Saturday, September 29, 2012

An Hour

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)
From American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation

Detail of “One hand stirred gruel for sick America, and the other hugged baby Africa,” a drawing of Civil War nurse Tribulation Periwinkle, the alter ego of Louisa May Alcott in Hospital Sketches. Reprinted from an 1880 edition of Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories, which included “An Hour.”
In 1853 William G. Allen, a professor at New York Central College who was one-quarter black, became engaged to Mary King, a white student. While visiting friends in a nearby town, he was attacked by a mob armed “with tar, feathers, poles and an empty barrel spiked with shingle nails.” He escaped, injured but alive, and the couple hastily married and then fled to England. Professor Allen was a friend of Louisa May Alcott’s uncle, and he would send him inscribed copies of two booklets he published that described the ordeal: The American Prejudice Against Color: An Authentic Narrative, Showing How Easily the Nation Got into An Uproar (1853) and A Personal Narrative (1860). In late 1859 or early 1860 the twenty-seven-year-old Alcott submitted to The Atlantic Monthly “M. L.,” a tale that was almost surely inspired by Allen’s life and the first of three “abolitionist stories” she would publish during the early 1860s.

The magazine rejected the story. She wrote in her journal, “Mr. —— won’t have ‘M. L.’ as it is antislavery, and the dear South must not be offended.” (The unidentified staff member was probably the editor of The Atlantic himself, James Russell Lowell.) Three years later Alcott submitted her second antislavery story, called “My Contraband,” and the new editor, James F. Fields, accepted it (“with much approbation,” Alcott noted in her journal); the magazine published it as “The Brothers.” But when she sent in a third (and final) antislavery story to Fields’s business partner, William Davis Ticknor, for his new magazine Our Young Folks, she again met resistance. “Ticknor accepted a fairy tale I sent him but refused ‘An Hour,’ because it was about slavery I suppose.”

Both of the rejected stories—“M. L.” and “An Hour”—would ultimately find a home at The Commonwealth, a local abolitionist magazine edited by a friend. (The magazine would also publish Alcott’s first “hospital sketches,” based on her arduous duties as a Civil War nurse in Georgetown, where she contracted typhoid fever after only a month.) Yet Alcott’s supposition—that two of the three stories were rejected because of their antislavery views—was probably correct only in a general sense, especially since, during the height of the Civil War in 1863, Northern editors were hardly concerned about the attitudes of “the dear South.” Instead, what all three stories have in common is their sympathetic portrait of interracial couples. While “My Contraband” hints at a white nurse’s attraction to a former slave who works alongside her, the other two stories are not as subtle: “M. L.” describes an interracial romance in straightforward terms and “An Hour” hardly disguises the shared electric passions between the young “master” Gabriel and the defiant slave Milly. Certain elements of “An Hour”—the Gothic melodrama, the stereotypical portrayals, the sentimental homilies—might seem dated and overdone to modern readers, but the story’s themes and characters would have scandalized many nineteenth-century readers while it simultaneously solicited their sympathies.

*   *   *
The clock struck eleven.
“Look again, Gabriel; is there no light coming?”
“Not a ray, mother, and the night seems to darken every instant.”
“Surely, half an hour is time enough to reach the main land and find Dr. Firth.” . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.


B. Lamb said...

I think the date at the end of the first paragraph should read "early 1860s" rather than "early 1960s."

Anonymous said...

What a long story! A sunny day at the window--the last few hours before October--rebuking me, "Come out--hurry--hurry--" but I had to finish this blankety-blank story. I'd be a slacker if I didn't. I'm glad I did. Its dated melodrama is duly noted, but tragically as we know, there is reportorial truth to it, and Alcott moves us, in the end, beyond the stereotypes and beyond the boredom of romance. We can admire her commitment to do something--what she could, which was to write--to raise a ruckus against slavery.

The Library of America said...

Thanks, B. Lamb, for alerting us to the typo. We've fixed it.

Bob Stauffer said...

This seemed to me like a gem of a story, buried in some kind of wordy,academic-essay style. I would struggle--I'm sure vainly--to describe the events of this story. Maybe I'm just more used to modern writing.

Katharine Emsden said...

For me, a new side of Alcott which goes beyond her times, gives details to bring us there and carries values of courage as well as humility that are relevant today