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Alcott’s Secret Identity

By Caroline Sullivan (2022)

Most people know Louisa May Alcott as the famed author of Little Women. However, throughout her career Alcott also published anonymous thriller tales. Alcott, her time spent writing anonymous thrillers, and her motivations behind these works, serve as a window into the struggles of female authors during the nineteenth-century. This report analyzes Alcott’s rise to stardom in the 1860s through the lens of her journals and correspondence. While Alcott struggled to create a name for herself, she turned to writing anonymous thriller tales throughout the 1860s. As a result, Alcott was able to achieve her primary goal of supporting her family while still protecting her growing reputation.

Louisa May Alcott: Daughter and Provider 

Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29th, 1832, to Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail May Alcott. [1] She was the second of her parents’ four daughters and spent most of her upbringing in Concord, Massachusetts. [2] Her father, who went by his middle name Bronson, was a transcendentalist author and educator. [3] Despite this, Bronson often struggled to financially provide for his family, leaving the responsibility to Louisa May to take up on her own. [4]

Due to her father’s inability to provide for their family, Alcott was, in fact, the primary breadwinner of her family. [5] May makes note of her father’s struggle to earn a living in the journals she kept. In December of 1858, Louisa May writes, “Father started on his tour West full of hope. Dear Man! How happy he will be if people will listen to and pay for his wisdom.” [6] Furthermore, in a letter to a friend dated December of 1862, Alcott made note of the primary role she played in her family by adding, “Having no brothers and a womanly man for a father I find myself rather staggered by some of the performances about me.” [7]

Image of Louisa May Alcott [8]

The journals of Louisa May Alcott make it clear she was incredibly devoted to her family, serving not just as a provider for them, but also as a caretaker. Writing, primarily, was a way in which Alcott could support her family. [9] At times, during her early career, the majority of the money she earned from writing would be sent home to her family. [10] Alcott even noted writing new stories in order to fulfill the needs of her sisters. [11] Throughout the 1860s Alcott made multiple references to sending her earnings home to support her family. [12] Oftentimes, as she notes, the money went towards paying off family debts or buying new clothing for her sisters. [13] However, Alcott did not just care for her family financially. On many occasions she would return home to physically take care of her sisters and ill mother. [14]

Even as Alcott’s career began to pick up in the mid-1860s, supporting her family remained her top priority. Alcott’s primary dream as an author was to provide for her family. [15] She often rejected the notoriety that came along with her success, wishing readers of her novels would “admire the books, but let the woman alone.” [16] For Alcott, the ability to take care of her family was better than fame. This is noted in a journal entry in which Alcott discusses caring for her mother. In the entry Alcott said, “Had the pleasure of providing Marmee with many comforts and keeping the hounds of care and debt from worrying her. She sits at rest in her sunny room, and that is better than any amount of fame to me.” [17]

Alcott’s Struggle as a Female Author During the Nineteenth- Century

While Louisa May Alcott found most of her literary success in the 1860s, she struggled throughout the years leading up to it. Alcott referenced this often throughout her journals, particularly in a letter written to her mother in 1868. In the letter, Alcott recounted “the old times” when she “went meekly from door-to-door peddling [her] first little stories.” [18] 

The late 50s specifically marked a time of hardship for Alcott’s career. Throughout much of this period, she referred to payment insecurity in her journal entries. Alcott at times listed her small earnings but qualified them by saying “if I am ever paid (emphasis added).” [19] Alcott also discussed the hardships she faced in getting work published. In certain journal entries, Alcott recorded facing rejection after sending stories to publishers. [20] Her hardships were made even more clear in journal entries that referenced her dreaming of a day when she will write a “hit” and make a living. In a journal entry from 1858 Alcott said that she hopes to “see [her] way to a little money, and perhaps more by-and-by if [she] ever makes a hit.” [21]

Even as Alcott found success in 1864 with the release of Hospital Sketches and again in 1868 with the release of Little Women she continued to reflect on her struggles as an author throughout the decade. She wrote to her editors in 1869, reflecting on her career amid her newfound success: “after toiling for so many years along the uphill road, – always a hard one to women writers, – it is peculiarly grateful to me to find the way growing easier at last.” [22] This was shortly after Little Women was published. At this point, Alcott had been writing novels and short stories for over a decade, showing just how long her journey to success was. [23] As she placed herself in the context of other female writers, it is clear that Alcott was not alone in her fight to succeed as a woman in the publishing industry.

Therefore, the woes of Louisa May Alcott’s career serve as only one example of how difficult it was for female authors to find success during the nineteenth-century. During the period, writing was considered unsuitable as a profession for women. [24] This is exemplified in a letter from a publisher to English novelist, Charlotte Brontë. In the letter, the publisher Robert Southey told Brontë, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.” [25] Alcott’s references to payments and publisher difficulties can also be observed on a larger scale. Scholars of nineteenth-century literature by women show that between the years of 1860 and 1900 specifically, women authors were ‘edged out’ of the publishing industry, either going un-published or underpaid. [26] As a result, many of the difficulties Louisa May Alcott discussed in her journals are emblematic of the struggles female authors faced during the time.

Furthermore, even when female authors during the nineteenth-century were published, their work often received criticism principally on the basis of their sex. [27] Critics often focused on the author’s femininity as opposed to their work, comparing them to other female authors despite varying literary styles. [28] During the height of Alcott’s career, it was much easier for men to excel as writers than it was for women. [29] At one point during her own career, Alcott wrote that she longed to be a man. [30] Therefore, in the same way that Alcott notes in her journals, scholars of nineteenth-century literature by women emphasize the difficulties female authors at the time faced in order to achieve success in the publishing industry.

Alcott’s Anonymous Thrillers

Due to the struggles faced by women authors during the nineteenth-century, it comes as little surprise that many of them opted to publish under pen names or pseudonyms. [31] Louisa May Alcott herself used the pseudonym A.M. Barnard to publish upwards of thirty works, although the exact number is unknown. [32] For years A.M. Barnard’s true identity remained a mystery. It was not until years later in the 1970s that the scholars, Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg, unearthed Alcott as the true author behind A.M. Barnard. [33]

Most of A.M. Barnard’s works took the form of sensational thrillers, highlighting murder, manipulation, and revenge. [34] Sensational thrillers were a genre of literature that became popular in the 1860s.[35] Novels belonging to the genre often had suspenseful plots that centered around theft, adultery, bigamy, seduction, false identities, and murder. [36] A.M. Barnard’s thrillers were “dramatic and vivid,” often featuring violence, opium addicts, and convicts. [37] Behind a Mask was one of A.M. Barnard’s most popular sensational thrillers. [38] In the novel, Jean Muir, an aging and unsuccessful actress pretends to be a young governess to the wealthy Coventry family. [39] Muir uses deceit and manipulation to seduce the men of the family and in turn steal their fortune and estate. [40]

One of A.M. Barnard’s Anonymous Thrillers, Behind a Mask [41]

Alcott would often publish her sensational tales through Frank Leslie or John Elliot, referred to as “L.” and “E.” respectively throughout her journals. [42] Correspondence between Elliot and Alcott in the mid 1860s shows Alcott’s wishes to be published under the name A.M. Barnard. In one letter, Frank Elliot even added that Alcott may send him anything she “does not wish to ‘father.’” [43] Alcott kept records of her dealings with Leslie and Elliot in her journals. Numerous times from 1859 to 1860 specifically, Alcott made note of the stories she sent to Leslie and the money she earned from them. [44]

Many of Alcott’s thrillers proved to be successful and provided her with a source of income throughout the 1860s. In April of 1863, Pauline’s Passion and Punishment, one of Alcott’s more famous sensational thrillers published by Frank Leslie, won a prize. [45] From it, Alcott earned $100 and mentioned that she was happy her work had “bore[d] visible fruit.” [46] In another journal entry from January 1865, Alcott noted that Leslie asked her to be a regular contributor to his publication. Alcott said, “I agreed if he’d pay beforehand; he said he would, and bespoke two tales at once, $50 each, longer ones as often as I could, and whatever else I liked to send. So, here’s another source of income and Alcott brains seem in demand.” [47] Therefore, publishing thrillers was a viable source of income for Louisa May Alcott which enticed her to continue to do more.

However, Alcott did not just write and publish thrillers for her own personal gain. The primary purpose of Alcott’s in writing sensational tales was to provide for her family. Often in journal entries that refer to payments from Leslie and Elliot, Alcott discussed sending the money back home to her family or using it to pay off their debts. [48] Even as she continued to gain notoriety from her other works, Alcott found it necessary to continue publishing her thriller tales. Alcott stated this in her journal when she said, “wrote a little on poor old “Work” but being tired of novels, I soon dropped it and fell back on rubbishy tales, for they pay best, and I can’t afford to starve on praise, when sensation stories are written in half the time and keep the family cosey.” [49] These entries make it clear that Alcott saw her sensational tales as the best way in which she could earn a living and support her family while she built her career.

Why Remain Anonymous?

So, while it has been established that Alcott published sensational thriller tales to support her family, the question remains why did Alcott publish anonymously even while she solidified herself as a successful author? To answer this question, it is important to understand two things. Firstly, women were not the only target of discrimination in the publishing industry throughout the nineteenth-century. Sensational novels, as well as their authors, had their fair share of criticism. In the 1860s, sensational fiction was looked down upon. [50] Often, sensational novelists refused to validate their works out of fears of criticism and discrimination. [51] Even Alcott refers to her own thriller tales as ‘rubbish’ multiple times throughout her journals. [52]

Secondly, it is important to understand that as Alcott was writing anonymous thrillers throughout the 1860s, she was also building a name for herself as a respected novelist which was a difficult task for women at the time. In 1864, Alcott also published Hospital Sketches, a collection of letters about her time serving as a Civil War nurse. From this, Alcott got her first taste of success and notoriety which continued with the publishing of her poem “Thoreau’s Flute” a few months later. [53]

Alcott discussed her increased success in her journals. Following the release of Hospital Sketches and “Thoreau’s Flute” Alcott referred to herself as a “new star” and a “literary celebrity.” [54] Alcott also mentioned the praise readers gave her as well as the fact that she now had fans. [55] At one point, Alcott had gained such a reputation that she was asked to be featured in a book called Heroic Women. [56] However, throughout these instances, Alcott also continued to touch upon her work writing thriller tales for Frank Leslie and John Elliot. In the same journal entry that Alcott noted the request she be in a book about heroic women, she also mentioned a new thriller of hers, Enigmas, that had been released. [57]

Therefore, in the nineteenth- century, publishing sensationalist thrillers as a woman under her own name threatened the reputation Alcott was working so hard to build. Alcott specifically noted that the pseudonym she used to publish her sensationalist tales was a means of protecting her reputation. [58] In another instance, Alcott aired her concerns for the lurid style of sensationalist thrillers by adding “and what would my own father think of me … No, my dear, I shall always be a wretched victim to the respectable traditions of Concord.” [59]

In turn, while anonymous novels were a means by which Alcott could steadily provide for her family, something she noted was a dream of hers, they also proved to be dangerous. This is especially true as Alcott was publishing during a time when women faced increased discrimination in the publishing industry. Without the pseudonym of A.M. Barnard, Alcott feared risking her reputation and the literary success she was gaining through the publication of her other works and novels.


In conclusion, Louisa May Alcott turned to publishing anonymous thriller tales throughout the 1860s to provide her with a steady source of income and a means by which she could provide for her parents and sisters. In choosing to remain anonymous, Alcott was able to protect her growing reputation, something incredibly fragile for a woman author at the time. So, while Louisa May Alcott may be best known as the author of Little Women, she also serves as an interesting tale of the struggles, strength, and grit of female authors during the nineteenth-century.

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[1] Louisa May Alcott,” Novelists A-K, The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, last modified March 2, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louisa-May-Alcott.

[2]“Amos Bronson Alcott,” National Park Service, accessed April 1, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/people/bronson-alcott.htm.

[3] Louisa May Alcott,” Novelists A-K, The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, last modified March 2, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louisa-May-Alcott.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sandra Doering, “Louisa May Alcott: More than a Little Woman,” Lutheran Education Journal (2019), https://lej.cuchicago.edu/columns/louisa-may-alcott-more-than-a-little-woman/.

[6] Louisa May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott: Life, Letters, and Journals, December 1858, ed. Ednah Chaney (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1898), 103.

[7] Louisa May Alcott to Hannah Stevenson, 1861, in the Curtis Stevenson Papers, https://www.masshist.org/database/2168.

[8] Photograph, The New York Times, June 25, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/25/books/louisa-may-alcott-new-story-strand.html.

[9] Doering, “Louisa May Alcott: More than a Little Woman.”

[10] Alcott, January 1859.

[11] Alcott, September 1861.

[12] Alcott, February 1860-64.

[13] Alcott, September 1861-68.

[14] Alcott, August 1858-61.

[15] Alcott, January 1868.

[16] Alcott, June 1865.

[17] Alcott, March April May 1868.

[18] Alcott, January 1868.

[19] Alcott, April 1855.

[20] Alcott, 1855.

[21] Alcott, August 1858-59.

[22] Alcott, December 1869.

[23] Alcott, August 1868.

[24] Greg Buzwell, “Women writers, anonymity, and pseudonyms,” The British Library, (2020),  https://www.bl.uk/womens-rights/articles/women-authors-and-anonymity.

[25] Robert Southey to Charlotte Bronte, 1837, in Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/letter-from-robert-southey-to-charlotte-bronte-12-march-1837.

[26] Ellen Miller Casey, “Edging Women out?: Reviews of Women Novelists in the ‘Athenaeum,’  1860-1900,” Victorian Studies 39, no. 2 (1996): 151, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828674.

[27] Elaine Showalter, The Double Critical Standard and the Feminine Novel,” In Literature of  Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977): 73.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Drew Cruikshank, “Authorship and Anonymity: Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century,” last modified August 7, 2020, https://www.friendsofdalnavert.ca/blog/2020/8/7/authorship-and-anonymity-women-writers-of-the-nineteenth-century.

[30] Alcott, April 1886.

[31] Buzwell, “Women writers, anonymity, and pseudonyms.”

[32] Leona Rostenberg, “Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 37, (1943): 134, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/some-anonymous-pseudonymous-thrillers-louisa-m/docview/1301174108/se-2?accountid=10598.

[33] “The New York Times remembers Madeleine Stern, “Faithful Friend,”” Jewish Women’s Archive, Accessed April 1, 2022, https://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/30/2007/madeleine-stern.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Daniel Hack, “Sensation Novel,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, (Oxford University Press, 2006), https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195169218.001.0001/acref-9780195169218-e-0418.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Rostenberg, “Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott,” 134.

[38] Karolina Korycka, “Louisa May Alcott’s “Behind a Mask, Or a Woman’s Power”: The Woman as an Actress, Femininity as a Mask,” Polish Journal for American Studies 12, (Spring, 2018): 91,https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/louisa-may-alcotts-behind-mask-womans-power-woman/docview/2316728354/se-2.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Behind a Mask Book Cover, photograph, Simon & Schuster, https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Behind-a-Mask/A-M-Barnard/9781625589408.

[42] Rostenberg, “Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott,” 137.

[43] John Elliot to Louisa May Alcott, January 21, 1865, in Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott, ed. Leona Rostenberg (1943), 140. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/some-anonymous-pseudonymous-thrillers-louisa-m/docview/1301174108/se-2?accountid=10598.

[44] Alcott, January 1859-69.

[45] Rostenberg, “Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott,” 131-2.

[46] Alcott, April 1863.

[47] Alcott, January 1865.

[48]Louisa May Alcott to Abigail Alcott, January 1868, in Her Life, Letters, and Journals, ed. Ednah D. Cheney (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company,1898), 188.

[49] Alcott, January 1865.

[50] Graham Law, “Sensation Fiction and the Publishing Industry,” In The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cambridge-companion-to-sensation-fiction/sensation-fiction-and-the-publishing-industry/33FB87C0F4FD633F1DB7632796C3F73E.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Alcott, May 1865-65.

[53] Rostenberg, “Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott,” 134.

[54] Alcott, June 1863.

[55] Alcott, April 1863-65.

[56] Alcott, May 1864.

[57] Alcott, May 1864.

[58] Rostenberg, “Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott,” 132.

[59] Madeleine Stern, “Louisa Alcott’s Self-Criticism,” Studies in the American Renaissance (1985), 348, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30227539.



Alcott, Louisa May. Louisa May Alcott to Hannah Stevenson, December 26, 1862. In the Curtis Stevenson Papers, 1775 -1920. https://www.masshist.org/database/2168

Alcott, Louisa May. Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals. Edited by Ednah D. Cheney. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1898. Buzzwell, Greg. “Women writers, anonymity, and pseudonyms.” The British Library, ( 2020). https://www.bl.uk/womens-rights/articles/women-authors-and-anonymity.

Casey, Ellen Miller. “Edging Women out?: Reviews of Women Novelists in the ‘Athenaeum,’ 1860-1900.” Victorian Studies 39, no. 2 (1996): 151–71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828674.

Doering, Sandra. “Louisa May Alcott: More than a Little Woman.” Lutheran Education Journal (2019). https://lej.cuchicago.edu/columns/louisa-may-alcott-more-than-a-little-woman/.

Cruikshank, Drew. “Authorship and Anonymity: Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century.” Last modified August 7, 2020.  https://www.friendsofdalnavert.ca/blog/2020/8/7/authorship-and-anonymity-women-writers-of-the-nineteenth-century

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Louisa May Alcott.” Novelists A-K. Last modified March 2, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louisa-May-Alcott.

Hack, Daniel. “Sensation Novel.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Oxford University Press, 2006. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195169218.001.0001/acref-9780195169218-e-0418.

Jewish Women’s Archive. “The New York Times remembers Madeleine Stern, “Faithful Friend.”” Accessed April 1, 2022. https://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/30/2007/madeleine-stern.

Korycka, Karolina. “Louisa May Alcott’s “Behind a Mask, Or a Woman’s Power”: The Woman as an Actress, Femininity as a Mask.” Polish Journal for American Studies 12, (Spring, 2018): 91-111.https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/louisa-may-alcotts-behind-mask-womans-power-woman/docview/2316728354/se-2.

Law, Graham. “Sensation Fiction and the Publishing Industry.” In The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, edited by Andrew Mangham, 168–81. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/abs/cambridge-companion-to-sensation-fiction/sensation-fiction-and-the-publishing-industry/33FB87C0F4FD633F1DB7632796C3F73E.

National Park Service. “Amos Bronson Alcott.” Accessed April 1, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/people/bronson-alcott.htm

Rostenberg, Leona. “Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 37, (1943): 131-40. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/some-anonymous-pseudonymous-thrillers-louisa-m/docview/1301174108/se-2?accountid=10598.

Showalter, Elaine. “The Double Critical Standard and the Feminine Novel.” In Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977), 73-99.

Southey, Robert. Robert Southey to Charlotte Bronte, March 12, 1837. In Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/letter-from-robert-southey-to-charlotte-bronte-12-march-1837

Stern, Madeleine B. “Louisa Alcott’s Self-Criticism.” Studies in the American Renaissance, (1985): 332-82. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30227539.

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