Louisa May Alcott called Little Women some ‘rubbish’ she ‘scribbled.’ When she gave her manuscript to her publisher, she hoped for a meager advance to pay off her family’s debts. She didn’t get it.
She later brought Part two of Little Women to her publisher, again hoping for a small check. His reaction shocked her.
Some 60-odd years later, her neighbor Julian Hawthorne – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son – recounted the vivid tale of her visit to her publisher.
Louisa May Alcott didn’t want to write Little Women, but her publisher insisted. She was 35 years old and a spinster who wrote potboilers under the name A.M. Barnard to alleviate her family’s poverty.
The book only took a few months to write, but she had lost her health while nursing soldiers in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. She suffered headaches and rheumatism, probably the result of the mercury doctors used to treat her typhoid pneumonia she caught during the war.
She began Little Women in May 1868, when the Nathaniel Hawthornes lived next door to the Alcotts’ ramshackle house in Concord, Mass. Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in a big white frame house in the other direction. Louisa and her sisters grew up playing constantly with the Hawthorne and Emerson children.
When she finished the first part of Little Women, her family badly needed money. She was ready to sell the manuscript for $100.
Louisa took the train to Boston, wondering if she’d recoup the 60 cents she spent on fare. She took her manuscript to the publisher, who said he’d look at it when he got time. He couldn’t possibly give her cash, however. Fortunately for Louisa May Alcott, she had to accept royalties instead.
Louisa May Alcott returned home, convinced she’d never hear anything more about Little Women.
Part one of Little Women, published on Sept. 30, sold for $1.50.
Louisa May Alcott didn’t hear from her publisher. But she owed him the second volume of Little Women, so three months later she took another trip to Boston with a manuscript under her arm.
Julian Hawthorne, 13 years Louisa’s junior, had an adoring, younger brother attitude toward her. He was in his early 20s and living next door when Louisa took Part two to Boston. That evening he got a message to see the Alcotts, so he went over to their house to hear the story.
According to Louisa, she had the blues, and a word of encouragement wouldn’t have gone amiss. Nor would a small check.
She got off the train and made her way to the Washington Street entrance of Roberts Brothers, her publisher. A huge crowd blocked her way. Packing cases filled with books lined the sidewalk and men loaded books onto drays.
Clerks and stock boys filled the doorway; inside, chaos reigned.
Louisa thought creditors were seizing the publishing house for unpaid debts. Her manuscript, she thought, was probably lying in a rubbish heap in the back.
She forced her way to her publisher’s office. Her publisher, Thomas Niles, sat hunched over his desk cluttered with bills and books. “Like the Duke of Marlborough, he was riding the whirlwind and directing the storm; something tremendous was evidently going on,” wrote Hawthorne. “Having crossed her Rubicon, however, Louisa had the courage of desperation. “I’ve come to ask you –”
He waved her away. Louisa held her ground
The Liberating Tide
“He finished signing the check and looked up,” wrote Hawthorne. ““I told you to get out — .” He stopped, petrified as at a Gorgon. Then an exclamation burst from him.
“”My dear — dearest Miss Alcott! At such a juncture! You got my letter? No? No matter! Nothing to parallel it has occurred in my experience! All else put aside–street blocked — country aroused–overwhelmed — paralyzed! Uncle Tom’s Cabin backed off the stage! Two thousand more copies ordered this very day from Chicago alone! But that’s a fleabite — tens of thousands — why, dearest girl, it’s the triumph of the century!””
He was writing her a check the very moment she walked in. He told her to name her price and he’d give it to her in cash.
Louisa went home, triumphant, and told Julian Hawthorne and her family the story.
Hawthorne acknowledged that Louisa had exaggerated, but she did return home with her pockets bulging with cash.
“Hard times for the Alcott family were over forever,” he wrote. “We that evening saw the first flowing of the liberating tide.”
This story was updated in 2021.