Between Public and Private: The Publications of Louisa May Alcott’s poem “Thoreau’s Flute”

With the recent adaptation of her novel Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s work has grown in popularity during the past few months. However, this popularity is not novel as Alcott’s work has had a consistent readership for many years, as is evidenced by this digital surrogate of her poem “Thoreau’s Flute”.

Title page of 1950 publication of “Thoreau’s Flute” by Lousia May Alcott
via HathiTrust

Alcott wrote “Thoreau’s Flute” while she was in the hospital and while mourning the death of her schoolteacher and former crush, Henry David Thoreau who was 16 years her senior. Alcott had not intended to submit the poem for publication; rather, it had slipped from her papers and her father found it. He read it and shared it with another friend of his, the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, and it was Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, who submitted it to Atlantic Monthly where it was published in 1863. Part of the reason why this poem has remained relevant could be due to the fame that came upon Alcott three years later with the publication of Little Women.

This digital surrogate is a republication of the poem that was originally published in Atlantic Monthly in September of 1863. This edition is unique in a few aspects, most of which can be understood from the featured note from the publisher:

Publisher’s note at the end of the 1950 publication of Louisa May Alcott’s “Thoreau’s Flute”
via Hathitrust

The publisher’s note reveals quite a few key characteristics of this edition. First, it casually indicates the level to which Louisa May Alcott wrote in the public sphere. She was a woman published in the Atlantic Monthly, a widely read magazine that touched on a variety of different topics.

It also reveals a lot of information about the circumstances by which it was published. Joseph Ishill was an author and the founder of Oriole Press. He hand printed more than 200 books and pamphlets through Oriole Press. This version of “Thoreau’s Flute” appears to be one of those pamphlets. The note mentions the process and with what equipment the edition was printed: “Hand-set with Cloister Old Style casted by the American Type Founders.” This explains the font of the print, which is “Cloister Old Style”, an old style serif font. This font was published by the American Type Founders, the dominant manufacturer of metal type in America at the time. Thus, this pamphlet was most likely printed by a letterpress distributed by the ATF trust.

The few illustrations are in black and white, and there are many blank pages that are included in this digital surrogate. These pieces of evidence suggest that the edition was made in a style that would have been suitable for multiple prints, which would fit the purposes of a pamphlet rather than a book.

The last line of the publisher’s note reveals who the intended audience for this edition was: “friends and followers of Thoreau’s trends of life.” Thus, we see Alcott’s poem travel between the public and private social spheres. First, it exists in the private sphere of writing as a poem solely for herself – it was originally, something she used to process her own grief. Because of an accidental event, it then moves from the private to the public sphere when it is published in Atlantic Monthly. Finally, as with this edition, we can see how works within the public sphere can also transition back into more private spheres. While not confirmed, the “friends” mentioned in the publisher’s note could refer to friends of Ishill. Perhaps there were very few prints of this edition that were only distributed to a few people. The publisher’s note would suggest so.

Finally, the manner in which we have come across the poem shows another transition back into the public sphere. The poem which was originally something private to Alcott, now exists on the internet – probably the most public of all public spheres in history – as a digital surrogate. The digital surrogate loses a few of the characteristics that print media would have. For instance, it would be more easy to know if this edition is truly a pamphlet had we been able to hold it in our hands. However, the digital surrogate significantly surpasses physical editions in terms of accessibility. Almost anyone can now access and read this poem. Furthermore, different editions of her poem now exist on the internet, each of which provide readers with different experiences and perceptions of the same text. For example, a plain text version of the poem exists on The Atlantic website. Would this version, since it is published by the original publisher, be more similar to the original publication? Or less because of its online format? The arrival of digital editions of texts have created a whole new manner to engage with texts – even texts, like Alcott’s, that are centuries old.

Works Cited:

Alcott, Louisa May, 1832-1888. Thoreau’s Flute, a Poem. [Limited ed.] Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Oriole Press, 1950. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/miua.1746481.0001.001

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