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_Work_, Louisa May Alcott (unfinished)

I'm not going to finish this. I read through Actress last night, and stupidly continued through Governess and Companion today, but Companion has done me in. As near as I can tell, no one noticed the heavy handed eugenics in this book, cause google finds me no indication that anyone has written it up.

_Work_ is an episodic novel about a young woman whose parents died when she was young and she was raised by a maternal uncle and his wife on their farm (at least, I think it was a farm). She goes off to make her way in the world, because Reasons. She tries a bunch of gigs; each chapter is one gig start to finish, with a lot of moralizing and Christie excelling and being cheerful and so forth. But in Companion, I met my match. I refuse to continue.

The invalid doesn't have TB or something infectious. Nope, she has insanity or madness, generally unspecified, which is believed to be hereditary in her father's family, which has the money. When the daughter is told she shouldn't marry and have kids because it is hereditary, she falls into a decline (actually spend a bunch of time in a room designed to keep herself from killing herself before graduating to more normal rooms where she hangs out with Christie -- if normal extends to the most amazing conservatory I've run into in 19th century fiction). She feels better hanging out with Christie hearing about Christie's various adventures, but younger sister has her coming out and someone is about to make an offer so Bella is about to be told and blah blah blah. Here is Christie's response to Helen's explanation (a lot of this is kept secret from Christie for a while). "The bitter grief, the solemn fervor of her words, both touched and awed Christie too much for speech. Helen had passed beyond the bounds of ceremony, fear, or shame: her hard lot, her dark experience, set her apart, and gave her the right to utter the bare truth. To her heart's core Christie felt that warning; and for the first time saw what many never see or wilfully deny, -- the awful responsibility that lies on every man and woman's soul forbidding them to entail upon the innocent the burden of their own infirmities, the curse that surely follows their own sins."

Sounds like eugenics to me, but whatever it is, it is def the author using Christie as a mouthpiece for People (Who Might Be) Subject to Mental Health Issues Such As Severe Depression and Suicidal Ideation/Attempts Should Not Have Kids. Period. End.


Good bye, _Work_. Apparently, the only books by Alcott I'm ever gonna love are _Eight Cousins_ and _Rose in Bloom_ which, honestly, are pretty deeply problematic but at least don't obviously suffer from this particular problem.

This was the library adult book group selection for Mayberry, NH (<-- not its real name) for the month of May. However, the May meeting was canceled for a variety of reasons and we will be discussing both _Gulp_ and _Work_ today. Which should make for an interesting combination.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 21st, 2016 07:10 pm (UTC)
In an era with no decent treatment for mental illness, and very little understanding of its origins, isn't that potentially a reasonable conclusion to come to? I'm not saying RIGHT. I'm saying REASONABLE. (Moreover, in regarding this particular illness as a curse following sins, sounds to me as though Alcott had syphilis in mind.)

Not defending Work, which is one of the Alcotts I was never able to finish, finding it both boring and depressing.
Jun. 21st, 2016 07:41 pm (UTC)
Syphilis and reasonableness
Well, given that the "madness" suffered by the family (and look, I'm not saying they didn't have "madness" in the family, nor would I suggest that it was entirely the result of parenting choices or anything else like that -- I do think there was something "there") is described as skipping generations (so when someone doesn't have it, their kids still often have it), it's hard to see that being syphilis. If you are suggesting that Alcott mixed up syphilitic mental breakdown with bipolar/schizophrenia/mood disorders/wtf, well, I don't doubt it. (Possibly you are suggesting that the whole family had congenital syphilis? That seems incompatible with the general descriptions of health in the family, and also the nature of the mental illness suffered.)

Certainly, syphilis as a theory would explain the "sin" language that pops up in a book otherwise remarkably free of that particular frame ("honesty" and "decency" show up way more frequently than "sin" language).

Different people mean different things by "reasonable", but generally they mean a position that most of their contemporaries would find to be a common or moderate position on the then current spectrum. I suppose under this definition, you _could_ argue that it is a reasonable position, but you'd be up against the the fact that Christie or the author presents it as quite unusual. Other people mean by "reasonable" things which Good, Just, Leadership type people agree with, and certainly in the near term after _Work_ was published, we went through many decades in which Christie's/Alcott's position was considered "reasonable". On the other hand, I'm not so sure that you could get people to agree with the position so readily today.

In any society, however, it should be possible for a well-informed adult to notice that while mental illness is more common in some families than others, it can arise in any family unpredictably. Once you notice that, it seems clear that cutting off society from the many benefits the co-occur in families with a high burden of mental health issues is probably not a great idea. And indeed, that combination of madness and creativity/genius was celebrated in the era immediately preceding Alcott's period of peak output.
Jun. 21st, 2016 07:51 pm (UTC)
Alcott's death
Oddly, I hadn't thought to wonder what she died of. I read the NYT obit, but it was unhelpful. Apparently, the current thinking is she died of a stroke, but had been suffering from lupus. Who knew? I sure didn't.
Jun. 21st, 2016 09:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Alcott's death
She definitely had mercury poisoning from medications she was given when she had typhoid, and ascribed basically every unpleasant symptom she had thereafter to that experience, but the current thinking is that the mercury poisoning couldn't have been as far-reaching as that. And apparently lupus can increase the risk of stroke, so it's not a bad hypothesis.
Jun. 21st, 2016 08:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Syphilis and reasonableness
I don't think it was unusual at all in the early part of the 19th century to find people suggesting that such-and-such family was not a one to marry into due to insanity or illness. https://books.google.cat/books?id=8_01AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA123 quotes Horace Mann as saying "One of the highest of human responsibilities was violated by the ancestors, in forming alliance, when they bore a hereditary taint of insanity in the system..." Mann was connected to Bronson Alcott's circle.

I just went and read that chapter of Work, and it doesn't sound so much like syphilis after all -- rather the "sin" is continuing to marry in full knowledge of that heritage. But I'm not sure she says it skips generations -- only that you can't count on insanity not showing up if no one in a particular generation happens to have it, as it may break out all the stronger in the next generation.

To me the ickiest part of the way it's written is that Alcott keeps trying to make this into a real-life gothic story, which prevents it from being either a good gothic story or a good realistic story.
Jun. 21st, 2016 11:06 pm (UTC)
Re: Syphilis and reasonableness
You found the quote that made me think "generation skip".

Alcott had a cousin Louisa Willis who committed suicide at roughly the same age as "Helen". This seems to have clearly been the inspiration for the character. I figure this is probably the main reason Alcott never married/had children. And honestly, as crazy as Bronson was, I can't really blame her.

The book you quote goes on to note AFTER the Horace Mann bit that plenty of descendants in families of the insane are perfectly sane and plenty of insane people appear to have no insanity in their ancestry. Which was my point. (They also point out that economic downturns bring out the nuttiness in populations.) (And I DO RECOGNIZE that statistically, bipolar/schizophrenia/etc. runs in families. I'm not suggesting otherwise, since my family is one of those families so I know what this looks/feels like. And honestly, that look/feeling is a chunk of why I'm reactive to the idea that I Should Not Reproduce.)

It is difficult to figure out whether Horace Mann is recognized as an antecedent of the eugenics movement, because Horace Mann Bond contaminates all the google results. :-(.

ETA: I've been poking around a bit trying to get a sense of just _when_ the eugenics movement/sterilization got going. And I have to say, I'm really reluctant to agree that this was ever a reasonable idea. It was based on half-baked science (that people _at the time_ could see couldn't possibly be true), it was racist, it was anti-women. I'm not prepared to call the antecedent idea -- it is the responsibility of all persons related to a nutter to Never Reproduce -- reasonable. If someone doesn't want to have kids themselves, fine. I support their choice FOR ANY REASON AT ALL. But the idea they can reasonably tell anyone else what their choice should be? Nope.

Edited at 2016-06-21 11:18 pm (UTC)
Jun. 21st, 2016 11:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Syphilis and reasonableness
Well, there was the whole attracted-to-women-not-men thing, which she was remarkably clear about. "I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul put by some freak of nature into a woman's body ... I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls, and never once the least little bit with any man." https://books.google.com/books?id=wWfisieeSRQC&pg=PA49
Jun. 22nd, 2016 12:10 am (UTC)
Re: Syphilis and reasonableness
See that sounds like transgender to me.

Altho it also sounds weird, since there are so many people claiming that she said she wrote love letters to Emerson but never sent them and burned them.

Oh, here's an idea:


Now imagining LMA as a transman who identified as B0 (that is, romantically but not sexually attracted to women). I'm sure I've just committed all kinds of wrongdoing from nearly every conceivable perspective.

Oh and while I'm at it:


Edited at 2016-06-22 12:23 am (UTC)
Jun. 22nd, 2016 01:46 am (UTC)
Trans or lesbian
Well, yeah, it totally could mean trans. (See my discussion with steepholm here: http://steepholm.livejournal.com/370974.html?thread=3601950#t3601950 ) But it could just be her way of conceptualizing what we would now call "lesbian." I don't think we have enough data.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )