Are you staying cool? We’re in the middle of a heatwave here in California. The temperature averages 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. To compensate for the heat, I like to find new beverage recipes to supplement my filtered water. Of course, there is always the mighty Arnold Palmer (lemonade + ice tea) and pink lemonade with frozen strawberries, but I’d like to try something new. Would anyone out there like to share a beverage recipe with me? I’d love to try it. You can send your recipes by email, or post your ideas and pictures on my Facebook page, to share with everyone.
While trying to cool off, I also love to peruse (air-conditioned) used books stores. While on the hunt for something exciting to read, I came across a thriller written by Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women) called Behind the Mask, which is a volume of five short stories. However, according to the description, these aren’t children’s stories. They’re bloody, saucy thrillers. For the nineteenth century, this is quite scandalous. However, according to the book’s front matter, Louisa published her thrillers anonymously or under a pen name, i.e., A.M. Barnard.
Authors have many reasons to write in specific genres. So, I set out to find what motivated Louisa to begin her writing career penning stories about the dark side of life.
My research found that Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, took part in the Transcendental movement. At the base of transcendentalism is a philosophical, religious, and political theory established in the early nineteenth century, which promoted spiritual things as good. In contrast, society and all its ills (e.g., slavery, treatment of Native Americans, and the war with Mexico) corrupt an individual’s goodness. Promoters of the religion included authors Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were close friends with the Alcotts.
Amos took these teachings to heart, and when his school closed, he refused to intertwine himself with the world’s ways, including working to meet his family’s financial needs.
One day, Amos met a gentleman who urged him to separate from his wife and stop all physical contact with her (since such deeds mimicked societal sins). The parting of Louisa’s parents brought a further burden on her mother, who labored to keep her family alive. Yet, after a few months of depression and near starvation, Amos returned home and pronounced his colleague’s advice unsuitable for his individual growth.
Young Louisa witnessed the entire event and her mother’s suffering. It was then that something changed in her heart, and she vowed to help the family survive.
In the introduction to Behind the Mask, Madeline Stern states the Alcotts lived on donated bread and water. She also revealed that Ralph Waldo Emerson tucked money behind candlesticks and under books for Amos to find. Emerson did these things, “when he thinks Father wants a little money, and no one will help him earn.”
Most people balked at Louisa’s determination to make a living. “I will make my head a battering ram and make a way through this rough and tumble world. You watch me,” she said in her journal. True to her word, by 1855, she earned fifty dollars from teaching, fifty dollars from sewing, and twenty dollars from writing.
Historians report that Louisa’s pen never sat idle. “She lived in her inkstand.” However, seeing the success of dark stories in periodicals, she experimented with blood & thunder tales as they were, in her opinion, “easy to compose and better paid than moral works.”
Most authors will tell you that writing is an outpouring of experiences, education, conversations, and worldview. Louisa is a prime example of that theory. While struggling with her inner sorrow and anger, her interest in the darker side of humanity blossomed. Perhaps Amos’ worldview suppressed Louisa’s genuine interest in the culture and instead drove her curiosity to explore topics unmentioned in polite society.
I can’t help but wonder what “blood & thunder” written in the 1800s encompasses. Compared to what we read today, I’m assuming it’s a PG13 rating. We’ll see.
Well, I hope a brief history of Behind the Mask will encourage you to explore through those used books stores and find the rare gems that await you. Why not research some of your favorite authors before turning to chapter one? Knowing about a writer can add to the pleasure of reading.
I can’t wait to touch bases with you again next month as I finish the edits on Snake Oil.