"I want something to do."
So speaks Tribulation Periwinkle, the young protagonist of Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches, a compilation of four sketches based on letters that she wrote home during her six week stint as a nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. Alcott was rather frustrated that she was unable to serve in any other capacity; seeing the young men around her in the town of Concord, Massachusetts, volunteer on April 19, 1861, she was inspired, and vowed to do all that she was allowed to do in order to help them out. She volunteered locally as a seamstress but was unfulfilled, her dream of doing more, like her heroine Tribulation Periwinkle, fulfilled at last when she received orders to travel to Georgetown and work as a nurse.
Alcott wrote home quite frequently; others tried to persuade her to publish, but she did not want those featured in the letters to have their names printed for all to see, so she fictionalized both characters and experiences, although Alcott herself is quite obviously the young Miss Periwinkle.
The abolitionist magazine Boston Commonwealth published the first of the sketches on May 22, 1863, with the last one seeing publication a month later. She received great acclaim for the pieces, but was strangely ambivalent about them, admitting that she had never published them from a literary perspective, but as a way to earn a quick buck. Fortunately, others were more impressed with the sketches. James Redpath, a well-known publisher, offered her forty dollars for the collected sketches. She accepted, and part of her commission was donated to a fund supporting orphans of the Civil War.
The book was an immediate success, surprising nobody but Louisa herself. She wrote in her journal, "I find I've done a good thing without knowing it." Doing good was extremely important to Alcott who was raised with a deep sense of community and service. She is most famous for the 1868 novel Little Women, although she was an accomplished poet as well as a novelist. Although blessed with strong literary and intellectual connections, the Alcott's lacked commercial connections or opportunities and Louisa saw her writing as a moneymaker rather than a contribution to the literary world when she first became a writer. She wrote under the pen name A.M. Barnard at the start of her career, penning novels for young adults.
Alcott was a strong voice for women and women's rights, later founding the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in Boston.