards of philosophical value and moral worth; further, since Bronson was chronically insolvent, her writing had to bring financial rewards to support the family. The larger intellectual world of Concord in which the Alcotts circulated added to this sense of constraint. "To have had Mr. Emerson for an intellectual god all one's life," she once remarked in conversation to a friend, "is to be invested with a chain armor of propriety."

Despite the innovations of her upbringing, in short, Louisa May Alcott came of age in a culture whose moral and familial constraints compounded, rather than undercut, the propriety demanded by Victorian gender ideology. It is no surprise that by age twelve, she registers the "chain armor of propriety" in her journal as a homiletic discourse on the necessities of self-denial: "What are the most valuable kinds of self-denial? Appetite, temper. How is self-denial of temper known? If I control my temper, I am respectful and gentle, and every one sees it. What is the result of this self-denial? Every one loves me, and I am happy." Faithfully copied from her daily lessons, these comments were almost certainly read by her parents; Bronson had been observing Louisa closely since her infancy, while Abba wrote in the same journal entry, "I often peep into your diary, hoping to see some record of more happy days." Even Alcott's private exercise of self-discipline was open to surveillance, in a pedagogy of self-control monitored both internally and externally. Her coming-of-age accords closely with what Richard Brodhead, following Foucault, has termed the "disciplinary intimacy" characteristic of antebellum America, whereby self-imposed restraint lovingly taught by the family, rather than corporal punishment harshly imposed by an external authority, became the privileged mode for disciplining the self. For all the joyful eccentricities of Alcott's early life, she was governed by a self-regulating pedagogy that rewrote the implicitly male credo of Emersonian self-reliance as female self-denial.

In this narrative of female identity as psychic self-regulation, Alcott's work provides insight into the possibilities, metaphoric as well as literal, afforded women by the onset of the Civil War. Alcott's private writings make clear an identification with masculinity that long predated but was energized by the war. At fourteen, for example, she wrote in her journal: "I was born with a boy's spirit under my bib and tucker. I can't wait [for a time] when I can work"; and at twenty-eight she echoed in a letter, "I was born with a boys nature & always had more sympathy for & interest in them than in girls, & have fought my fight for nearly fifteen [years] with a boys spirit under my 'bib & tucker' & a boys wrath when I got 'floored,' so I'm not preaching like a prim spinster but freeing my mind like one of 'our fellows.'" In these quotations, a woman who speaks assertively is immediately suspect--"preaching like a prim spinster"--while maleness, by contrast, signifies a way of working and speaking freely, as much a style as an identity. Long before the war begins, Alcott identifies agency with masculinity, in a culture in which the only way to imagine being a person is to envision being a man.

When war arrives, it offers Alcott a particular psychic charge, since it increases the value of masculine freedom by framing it as patriotic duty. "War declared with the South," she writes in her journal, "I've often longed to see a war, and now I have my wish. I long to be a man; but as I can't fight, I will content myself with working for those who can." At a turning point in her own life, she declares, "Thirty years old. Decided to go to Washington as a nurse. . . . Help needed, and I love nursing, and must let out my pent-up energy in some new way. . . . So I set forth . . . feeling as if I was the son of the house going to war." Metaphorically turning from thirty-year-old "prim spinster" to "son of the house," Alcott grows up in wartime by growing down to her favorite state, that of boyhood. The war, in short, marks Alcott's coming-of-age as a man...

...Alcott's topsy-turvyness implicitly involves inversions of sexuality as well as gender and race. She declared in an interview, for example, that "I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman's body . . . because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls, and never once the least bit with any man." Bringing together masculine identification with female object-choice, this passage is startlingly proleptic of the sexological language of the "invert," only just beginning to emerge by the end of Alcott's lifetime, which pathologized the lesbian as a "man's soul trapped in a woman's body." Such codifications were prescriptive rather than descriptive, and Alcott's biographers provide little conclusive evidence about whether she was lesbian. But her comment suggests at minimum her swerve away from the accoutrements of heterosexuality--husband, children, household--which normatively accompanied Victorian womanhood. Thirty and still unmarried when she went to Washington, Alcott was topsy-turvy--or, to use another of her favorite adjectives, "queer"--by virtue of being a permanent spinster as well as a "boyish" girl.

from Elizabeth Young's A Wound of One's Own: Louisa May Alcott's Civil War Fiction
(American Quarterly 48.3 (1996) 439-474)

IMAGE: "Sabinella" by John William Godward

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