The Sparrow’s Fall: Self’s Mergence with Identity in Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches
In This Republic of Suffering Drew Faust describes Civil War hospitals as “especially dangerous places…nurses—Louisa May Alcott prominent among them—regularly fell victim to typhoid, smallpox, and even heart failure brought on by the conditions and demands of their employment” (140). In the environment Faust describes, Louisa May Alcott “would have given much to have possessed the art of sketching, for many…faces became wonderfully interesting” (33). Alcott’s desire to depict hospitalized soldiers comes to fruition in her 1863 collection of letters turned fiction, Hospital Sketches. Although Alcott’s account is presented as fiction, it contains many levels of truth, embodying the type of story central in most debates concerning truth and authority within autobiography.
Alice Fahrs refers to Hospital Sketches as “a fictionalized account of Alcott’s brief experiences as a nurse in Washington” (2) while acknowledging that the story is the product of Alcott’s very real experience written to her family in a series of letters (29). Scholars classify Hospital Sketches as fiction because it is signed by Nurse Periwinkle, Alcott’s narrator and alter ego (24). Elaine Showalter explains that the letters developed into a series of sketches and then into a book: “When she turned the sketches, originally written for the Boston antislavery paper The Commonwealth, into a book, Alcott added…Tribulation Periwinkle, a doughty spinster who goes to Washington because she wants something to do, and not because she understands very well where she is going” (xxvi). Alcott’s experience remains intact but the author does not. Hospital Sketchesstands as an example of how truth and authority in autobiography become suspect, while simultaneously allowing for significance and meaning to emerge.
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