Volume 22, Issue 1 | Spring 2023

May Alcott Nieriker, Author and Advocate: Travel Writing and Transformation in the Late Nineteenth Century by Julia Dabbs

Reviewed by Cécile Roudeau

Julia Dabbs,
May Alcott Nieriker, Author and Advocate: Travel Writing and Transformation in the Late Nineteenth Century.
London and New York: Anthem Press, 2022.
215 pp.; 5 color and 3 b&w illus.; bibliography; index.
$125, £80 (hardcover)
$40, £25 (digital)
ISBN: 9781785278648
ISBN: 9781785278655
ISBN: 9781785278662

The Alcotts were not just any New England family. The father, Amos Bronson, was a writer, reformer, and educator; the mother, Abigail May Alcott, a writer and thinker in her own right, was, as Eve LaPlante has recently shown, a feminist far ahead of her time.‍[1] Louisa, the eldest daughter, needs no introduction. And then, there was May, the focus of two recently published studies—Azelina Flint and Lauren Hehmeyer’s edited collection, The Forgotten Alcott: Essays on the Artistic Legacy and Literary Life of May Alcott Nieriker, and the book by Julia Dabbs under review here.‍[2] The time has now come, or so it seems, for the “other” Alcott to command the attention she deserves.

Abigail May Alcott [Nieriker] (1840–79),‍[3] Dabbs’s study forcefully shows, was much more than “Amy March,” the coquettish art lover that was modelled after her in her sister’s best-selling Little Women. A painter and renowned copyist, May (as she preferred to be known as an adult) was also, as the title of this study makes clear, an accomplished “author” and an “advocate” for diverse causes, including women’s rights and the rights of people of color. After a biographical first chapter that posits Alcott Nieriker as “a transnational artist,” the book insists on her oeuvre as “travel writer” (chapter 2), “art critic and commentator” (chapter 3), and “social justice advocate” (chapter 4). In emphasizing her travel writing, Dabbs, a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota Morris whose research focuses on historical women artists, follows previous scholarship on Alcott Nieriker’s guidebook, Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply (1879), and positions it as an important example of nineteenth-century travel writing. However, Dabbs seeks to go beyond the image of Alcott Nieriker as a mere avatar of what Judith F. Funston referred to as the “‘Daisy Millerism’ of the late nineteenth century” (3). And she succeeds by showing that Alcott Nieriker, an independent observer and chronicler of both the European and US art scenes, criticized them, proposed bold reforms, and even transformed them.

Dabbs’s book is particularly effective in allowing readers to hear the artist’s voice, audacious, passionate, sarcastic, always witty, at times even funny, as she scribbled her essays, many of them starting as letters to her family. Quotations are many, and they are always to the point. Dabbs’s study combines extensive archival work in the Alcott Family Papers (Houghton Library) with compelling, close readings of Alcott Nieriker’s publications and manuscripts. Dabbs focuses not only on Studying Art Abroad, now readily accessible in digital and reprint copies, but also on her lesser-known essays in journals and newspapers, such as those published in the Boston Evening Transcript—“A Trip to St Bernard” (August 18, 1870); “A Letter from an Art Student in London” (July 17, 1873); “A Hint to London Visitors” (August 28, 1873)—or in The Youth Companion—the comic satiric piece titled “How We Saw the Shah” (August 14, 1873) and “London Bridges” (July 23, 1874). These last two essays Dabbs reattributes to May, though they were published under Louisa’s name. A key contribution of the book is an appendix that makes fully available all five articles, which previously could only be found in microfilm or had been misattributed. Readers, as a result, can enjoy these texts in full, before or after reading Dabbs’s analyses of this or that fragment. Also excerpted is the 309-page manuscript of “An Artist’s Holiday,” a book-length travel publication consisting of episodic chapters that recount the author’s experiences as a US artist in England. This manuscript, which Dabbs calls the “carpetbag” travel manuscript (72) and claims to be chiefly Alcott Nieriker’s work in view of the handwriting and signature of most of the chapters, is an important addition to the sources under study and will no doubt encourage new scholarship. Even more than the eight figures reproducing Alcott Nieriker’s drawings or paintings—the infamous frontispiece from Little Women, the striking Négresse (1879, deftly analyzed on 139–42), or the Turnerian Venetian landscapes, among others—it is Alcott Nieriker’s authorial voice that interests Dabbs, in its singularity and exemplarity, in its boldness—a word that occurs many times—and its transgressiveness at a time when the transition from “True woman” to “New Woman” was troubling gendered norms in the United States and beyond.

As revealed by Dabbs, Alcott Nieriker is both the product of familial and national traditions and a singular artist often ahead of her time. In sync with the abolitionist and reformist-minded Alcotts, May was an artist and a traveler with a purpose. Chapter 4 follows her from her early years teaching African Americans in Concord in the 1850s, when she was just twelve years old, to her experience as a young painter in Paris in the 1870s, when she encountered Black models used in art studios. As a US traveler in Europe, her letters testify to the lingering effects of the Civil War and her desire to pay tribute to a “race” that had been, and still was, discriminated against. About her Négresse, the artist writes that she aimed at giving her “the look of a young slave just sold to a kind master but still with a looming consciousness of being nothing but chattel” (140). Alcott Nieriker was not immune to gender and racial stereotypes, says Dabbs; yet the boldness of this painting that both depicts one individual woman and tropes on the type of the enslaved speaks volumes at a time (Reconstruction) when questions of rights for women and African Americans were an everyday concern. From her international standpoint, Alcott Nieriker was indeed a savvy commentator and acute reviewer of US politics. Dabbs convincingly argues that Alcott Nieriker used the “liberating genre of travel writing” (145) to “provide a scathing critique of American art museums” (144) and thunder at “the general disregard for the importance of the arts in American culture” (Alcott Nieriker’s words, 148). She did not hesitate to publicly state that the lack of significant public art collections in the US gave young artists a reason to go abroad, and to promote “art for all” (142). Back in Concord, she opened a free art center, testing her ideas, even if on a small scale. But that was not all. Alcott Nieriker knew that education was paramount and battled against the inequities in art education opportunities that she became increasingly aware of during her time abroad. When she “became rich and great,” she wrote, she would establish an art school in the US “for indigent artists and aspiring young students, as Rosa Bonheur has done in Paris, free to girls under twenty years of age” (156). Hers would not be a school of design based on the prejudicial belief that young women were better as designers and decorators of domestic objects, something that kept them away from the “public, often rambunctious, spaces” (Laura Prieto’s words, 158) where men did business and made art, but a school where all the rubrics were taught. In that sense, her harsh condemnation of the discriminatory practices of the Académie Julian in Paris, where women were offered “very inferior advantages at more than double the cost charged the men” (160), goes together with her even more controversial demand that women be entitled to “paint from the living nude models of both sexes, side by side with Frenchmen” (162)—something that would allow them to try their hands at genre and historical paintings. Clearly, Alcott Nieriker’s travel writing was her way of advocating for reform—at home and abroad.

Dabbs’s argument is compelling. However, the discourse of rights—women’s (artists’) rights, in particular—and the advocacy for political reform should not efface Alcott Nieriker’s concurrent demand for more democratic regulation (of art studios, of museums). Dabbs is right to inscribe Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply within a tradition of advice literature, travel guides and conduct books—from British author Mariana Starke’s Travels in Italy (1802) to Margaret Fuller’s 1846 essays for the New York Tribune to William Wells Brown’s An American Fugitive in Europe (1855) to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches (1863) or Sophia Peabody Hawthorne’s Notes in England and Italy (1869). She also usefully points to the signature features of Alcott Nieriker’s own guidebook: the practicality of her advice. Alcott Nieriker addresses such questions as where does one find lodging, food, cheap clothing, and free art institutions, and she writes against the grain of most travel writing of her time, which “favored nationalistic affirmation of home and country” (69). Given Alcott Nieriker’s insistence on frugality and the smart management of one’s resources, Dabbs might have mentioned precedents such as Benjamin Franklin’s almanac and Lydia Maria Child’s best-selling advice manual The Frugal Housewife (1829). The vivid prose of cosmopolitan and free-floating May does not necessarily invite comparison with Child’s or Franklin’s prescriptive and domestic manuals, but like them, Alcott Nieriker’s guidebook prescribes. Defending an ideology of frugality and good management, her reform asks for new forms of regulation—which may suggest another contextualization of her oeuvre. The ideology of freedom that Dabbs finds—and rightfully so—in May’s letters and essays goes together with a defense of the common good that won’t obtain without certain forms of (self-)regulation. Similarly, the portrait of Alcott Nieriker as an independent, transgressive, risk-loving, free individual should perhaps be mitigated by her acute awareness of the necessity of collaboration and mutual entente, to the point of co-authoring pieces with Louisa. We should pay tribute to Dabbs for her meticulous archival research that allows her to re-attribute to May texts published under Louisa’s name. It may also be worthwhile, however, to take seriously the hypothesis of co-authorship, a collaborative mode of action that might well be yet another modality of their will to reform.

May Alcott Nieriker, Author and Advocate: Travel Writing and Transformation in the Late Nineteenth Century is an important book. True to its title, it recovers an author and an advocate for reform whose voice is best heard in her travel writing, where her self-transformation and the transformation of the world in which she lived are boldly embedded and even performed. Dabbs shows how her oeuvre is a key moment in the history of women’s travel writing and of transnational US women authors and plays a significant part in the evolution of US art criticism. The pages on Alcott Nieriker’s defense of J. M. W. Turner are very instructive in this last regard. Dabbs’s fine study is well-researched, very pedagogical, attentive to reading Alcott Nieriker today as a champion of women’s (artists’) rights, as a defender of discriminated-against groups, and as an advocate of art and free education for all. Sometimes the book reads a little too much like a series of educational, somewhat repetitive vignettes, a “carpet-bag” of a book not unlike the genre Alcott Nieriker herself adopted in her travel writing, but this also makes Dabbs’s study highly accessible to different publics—from lovers of Little Women to students and scholars interested in art history, women writers, travel writing, and reform movements to the general public desirous to know more of the international transatlantic art scene in the nineteenth century. In adding May to the Alcott pantheon of authors, Dabbs redresses one of the many wrongs of literary history. Her book will no doubt inspire novel forays into the “new field of May Alcott Nieriker studies” (Flint’s words, 4).


[1] Eve LaPlante ed., My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother (New York and London: Free Press, 2012).

[2] Azelina Flint and Lauren Hehmeyer, eds., The Forgotten Alcott: Essays on the Artistic Legacy and Literary Life of May Alcott Nieriker (New York and Oxon: Routledge, 2021). Prior to this book under review, Julia Dabbs published the following article in this journal: Julia K. Dabbs, “Empowering American Women Artists: The Travel Writings of May Alcott Nieriker,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 15, no. 3 (Autumn 2016), https://doi.org/10.29411/ncaw.2016.15.3.3.

[3] Dabb notes that May Alcott Nieriker only used her expanded surname in professional contexts following her marriage to Ernest Nieriker in 1878 (10).