Scholars traditionally distinguish Mark Twain from Louisa May Alcott based on gender differences, but Roberta Seelinger Trites argues that there are enough similarities between the two authors’ intellectual lives that their novels share interconnected social agendas. Trites does not imply that Twain and Alcott influenced each other—indeed, they had little effect on each other—but, paradoxically, they wrote on similar topics because they were so deeply affected by the Civil War, by cataclysmic emotional and financial losses in their families, by their cultural immersion in the tenets of Protestant philosophy, and by sexual tensions that may have stimulated their interest in writing for adolescents. 

Trites demonstrates how the authors participated in a cultural dynamic that marked the changing nature of adolescence in America, provoking a literary sentiment that continues to inform young adult literature. Both intuited that the transitory nature of adolescence makes it ripe for expressions about human potential for change and reform. Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel explores the effects these authors’ extraordinary popularity had in solidifying what could be called the adolescent reform novel. The factors that led Twain and Alcott to write for youth, and the effects of their decisions about how and what to write for that audience, involve the literary and intellectual history of two people—and the nation in which they lived.


“Trites examines in depth, as no scholar has done before her, the intricate parallels between the lives, works, attitudes, and social contexts of Samuel Clemens and Louisa May Alcott. This is an important contribution by a first-rate scholar who makes her case with verve and energy.”—J. D. Stahl, professor of English at Virginia Tech, author, Mark Twain, Culture, and Gender, co-editor, Crosscurrents of Children’s Literature

“Although many other scholars have written about Twain and Alcott, what distinguishes Trites’s scholarship on these legendary American writers is her remarkable ability to synthesize existing research in such a way that she helps readers see connections that they might otherwise miss. Most of the historical accounts of American adolescent literature focus on titles and authors rather than ideas. By concentrating on two important authors, Trites is able to explore in an intellectual way the assumptions and motivations behind these authors’ writings for adolescents.”—Mark I. West, former president of the Children’s Literature Association, professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and author,A Children’s Literature Tour of Great Britain

“In her persuasive analysis of the adolescent reform novel’s emergence, Trites explores the spiritual idealism, market-driven materialism, and real-world politics that shaped Twain’s and Alcott’s careers. In the process, she provides much needed attention to the remarkable but overlooked similarities that bring together these authors who imagined in the adolescent’s capacity for change the nation’s future.”—Gregory Eiselein, author, Literature and Humanitarian Reform in the Civil War Era, co-editor, The Norton Critical Edition of “Little Women”

1. The Fantasy of Self-Reliance: An Introductory Biography
2. The Metaphor of the Adolescent Reformer: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women
3. Historical Interlude: Vita Religiosa and Romantic Evangelism
4. Education and Reform: Victorian Progressivism
5. Gender and Reform: New Women and True Womanhood
6. Historical Interlude: Authors, Authority, and Publication
7. Adolescent Reform Novels: The Legacy of Twain and Alcott

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236 pages, 6 x 9 inches