By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Liz Rosenberg has been a fan of Louisa May Alcott for more than 50 years. That’s one of the reasons she wrote the middle grade biography of the author “Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots: The Life of Louisa May Alcott,” which was published in 2021. But Rosenberg was not finished with Alcott. She felt that most people only knew Alcott through her fiction, but she felt that Alcott had more to offer readers, in particular the essays she wrote. Rosenberg wanted to share those works with the world, which led her to editing “A Strange Life: Selected Essays of Louisa May Alcott” (Notting Hill Editions).
Her reason for sharing these essays was due to her belief that Alcott’s work would speak to contemporary readers: “[Alcott] was so far ahead of her time that she’s still ahead of ours,” Rosenberg said in an e-mail interview. “She was a fierce abolitionist, an equal rights fighter, a social justice warrior, a champion of working class women and impoverished children. She was generous to a fault, brilliant, funny, inventive, progressive. She was not only an amazing writer, but an amazing human being.”
Finding the right publisher was very important. “I approached Rosalind Porter, editor and publisher of Notting Hill Editions in the UK, about doing this book of Alcott essays together, because I knew she published only essays, and I was already an enormous fan of several of the books on her list,” Rosenberg noted. “I’ve long felt that Alcott’s essays are too little known and too widely overlooked. I’d argue that she created some of her best, funniest, more delightful and moving writing in her essays – and the range of topics is astonishing. Everything from being a war night nurse during the Civil Ward to going ‘out to service’ as a paid servant to a diatribe on the rewards of staying single.”
Choosing which essays to place in the book was easy: Rosenberg just picked her favorites. “Then among my favorites (some are very long; one is book-length!) I chose the best excerpts,” she added. “I really just want to shine a light on her non-fiction and say, ‘Look! Look over here! Look at this treasure lying right out in the open, and nobody knows it’s there.’ Well, the die-hard Alcott fans do know the essays, of course, and the scholars. But that’s about it.”
Rosenberg was unable to pick a favorite among the essays. That’s because she finds it impossible to choose between three of them. One favorite is Alcott’s Civil War essay, “Hospital Sketches,” which brought Alcott her first taste of fame. Rosenberg noted that the work “was New Journalism before anyone ever invented the term: close up and personal eye-witness reportage. Nothing like it had ever been done before. Then ‘How I Went Out to Service,’ [which is] about her six miserable weeks working for a dishonest, creepy, comical man in fancy black kid gloves – doesn’t that sound creepy already? – who tried to take advantage of her in more ways than one. And ‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ [is] the hilarious but heartbreaking story of living on a failed farm commune with her idealistic parents, watching it all fall apart. It’s comic genius. But also so pitiable.
“[Alcott] lived a remarkable life,” Rosenberg concluded, “and her essays leave us a beautiful recording of that life. ‘A Strange Life,’ like the title says – strange but glorious.”