José Martí on Louisa May Alcott

José Martí’s admiration for Louisa May Alcott also points to America’s originality in literature and the thirst to read for wholehearted answers.

Shortly after the death of the American novelist Louisa May Alcott in 1888, José Martí celebrated her achievements in a chronicle where he grimaces from the start at an old fashion cut-and-paste type of literature. In a new country, he writes, only mummified professors teach it in schools crafted to graduate students who at the end may command eighteen languages and six live sciences. But do not ask these degree-wavers “where is human life leading, or how one may influence and draw happiness from it, or how does one run through the world without stumping on the bunions of our neighbors.”

Imagination, Science, and the Failure of Literary Studies

New Journalism and the yellow press in America would divert in part the potential readership of thought-provoking literature. Much of the traditional genres had already wizened to Martí’s nose into mawkish and phased out relevance. He despised the “stench” that reeked from most of the novels of his days, and although he himself penned one for money in 1886 that readers now value as an exemplary gem of modernist expression and theory, he insisted on the need to attune the imagination to the enlightenment of forward-looking science.

Hurried, as if galloping in a chariot of steaming horses abreast, he assumed writing as a well-grounded fulcrum for the flourishing of humanity, rife in ideas, and useful in its pleasurable sharpening of consciousness—banners from which academic discourse today weasels out camouflaged behind its tightly cloistered and icy jargon. Since the glibly chargers of art-for-art's-sake advocacy in the nineteenth century, where has the latest fad, aimed at rethinking literature, led to if not abstruse nonsense that enfeebles understanding among neighbors?

Louisa May Alcott, Nature, and Originality

Born and bred on the love of natural, “wild oats” transcendentalists, Martí ranked Louisa May Alcott among the plausible exceptions that likewise embodied the originality of American literature. She “constructed with her own elements of support,” he remarked, “which she knew from first-hand experience, and with that proportion, naturalness and good taste that are eternal and useful lessons obtained from study and good literature.”

After a mainstay on select readings, Louisa May Alcott found her own voice in her Hospital Sketches (1863), a trenchant account for its renderings straight from live models witnessed throughout her service as a volunteer nurse for the Union Army during the American Civil War. There she mingled with the most miserable victims of defeat, drenched in mire and blood. Many died before she could lay a caring hand over their temples. From that point on, she relied on common folks for critical feedback on her writings. No wedge separated literature from her devotion to her kind.

Writing in the Industrial Age

Writers dependent on modest means were not immune to the absorption industry exerted in creating an ample wage-earning workforce. Martí had to double as a warehouse clerk, translator, consul, and night school teacher. He nonetheless managed to earn his bread without major setbacks to the integrity of his writing. Copyright issues began to worm out and plagued him for the rest of his life. Most of his Complete Works, gathered to date in twenty-eight volumes, comprises journalism-for-pay, much of which esurient publishers pirated and reproduced, at times after altering parts of the original content.

The tomboy and home-schooled Louisa May Alcott disliked writing girls’ books on the publishers’ urge to supply a growing demand. Since her teens, she had held many odd jobs to support her family, but even after fame as a writer blessed her, she found herself working far more than for what she had bargained.

Periodicals for children then mushroomed by the hundreds. When the groundbreaking magazine Robert Merry’s Museum hired her as its editor (1867-1869), she also contributed stories and poems. During this same period, she wrote tales under pen names for other publications. When she reached her 40s, she had paid for all her family debts, “even the outlawed ones,” but at a great cost to her health.

Connective Awareness

A revelation in Louisa May Alcott’s self-described topsy-turvy bent chimes when she alleged never to fear storms, “for I am learning how to sail my ship.” She had promised herself to sail her way toward something splendid, heroic or wonderful, lasting; so she wrote books while she lived life, as observed Martí, sketching truthfully from stormy realities au naturel. With rolled up sleeves, she commits to a connectivity not meant for the expedient squabbles among mummified apologists of isms at university campuses. Louisa May Alcott wrote for those who read in search of a heartier answer, one that may run through to the world without stumping on the bunions of our neighbors.

[April 14, 2011]

Top image: Moribundus by Paul Klee, 1919

Photo: Orchard House/L. M. A. Memorial Association, 1858