May 22, 2010

Alcott: Go nurse the soldiers

The first of what became four installments of Hospital Sketches was published in the magazine Boston Commonwealth on May 22, 1863. Later, in book form, it carried the subtitle "An Army Nurse's True Account of Her Experiences During the Civil War." The author, Louisa May Alcott, had spent about six weeks volunteering at a Union hospital outside of Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. Her letters home were the basis of the book.

Prior to Hospital Sketches, Alcott had only published one book, a small print-run called Flower Fables in 1854 when she was 21 years old. This second book was, to the surprise of the author, a popular one. The Boston Transcript noted the sketches were "fluent and sparkling in style, with touches of quiet humor and lovely wit, relieving what would otherwise be a topic too sombre and sad." William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, The Liberator, noted that "they are overflowing with genius, wit, humor, pathos, and womanly compassion and tenderness," concluding that "all who read them will greatly relish them."

The book format was published only months after the final magazine installment by James Redpath. Redpath promised to donate a small portion of each copy sold to children made homeless or orphaned by the war. Her father, the Transcendentalist philosopher Bronson Alcott, was proud: "I see nothing in the way of a good appreciation of Louisa's merits as a woman and a writer," he wrote.

Published under the pseudonym Tribulation Periwinkle, Hospital Sketches was not quite autobiography; one major change from the true story was that the narrator (Miss Periwinkle) does not join the Union cause because of a particular passion. Instead, she was merely looking for something to do. The book opens:

  "I want something to do."
  This remark being addressed to the world in general, no one in particular felt it their duty to reply; so I repeated it to the smaller world about me, received the following suggestions, and settled the matter by answering my own inquiry, as people are apt to do when very much in earnest.
  "Write a book," quote the author of my being.
  "Don't know enough, sir. First live, then write..."
  "Go nurse the soldiers," said my young neighbor, Tom, panting for "the tented field."
  "I will!"


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing. :)

    - Corra

    from the desk of a historical writer

  2. The Alcott family has long been a subject of study for me, especially after her many stories published under pseudonymns were discovered and published by Stern, Shealy, and Myerson. Although her children's literature is the basis of most of her popularity, it's her stories for adults that fascinate me, along with her surviving journals and letters. I studied her and her family extensively in grad school.

  3. I'd like to ask permission to post a teaser from this post plus the link on my Louisa May Alcott blog - this is great! My blog is

    Susanne, I study the Alcotts a lot too - the more I learn, the more I want to learn. I do it in my spare time. Just curious - besides Louisa, which Alcott fascinates you the most?

  4. Hopefully this isn't a duplicate comment - just tried to publish something and it disappeared! Anyway ...

    I'd like to get your permission to post a teaser from your blog along with a link back to this post on my Louisa May Alcott blog (

    Susanne - I study the Alcotts in my spare time and find the more I learn, the more I want to learn. Just curious: besides Louisa, which Alcott fascinates you the most?

  5. I went ahead and let it duplicate. Feel free to tease this post, but bear in mind that I wrote it two years ago. ;)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.