October 14, 2012

Poor entertainment and poor instruction

In his review of Louisa May Alcott's novel Eight Cousins in The Nation for October 14, 1875, Henry James ultimately recommends the book as "an entertaining and healthy story." The book is about a girl named Rose Campbell and her "seven boisterous boy-cousins" and, James says, was likely "written  in every good faith," despite asserting it is "a very ill-chosen sort of entertainment to put before children."

James gives Alcott credit as the novelist of children for her ability to address "the social questions of the child-world." But in Eight Cousins, he says, she has erred in both story and style: "It is unfortunate not only in its details, but in its general tone, in the constant ring of the style." For one, he notes that she has fallen far too deeply into satire. She does not present the adults in the book as role models as he apparently would have expected and, further, the little girl is far too thoughtful for her age, possibly in an attempt at equanimity: "All this is both poor entertainment and poor instruction." Even so, despite calling it "vulgar prose," James admits that Alcott was successful in showing how a good girl can influence bad boys. Thankfully, he adds, Eight Cousins avoids concocting a silly love story.

Not all critics were as harsh as James. A review in The Christian Register called it her greatest work since Little Women and evidence that the author had "returned to her best self." Another poked fun at the publisher of James's review as "a weakly critical journal" (pun intended, presumably). A Boston newspaper noted that a young girl who had read Alcott's book was surprised by James's review and concluded, "I don't want to know the man who wrote that."

*My source for information in this article was Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge University Press, 2004) edited by Beverly Ryan Clark.

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