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Sacramental Shopping: Little Women and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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Although Critics Have frequently observed that Louisa May Alcott's enormously popular Little Women (1868) is a novel of education, they have not addressed just how much this is a consumer education. This essay tackles the question by placing the novel at the intersection of Victorian religious and consumer cultures. It argues that Little Women engages the emerging “spirit of modern consumerism” through traditional moral discourse, particularly Protestantism and its romantic/sentimental descendants. For not only does the book trace its young heroines' progress toward “little womanhood,” but it sets many of their ethical challenges in a Victorian “Vanity Fair.” And, much as in Bunyan's original Pilgrim's Progress, those challenges are often temptations to idolatrous materialism. In the Protestant imagination, such idolatry found crucial expression in the Roman Catholic interpretation of the sacraments. For the Protestant, the communion bread and wine were merely symbols of divine grace, a grace that only God could confer. For the Catholic, they were the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ Himself, and therefore possessed salvific power. In Little Women, this anxiety about the proper interpretation of the sacraments becomes anxiety about the proper use of material objects and the qualities they signify. Here the Catholic's belief that the consecrated host could confer grace and transform the spirit threatens Protestant integrity in a new guise, as the modern consumer's faith that fashionable goods can construct identity and deliver happiness.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2001

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1. Urdang, Laurence, ed. The Random House College Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1972), 1159Google Scholar. A short, conference version of this essay was published earlier as “Sacramental Shopping: Little Women and Consumer Culture,” in Consuming for Pleasure: Selected Essays on Popular Fiction, ed. Hallam, Julia and Moody, Nickianne (Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool John Moores University, 2000), 3243Google Scholar. My thanks to my colleague Rachel Trubowitz for her encouraging interest in that essay and its subject.

2. Baudrillard, Jean, The Consumer Society, Myths and Structures (1970; rept. London: Sage, 1998), 3Google Scholar.

3. Alcott, Louisa May, Little Women (1868–1869; rept. New York: Modern Library, 1983)Google Scholar. Further references to this text are noted parenthetically. Mott, Frank Luther's The Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1947)Google Scholar included Little Women among its “Over-All Best Sellers in the United States”; the book had then sold two million copies. Now, fifty years later, the 1999 Books in Print lists forty-four editions of Little Women available in the United States. The novel appears to have been particularly influential with budding women writers. Cynthia Ozick, for example, claims to have read Little Women “a thousand, ten thousand times” (The Making of a Writer,” New York Times Book Review, 01 31, 1982, 24Google Scholar). Some important critical studies include Madelon Bedell, introduction to Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (New York: Modern Library, 1983); Bernstein, Susan Naomi, “Writing and Little Women: Alcott's Rhetoric of Subversion,” American Transcendentalist Quarterly 7 (1993): 2543Google Scholar; Fetterley, Judith, “Little Women: Alcott's Civil War,” Feminist Studies 5 (1979): 369–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Halttunen, Karen, “The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott,” Feminist Studies 10 (1984): 233–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Murphy, Ann B., “The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in Little Women,” Signs 15 (1990): 562–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Showalter, Elaine, “Little Women: The American Female Myth,” in Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Elizabeth Young, “A Wound of One's Own: Louisa May Alcott's Civil War Fiction.” See also Stern, Madeleine B., ed., Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984)Google Scholar; and Alberghene, Janice M., Clark, Beverly L., and Zipes, Jack, eds., Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays (New York: Garland, 1999)Google Scholar. Important biographical studies include Bedell, Madelon, The Alcotts: Biography of a Family (New York: Potter, 1980)Google Scholar; and Elbert, Sarah, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott's Place in American Culture (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987)Google Scholar.

4. I take the term “the spirit of modern consumerism” from Campbell, Colin's The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Cambridge, Mass.:Basil Blackwell, 1987)Google Scholar, a valuable study that has helped me to frame my analysis. Campbell's work, of course, builds upon Weber, Max's classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Parsons, Talcott (New York: Scribner, 1958)Google Scholar, as does my own. Merish, Lori's Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000)Google Scholar appeared after this essay was written. Although Merish's study does not deal with Alcott, its analysis of the cultural context in which Alcott wrote is important and wide-ranging.

5. Bunyan, John, The Pilgrim's Progress (1678; rept. New York: Signet, 1965)Google Scholar.

6. See McCracken, Grant, “The Evocative Power of Things: Consumer Goods and the Preservation of Hopes and Ideals,” in Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 104–17Google Scholar.

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8. On gift exchange and the psychological symbolism of gifts, see Hyde, Lewis, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage, 1979), passimGoogle Scholar.

9. Bunyan, 's Pilgrim's Progress played a particularly intense role in Alcott family lifeGoogle Scholar. As an adult, A. Bronson Alcott recalled his childhood discovery of Bunyan's allegory: “That book was incorporated into the very substance of my youthful being. I thought and spoke through it” (Journals, ed. Shepherd, Odell, 111Google Scholar; quoted in Bedell, , The Alcotts, 11Google Scholar). Louisa May Alcott's biographer Sarah Elbert also describes how Bronson and Abby, like the fictional March parents, had their daughters diagram Bunyan's plot and act out their own dramatizations as a form of moral instruction (Hunger for Home, 34Google Scholar).

10. Bedell, introduction, xvi. Although Bedell does not explore her insight in depth, she does note that “this is a book about things and the potent sense of life and individuality they impart to their possessors” [Elbert's emphasis]. Of this opening Christmas scene she also writes, “There is nothing religious, nothing spiritual about all this. We are at the beginning of the age of consumption. The secular Christmas has arrived” (xvi). In Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott (University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1985)Google Scholar, Charles Strickland also comments that, while Alcott had some reservations about the “sentimental family model,” from her “vantage point, the real warfare within Victorian domesticity was not between women and the family, but rather between the family of fashion and other forms of family life that would square with the aspirations of… women like Alcott” (101).

11. For a rich discussion of the importance of color in the development of sophisticated marketing techniques, see Leach, William, “Strategists of Display and the Production of Desire,” in Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880–1920, ed. Bronner, Simon J. (New York: W W. Norton, 1989), 99132Google Scholar; and Leach, , The Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), esp. ch. 2, “Facades of Color, Glass, and Light,” 3970Google Scholar.

12. Brodhead, Richard, “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” in Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 1347Google Scholar. See also Broadhead's valuable study of Alcott's development as a professional writer: “Starting Out in the 1860s: Alcott, Authorship, and the Postbellum Literary Field,” in Cultures of Letters, 69106Google Scholar.

13. For discussions of the Alcotts' child-rearing and pedagogical theories, see Strickland, , Victorian Domesticity, passimGoogle Scholar; Bedell, , The Alcotts, 52109Google Scholar; and Elbert, , Hunger for Home, 2139Google Scholar. One of the most important contemporary texts on child rearing and moral development was by Bushnell, Horace, a leading liberal theologian: “Discourses on Christian Nurture” (1847), found in Views on Christian Nurture and of Subjects Adjacent Thereto (1847; rept. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1975), 1121Google Scholar. For a discussion of “Christian Nurture” and sentimentalism in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe and other 19th-century popular women writers, see Douglas, Ann, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977)Google Scholar.

14. See Edwards, Jonathan, A Treatise on the Religious Affections (1746)Google Scholar, excerpted in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, with introduction, bibliography, and notes by Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson, rev. ed. (1935; rept. New York: Hill and Wang, 1962). His discussion of grace as “consent to being in general” may be found in The Nature of True Virtue, with a foreword by Frankena, William K. (1765; rept. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1960)Google Scholar.

15. For a discussion of this “feminized religion” and its emphasis on emotional attachments and loss, see Ann, Douglas, The Feminization of American CultureGoogle Scholar. There is a great deal of feminist scholarship on the association of the feminine with the body and with nature. See, for example, Bordo, Susan's Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), especially the opening chapter (142)Google Scholar.

16. Alcott, Louisa May, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” first published in The Independent (1873)Google Scholar. This text is now widely available in anthologies, including Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers, ed. Kilcup, Karen (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997), 247–56Google Scholar. For the history of the Fruitlands experiment and its failure, see Elbert, , Hunger for Home, 5677Google Scholar; Bedell, , The Alcotts, 206–31Google Scholar; and Sears, Clara Endicott, Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915)Google Scholar. For discussion of the cultural critique embedded in Louisa's satire, see Petrulionis, Sandra Harbert, “By the Light of Her Mother's Lamp: Woman's Work versus Man's Philosophy in Louisa May Alcott's ‘Transcendental Wild Oats’,” Studies in the American Renaissance (1995): 6981Google Scholar.

17. This incident is described in fictionalized form in “Transcendentalist Wild Oats,” and discussed in Bedell, , The Alcotts, 217–31Google Scholar. The near breakup of the family is also mentioned in the journals Louisa kept during her time at Fruitlands and reprinted in The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, ed. Myerson, Joel and Shealy, DanielGoogle Scholar; Madeleine B. Stern, assoc. ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 43—53. Bronson Alcott's ideas on the family as the unit of moral and social development may be found in Amos Bronson Alcott, Manuscript Journal, 1 August 1857, Houghton Library; quoted in Bedell, introduction, xxix-xxx.

18. The Alcott family was involved at various times, not only with dress reform, but also with dietary reform. The family was staunchly vegetarian and followed various other dietary regimens designed to purify the body and align it with the spirit. See Bedell, 's discussion of the reform ideas behind Fruitlands (The Alcotts, 206–31Google Scholar).

19. Auerbach, Nina, Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 55CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Auerbach, , afterword to Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (Toronto: Bantam, 1983)Google Scholar.

20. Campbell, , Romantic Ethic, ch. 4Google Scholar, “Traditional and Modern Hedonism,” 58–76, and ch. 5, “Modern Autonomous Imaginative Hedonism,” 77–95.

21. Campbell develops this argument throughout his intricate study, but these key points are summarized in chapter 9, “The Romantic Ethic,” 173–201, and chapter 10, “Conclusion,” 202–27. See also his discussion of the gothic novel's contribution to the development of modern consumerism (175–77).

22. Halttunen, Karen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982)Google Scholar.

23. Cotton, John, “Swine and Goats” and “Hypocrites and Saints,” in The New Covenant (London, 1654)Google Scholar, excerpted in The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writing, rev. ed., ed. Miller, Perry and Johnson, Thomas H. (1938; rept. New York: Harper and Row, 1963): 1: 314–15, 316–18Google Scholar.

24. Weber, Max, Protestant Ethic, passimGoogle Scholar. For more on the “Protestant ethic” as it was manifested in 19th-century United States society, see Shi, David E., The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)Google Scholar; and Horowitz, Daniel, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875–1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), esp. ch. 1, “Consumption in Antebellum Life and Thought” (112)Google Scholar.

25. For discussion of 19th-century anxieties among United States Protestants concerning Roman Catholicism and idolatry, see Franchot, Jenny, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), passimGoogle Scholar; and McDannell, Colleen, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840–1900 (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1986), esp. ch. 1Google Scholar, “Church, Home, and Society,” 1–15. According to McDannell, “At first glance anti-Catholic sentiments seem to have little to do with domestic religion. However, theologians who spoke for the spiritual importance of the Protestant family also promoted the creation of a pure ‘American’ nation. Horace Bushnell, noted for his support of Christian nurture, explained in 1847 that ‘our first danger is barbarism [the influx of foreigners], Romanism is next’” (14). See also Billington, Ray, The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study in the Origins of American Nativism (New York: Macmillan, 1938)Google Scholar.

26. Mechling, Jay, “The Collecting Self and American Youth Movements,” in Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880–1920, ed. Bronner, Simon (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 255–85Google Scholar; and Douglas, Mary and Isherwood, Baron, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979)Google Scholar.

27. The dominance of French culture over fashionable Americans was a commonplace of 19th-century writers. In his classic study, American and French Culture, 1750–1848 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1927)Google Scholar, Howard Mumford Jones writes, “Dresses, hats, bonnets, vests, perfumes, soaps — these articles are in or out of fashion as Paris dictates…. [American] society is following, often at second and third hand, the modes of a Gallic aristocracy. Is it not remarkable that the greatest political experiment of the nineteenth century should have yielded so abjectly to the universal domination of the French milliner and the French dress-maker?” He concludes that “all this frivolity, these laces and man-tuas, these light pleasures and social forms have helped to fix in the American consciousness the conception that a Frenchman is a frivolous creature, vain, fickle, changeable, full of politeness and empty of meaning, of exquisite courtesy and irritating insincerity — a conception as potent in the 1820's as it is in the 1890's” (290). For more on French fashion and its role in 19th-century consumer culture, see Steel, Valerie, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

28. Thoreau, 's fullest critique of consumer culture is “Economy,” the opening chapter of Walden, 1854Google Scholar; reprinted in The Portable Thoreau, ed. Bode, Carl (New York: Penguin, 1975), 258333Google Scholar. There he writes that “even in our democratic New England towns the accidental possession of wealth, and its manifestation in dress and equipage alone, obtain for the possessor almost universal respect. But they who yield such respect, numerous as they are, are so far heathen, and need to have a missionary sent to them” (278). A few pages later, he complains: “We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion” (280). For background on Thoreau's friendship with Bronson Alcott and his considerable influence on Louisa, see Bedell, , The Alcotts, 262–66Google Scholar; and Elbert, , Hunger for Home, 8889, 124, 150–51Google Scholar.

29. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet” (1844), in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Whicher, Stephen E. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 223Google Scholar.

30. Thoreau, “Economy,” 279.

31. Mrs. March here seems, as Thoreau had advised, to take account only of the umbrella's functionality and to have disregarded its socially constructed signifying powers. To use terms from Marxist analysis, she refuses to treat the umbrella as a commodity fetish or to recognize its “supplemental” value, but views it solely in its term of its use-value.

32. There is, of course, a large literature on the “fashion system” and its operations. Some key works include Barthes, Roland, The Fashion System, trans. Ward, Matthew and Howard, Richard (1967; English language translation, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Hollander, Anne, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)Google Scholar; Wilson, Elizabeth, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Davis, Fred, Fashion, Identity and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Craik, Jennifer, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (New York: Routledge, 1994)Google Scholar; and Breward, Christopher, The Culture of Fashion: A New History of Fashionable Dress (New York: Manchester University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

33. McCracken, Grant, “Diderot Unities and the Diderot Effect,” in Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 118–29Google Scholar. In Consumer Culture (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996)Google Scholar, Celia Lury finds a helpful approach to this phenomenon in Marshall Sahlins's work, which uses the anthropological concept of totemism to analyze how material objects function as a “symbolic code by which its wearers communicate their membership of [sic] social groups” (16). See Sahlins, Marshall, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976)Google Scholar.

34. For a discussion of anxieties about changes in fashion during this period, see Breward, Christopher, “Nineteenth Century: Fashion and Modernity,” chapter 5 in Culture of Fashion, 145–79Google Scholar. For example, Lynton, Elizabeth Lynn writes in the English The Saturday Review (03 14, 1868)Google Scholar, the same year that Little Women appeared, “All men whose opinion is worth having, prefer the simple and genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesties, to this loud and rampant modernization” (Breward, “Nineteenth Century,” 148). Breward locates the advent of this modernization in the late 1850s with the introduction of aniline dyes and steel-framed crinolines, which encouraged flamboyant colors, padding, and “scant cutting.” Significantly, he titles this section of his history “From Madonna to Magdalene: Fashion Change and Femininity, c. 1830–90.” In “Sentimental Culture and the Problem of Fashion,” chapter 3 of Confidence Men and Painted Women (5691)Google Scholar, Karen Halttunen also documents an emphasis during the 1840s and early 1850s on “sincere” and “sentimental” dress, a style that lost favor with a more skeptical and urbane public by the late 1860s. Significantly, while Alcott identifies the Marches' old-fashioned tastes as properly American, Elizabeth Lynton also laments that “all we can do is to wait patiently until the national madness has passed, and our women have gone back again to the English ideal, once the most beautiful, the most modest, the most essentially womanly in the world” (quoted in Breward, “Nineteenth Century,” 148).

35. The Alcott family had strong opinions on dress reform. The Fruitlands experiment included a doctrine that community members wear loose-fitting, functional garments made of linen. The clothing thus stressed its use-value and avoided both cotton (which exploited slaves) and wool (which exploited sheep). In her 1874 novel Eight Cousins, or The Aunt-Hill (rept. Boston: Little, Brown, 1927)Google Scholar, Alcott includes a chapter entitled “Fashion and Physiology,” in which the young heroine is persuaded to give up her corsets and fashionable dresses for more functional, “healthful” clothing provided by her kindly uncle, a progressive medical doctor, who also instructs her on human anatomy and physiology, to the consternation of her conservative aunts. The doll references in the “Vanity Fair” scenes are also significant, since dolls in miniature dresses were often used by contemporary seamstresses to display fashionable designs. For a fascinating discussion of the role of the mannequin in the history of consumer culture, see Culver, Stuart, “What Manikins Want: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows,” Representations 21 (Winter 1988): 97116CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36. Criticism of the aristocratic European arranged marriage was another commonplace of 19th-century American fiction, along with anxiety about wealthy or status-conscious Americans emulating the practice. One of the most sophisticated treatments is found in James, Henry's The Portrait of a Lady (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1882)Google Scholar, in which an ambitious American, Gilbert Osmond, attempts to coerce his daughter into marrying an English nobleman (and, not coincidentally, shuts her up in a Roman Catholic convent when she resists).

37. Goffman, Erving, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1959)Google Scholar.

38. The association of the Quaker plain style with resistance to fashionable consumer culture and antimaterialism is another cultural commonplace. In many ways, the Quaker may be seen as the quintessential Protestant as described by Weber in his classic study of how Protestants could combine “otherworldly asceticism” with shrewd business practices and the accumulation of capital. For a thorough cultural study of United States Puritan and Quaker cultures and their significance, see Baltzell, E. Digby, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership (New York: Macmillan, 1979)Google Scholar.

39. The title of this chapter again draws from Bunyan, 's Pilgrim's ProgressGoogle Scholar.

40. According to Mechling, Jay, Douglas, Mary in The World of GoodsGoogle Scholar “treats consumption as normal discourse with objects. One of the characteristics of the healthy use of goods, in other words, is that the person in the person-goods system is able to distinguish between the ‘map’ that is the goods and the ‘territory’ that is the pattern of social relations. In the healthy system of goods, as in play, the map and the territory are both equated and discriminated…. In contrast to this normal, healthy use of objects in discourse, [Mechling] reserves the word materialism to describe the pathological system in which a person is no longer able to distinguish between the map and the territory; that is, a person is no longer able to distinguish between the literal and the figurative use of goods in communicating with others” (“Collecting Self,” 281, Mechling's emphases).

41. Although Alcott's narrator is respectful toward the German immigrants, the Hummels, her tone toward these Irish children is dismissive. This attitude is even more apparent in Alcott, 's Work: A Story of Experience (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1873)Google Scholar. While the novel is noteworthy for its feminism and its appreciative treatment of working-class women and African Americans, the narrator describes some poor working women as being as “unfit” for voting rights as “any ignorant Patrick bribed with a dollar and a sip of whiskey” (331). When the respectable “Mrs. Sterling” asks if the heroine Christie likes housework, she replies, “Oh, yes! If I need not do it with a shiftless Irish girl to drive me distracted by pretending to help” (172). While common 19th-century Protestant stereotypes associated French Roman Catholics with aristocratic social systems, insincere manners, and fashionable materialism, comparable stereotypes associated Irish Catholics with slavish obedience to the Pope, uncouth manners, and intractable ignorance. The supposed moral inferiority of the Irish was based on their primitive idolatry and lack of self-awareness. Recent analysis reveals an association in the 19th-century United States between Irish stereotypes and similar stereotypes of African-American “primitivism” (see Ignatiev, Noel, How the Irish Became White [New York: Routledge, 1995]Google Scholar). Such attitudes are clearly displayed in Thoreau's treatment of the Irish in the “Baker Farm” chapter of Walden (see Gleason, William, “Re-creating Walden: Thoreau's Economy of Work and Play,” American Literature 65 [1993]: 673701CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lojek, Helen, “Thoreau's Bog-People,” New England Quarterly 67 [1994]: 279–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Elbert, Monica, “Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Concord Freeman, and the Irish ‘Other’,” Eire-Ireland 29 [Fall 1994]: 6073CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

42. Alcott's emphasis on violet is not random. According to Christopher Breward, “The evolution of the synthetic dye industry … orientates itself around the specific discovery of aniline purple or mauve by the training chemist William Perkin during the Easter of 1856” (“Nineteenth Century,” 161). When Perkin sent a sample of his new violet pigment to Pullar's dye works, he received this reply: “If your discovery does not make the goods too expensive, it is decidedly one of the most valuable that has come out for a very long time, this colour is one that has been very much wanted in all classes of goods and could only be had on fast silks and only at great expense on cotton yarns. I enclose you a pattern of the best lilac we have in cotton, it is done by only one house in the United Kingdom … and they get any price they ask for it” (quoted in Fox, M. R., Dye Makers of Great Britain 1856–1976: A History of Chemists, Companies, Products and Changes [London, 1987], 95)Google Scholar. Significantly, Mrs. March's treasure chest contains a “violet colored” silk dress as a relic of the family's wealthier days. By the time Little Women was published, the new dyes had produced an explosion of pent-up demand. A. H. Taine describes the fashion's effect, which he associated with the period's entrepreneurial spirit: “The exaggeration of the dresses of the ladies or young girls belonging to the wealthy middle class is offensive … gowns of violet silk with dazzling reflections, or of starched tulle upon an expanse of petticoats stiff with embroidery … gloves of immaculate whiteness or bright violet, golden belts with golden clasps, gold chains, hair falling back over the nape in shining masses … the glare is terrible” (Notes on England 1860–1870, trans. Rae, W. F. [London, 1872], quoted in Breward, , “Nineteenth Century,” 163Google Scholar).

43. In this achievement, Amy fits Colin Campbell's description of hedonistic bohemians in search of pleasure and self-expression not only through actual consumption, but also through daydreaming and imaginative control of their experience and its meaning (Romantic Ethic, 76Google Scholar).

44. Madelon Bedell, introduction, xiv.

45. See Campbell, , Romantic Ethic (202–3)Google Scholar, for a discussion of the relationship between modern conceptions of romantic love and consumer culture.

46. In “Economy,” Thoreau writes, “Let him who has work to do recall that the object of clothing is, first, to retain the vital heat, and secondly, in this state of society, to cover nakedness, and he may judge how much of any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding to his wardrobe” (276).

47. In Hidden Hands: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1790–1870 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985)Google Scholar, the editors Lucy M. Friebert and Barbara A. White write that “in terms of overall sales, E. D. E. N. South-worth may have been the most popular novelist of nineteenth-century America” (68). She produced “from fifty to sixty novels, the exact number being difficult to fix because of the many title changes from serial to book. Her work remained popular into the twentieth century; in 1936 over half of her novels were still in print” (68). Some of these titles include The Curse of Clifton (serialized in 1852, published 1853) and Ishmael, or In the Depths (1876). Her most popular novel was perhaps The Hidden Hand (1859), which, with its plucky heroine Capitola, inspired over thirty dramatizations and was originally serialized in the New York Ledger, one prototype for Alcott's Weekly Volcano. For discussions of Southworth and other “sensational” women writers of the time, see Baym, Nina's classic Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820–1870 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978)Google Scholar; and Reynolds, David S., Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (New York: Knopf, 1988)Google Scholar.

48. The autobiographical source for this incident was Alcott's own story, “Pauline's Passion and Punishment,” which initiated her career as a writer of popular sensation stories by winning a $100 prize and anonymous publication in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (January 3 and 10, 1863).

49. The discovery of Alcott's thrillers, published between 1863 and 1870, was made by Rostenberg, Leona, who announced it in “Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott,” in Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America (10 1943)Google Scholar. They included stories appearing under the A. M. Barnard pseudonym in the Boston journal The Flag of Our Union and anonymously for a series of periodicals published by Frank Leslie in New York, including Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Frank Leslie's Chimney Corner, and Frank Leslie's Lady's Magazine. Much of the detective work on these texts was done by Alcott's biographer, Madeleine B. Stern, who has now collected them in one volume: Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers, edited, with an introduction, by Stern, Madeleine (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995)Google Scholar. Some titles include “A Whisper in the Dark,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 6 and 13, 1863; “A Marble Woman: or, The Mysterious Model,” The Flag of Our Union, 05 20 and 27 and 06 3 and 10, 1865Google Scholar; “Behind a Mask: or, a Woman's Power,” The Flag of Our Union, 10 13, 20, and 27, and 11 3, 1866Google Scholar; and “Perilous Play,” Frank Leslie's Chimney Corner, 02 13, 1869Google Scholar. According to Stern, “after the success of Little Women was assured, [Alcott] all but abandoned the secret writing of sensational narratives. Once or twice, however, she returned to the genre, no longer because she needed the money but because she found in that so-called subliterature a psychological outlet and a professional satisfaction” (Louisa May Alcott Unmasked, xxiv). Leona Rostenberg's groundbreaking article, plus other pieces on Alcott's career, are collected in Stern, Madeleine, ed., Louisa May Alcott: From Blood & Thunder to Hearth & Home (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998)Google Scholar. There is now a wealth of critical studies on these texts. See, for example, Fetterley, Judith, “Impersonating ‘Little Women’: The Radicalism of Alcott's Behind A Mask,” Women's Studies 10 (1983): 114CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Elliott, Mary, “Outperforming Femininity: Public Conduct and Private Enterprise in Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask,” American Transcendentalist Quarterly 8 (12 1994): 279310Google Scholar; and Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox, Whispers in the Dark (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993)Google Scholar.

50. The model for Jo's novel in this chapter is Alcott's Moods, first published in 1864 by Boston's A. K. Loring and then again, in a revised edition, as Moods, A Novel by Roberts Brothers in 1882. Elbert, Sarah's new edition of the 1864 Moods (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991)Google Scholar includes an appendix of the 1882 revisions plus an excellent introduction describing the substantial changes, similar to those required of Jo, that Alcott made to meet Loring's demands. Elbert also places Moods within its larger biographical and literary context, including Alcott's previous sensational writing and her more radical, feminist thinking. While acknowledging that she “cherished the traditional role of woman,” Elbert also asserts that Alcott “regarded woman's rights as central to the larger cause” of reform: “Moods, in particular, revealed the contradictions between romantic love with its validation of companionate marriage and the nineteenth-century reality of troubled marriages burdened by female dependency and prescribed spousal role obligations…. A young author, Louisa May Alcott, innocently laid bare a common, but private, household grief. Her indiscretion troubled, even angered, critics, and certainly Moods violated her publishers' instincts for popular literature” (Elbert, introduction, xiv). Little Women, of course, avoided these indiscretions.

51. Carlyle, Thomas, Sartor Resartus, ed. McSweeney, Kerry and Sabor, Peter (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar.

52. According to Madeleine Stern, “In all the Alcott thrillers the themes are shocking indeed to readers who know Louisa Alcott only as the ‘Children's Friend.’ To enumerate them briefly, we find … manipulative heroines and mind control, madness, child-brides and a hint at incest, hashish experimentation and opium addiction. Especially we find the manipulating heroine whose feminist fury is launched, usually with success, against an antifeminist world” (“Five Letters That Changed an Image,” in Stern, , From Blood and Thunder, 88Google Scholar).

53. Louisa also seemed to believe that German men were more domestic and emotional, more “feminine” than American men. In Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (1873; rept. New York: Children's Classics, 1991)Google Scholar, she describes how “the good Professor opened his arms and embraced the boys like a true German, not ashamed to express by gesture or by word the fatherly emotions an American would have compressed into a slap on the shoulder and a brief ‘All right’” (142). In Jo, 's Boys, and How They Turned Out (1886; rept. Boston: Little, Brown, 1925)Google Scholar, she writes that “being German,” Professor Bhaer “loved these simple domestic festivals, and encouraged them with all his heart, for they made home so pleasant that the boys did not care to go elsewhere for fun” (192).

54. Part I of Little Women, which ends with Meg's engagement to John Brooke in the chapter “Aunt March Settles the Question,” was published by Roberts Brothers of Boston in late 1868. Part II, entitled, Good Wives, was published in the spring of 1869, also by Roberts Brothers. A decade later, the two halves, which had continued to be published separately, were combined into one, a format that still prevails in the United States.

55. Maslow, Abraham, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (ca. 1964; rept. New York: Penguin, 1976)Google Scholar.

56. See Campbell, , Romantic Ethic, ch. 1, “The Puzzle of Modern Consumerism,” 3657, and ch. 5Google Scholar, “Modern Autonomous Imaginative Hedonism,” 77–95. The latter opens with this epigraph (which Campbell attributes to George Bernard Shaw, although I have also heard it attributed to Oscar Wilde): “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to gain it.”

57. Dreiser, Theodore, Sister Carrie, University of Pennsylvania unexpurgated edition (1900; rept. New York: Penguin, 1981), 145Google Scholar.

58. Dreiser, , Sister Carrie, 116Google Scholar.

59. Dreiser, , Sister Carrie, 487Google Scholar. This passage ends the first 1900 Doubleday edition. However, the unexpurgated edition, from which this quotation is taken, ends with the character Hurstwood's suicide.

60. Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby (1925; rept. New York: Scribner, 1995), 169Google Scholar.

61. Fitzgerald, , Great Gatsby, 189Google Scholar.

62. Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem (1949; rept. New York: Penguin 1987), 138Google Scholar.

63. Alcott's novel arguably belongs within the framework of the “therapeutic ethos” described by Lears, T. J. Jackson's “From Salvation to Self-realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880–1930,” in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980, ed. Fox, Richard Wrightman and Lears, T. J. Jackson (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 338Google Scholar. Her overt resistance to modernity also aligns her with writers described in Lear, 's study, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, 1983)Google Scholar. For a discussion of Baudrillard's argument that modern consumer society no longer offers authenticity or substance, but merely the signs or the simulacra of them, see Baudrillard, Jean, Simulations (New York: Semiotex(e), 1983/1990)Google Scholar. For a related argument on the centrality of spectacle, see Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Nicholson-Smith, Donald (1967; English language translation, New York: Zone, 1994)Google Scholar.

64. Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, with illustrations by John Leech (London: Chapman and Hall, 1843)Google Scholar. For a discussion of Dickens and the “Carol Philosophy” of moral and social reform, see Davis, Paul, The Lives and Times and Ebenezer Scrooge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), esp. ch. 3Google Scholar, “The Founder of the Feast: A Christmas Carol as Secular Scripture,” 51–87.

65. Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852; rept. New York: Penguin, 1981)Google Scholar. To the question of “what can any individual do?” Stowe answers, “They can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encloses every human being, and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily, and justly on the real interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race” (624, Stowe's emphases).

66. According to Strickland, although Alcott did suggest, in a scheme similar to her fictional Plumfield, that respectable families take in poorer children (especially orphans), she herself gave only small amounts of money in charity outside her immediate family. “In the final analysis,” Strickland writes, Alcott was unable “to surmount in her sympathies the barrier between the worthy and the unworthy poor,” an inability she shared with most genteel people of the period, “who ignored the plight of the truly poor and who maintained that the path to human progress lay through the moral conversion of individuals.” In a “vague blend of nineteenth-century liberalism and Christian charity,” philanthropists like Alcott focused on eradicating saloons and brothels and “believed that a reformed family life, carefully insulated from the world outside it and dedicated to the proper rearing of the next generation, would not only enhance the status of women but would also provide the key to moral, cultural, and economic progress” (Victorian Domesticity, 156). For more on Alcott and social reform, see Strickland's chapter “The Family and the World: The Privatization of Utopia,” esp. 151–56.

67. Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Nice, Richard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984)Google Scholar.

68. According to Madelon Bedell, “There was just a touch of imperiousness in [Abby Alcott's] bearing, for she was not only a Boston May, but also a descendant of the great Sewall and Quincy families of Massachusetts and Maine, who had provided New England with judges, scholars, and social reformers since colonial times. In all these things, she was the direct opposite of Bronson” (The Alcotts, 3). Bronson came from a much more plebeian Connecticut farming family.

69. In The Christian Home in Victorian America, Colleen McDannell points out that, “at the same time that anti-Catholic sentiments raged, a new appreciation of ritual drama appeared among Protestants” (15). Thus, portraits of the Madonna were common in middle-class Protestant homes of this period, a phenomenon seemingly at odds with the association of Protestantism with Americanism. Another such “Catholic” behavior, of course, is March girls' periodic need to “confess” to their mother, who then absolves them of their “sins” and advises them on a course of expiation. McDannell also notes that, “by linking morality and religion with the purchase and maintenance of a Christian home, the Victorians legitimized acquisition and display of domestic goods” (50). See also Watters, David H., “‘A Power in the House’: Little Women and the Architecture of Individual Expression,” in Alberghene, et al. , Little Women and the Feminist Imagination, 185212Google Scholar.

70. The Carnival of Authors,” Boston Daily Advertiser, 01 3, 1879, 1Google Scholar; quoted in Myerson, and Shealy, , Journals, 220 n. 3Google Scholar.

71. Alcott, Louisa May, entry for 05 1868, in Myerson, and Shealy, , Journals, 165Google Scholar.

72. Alcott, Louisa May, letter to Thomas Niles, 07 15, 1884, quoted in Stern, , From Blood and Thunder, 232Google Scholar.

73. Alcott, , Jo's Boys, 357Google Scholar.

74. From an interview in Pickett, LaSalle Corbell, Across My Path: Memories of People I Have Known (New York: Brentano's, 1916), 107–8Google Scholar; quoted in Stern, , From Blood and Thunder, 192–93Google Scholar.

75. Virtually all of Alcott's biographers discuss these struggles, as well as Bronson Alcott's perception of his daughter as “other.” Madelon Bedell, for example, discusses Bronson Alcott's belief that the Anglo-Saxon race produced a superior, “angelic” type of human being for whom “blood is history.” According to his journals, “Intermarriage may modify but cannot blot out quite the fixed family type. In our case, it leaves to us the fair complexion, prominent features and slender form; while the intellectual disposition, though qualified by intermarriage perhaps, and social position, run still visibly in the family, especially the Puritanism and Protestantism of our ancestors” (Amos Bronson Alcott, Manuscript Journal, January 21, 1853, Houghton Library; quoted in Bedell, , The Alcotts, 316)Google Scholar. Louisa, with her brunette coloring and dark eyes, sometimes violent temper and volatile moods, impressed her father as a distinctly different type from his own “fair” and “angelic” Anglo-Saxon. He took this perception to an extreme in an 1846 journal entry describing Louisa May and Mrs. Alcott: “Two devils, as yet, I am not quite divine enough to vanquish — the mother fiend and her daughter” (Amos Bronson Alcott, Manuscript Journal, March 16, 1846, Houghton Library; quoted in Strickland, 29).

76. Baudrillard, , Consumer Society, 196Google Scholar.

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