Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott

Six weeks as a military nurse…

😀 😀 🙂

hospital sketchesThis is a short account of Louisa May Alcott’s brief career as a nurse during the American Civil War. She only spent six weeks in the military hospital before falling ill with typhus and being persuaded by her father to come home, but during that time she saw first-hand some of the horrific injuries inflicted on the soldiers and the pretty basic and sub-standard care they got afterwards – in her hospital, at least, though she makes it clear there were other much more highly regarded hospitals at the time, too.

The first quarter of the book is taken up with her journey to the hospital in Washington. While mildly interesting in showing the difficulties of getting around during war-time, it does become somewhat tedious, mainly because of the tone she employs. Quite clearly, at that stage in her writing development Alcott had been reading a lot of Dickens, because not only does she refer to him on several occasions, but she adopts that kind of arch humour and tone of social superiority he employs from time to time, especially in his own factual writing. So, not content with giving herself the annoyingly twee pseudonym of Tribulation Periwinkle, she caricatures the people she meets and finds ways to mock them – their looks, their manners, the way they speak. I don’t like it much when Dickens does it, and I wasn’t any more keen on Alcott’s version, especially since sometimes she doesn’t quite manage to get the affectionate warmth into it that Dickens usually does.

Once she gets to the hospital, her tone changes for the most part, though she still tries to inject a little too much humour into it, I feel. But her observations on the way the hospital operated are quite insightful, and when she speaks of the suffering of the men, one feels her own voice comes through more clearly – that she becomes less conscious of herself as a writer and therefore more likeable as a human being. She doesn’t dwell on scenes of gore, but rather on the emotional impact of their injuries on the men and, indeed, on herself. Occasionally she drifts into that peculiarly Victorian style of religious mawkishness (Dickens’ influence again, I fear), and at one point regrets that she didn’t give the men little sermons on a Sunday to set their minds on a higher path – an omission for which I expect the poor souls would have been profoundly grateful had they known. (It reminded me of a line from The Grapes of Wrath: “That’s preachin’. Doin’ good to a fella that’s down an’ can’t smack ya in the puss for it.”)

louisa may alcott
Louisa May Alcott

A second generation Abolitionist, Alcott really shows, quite inadvertently, how ingrained the belief in racial superiority was at the time. Despite the fact that she was making a real sacrifice to support the cause of emancipation, when she speaks of the “colored people” her language and tone had me positively cringing. It’s quite clear she sees them as inferior, almost sub-human, in every way, intellectually, culturally and even in physical appearance, and is rather nauseatingly self-congratulatory about her own condescension towards them. I did my very best to make allowances for the time and circumstances, but I found it hard going, and had the book not been so short, I doubt I’d have made it through.

The last section of the book tells of her own illness and how she went from nurse to being nursed. All in all, this is a very slight book, no more than novella length, and I would only recommend it as an interesting insight into Alcott herself, rather than as a particularly enjoyable or informative read in its own right.

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52 thoughts on “Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott

  1. Think I’ll give this one a miss. I loved the “little Women” series and don’t want to spoil my recollection of it.

    • Yes, I’m kinda sorry I read it, to be honest, especially since I have Little Women down for a re-read. I think I’ll have to put it back a bit to let my memories of this one fade…

  2. Hmm…I do find history fascinating, FictionFan. And it is another side of Alcott, if I can put it that way. But I think my TBR is safe for the moment. It certainly doesn’t sound like Alcott at her best. Still, I can see why you found some things to like about it.

    • It was interesting, but on the whole I’d rather not have read it, to be honest. I think it must have been a pretty early one when she was still struggling to find her own style. And because she was only there for six weeks, her account was necessarily quite superficial.

  3. I had a completely different reaction when I read this book. I loved it. The style amused me: I could tell she was just being silly, and was trying to make the dark less dark for her readers (who were initially her family, I think.) I was especially moved by the story of the soldier named John, as well as her reaction to treating Confederates. That would have been a strange thing: treating the enemy alongside your own… She ended up ill after serving her country in the hospital, and never fully recovered.

    • I sometimes think it might be my Britishness that makes me so dislike the way black people are discussed in early US writing – I had a similar reaction to Huck Finn. Don’t get me wrong – we have serious race issues over here too but it takes a slightly different form somehow. I can read old books about Empire quite happily for the most part (with some exceptions) and make allowances for things that people from different countries might find totally unacceptable. But I think it was her attempt at a Dickensian tone that most didn’t work for me, probably because, much though I love his novels, I’ve never been a great admirer of his factual writing. But as always, it’s all so subjective how we react to a book. I’m glad you enjoyed it more than me, and thanks for putting the other side! It may encourage some people not to be put off by my opinion.

      • Oh, that’s interesting! I’m QUITE put off by the “empire” philosophy. I hadn’t thought of it that way…

        • Perhaps it’s got something to do with which classics we read and which stories we’re told as children – desensitises us in some way to our own culture’s less endearing traits!

          • I actually can’t recall anything objectionable about the way she spoke of black people. I didn’t even notice that as I was reading! Maybe I should reread. It’s been a few years. 🙂

            Maybe I am desensitized, or maybe I have heard way, way worse in my own era here in America, as well as in books like Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, so I process it as “not as bad as most, and therefore enlightened for the time.” I know her father was ostracized for allowing a black student to attend his school, and he refused to relent, which cost him his profession and reputation. Louisa (and her family) strongly, strongly cheered for John Brown around the same time she wrote this book (martyred abolitionist who was killed for the cause, and partially triggered our American Civil War), and her family was, as I recall, part of the Underground Railroad. Which was dangerous. So she would probably be mortified if she realized her works came off offensively to our ears. I find Uncle Tom’s Cabin a little annoying for that reason, but wow did that book affect its own era…

            • Yes, I think that’s very true about the “enlightened for our time” – that’s how I feel about some of the authors who wrote about the colonies. Some seemed able to show a respect and admiration for other cultures, even if they did describe them as “savages”, etc. Whereas with others it was so clear they saw “natives” as not just different, but inferior – again often to the point of not being quite human, or at least being less evolved. Alcott certainly wasn’t setting out to be offensive – quite the reverse, in fact. She was partly rejoicing for the arrival of emancipation and partly trying to show other white people that they shouldn’t be disgusted by the black people (see, even writing that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable). But her tone when doing it was more of an owner talking about a not very attractive but still lovable pet than a person talking about another person, which is almost exactly what I found with Twain’s tone in Huck Finn. The altruistic attitude of wanting emancipation for the slaves certainly didn’t seem to extend to looking on them as in any way being entitled to be treated as equals, or even with much dignity.

    • I did too, and am actually kinda sorry I read this, especially since I was intending to re-read Little Women quite soon – I’ll need to put it back a bit now till the memory of this one has faded. But other people have enjoyed it much more than me, so it’s probably just a personal reaction – books are so subjective!

  4. Still an interesting review, though – and I don’t think you should regret reading it, especially since it was not very long. You can only regret reading something if it disturbs you profoundly. And it provoked interesting comments as well.

    • Thank you! I only regret reading it because I had intended to re-read Little Women soon but will now have to put it back a bit till I get rid of the taste of this one. Yes, one of the things I like most about the book blogosphere is that we can discuss subjects like this in a friendly way… so unlike a lot of the forums around the internet!

  5. I had a student ask me last semester if we should forgive or overlook people who are racist during a time when racism was generally accepted, and I have to ask: is it really possible that NO ONE thought all humans were humans? Not a single white person looked at a black person and thought, “That’s a person, someone human like me but with different experiences”?

    • I don’t know, but I do know from my own experience how easy it is to just accept the attitudes of the culture around you. When I was a kid, way back in the ’60s, there were almost no black people in Glasgow (or so it seemed to me anyway). I’m not aware of having met anyone black until I went to high school when I was 12, and there was one black boy in the year. So everything I knew about black people came from books or films – things like H Rider Haggard, or Zulu etc. I fear my assumptions about that poor boy wouldn’t pass my own much higher standards these days. And reading this one, I got the impression Alcott probably hadn’t met many “colored people” before and wasn’t sophisticated enough to see that the differences were cultural rather than natural… so my objection wasn’t so much to her intentions, but just to her tone.

      • That’s a good point, though I wonder what your attitude was when you first met a black person when you were twelve. I get the feeling you were terribly friendly 🙂 Then again, what do we say to others about people we haven’t met yet…. The only person from Scotland that I met in real life was spring semester. He was my student, but before that most of my knowledge of the people of Scotland came from Irvine Welsh, which may be realistic but not flattering!

        • Ha! Well, yes, you’re right – my friend and I decided to buddy up with him, especially since he was in several of our classes. But we did ask him lots of questions that retrospectively I really wish we hadn’t – like whereabouts in Africa he came from (his Glaswegian accent should have been a clue there, I feel). But we meant well… 😳

  6. It’s disappointing to learn that someone you admire has feet of clay. It’s also impossible to know if we had we lived then, if we would have gone with the popular view or been able to think (and act) differently. No doubt people in the future will condemn us for things we think are right and fair now.
    I would prefer to read other fiction by Louisa May Alcott anyway, nursing now makes me feel faint, let alone the thought of how gory it must have been during a Civil War 150 years ago..

    • I know – that’s kinda why I wish I hadn’t read it. And she certainly didn’t mean to be offensive – for her time, she was one of the more enlightened ones. But still, I found her way of speaking about the “colored people” made me really uncomfortable. But even in my lifetime the way we speak about a lot of things has changed out of all recognition – in fact, half the time I don’t know what words are OK to use this week – that word that was fashionable last week is quite likely to be a hideous slur by next week! Or some words are apparently OK for some people to use, but not other people? All very difficult…

      • I’ve put my foot in my mouth occasionally too, we’re a bit ignorant in Australia in general. Attitudes have changed enormously here too, and so have words. I don’t believe most people say things maliciously, but it all depends on how someone takes something, rather than how it was meant. When in doubt, don’t…

        • I know, and I do kinda understand why people get sensitive when there’s so much real racism around. But sometimes it’s quite hard to have everything you say examined for hidden motives. *sighs* Everyone should just eat more cake and try to get along…

  7. Funny how we idolize the writers we loved as children and refuse to allow them any flaws, now that we’re grown! This doesn’t sound like something I’d particularly enjoy, but I enjoyed how you reviewed it, FF!

    • I know – sometimes I think it’s best if we don’t revisit childhood heroes when we’re adults. Poor Alcott was actually trying to be enlightened too – and for her time proabbly was. But I still didn’t enjoy reading it…

    • She is! You’d love it, especially the bit where Beth… nah, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

      It’s an intriguing hairdo… unless she’s just got very strange ears under there.

            • YA books are awful! Anyway you’re too old to be Y. Now that you are going to be a serious academic type, I shall put together a course of reading for you – isn’t that kind? A few Russians, plenty of Dickens, some of the great feminist writers – you’ll love them – and perhaps a few books on politics. *opens new spreadsheet* What book of science?

            • I maybe be going to college, but, hey, I’m not serious. Nor am I much of an epidemic academic. That’s something. I’ll be learning lots of classical songs, that has to count! It’s a book about design vs. evolution.

            • I’m afraid you are – no more fun for you! Work, work, work, study, study, study. It’ll be good for you! Yes, classical songs will be good – will fit in nicely with your reading!

              So… partly fiction then? *chuckles wickedly and runs off*

  8. I read this post the other day and it still made me laugh when I re-read it today in order to post my comment – I particularly loved the comment about the soldiers being profoundly grateful had they known that they had been spared her sermons. I’m still slowly making my way through Vera Brittain’s A Testament of Youth which of course is also about nursing although a different time and war… I may well pick it up to get a sense of Alcott (more likely as it is a short one!)

    • Haha! I felt sorry enough for those men without the thought of Louisa May Alcott preaching at them… hadn’t they suffered enough?? 😉 I’ve never read A Testament of Youth – I’ve always had a tendency to avoid books about wars, though I’m getting better at them recently. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it…

  9. Hilarious review! I will gladly skip this book! I read Little Women and The Quiet Little Woman.
    Perhaps I’ll change my pen name to Periwinkle Tribulation so as not to copy her too much. Or perhaps Tribulation Lavender.

    • Thank you! I hope it won’t change your opinion of her – I suspect she just hadn’t found her own style yet, and the attitudes that made me squirm were of their time. She certainly meant well, and her way of expressing herself was doubtless quite advanced for her time, even if it sets off my 21st century political correctness alarm… 😉

      • Yes. I think Hospital Sketches had an impact and I DO think it is important to see historical people in the context of their time period as well as seeing the contributions of their overall life. And with that, LMA comes out on top, imo. I don’t think it is a negative thing when our personal sensitivity or modern understanding on an issue is a little unnerved by something like this. I think it is a way to see how we as an individual and society as a whole is moving forward.

        • Yes, I was just commenting on another blog and another subject that, however good historical fiction can be, reading contemporaneous fiction will always add some insight into the time, especially since so often historical fiction will give characters anachronistically modern attitudes. I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it.

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