288. Why Louisa May Alcott Is Awesome

And while we’re on the subject of Little Women, I should mention that Lousia May Alcott is a wonderful author… especially when she’s not trying to be.

I’ve read only two books by Alcott, and they’re very different. Little Women is her most enduring work: a fine novel with a heartwarming story and relatable characters. Her other book, a little-known memoir titled Hospital Sketches, is short, messy and bursting with unbridled charm and humor. Alcott is remembered for her characters, but she was also quite a character herself.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a lady who balanced humor with pathos and sense with sentiment.

I give you Louisa May Alcott, whose life and imagination were truly remarkable.

Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is a delightful novel, equal parts coming-of-age story and romance. In my (admittedly idiosyncratic) opinion, it feels like a pleasant mixture of Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice as its little women grow up, learn lessons, make their way in the world and find love. (Alcott’s ladies, unlike Austen’s, are rather likable.) All this wibbly-wobbly, icky-sticky sentimentalism is balanced by a refreshingly frank and sensible outlook. Every time the book comes close to being mushy, some wry witticism or unromantic plot point brings it back to earth.

As much as I like Little Women, I enjoy Hospital Sketches far more. It’s old-fashioned, unpolished and crammed with out-of-date language and obscure literary references. Needless to say, I love it.

Hospital Sketches is a memoir compiled from Alcott’s letters home during her time as a nurse during the American Civil War. Her novel Little Women is neatly structured and carefully worded. By contrast, Hospital Sketches gives the impression of being dashed off at high speed and in high spirits. It gives fascinating, often funny and sometimes touching glimpses of life amid the excitement and horror of war.

One of the things that strikes me most about Hospital Sketches is its relentless cheerfulness and optimism. Even the sadder parts of the book, which are very sad indeed, have a kind of poignant sweetness.

Both of Alcott’s books have a surprising balance of sense and sentimentality. Heaven knows I’m no feminist, but I admire the way Alcott brings together fiery emotion and cool pragmatism, especially in her memoir. She is even cheerful and sensible when breaking down in tears, crying, as she puts it, “in a very helpless but hearty way; for, as I seldom indulge in this moist luxury, I like to enjoy it with all my might, when I do.”

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, Louisa May Alcott is awesome.

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