Emerson, Alcott, and Authorship: Transcendentalist Ideas in the Age of AI

Author: Emmy Brown, Georgia State University

After a trip to Concord, I grew increasingly interested in the way the Concord circle of philosophers was deeply intertwined in each other’s artistic paths, specifically those of Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s impact on Alcott’s personal life is clear, as seen in Moods, but his philosophy may be more deeply rooted in her work. The Concord Transcendentalists shared a close-knit social circle and set of philosophical ideals, and as a daughter of a Transcendentalist, Alcott saw their successes and failures in translating their idealist claims into reality. She later steps into the space as one of their own.

B. S. Webster notes that “Alcott has mixed emotions about Transcendentalism. Intrigued and inspired by the ideal of self-reliance, she still knew from experience that ‘self-reliance really meant reliance on others’” (16). Though Alcott’s ideas differed from those of the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists—like those of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller—her understanding of the world was greatly affected by their presence, specifically Emerson’s. The Concord Transcendentalists generated their own artistic dataset, where they shared a creative community and ways of thinking. They often used each other’s ideas, likenesses, or influences in their works and then added this on to their own creative experiences. For instance, as I recall from my work in Concord, the Alcott sisters were taught piano on the Steinway square grand in Emerson’s home—Alcott and her sister Lizzie are remembered to be well-taught pianists. Later, Alcott’s other sister May became well-known as a J. M. W. Turner copyist. Looking at these examples allows us to refocus attention on the community production idea that is in play here for Emerson and Alcott, where this network is playing the same pianos both figuratively and literally. I’m suggesting that in Concord, and within this social group, Transcendentalist collective thought becomes the available material for Alcott to base her work upon. When we reposition or deprivilege the author and look more at the network, how does influence cross over into ownership, especially in the modern context of artificial intelligence (AI)? When we read the Transcendentalist group as a network, the ideas of authorship can become complicated and destabilized. 

Emerson’s “Quotation and Originality” from Letters and Social Aims uncovers the “borrowing” of words, and in the essay, the ownership of creativity is called into question, where no singular man is the owner of intellectual property. Using this essay as a foundation, Alcott’s Little Women functions as a work of quotation—the novel itself having been reformulated repeatedly in the present age. I consider this work to look at the way Transcendentalist ideals may have affected Alcott’s ideas on the ownership of art. Furthermore, I explore the possible implication of iterations of ownership in more recent adaptations and commodifications of Alcott’s famous novel. I propose then that, through the lens of Emerson’s philosophy, we can further understand how these original Transcendentalist thinkers might view the current landscape of intellectual property.

Emerson writes that even “the originals are not originals,” implying that for centuries, man has shared information in an oral way, from one to another, layering information and data atop each other (2). This, he writes, alludes to the idea that “there is no pure originality” (2). Alcott expressed this as well, noting in many places in her personal writing that Little Women was nothing more than plagiarism itself, as it functions as her own experiences within a vacuum, spit out with new names. She states clearly in her journal that the only girls she’d ever known were her sisters, insinuating that the book was based on the information and people she had access to (Alcott 166). While Little Women is clearly autobiographical in nature, it does more than biographize Alcott—it reworks her shorter stories and the lives of those around her. Stern explains that Alcott “had simply amalgamated truth with some little fiction borrowing her details from her life and from her earlier stories” (179). Alcott reworking her previous writing into newer work, in addition to the advice of those within her social circle, complicates the ownership of Little Women. While this could be its own essay, I wish to only mention this to make known that these famous works, including those within the Transcendental movement, were written within the milieu of others’ philosophical ideas. Alcott’s reuse of her own work lends me to read beyond the text, inferring Emerson’s and the other Transcendentalists’ ideas as a foundation of Alcott’s work—however, though they acted as influences I do not mean to suggest that Alcott should be rejected authorship, but rather that the inspiration of Little Women causes us to consider issues of ownership. While indeed these questions might sound akin to Foucault’s claim “What is an Author?” I propose that they may take on a unique set of concerns when considering the transcendentalists specifically, and AI presently.

Who owns Little Women’sstory if it’s made up of so many people’s lives and ideas? How do we assume that individual authors are the originators from which works stem? In 2023, Little Women is so many things—a nineteenth-century novel, a brand, multiple movies, and a TV series. In the case of the 2019 Little Women film, the writing of the script is done by Greta Gerwig, and credit for this specific adaptation usually goes to her. These adaptations rework Alcott’s original work, which reworked her own life. These layers of adapting information in a creative manor pulls me towards Emerson’s ideas on borrowing. Alcott’s life—the parts she wrote down and the parts we have collected in the past century—create what I would call a dataset on Alcott, which Gerwig then used to create her work. Anyone can quote other works, but, as Emerson says, only “genius borrows nobly” (177). So, to use Alcott’s likeness, her novels and short stories, and the personal writings left behind to create another masterpiece in the name of a “girl’s book” creates a new piece even though it borrows, copies, and reworks. Emerson states boldly that “if an author gives us just distinctions, inspiring lessons, or imaginative poetry, it is not so important to us whose they are” (177). While scholars interested in intellectual property may complicate the ownership of these ideas, Emerson, and possibly the other Transcendentalists would call this genius.

Thinking this way about these relations to each other—Emerson to Alcott, Alcott to her novel, the novel to Gerwig—destabilizes the status of the author and complicates singular ownership of a text. Though, it is not so much where the ideas come from, as Emerson surmises, but the way the ideas are executed. Rather than using our time critiquing who wrote what and how, we should remember that this has always been a constant issue embedded in questions of authorial ownership. Using Emerson and Alcott, we can better prepare ourselves for the decentering of the individual author, which is often a philosophical question raised by the increasing integration of AI—what happens to authorship and ownership? What would Emerson then think about an AI that can generate and even participate in the creative process of writing?I think that Emerson might see this as an instrument that, like his Concord social circle, could afford someone the generative tools to inspire masterpieces.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Quotation and Originality.” In Letters and Social Aims, Boston, 1876, pp. 162–181.

Stern, Madeleine B. Louisa May Alcott: A Biography. Northeastern University Press, 1999.