Although Walden by Henry David Thoreau has fascinated me for years, Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches is new to me. Obviously, many people know Alcott, another prominent writer from Concord, for Little Women. This past year my daughter read the book for the first time, which is much more than I can boast, but I’ve now finished Hospital Sketches. What strikes me, especially, is seeing the book as a kind of antithesis to Walden. This surprised me because Walden was far from my mind when I began reading the book, but by the end, I had this strange connection to Thoreau:
“I never shall regret the going, though a sharp tussle with typhoid, ten dollars, and a wig, are the visible results of the experiment; for one may live and learn much in a month. A good fit of illness proves the value of health; real danger tries one’s mettle, and self-sacrifice sweetens the character. Let no one who sincerely desires to help the work on in this way, delay going through any fear; for the worth lies in the experiences that fill it, and this is one which cannot be forgotten. All that is best and bravest in the hearts of men and women, comes out of scenes like these; and, though a hospital is a rough school, its lessons are both stern and salutary; and, the humblest of pupils there, in proportion to his faithfulness, learns a deeper faith in God and in himself.”
For me, this paragraph, sparked the imagination, making me lean hard into Walden. Indeed, the word “experiment” in her first sentence here appealed most to me, reminding me of Thoreau’s lines about his time in the woods. He writes, “I learned this by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Here, we have both writers using “experiment” to describe their experiences, but the contrasts couldn’t be further apart.
Take time and distance. Alcott spent a month in the Washington hospital whereas Thoreau spent two years at Walden Pond, and when we think of distance, we know that Thoreau was close to home, having built his house on Emerson’s woodlot and making frequent trips into Concord to see family and friends. Not so for Alcott, who spends much time telling the reader of her trip to Washington. Her experience, perhaps, shows a greater sense of self-reliance than that of Thoreau, deepening perhaps our view of her own Transcendental experience.
Think of water. Part of her trip, by way of boat, offers up one of the more interesting accounts in her sketches, for as she faces her fear of drowning aboard a ship, she lays claim to a rather stout woman for she may make a better buoy than anything else she sees aboard the ship. Indeed, the first mention of water in Hospital Sketches is coupled with great fear, and perhaps, rightly so because Alcott said she had already avoided two drownings. Very natural, therefore, when she says, “I was born to be drowned.” And what a deep contrast to Thoreau, where water is at the heart of Walden, the life that rises and falls inside of us. For Alcott, her conveyance away from Boston is a premonition of doom: “The boat is new, but if it ever intends to blow up, spring a leak, catch afire, or be run into, it will do the deed to-night, because I’m here to fulfill my destiny.”
Then, there’s self-sacrifice. Indeed, in the passage above, Alcott claims, “Self-sacrifice sweetens the character.” For Thoreau, the woods becomes a proving ground for deliberate living; for Alcott, the hospital becomes the pinnacle of self-sacrifice. For the nurses, the hospital is an unforgiving atmosphere. The nurse is at the behest of the patient and the doctor. She does not live for herself, but for the care and improvement of the soldiers carted in from the battlefield—in this case, the soldiers from the Battle of Fredericksburg. She must wash and feed, and of course, tend to them with the necessary kindness, for the most part. Nurse Periwinkle, as Louisa calls herself, does reach a limit when confronted with a rebel soldier, hoping to put “soap in his eyes” because she was “a red-hot Abolitionist.” It’s one of the few times that I can recall her setting a deliberate boundary, perhaps acting from her heart rather than her obligation. She doesn’t have the opportunity, however, to put these thoughts into action.
On the other hand, the overall feeling of self-sacrifice might be summed up in her parody of the “Light Brigade” by Tennyson. There is something in this poem that musters up a vision of duty laid before the nurses, and although this may be a play on the poem, we must not forget that the original is about duty and sacrifice, which even in this form, Louisa wants us to see.
Beds to the front of them,
Beds to the right of them,
Beds to the left of them,
Beamed at by hungry souls,
Screamed at with brimming bowls
Steamed at by army rolls,
Buttered and sundered.
With coffee not cannon plied,
Each must be satisfied,
Whether they lived or died;
All the men wondered.
That is not to say that Louisa was without a break, but the work seems endless. Perhaps, some may find fault in bringing “levity” to such toil, as the poem above demonstrates, and Louisa acknowledges in her writing. Nevertheless, as long as soldiers lie in their beds, wondering whether they will live or die, there was work to be done, and the poem’s ending does not allow us to forget the price of war in human life. For so many, these nurses might be their last contact with the living.
A darker ending, too. Thoreau ends Walden with an appeal, that, we, the living see that there is more life to be lived, that the sun is only a morning star. Louisa ends Hospital Sketches with the death of her alter-ego, Nurse Periwinkle, and an epigraph suggesting that she died too soon, for she only stayed there a month, having contracted typhoid fever. It reminds me of the editor in the most recent Little Women movie telling Jo that she must either marry or kill off her heroine at the end of the book—I guess she chose a death of sorts, here, closing the chapter on her nursing experiment. Her ending then becomes a consolation aimed at herself whereas Walden ends with inspiration aimed at the reader. It’s hard to fault her, and given the setting of a war hospital, perhaps, consolation is the best medicine for the moment.
So what of her limited experiment? Like Thoreau’s pond in the woods, Alcott’s war hospital becomes a place to become intimate with life, to live life near the bone, often in a very literal sense. For me, the pervading metaphor of Walden has always been that of depth. We see it again and again in Thoreau. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” “The water is so transparent that the bottom can easily be discerned at the depth of twenty-five or thirty feet.” “Some think it is bottomless.” “I would fish deeper.” Indeed, I have often wondered at the prospect of counting every reference made to depth in the book. Always having that in mind, when Alcott also makes reference to depth, I’m reminded of Thoreau. As Alcott says, one who might make the hospital his or her school “learns a deeper faith in God and in himself.” To the common reader, this line might not stand out, but for those familiar with Emerson and Thoreau, it’s almost a common refrain, recalling Transcendentalism’s human divinity and the wells of self-reliance within us yet to be discovered.