I am looking forward to the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women on September 30.
I am an Alcott nut. I have read Little Women many, many times. And if you’re interested in my enthusiastic posts, try “Alcott at the Movies: Why Little Women But Not An Old-Fashioned Girl?“, “Does Reading Shape Moral Vision? Little Women and Don Quixote” and “A Louisa May Alcott Idyll: The Tasha Tudor Figurines.”
I was seven the first time I read Little Women, after my mother took me to see the movie. I wrote at this blog,
The most thrilling cinematic experience of my childhood was a Saturday matinée revival of Little Women, the 1949 film starring June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret O’Brien. Not only did the sentimental scenes of 19th-century family life via Hollywood delight me, but the wonderful novel pushed the boundaries of my moral imagination. When Amy burned Jo’s manuscript, I was stunned by this terrible deed. But Jo must forgive her. Sisterhood matters. If the bond breaks, devastation follows. Yet all these years later, I still find it unbearable to think of the destruction of Jo’s art.
Little Women is an American classic, still much admired by scholars, feminists, and queer theorists, but by 1960 it had disappeared from the public school curriculum, according to Beverly Lyon Clark in her fascinating book, The Afterlife of Little Women. I sometimes wonder, Does anyone read Little Women anymore except homeschoolers and us feminists?
And so today I was thrilled to read Joan Acocella’s brilliant essay in The New Yorker about Little Women. She writes, “It is doubtful whether any novel has been more important to America’s female writers than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the story of the four March sisters living in genteel poverty in Massachusetts in the eighteen-sixties.”
Acocella also reviews Anne Boyd Rioux’s new book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. She particularly admires Rioux’s amusing analyses of film adaptations. She also lists writers who were influenced by Little Women, including Cynthia Ozick, Ann Petry, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Nora and Delia Ephron, Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Mary Gordon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, and Stephenie Meyer.
I have not yet read Rioux’s book, but I have compiled a list of brilliant biographies, criticism, novels inspired by Little Women, and even two lesser-known autobiographical writings by Alcott. Here they are!
1 Beverly Lyon Clark’s The Afterlife of Little Women (Johns Hopkins University Press), a brilliant history and analysis of the reception of Louisa May Alcott’s novel from 1868 to the present. Clark, a feminist critic and an English professor at Wheaton College, is an Alcott scholar and an expert on children’s literature. She was also a co-editor of Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays.
I hold my childhood copy of Little Women. A solid, tangible object. Unchanging, it would seem, except for the yellowing of its pages and the peeling of its laminated cover. Unchanged, I assumed when I first read it, from what Louisa May Alcott had originally written–or at least I had assumed a kind of authenticity. Yet what appears to be solid and unchanged is not.
For what I read was abridged–“A Modern Abridged Edition,” it says on the title page. But back then I didn’t scrutinize title pages.
I love this book!
2 Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, a compelling, readable history of nineteenth-century writers who lived in Concord, Massachusetts. Cheever refers to Concord as the American Bloomsbury. And this book puts Alcott’s work in context.
3 John Matteson’s Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2008. It has been a while since I read it, but here is the publisher’s description:
Louisa May Alcott’s name is known universally. Yet, during her youth, the famous Alcott was her father, Bronson—an eminent teacher, lecturer, and admired friend of Emerson and Thoreau. Willful and exuberant, Louisa flew in the face of all her father’s intricate theories of child rearing. She, in turn, could not understand the frugal life Bronson preached, one that reached its epitome in the failed utopian community of Fruitlands. In a family that insisted on self-denial and spiritual striving, Louisa dreamed of wealth and fame. At the same time, like most daughters, she wanted her father’s approval. As her father struggled to recover from a breakdown and slowly resurrect his career, Louisa learned to support her family, teaching if she must, but finally finding her vocation in writing. This story of their tense yet loving relationship adds dimensions to Louis
4 Susan Cheever’s excellent book, Louisa May Alcott, which is part biography, part bibliomemoir. Here is an excerpt from the publisher’s description:
Based on extensive research, journals, and correspondence, Cheever’s biography chronicles all aspects of Alcott’s life, from the fateful meeting of her parents to her death, just two days after that of her father. She details Bronson Alcott’s stalwart educational vision, which led the Alcotts to relocate each time his progressive teaching went sour; her unsuccessful early attempts at serious literature, including “Moods,” which Henry James panned; her time as a Civil War nurse, when she contracted pneumonia and was treated with mercury-laden calomel, which would affect her health for the rest of her life; and her vibrant intellectual circle of writers and reformers, idealists who led the charge in support of antislavery, temperance, and women’s rights.
5. Madeleine Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (the first biography I ever read of Alcott). Here is a bit about the author:
Stern, a partner in the firm of Rostenberg and Stern Rare Books, has edited of several collections of Alcott’s works, including Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman’s Power; From Jo March’s Attic: Stories of Intrigue and Suspense; and Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers, all published by Northeastern University Press. A collection of Stern’s essays, Louisa May Alcott: From Blood & Thunder to Hearth & Home, is also published by Northeastern. She lives in New York City.
6. Geraldine Brooks’ superb novel, March, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. I loved it! The publisher’s description calls it a
historical novel and love story set during a time of catastrophe, on the front lines of the American Civil War. Acclaimed author Geraldine Brooks gives us the story of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – and conjures a world of brutality, stubborn courage and transcendent love. An idealistic abolitionist, March has gone as chaplain to serve the Union cause. But the war tests his faith not only in the Union – which is also capable of barbarism and racism – but in himself. As he recovers from a near-fatal illness, March must reassemble and reconnect with his family, who have no idea of what he has endured. A love story set in a time of catastrophe, March explores the passions between a man and a woman, the tenderness of parent and child, and the life-changing power of an ardently held belief
7. Katharine Weber’s The Little Women. This modern retelling of Little Women by the brilliant writer Katharine Weber kept me late one night. Here is the publisher’s description:
Sisters Meg, Jo and Amy have the perfect family–loving, creative parents; a comfortable life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; a future full of possibility. Perfect until the daughters discover their mother has had affair, and, even worse, that their father has forgiven her. Shattered by their parents’ failure to live up to the moral standards and values of the family, the two younger sisters leave New York and move to Meg’s apartment in New Haven, where Meg is a junior at Yale. It is here that the girls will form their own family, divorced from their parents. The Little Women is a chronicle of that year, wittily narrated as a novel written by the middle sister Jo and commented upon throughout by her sisters.
8. The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson. You can’t have too many copies of Little Women! Here is an excerpt from the publisher’s description:
Renowned Alcott scholar John Matteson brings his expertise to the book, to the March family it creates, and to the Alcott family who inspired it all. Through numerous photographs taken in the Alcott family home expressly for this edition—elder daughter Anna’s wedding dress, the Alcott sisters’ theater costumes, sister May’s art, and Abba Alcott’s recipe book—readers discover the extraordinary links between the real and the fictional family.
9. Gabrielle E. Jackson’s Three Little Women series (1908-1914)is one of several spin-offs of Little Women. Beverly Lyon Clark, author of The Afterlife of Little Women, considers Jackson’s series the best of the spinoff. She writes,
The three sisters in Jackson’s fiction series are Eleanor, about seventeen in the first volume, bookish and academic; Constance, fifteen, the most domestic of the three; and the madcap ten-year-old Jean. As in Little Women, the family has declined in wealth because the father endorsed a loan to a friend who then defaulted; and like Mr. March in part 1 of Alcott’s novel, Mr. Carruth is absent from the family circle, but in this case because he has died. There is likewise a strong-willed aunt who, like Aunt March, scolds but provides financial help, and there is a friendly, wealthy young man nearby, not unlike Laurie.
10. Hospital Sketches and Transcendental Wild Oats are two fascinating autobiographical works by Alcott. Hospital Sketches is an account of her experiences during the Civil War as a nurse; Transcendental Wild Oats is a satire of life in her father’s failed commune, Fruitlands, where the Alcotts lived and starved for seven months.
What are your favorite books by or about Alcott? According to Beverly Lyons Clark in The Afterlife of Little Women, American intellectuals, feminists, and queer theorists love Little Women, as do Europeans and the Japanese, but British intellectuals despise it. Fascinating!