Lurid Louisa or Angelic Alcott? Humor, Irony, and Identity in Louisa May Alcott’s Stories of the 1860s

By Judy E. Sneller.

Published by The International Journal of Literary Humanities

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Today, nearly everyone associates Louisa May Alcott with the beloved American novel "Little Women" (1869), but many remain unaware that from 1851–1888, she wrote hundreds of works in almost every genre, and consistently used her writing to comment on a wide range of social issues. This paper focuses on two quite different, but ultimately related, types of short stories Alcott produced in the 1860s, before she was defined as the author of domestic novels. First, between 1863–1869 Alcott published at least a dozen sentimental, quasi-realistic stories about the Civil War. During the same time, however, writing under a pseudonym or anonymously, Alcott also wrote at least 29 sensational thrillers rife with deceitful femme fatales, drug addiction, and murder. Yes, the supposedly angelic Alcott had a secret, decidedly lurid, side. At first glance these sentimental sketches and sensational blood-and- thunder stories seem starkly different in genre as well as their use of humor and irony. While an overt, droll humor drives the sentimental sketches of everyday life, the thrillers are built around irony and complex themes of secrets and unmasking. However, as this paper will show, these different genres and humorous styles are connected in one overall motive, namely, reform. More specifically, Alcott skillfully, but subtly, used both types of fiction to urge the reform of 19th century models of American womanhood that restricted women to roles in their domestic sphere and defined them as true women only if aligned with the reigning ideal of women as submissive, pious, dependent, and pure. Because we are still working to construct truly equitable rights and roles for women in American society, Alcott’s intriguing stories of the 1860s are still particularly relevant and worth exploring today.

Keywords: American Women's Literary Humor, Louisa May Alcott, Civil War Fiction, Sensational Thrillers, Women's Rights and Roles

The International Journal of Literary Humanities, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp.41-50. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 379.932KB).

Dr. Judy E. Sneller

Professor of English, Humanities Department, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City, South Dakota, USA

Dr. Sneller has taught a variety of humanities and writing courses over the last twenty years after earning a Ph.D. in American studies at Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA, in 1992. Her primary research and publishing interests have been in the areas of investigating the socio-cultural impact of American women's literary humor, exploring new techniques of technical writing, and using computer technology to create a more effective teaching and learning environment.