How do archives collect girl authors? In this interview series, we welcome curators and archivists to share how their institutions collect and utilize materials by girls who were or became published authors in their youth. Today, we look at the papers of Louise May Alcott (1832-1888), best known as the author of Little Women. Special thanks to Christine Jacobson, Assistant Curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts at the Houghton Library of Harvard University.
What kinds of records do you keep relating to the author?
Houghton Library is home to correspondence, compositions, drawings, and diaries not only kept by Louisa May Alcott, but also the Alcott family. We are also the home of a large number of books kept by the family. For this reason, we have quite a lot of evidence of Louisa’s childhood. Amos Bronson Alcott, Alcott’s father, was very interested in the development and education of children, and kept extensive diaries about his children. There are letters in the collection from Amos to his children reminding them to be well-behaved, to practice their handwriting, and which include little drawings of things like the family cottage. Amos also encouraged his daughters to keep diaries from an early age and those that have not been lost or destroyed are in the collection, though Louisa’s existing diaries start around her 30s. As I’m not an Alcott scholar, I wouldn’t want to say definitively what influenced Alcott as a child, but she certainly grew up in a household that championed reading and writing, evinced in the family correspondence and the family library.
Do you have physical objects in the archives from the author?
The only thing I can think of is this letter from Amos to his children which was saved with a pencil. It is unclear whom the pencil belonged to. The Orchard House in Concord has more physical objects (such as Louisa’s sewing bag, labelled “sundries.”) Libraries are not often well-equipped to preserve objects–we do much better with paper! https://twitter.com/internetstine/status/1149051645512376327/photo/4
How are the records utilized? Do researchers use items for books/articles or for historical research for movies or tv shows?
We often teach classes on Alcott or on New England writers which make extensive use of the Alcott collection. The recent Greta Gerwig film hired a consultant who made use of our collections. You can read more about that here: https://www.finebooksmagazine.com/blog/books-movies-binding-little-women
What is your favourite object/document/record in the collections related to this author?
My favorite object is a letter from Alcott’s publisher, Thomas Niles at the Roberts Brothers firm in Boston, telling her how much he enjoyed the first draft of Little Women. He ends the letter saying
“What do you say to this for a title?
Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy
The story of their lives
Louisa May Alcott”
This letter is not digitized but here is a photo of it: https://twitter.com/internetstine/status/1149051645512376327/photo/3