My generation of women was raised on rock music and Louisa May Alcott. And the two are not as different as you think: they turned us into resistors of the status quo. Alcott’s writing is more polished and pointed than rock lyrics, though: Little Women is a transcendentalist classic, the first book I read that articulated issues of moral philosophy. I loved it when I was seven, and I love it equally now.
Alcott’s best-selling 19th-century children’s classic is a brilliant, lively, and often riotously funny autobiographical novel about the coming-of-age of four sisters in the Civil War era. She traces their history from girlhood through marriage, careers, and motherhood, and delineates the development of their ethics as well as character. She lightly comments on moral philosophy, materialism, the role of women, education, etc., usually in a few lines of breezy dialogue.
Louisa, the daughter of the philosopher Bronson Alcott, came of age in Concord, Mass., where her neighbors were Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, on whom she had a crush, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. As Susan Cheever points out in her book American Bloomsbury, “the Transcendentalists…were the original hippies.” She adds, “The Concord group of Transcendentalists was part of a wave of liberalism and a passion for freedom that seemed to be sweeping through the new United States.”
And that liberalism and passion for freedom are reflected in Little Women. Like the Alcotts, the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, grow up in an impoverished household, where, encouraged by Marmee, they learn to value social justice and charity. In the second chapter, they reluctantly agree to give away their Christmas breakfast to Mrs. Hummel, a poor woman with a newborn baby and six children in a house with no fire or food. And the appalling poverty makes them glad they have done it. That night, they merrily put on a play Jo has written, which is both entertaining and characteristic of their self-expression, complete with sword fights, forgotten lines, and, at one point, the collapse of a makeshift tower. Their friends shriek with laughter, and afterwards they eat ice cream, sent to the Marches by the wealthy man next door, who had heard about their charity to the Hummels.
But the four sisters struggle with poverty. Charming Meg hates her job as a governess for a wealthy family, because it makes her envious of their leisure and beautiful clothes. Jo, an aspiring writer, wishes she were a boy, whistles, and says she hates “affected, niminy-piminy chits!” She is equally dissatisfied with her day job as a companion for Aunt March. Beth is sweet and agoraphobic, good at housework and the piano, too shy to go to school. And Amy, who is as strong-willed as Jo, has a talent for art and is popular at school…until the pickled limes incident. (You must read the book.)
Some bloggers (many seem to be British; maybe because our cultures are so different?) complain about Alcott’s “morals” and “preachiness.” This startles me, since I can’t think of any children’s classics that don’t explore moral issues: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, John Verney’s Friday’s Tunnel, and the list goes on. For me, who read Alcott’s books as a child, these were as stimulating as I would later find Plato’s dialogues.
Years ago, a teacher friend and I agreed we were “raised on Louisa May Alcott.” We thought it had made us see the world differently. But did our students read her? One day we did an informal poll in our classes: who had read Little Women? In my five classes of approximately 125 students, only three had read it. In my friend’s four classes of approximately 100 students, two had read it. That’s 2.2222222222222223 percent. Isn’t that sad? And I can only imagine it would be less today, in the day of Y.A. literature.
Does the reading of Little Women change you if you read it as a girl? Well, perhaps. My friend and I were both creative types who resisted the social trends and pressures. Perhaps different generations of readers take different things from the classics?
God only knows. But it is always good to read the classics!
Well, that’s teaching.
Then she asked if anyone would give a brief talk on a favorite book, and the answer was No. Did anyone read books? No. Did anyone have books at home? No. Were they sure they didn’t want her extra copy of Don Quixote? Yes.
Teaching remedial classes for students with deficiencies can be discouraging. But, as I told her, you might as well keep your standards high, because this class is the only place they’ll ever hear of the Don.