Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic of American literature Little Women, was for a brief time in her life Louisa May Alcott, journalist.
Despite the picture presented in her famous novel, Alcott’s childhood and formative years were anything but idyllic. Her family was always on the edge of poverty, and her father, Bronson Alcott, was more interested in pursuing the next good idea than in providing a stable environment for his family. The family moved about 30 times during Louisa’s childhood.
The moves were always in New England and never far away from the rarified environment of Concord, Massachusetts, and the Transcendentalist-abolitionist world of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom the Alcotts knew well. Bronson Alcott was one of the leaders of the abolitionists in that era.
Louisa had a clear-eyed view of poverty and decided early on that it was her duty to help the family avoid it. To do that, she turned to writing — something, it turns out, she was quite good at. She found that stories came to her quickly, sometimes faster than she could write them down. In the 1850s, in between doing just about every job open to women at the time, Louisa wrote those stories and began to sell them to various newspapers and magazines of the day. By the end of the decade, she was gaining a reputation and an audience.
As avid abolitionists, the Alcotts kept close tabs on events of the day, and when war came in 1861, Louisa looked for a way to serve. She volunteered for the nursing corps, and her application was accepted in late 1862. Off she went, to Washington, D.C., and was assigned to a hospital at the Union Hotel, where she saw a side of life that she had never experienced. She arrived there just as the battle of Fredericksburg was being fought. Soon wounded soldiers by the wagonload began arriving.
She later wrote:
I am free to confess that I had a realizing sense of the fact that my hospital bed was not a bed of roses just then, or the prospect before me one of unmingled rapture. My three days’ experiences had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, five typhoids on the opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patriots, hopping, lying, and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new “nuss,” who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly an aspect as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t. (Hospital Sketches)
Alcott had never seen anything like this before, and any romantic views she had about war were quickly dispelled.
She threw herself wholeheartedly into the work before her, but it quickly laid her low with illness. Within a month or so, she had contracted a life-threatening case of typhoid pneumonia. She tried to resume what duties she could by sewing buttons and writing letters for the wounded, but her condition quickly deteriorated. Her father traveled to Washington and brought her back to Concord by the end of January 1863. It took her two months to recover there.
That’s when the journalism began.
The editors of the anti-slavery magazine Commonwealth asked her to edit her letters home from the hospital into a series about what she had seen and done. She did so, changing some names and a few unpleasant facts, producing a series titled Hospital Sketches.
At that point in the war, the public was desperate for any news of soldiers or battles or even hospitals. The articles proved highly popular with the reading public, and Alcott drew the praise of critics for her writing. One publication cited her “quiet humor and lively wit.” The articles were later gathered into book form, and Hospital Sketches expanded Alcott’s audience and reputation — as well as her outlook on life.
Biographer Harriet Reisen writes of her hospital experience:
Nursing tempered Louisa, matured her, replace her book knowledge of behavior under duress with real-life experience. . . .Louisa wanted to know life in all its true varieties, and she was getting the chance. (Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, p. 174)
Her writing would never be the same. That’s what a little journalism will do for you.
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Hospital Sketches is available as a free download from Google’s Project Gutenberg.
Much of this information comes from an excellent biography: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.
See also, PBS American Masters, Louisa May Alcott.
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Here is another excerpt from Hospital Sketches:
Being fond of the night side of nature, I was soon promoted to the post of night nurse, with every facility for indulging in my favorite pastime of “owling.” My colleague, a black-eyed widow, relieved me at dawn, we two taking care of the ward, between us, like the immortal Sairy and Betsey, “turn and turn about.” I usually found my boys in the jolliest state of mind their condition allowed; for it was a known fact that Nurse Periwinkle objected to blue devils, and entertained a belief that he who laughed most was surest of recovery. At the beginning of my reign, dumps and dismals prevailed; the nurses looked anxious and tired, the men gloomy or sad; and a general “Hark!-from-the-tombs-a-doleful-sound” style of conversation seemed to be the fashion: a state of things which caused one coming from a merry, social New England town, to feel as if she had got into an exhausted receiver; and the instinct of self-preservation, to say nothing of a philanthropic desire to serve the race, caused a speedy change in Ward No. 1.
47More flattering than the most gracefully turned compliment, more grateful than the most admiring glance, was the sight of those rows of faces, all strange to me a little while ago, now lighting up, with smiles of welcome, as I came among them, enjoying that moment heartily, with a womanly pride in their regard, a motherly affection for them all. The evenings were spent in reading aloud, writing letters, waiting on and amusing the men, going the rounds with Dr. P., as he made his second daily survey, dressing my dozen wounds afresh, giving last doses, and making them cozy for the long hours to come, till the nine o’clock bell rang, the gas was turned down, the day nurses went off duty, the night watch came on, and my nocturnal adventure began.
My ward was now divided into three rooms; and, under favor of the matron, I had managed to sort out the patients in such a way that I had what I called, “my duty room,” my “pleasure room,” and my “pathetic room,” and worked for each in a different way. One, I visited, armed with a dressing tray, full of rollers, plasters, and pins; another, with books, flowers, games, and gossip; a third, with teapots, lullabies, consolation, and sometimes, a shroud.
Wherever the sickest or most helpless man chanced to be, there I held my watch, often visiting the other rooms, to see that the general watchman of the ward did his duty by the fires and the wounds, the latter needing constant wetting. Not only on this account did I meander, but also to get fresher air than the close rooms afforded; for, owing to the stupidity of that mysterious “somebody” who does all the damage in the world, the windows had been carefully nailed down above, and the lower sashes could only be raised in the mildest weather, for the men lay just below. I had suggested a summary smashing of a few panes here and there, when frequent 48appeals to headquarters had proved unavailing, and daily orders to lazy attendants had come to nothing. No one seconded the motion, however, and the nails were far beyond my reach; for, though belonging to the sisterhood of “ministering angels,” I had no wings, and might as well have asked for Jacob’s ladder, as a pair of steps, in that charitable chaos.
One of the harmless ghosts who bore me company during the haunted hours, was Dan, the watchman, whom I regarded with a certain awe; for, though so much together, I never fairly saw his face, and, but for his legs, should never have recognized him, as we seldom met by day. These legs were remarkable, as was his whole figure, for his body was short, rotund, and done up in a big jacket, and muffler; his beard hid the lower part of his face, his hat-brim the upper; and all I ever discovered was a pair of sleepy eyes, and a very mild voice. But the legs!—very long, very thin, very crooked and feeble, looking like grey sausages in their tight coverings, without a ray of pegtopishness about them, and finished off with a pair of expansive, green cloth shoes, very like Chinese junks, with the sails down. This figure, gliding noiselessly about the dimly lighted rooms, was strongly suggestive of the spirit of a beer barrel mounted on cork-screws, haunting the old hotel in search of its lost mates, emptied and staved in long ago.
Another goblin who frequently appeared to me, was the attendant of the pathetic room, who, being a faithful soul, was often up to tend two or three men, weak and wandering as babies, after the fever had gone. The amiable creature beguiled the watches of the night by brewing jorums of a fearful beverage, which he called coffee, and insisted on sharing with me; coming in with a great bowl of something like mud soup, scalding hot, guiltless of cream, rich in an all-pervading 49flavor of molasses, scorch and tin pot. Such an amount of good will and neighborly kindness also went into the mess, that I never could find the heart to refuse, but always received it with thanks, sipped it with hypocritical relish while he remained, and whipped it into the slop-jar the instant he departed, thereby gratifying him, securing one rousing laugh in the doziest hour of the night, and no one was the worse for the transaction but the pigs. Whether they were “cut off untimely in their sins,” or not, I carefully abstained from inquiring.
It was a strange life—asleep half the day, exploring Washington the other half, and all night hovering, like a massive cherubim, in a red rigolette, over the slumbering sons of man. I liked it, and found many things to amuse, instruct, and interest me. The snores alone were quite a study, varying from the mild sniff to the stentorian snort, which startled the echoes and hoisted the performer erect to accuse his neighbor of the deed, magnanimously forgive him, and wrapping the drapery of his couch about him, lie down to vocal slumber. After listening for a week to this band of wind instruments, I indulged in the belief that I could recognize each by the snore alone, and was tempted to join the chorus by breaking out with John Brown’s favorite hymn:
“Blow ye the trumpet, blow!”
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