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A Modern Mephistopheles by Louisa May Alcott; introduction by Octavia Cowan (Bantam Classic: $3.50; 160 pp.) : The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy and Madeleine B. Stern (Little, Brown: $24.95; 315 pp.)

August 16, 1987|Jonathan Kirsch

"Went for some weeks to the Bellevue and wrote 'A Modern Mephistopheles,' " confided beloved children's author Louisa May Alcott to her journal in 1877. "It has been simmering since I read Faust last year. Enjoyed doing it, being tired of providing moral pap for the young."

Not that "A Modern Mephistopheles," newly issued by Bantam Classics, is anything but profoundly moral: It's a cautionary tale about the terrible price of temptation, rendered in florid and grandiose prose that brings to mind the tones of a church organ. And Alcott pulled out all the stops on her well-wrought little melodrama: She gives us adultery, betrayal, drugs, seduction, pregnancy, all manner of intrigue, and a heart-rending climax of redemption by reason of tragic death.

Still, readers of "Little Women" and its progeny may be shocked by the thinly veiled eroticism of Alcott's once-secret novel.

"Mephistopheles" was originally published as part of a series of anonymous novels by famous authors, and Alcott--a self-described "chronic spinster"--allowed herself to explore some of the darker passions in her rendering of the Faust tale. Felix Canaris, a starving young poet, is corrupted with promises of literary success by the Mephistophelean Jasper Helwyze, an elderly benefactor with obscure ulterior motives. Gladys, a plaster saint of a woman, is Helwyze's unwitting tool in the quasi-seduction of Canaris, whom Helwyze has moved into his own house. Ultimately, Gladys' shining example of love, faith and sacrifice redeems the wretched young poet and the dissolute old Helwyze, but not before Gladys herself has tasted intellectual and literary pleasures that are made to seem almost pornographic.

Helwyze, impotent and ill, persuades the innocent young girl to read aloud to him "George Sand's passionate romances, Goethe's dramatic novels, Hugo and Sue's lurid word-pictures of suffering and sin; the haunted world of Shakespeare and Dante; the poetry of Byron, Browning and Poe." Helwyze knows what he is about: "Rich food and strong wine for a girl of 18; and Gladys soon felt the effects. She often paused to question with eager lips, to wipe wet eyes, to protest with indignant warmth, or to shiver with the pleasureable pain of a child who longs, yet dreads, to hear an exciting story to the end. Helwyze . . . enjoyed the rapid unfolding of the woman, and would not deny himself any indulgence of this new whim. . . ."

It is tempting to regard the metaphorical eroticism of "Mephistopheles"--sexual yearning dressed up as literary ambition--as a revelation of Alcott's own secret passions. By far the most intriguing character in "Mephistopheles"--and, in speech and manner, the most contemporary--is Helwyze, "a wealthy but impotent invalid who can express his sexuality only through his intellect," as Octavia Cowan writes by way of introduction to the novel. "Alcott's identification with Helwyze, a manipulative male character who spiritually rapes an ideally feminine woman, underscores her ambivalence toward her own gender." There is indeed a sexual ambivalence about Helwyze, whose interest in literature seems only partly to explain the intensity of his interest in Canaris.

This perception is reinforced by Alcott's own letters, which have been thoughtfully selected and usefully annotated by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy and Madeleine B. Stern in "The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott." Alcott, a prolific and candid correspondent, readily characterizes herself as a "literary spinster." Despite her authorship of an enduring classic of literature for young women, she confesses that "I was born with a boy's nature and always had more sympathy for and interest in them than in girls, and have always fought my fight . . . with a boy's spirit."

When she attends a costume ball in the garb of a bearded monk, she reports that "the boys called me 'sir' . . . and the girls flirted in earnest till I took off my beard." And literature takes the place of love, marriage and children; as early as 1854, when her first book, "Flower Fables," was published, she dubbed it her "firstborn" and asked for her mother's blessing ("For grandmothers are always kind").

But Alcott's craving for literary success was more than a sublimation of her sexual longings. Alcott, the dutiful daughter of the idealistic, influential but mostly impoverished Transcendentalist philosopher Bronson Alcott, turned out to be a hardheaded Yankee entrepreneur, albeit a literary one; as a young woman, newly liberated from her father's household, she prided herself on putting together a living by sewing and by writing anonymous thrillers for the popular press.

"I am grubbing away as usual," she wrote to sister Anna in 1854. "I have $11, all my own earnings--$5 for a story, and $4 for the pile of sewing I did for the ladies of Dr. Gray's society, to give him as a present."

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