Q & A with Louisa May Alcott, 1872
Alcott, Louisa May (1832 – 1888). A printed questionnaire excised from an edition of Mental Photographs, completed in full by hand. Signed and dated October 1872. One page trimmed to about 6 x 8½ in. Mounted on an album page, about 8½ x 10½ in. Ink slightly faded but still easily legible.
Louisa May Alcott was enjoying her newfound fame as the author of Little Women and other successful books for young adults when she completed this questionnaire in October 1872. In the absence of any earlier published dialogues, this form might be counted as her first interview. And though her responses are terse, they are revealing, touching on both women's rights and her gender identity.
George Kendall Warren, Louisa May Alcott, circa 1870. Library of Congress
Printed in orange, the form presents 23 questions ranging from “What is your favorite color?” to “What is the sublimest passion of which human nature is capable?” (a question this cataloguer remembers coming up regularly in Teen Vogue quizzes). It is excised from an edition of Robert Saxton's Mental Photographs, published first in 1869. The book came in two editions. The "Imperial edition" featured 40 questions arrayed across two pages. The "Carte-de-visite edition" presented 23 questions per page. The publisher noted that the latter edition "will be generally preferred by those to whom the Album is a comparative novelty."
Mental Photographs afforded much amusement in the day. "Nothing could induce me to fill those blanks but the asservation of these gentlemen [the publishers] that it will benefit my race by enabling young people to see what I am and giving them an opportunity to become like someone else," joked Mark Twain in his review of the album. "I have but little character, but what I have I am willing to part with for the public good" (Clemens, 148). The critic Edmund Clarence Stedman used his copy as a sort of autograph album for his distinguished literary friends, including Bayard Taylor, Richard Henry Stoddard Mary Mapes Dodge, Louise Chandler Moulton, Kate Fields, and others who took advantage of the medium to display their wit and occasionally reveal their souls (see Stoddard).
An edition of Robert Saxton's Mental Photographs. Library of Congress.
As Peter Vernier has amply demonstrated, the brief responses to this questionnaire may be richly revealing. An album whose only interesting entry was one by Oscar Wilde fetched £23,000 at Christie's in 1997. Vernier's careful analysis of Wilde's mental photograph, propounded over two essays, finds in his responses a candid portrait in petto, his mind suspended between Ruskin and Pater and inclined towards the impulses that would ultimately prove to be his undoing.
Similarly, Alcott's entries on this brief questionnaire might be mined for what they reveal about her state of mind during a critical period for which there are limited primary resources. Alcott was at a crossroads when she sat for her mental photograph. Between 1863 and 1872 she wrote over 30 gothic thrillers that Madeline B. Stern has heralded as staunchly feminist works, featuring strong women who wielded considerable power. But it was the novels she wrote for young adults -- Little Women (1868) and Little Men (1871) -- that brought her wealth and fame. In June 1872, she celebrated her achievement. "Twenty years ago I resolved to make the family independent if I could," she wrote in her journal. "At forty that is done" (Alcott & Cheney, 262). Now came the question of which way she would turn.
In November 1872, just a few weeks after she completed this questionnaire, Roberts Brothers would publish the first volume of what would be a long series of stories for children, Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag. That same month, Alcott dusted off an old manuscript that after considerable rewriting she would publish in 1873 as Work: a story of experience. As she indicated to activist Lucy Stone, Alcott thought of this roman-à-clef as an argument for the women's rights in the labor market. But soon she would shift her writing away from overtly feminist fictions to focus on the stories for young readers that made her a household name.
At first glance, Alcott's mental photograph appears to be a lighthearted exercise executed with grace and good humor. Favorite color? Lavender. Favorite hour of the day? Tea time. Favorite occupation? Reading novels. Alcott's mental photograph demonstrates her comfort with contradiction. Her favorite literary character (the slovenly Sairey Gamp) and her favorite figure from history (the exquisitely refined Marie Antoinette) could not be more completely at odds. The sweetest word in the world, she writes, is “Mamma” -- the answer one might expect from a writer in the process of becoming "the Youth's Companion." But probing deeper reveals some troubled currents. Her idea of happiness? “A novel, a sofa, & a baby.” Alcott would never bear a child of her own. Her idea of misery? “A small pantry.” Alcott had known want.
Alcott signed this statement advocating equal rights for women shortly before completing this questionnaire. American Antiquarian Society.
To the question of “What are the saddest words in the world?” Alcott responded, “No tickets to be had for Women's benefit.” The term "ticket" here refers to a printed election ballot. The matter of women's suffrage was fresh in Alcott's mind. On September 25, 1872, she joined Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Beecher Stowe and others in signing a broadside Address of the Republican Women of Massachusetts calling for equal rights and the franchise. Stern notes that Alcott would continue to support women's rights, but increasingly after 1872 she did so from the sidelines instead of center stage. Her response also offers a clue as to the origins of her mental photograph. The odd syntax of “No tickets to be had for Women's benefit" surely would seem elliptical to anyone unfamiliar with Alcott's reformist sympathies. This suggests that the form was completed not for a fan but for someone with intimate knowledge of her life at the time, and perhaps for the idle amusement of the author herself.
Particularly interesting in the light of scholarly discussion of Alcott’s gender identity (see Rutkowski for a very recent example) is the tension expressed here between a strong maternal instinct on the one hand, and on the other, an unambiguously masculine sense of self. In reply to the question, “If not yourself, who would you rather be?” Alcott writes, “A Freshman.” A tantalizing response indeed. In addition to offering further evidence for her transitive move across gender, this opens up other questions. Was she ruing also the fact that the family's poverty had limited her formal education? What was her model for the life of a freshman? Collegians she had met, or the lively young men of the novels of "Cuthbert Bede" and his contemporaries? On this form she names Thackeray as one of her favorite novelists. Did she fantasize about what her life would have been like if she were Arthur Pendennis? At any rate, her answer here predates by over ten years the interview where Alcott revealed that “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body” (Moulton, 49).
A fascinating document, poignant, revealing, provocative, and worthy of further study.
Alcott, Louisa May and Ednah D. Cheney. Louisa May Alcott: her life, letters, and journals. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1889
Child, Lydia Maria, et al. Address of the Republican Women of Massachusetts. To the Women of America. Boston: [s.l.], 1872.
Clemens, Samuel L. Mental Photographs. Mark Twain's sketches: selected and revised by the author (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1872), 148-50.
Moulton, Louise Chandler, Louisa May Alcott, in Our Famous Women: An authorized record of the lives and deeds of distinguished American women of our times (Hartford, CT: A. D. Worthington & Co., 1884), 29-52
Rutkowski, Alice. “Louisa May Alcott’s “Enigmas”: Trans Feeling in the Nineteenth Century,” Women's Studies, 52/1 (2023): 79-103, DOI: 10.1080/00497878.2022.2127099
Saxton, Robert. Mental photographs; an album for confessions of tastes, habits, and convictions. New York: Leypoldt & Holt, 1869
Stedman, Laura. Confessions of an album. The Bookman 37 (1913) 126-32, 264-69.
Stern, Madeline B. Introduction, The feminist Alcott: stories of a woman's power (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), vii-xxiii
Vernier, Peter. A mental photograph of Oscar Wilde, The Wildean, No. 13 (July 1998), 28-51
-----. Oscar's mental photograph revisited, The Wildean, No. 15 (July 1999), 34-45
Bodley Book Shop. Catalogue 102 (1948), item 539 ; Otto Orren Fisher collection.