Lucinda Robb is a director for the National Archives Foundation and was a founding board member for the Fairfax Library Foundation.
Louisa May Alcott was a runner. Of the many fascinating details that come to life in Samantha Seiple’s new book, “Louisa on the Front Lines,” this one is particularly telling. Just think about it. More than 100 years before running became a popular sport, Alcott ran for the sheer joy of it, faster than all the boys in her village — and presumably in leather shoes and long, heavy skirts. It is a revealing insight that lets us know there is nothing old-fashioned about the author of “Little Women.” Alcott was way ahead of her time.
Somewhat fittingly, “Louisa on the Front Lines” isn’t a traditional biography, checking the boxes of the events and dates, although it does cover much of her life. Instead it focuses primarily on the pivotal six weeks when Alcott worked as a nurse in Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, an experience that sparked her literary coming of age. Seiple paints a compelling picture of the upbringing and personal traits that drew Alcott to volunteer and the tremendous impact her experience as a nurse had on her later life and work. In a larger sense, it is the story of a woman finding her voice in a society that offered women very constrained and narrow roles.
The first chapters fill in the backstory to Alcott’s fateful decision — as she would later describe it — to go to war. Despite constantly living on the edge of poverty, Lu (as Alcott was commonly known) crossed paths with some of the most famous literary and philosophical figures of her day. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was an important Transcendentalist thinker and educator whose strict moral principles were easier to admire from afar than to actually live with. He would not accept wages, only donations, and founded a vegan utopian commune called Fruitlands that failed miserably after six months. When the family’s financial straits became so dire that Lu considered selling her beautiful long hair, Ralph Waldo Emerson stepped in to give the family a loan. Nathaniel Hawthorne was their neighbor, and Harriet Tubman used their house as a station on the Underground Railroad. Surrounded by people who were changing the world, when war finally came, Alcott was desperate to do more than make bandages.
Using her connections to Dorothea Dix, a family friend and prominent 19th-century reformer, she managed to secure a position as a nurse. As odd as it sounds today, at the beginning of the Civil War the very idea of a female nurse was considered shocking and utterly inappropriate. Even when the Union Army began the controversial practice of hiring women as nurses, they were paid less than men and were required to be, among other things, at least 30 years of age and plain looking. Actual nursing experience was not required, although given the limited medical knowledge of the day, empathy was often the best treatment available. Sadly, that too was often in short supply.
Seeing the conflict through Lu’s eyes gives it an immediacy that sweeps you up so completely, you sometimes forget who won the war. At one point, Seiple briefly switches from Alcott’s story to that of John Suhre, a courageous young soldier from Pennsylvania, transporting the reader onto the chaotic battlefield of Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s ill-fated Fredericksburg campaign. So when a fresh batch of casualties arrives at Union Hotel Hospital in December 1862, you know how much they have been through. Alcott’s concern for her patients is palpable, as is her dismay at the corruption and the wretched conditions the wounded and dying endured. While she strove to present a brave face in her letters home to her family, her journal entries are heartbreaking. Have a box of tissues handy.
The second half of the book follows Alcott’s growing success as an author, allowing her for the first time to fully support her family with her earnings. A terrible illness cut short her time at the hospital and sent her home before the end of war. While recovering she wrote “Hospital Sketches,” which was a hit with a public desperate for news from the front. This marked the start of her success as an author. She eventually won over the editor of the Atlantic, who had previously dismissed her writing and suggested she stick to teaching. He published her poem “Thoreau’s Flute” and was so impressed with “Hospital Sketches” that he commissioned an original story. More books followed, including a story “for girls” that she wrote at her publisher’s request. Later she traveled to Switzerland as the companion of an invalid, where she perhaps had a love affair.
Toward the very end Seiple seems to run out of steam, repeating several points almost verbatim and dropping hints that the future is bleak for Alcott. Suddenly the book jumps ahead 10 years with a brief chapter on Alcott’s commitment to women’s suffrage, and then that’s all, the story is done. It’s almost as if a chapter has been accidentally left out or Seiple ran up against a hard deadline or page limit. But given that the text takes up less than 200 pages, it’s hard to make sense of the abrupt stop. It’s like eating a delicious meal at a restaurant but having to leave before your dessert has arrived. No doubt many readers will turn to Google to find out what finally happened to Alcott, filling in the rest of her story.
Even though it ends too soon, “Louisa on the Front Lines” is a rich, enlightening tale. Seiple wisely lets her subject narrate as often as possible, and Alcott’s voice shines through in her fresh, clean prose. Drawing from multiple letters, diaries and other sources, many of them previously unmined, the portrait that comes through is of a fearless, hardworking, fun young woman devoted to her family and friends and unafraid to challenge conventions. In our similar age of great social and political division, “Louisa on the Front Lines” is an inspirational story about perseverance and commitment to ideals. If she were alive today we would run her for Congress.
By Samantha Seiple
243 pp. $27