Stephen W. Hines has unearthed a trilogy of short stories by Louisa May Alcott in anticipation of the upcoming Christmas season.
Hines has previously published several very successful volumes of Laura Ingalls Wilder's writings, most notably Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings, and spoke recently with BookPage about his current project and Miss Alcott.
How did you find these stories?
Sometimes I'll go through reference books and look for things that I think have some sort of contemporary reason for being renewed or being brought back to the public's attention. Other times I will go with a definite plan of finding a particular piece that has intrigued me through some reference book. And sometimes I just go to a publication that I think might have something in it and leaf through it page by page and hope for serendipity to occur. It's time-consuming, but it can be an enormous amount of fun. That's what happened with The Quiet Little Woman. I was at the Ben West Public Library in Nashville leafing through a 1920 copy of St. Nicholas magazine, and I came across it and its background story. Miss Alcott wrote the story for the Lukens girls, five sisters who greatly admired her work and fashioned a publication, Little Things, after the March girls' Pickwick Portfolio in Little Women. Similar to many of Miss Alcott's other works, The Quiet Little Woman, which was originally titled Patty's Place, is a fairly realistic story in the sense that the person is not transformed into a fairy princess or anything like that. The lead character, Patty, remains pretty much a poor person who ends up not discovering the rich family of which she daydreams. She does learn to accept her lot and her position.
Did you find the other two stories in this volume, “Tilly's Christmas” and “Rosa's Tale,” the same way?
Those were not found in St. Nicholas magazine. Once I became aware of how much Miss Alcott had written, I looked to see what else she had done in the way of other Christmas stories.
Will you speak about Miss Alcott's writing career?
Miss Alcott did write rapidly, and for about 20 years, after she started writing as a professional to support herself and her family, she wrote very industriously. She could do as many as 30 pages a day with a quill pen, inkwell, and blotter. Some of her thriller types of books that she did under a pen name were completed in a month's time. Miss Alcott did have a fairly hard time getting established at first in her writing career, but she had some early successes too. I mean compared to what a lot of writers today go through, she may have almost been said to have some fairly early encouragement. I think she published some early poetry. Although they didn't bring much money, she did have some success with them, and her family was very supportive of her writing. She did have a lot of rejections, too. Her earlier books, Moods and Hospital Sketches, were nothing remarkable and didn't excite public attention. She eventually did develop a relationship with the Boston publishers and was known as a dependable writer. She probably had maybe as much as eight to ten years' worth of writing years before she became an overnight success with Little Women. I recently went through a volume of Miss Alcott's letters and noticed a couple where she wrote about Little Women before it had actually been published. She didn't really hold out a lot of optimism that it would be a success. She wrote one person and said that this sort of thing doesn't sell. It turns out she was wildly inaccurate about her own book.
So Little Women was really a revolutionary sort of book?
Little Women displays many of the same qualities that one sees in The Quiet Little Woman. It's fairly realistic, in the sense that the family has trouble and one of the characters dies. Now that wouldn't have been necessarily unusual in those days, but it's not done in any melodramatic way, as many of these kind of things were. The girls are allowed to be individuals and to show some rebelliousness. Jo is shown as being a person who is very independent and tomboyish, and that would not be typical. One of the reasons it caught on was because it was really different; it showed a much more realistic picture of children and yet it still was a very moral kind of book. Of course it came out in two parts originally, the second a year after the first. Part two deals with the sisters coupling up and getting married. Originally, Miss Alcott had wanted to resist the temptation to have Jo married off, but there was a lot of clamor for it so she married her off to a German professor instead of to Laurie to show her independent spirit. I suppose that many people would look at Miss Alcott today and regard her as old-fashioned, but the truth of the matter is she was very progressive for her time. She was a big supporter of women getting the vote, and she felt, as she wrote to the Lukens girls, that women had a right to do whatever they showed they could do. She showed through her writing that a woman could be a professional writer, and very successful one. Once Little Women came out, it continued to sell very well through the rest of her life. One of her royalty checks came in for $8,500.
What was your hope in publishing these stories?
My literary prospecting involves making a judgement as to whether something is of interest and worth bringing back. There is always a desire each Christmas to have a special story that catches on with the public. The Quiet Little Woman is a wonderful story for the Christmas season although it has lain unnoticed for many years now. It says in a lot of ways and more succinctly what William Bennett has been trying to convey about virtue in volumes of over 400 pages. Miss Alcott really lived out her philosophy of Ôvirtue has its own rewards.' It doesn't mean you necessarily marry a handsome prince in the end, but what you do does build your character. It's a book coming at the right time for those wondering about how to infiltrate values onto our children, and I think it has a wonderful teaching to offer everyone.