Wednesday, January 13, 2010

When "Little Women" and "Little Men" Get Together, Hubba-Hubba

True first editions of Little Women and Little Men in the publisher's original cloth.

“I plod away, through I don't enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls, or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it... Sent twelve chapters to Mr. N [Thomas Niles, her editor at Roberts Brothers]. He thought it dull; so do I. But I work away and mean to try the experiment; for lively, simple books are very much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need.” - Journals of Louisa May Alcott, 1868.

Another day in Plodville, perhaps, for LMA but a great day in Rarebookadoon, the pastoral hamlet just down the road from Brigadoon that I call home, where classic literature grows on antiquarian trees and the ripe fruit falls onto the ground where chipper, eagerly awaiting printers rake, collect, and press the literary leaves into sheets that jolly craftspeople bind up into fine Levant morocco leather that happy goats were pleased to sacrifice:

I recently had a first edition, first issue set, in the original cloth, of Little Women, accompanied by a first of Little Men, pass through my hands. Little Women has become a notoriously rare book to find in its originally published state. And while Little People of America may take me to task for saying so, genuine Little Women and Little Men are not often found in each others' company.

Illustrations to Little Women by May Alcott, one of Louisa's sisters.
That Alcott was not crazy about these books is well-known; she really disliked writing juvenile literature. She preferred writing luridly sensational tales of murder, suicide, adultery, thugs, feminism, transvestitism – in short, pulp fiction - and stories such as Perilous Play (1869), published a year after Little Women, about a picnic amongst young adults that begins on a low point and ends on a high.

"’If someone does not propose a new and interesting amusement, I shall die of ennui!’ said pretty Belle Daventry, in a tone of despair. ‘I have read all my books, used up all my Berlin wools, and it's too warm to go to town for more. No one can go sailing yet, as the tide is out; we are all nearly tired to death of cards, croquet, and gossip, so what shall we do to while away this endless afternoon? Dr. Meredith, I command you to invent and propose a new game in five minutes.'

"’To hear is to obey,’ replied the young man, who lay in the grass at her feet, as he submissively slapped his forehead, and fell a-thinking with all his might.

"’Time is up now, Doctor,’ cried Belle, pocketing her watch with a flourish.

"’Ready to report,’ answered Meredith, sitting up and producing a little box of tortoiseshell and gold.

"’How mysterious! What is it? Let me see, first!’ And Belle removed the cover, looking like an inquisitive child. ‘Only bonbons; how stupid! That won't do, sir. We don't want to be fed with sugar-plums. We demand to be amused.’

"’Eat six of these despised bonbons, and you will be amused in a new, delicious, and wonderful manner,’ said the young doctor, laying half a dozen on a green leaf and offering them to her.
"’Why, what are they?’ she asked, looking at him askance.

"’Hashish; did you never hear of it?’"

Bong-bon-bons are consumed by all. A very interesting afternoon ensues. The story first appeared in Frank Leslie's Chimney Corner which , at the time, was billed as the "great family paper of America."

Suffice it to say, LMA did not publish the story under her own name. Whether she had first-hand experience with cannabis remains unclear; she may have simply been inspired by the Gunja Wallah Company‘s maple sugar hashish candy, a popular confection from the early 1860s through the late 19th century.

She revisited hashish in the anonymously published, A Modern Mephistophes (1877), wherein she provides a much fuller expression of the effects of hashish, which is used by one of the main characters, Jasper Helwyse (an opium addict wise, apparently, in the ways of hell), to seduce Gladys, the young wife of a colleague.

“’Try my sleep-compeller....these will give you one, if not all three desired blessings—quiet slumber, delicious dreams, or utter oblivion for a time....’”

Soon, Gladys displayed "shining eyes, cheeks that glowed with a deeper rose each hour, and an indescribably blest expression in a face which now was both brilliant and dreamy…[and] sat by, already tasting the restful peace, the delicious dreams, promised her."
The rediscovery and identification of the large number of Alcott’s wild, pseudonymous and anonymously written works was the crowning achievement of Madeline B. Stern (1912-2007), who, with her business partner and close friend, Leona Rostenberg, was amongst the preeminent rare book dealers of her day.

“In the old and rare we have made connections; connections between past and present, between our books and ourselves. When the younger generation tells us we are legendary figures, we sometimes think they really mean has-beens. It is true that they study our catalogues, buy our rare books, consult us from time to time, read and collect our co-authored publications. They search our eyes for a legacy.

“Our lives are our legacy. … [and] we look to the future -- to our next find, to our next book, to our next adventure.”
- Madeleine Stern & Leona Rostenberg, 1997.

The legacy of Louisa May Alcott rests upon her being the first writer in English to depict the modern young girl - and her little women of the 19th century were prototypes for young women of the 20th century - struggling with "how to have successful careers and happy home lives; how to balance housewifery and professional obligations; how to be supportive wives, mothers, and daughters without being subordinate" (Feminist Companion to Literature in English). In short, how to have it all, an impossible burden but at the time Little Women appeared, a radical light shining into the lives of young girls otherwise destined to enter their traditional role as household drudge. That Alcott was able to pull it off is testimony to the light charm and humor she brought to bear on her juvenalia.

In short, Little Women was a How-To novel on becoming the assertive, rebellious spirit that was Louisa May Alcott. Yet the anxieties wrought by these perplexities then, and certainly now, would be, and are, enough to tempt the young toward a little help from psychotropic friends. The struggle continues to be worked out woman by woman, generation to generation.

For an interesting view of Louisa May Alcott from a fundamentalist Christian perspective, please check out The Homemaker’s Corner. "Mothers, please, do not let your girls partake of the 'dainty meats' of this evil eyed, evil hearted woman!"

Tomorrow: You are cordially invited to a private party where Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Barrett Browning get high.

The points on Little Women and Little Men are important to identify true first editions.

ALCOTT, Louisa M[ay]. Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Illustrated by May Alcott. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868.

First edition, first printing, without note at the foot of p. 341 regarding Little Women, Part Two; without “Part One” in gilt on the spine; and with Little Women priced at $1.25 on the third page of the advertisements (p. 11). Twelvemo signed in eights. iv, [5]-341, [1, blank], [6, ads (numbered 3, 2, 11, 12, 8, 11)] pp. Frontispiece and three wood-engraved plates (facing pages 116, 135, and 320).

Original green sand-grain cloth with covers ruled in blind and spine decoratively stamped and lettered in gilt. Brown coated endpapers.

ALCOTT, Louisa M[ay]. Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Part Second. With Illustrations. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869.

First edition, BAL State 1 (no notice for Little Women, Part First, at p. iv). Twelvemo signed in eights. [i-iii] iv, 5-356 [360], [8, ads (numbered 16, 12, 11, 3, 2, -, -, 14)] pp. Frontispiece and three wood-engraved plates (facing pages 44, 142 and 193.

Original green sand-grain cloth with covers ruled in blind and spine decoratively stamped and lettered in gilt. “Part Second” stamped in gilt to spine. Brown coated endpapers.

ALCOTT, Louisa M[ay]. Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1871.

First American edition (published about two weeks after the London edition), first issue, with Pink and White Tyranny listed as “nearly ready” in the ads. Small octavo. [4, ads], [4], 376 pp. Frontispiece and three wood-engraved plates (facing pages 13, 251, and 369).

Original terra-cotta sand-grain cloth with covers ruled in blind and spine decoratively stamped and lettered in gilt. Brown coated endpapers.

BAL 158, 159, and 167. Peter Parley to Penrod 30. Grolier 100. American, 74.

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