What to Read for the 150th Anniversary of “Little Women”

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!

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.

Clark beghins,

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!

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

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!

20 thoughts on “What to Read for the 150th Anniversary of “Little Women”

  1. How could I have missed the fact that this anniversary is on the horizon? Perhaps it has not been made so much of in the U.K. and yet I am sure that Little Women has been as influential a text for young British girls as it has for those in the USA. Certainly it was the first book that truly drew me into the world of its characters and made me long to a part of it. Of the book you list the two I’ve really enjoyed have been American Bloomsbury and March. Some of the others are new to me but that will give me something to focus my personal Little Women celebrations on.

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    • There are so many literary anniversaries that it is hard to keep up with them. We’ve barely recovered from Emily Bronte and suddenly it’s Little Women! The New Yorker article reminded me about this one. Yes, Little Women is or was an international hit, translated into many languages, and I am sure it’s popular everywhere. American feminists take it seriously and have rescued it from the derision of the male critics of the early 20th century. But I was fascinated to learn that in the UK writers Linda Grant and some other women have trashed it.
      But that can’t be universal!

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  2. You are hearing from another LMA nut here. Thanks for reminding of all the good books by and about her. My personal favorites are Hospital Sketches (where LMA found her own voice after writing all the blood and thunder tales for money) and Matteson’s Eden’s Outcastes which helped me to understand the impossible Bronson Alcott a little better.

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    • Bronson IS impossible, and perhaps that’s one of the charms of Brooks’s novel, March: he is not a very sympathetic character. I do want to reread Hospital Sketches and some of her other adult works. There are so many LMA nuts!

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  3. My first encounter with LW was with the Whitman’s Classics abridged version, a very long time ago. I was upset about the “abridged” so had to get the “real” version from the library, and later that year for Christmas I extorted the beautiful illustrated harcover from my parents. The abridged Whitman’s Classics had the same cellophane covered cover described by Clark (which I peeled off enthusiastically) and had black and white line drawings that were equally as enthusiastically colored with pencils (you couldnt get good detail with crayons). After that, Little Men was ok, and Jo’s Boys too, but I loved An Old Fashioned Girl (still do) and Eight Cousins/Rose in Bloom. The copies i read were library copies from the 20s as Alcott was hard to find in print then. I never got to read the elusive Under the Lilacs despite the wonderful title. Shortly afterward, Gone with the Wind was discovered, and Jane Eyre, and I became a confirmed fan of the Victorians. I often “made up” a world in which Jane and Scarlett and the O’Hara girls met and became friends with the Marches. (or as much as Scarlett could befriend anyone female!) I must now go and read March, it has been on my list for a long time, and now is the time! I have the Annotated LW
    and it is Hefty.

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    • The cherished hardback had illustratiions by Louis Jambor (formerly known as Lajos Jambor born in Hungary). The hardcover binding was illustrated with stylized women in gowns. I still have it, Somewhere!

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    • Oh, what great memories! I had the Whitman abridged edition, too, and then when I was a bit older bought the “real” version with my allowance. I haven’t gone back to Under the Lilacs and wonder if it’s any good. I also had Whitman editions of An Old-Fashioned Girl and Eight Cousins, but they were short enough that they were not abridged.

      Yes, we must all go on an Alcott bender now!

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  4. In my hand I have this huge copy that someone was discarding. Children’s Classics with colour illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith and drawings by Frank T. Merrill. Time for a reread. Liked American Bloomsbury. What would our childhoods have been like without Little Women?

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  5. This is a subject or she and her book are a subject who get attention. I will pass this useful blog onto my groups.io listservs.

    I wrote this this morning on them:

    Joan Acocella: The Power of Little Women:

    The whole essay in this week’s New Yorker is online:

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/08/27/how-little-women-got-big

    Prompted by Rioux’s new book, it is nonetheless scarely on Rioux’s book; instead the book is a jumping point for Acocella’s thoughts and responses and a sort of history of Little Women in print and movies as well as briefly on Alcott’s life: the insight is to make the father central. She has a few interesting words on Little Men.

    I can’t resist saying how delighted I am to see Acocella argue that far from being this added thud at the end of Little Women, the love of Prof Bhaer and Jo, his slow introduction, their courtship and that final scene is among the best love scenes she’s ever read (in classic books she probably means). She makes a strong case from the German song music Jo first hears him playing (and in one of the movies, perhaps 1931, someone used Schubert’s None but the Lonely Heart, and the scene itself are intensely strong. I’ve always thought so and love the depiction in 1995 Gabriel Byrne and Wynona Ryder). Acocella goes over the objections of those who want Laurie and those who want no one.

    I also found myself in agreement over Emily Watson in the most recent Little Women: she stole the show (as she has in most movies I’ve ever seen her in, Gosford Park, The Proposition come to mind).

    I cc to 18thCWorlds: I cannot see how there are people there have not read Little Women.

    Acocella says LT should have the status of Huckleberry Finn …

    Ellen

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  6. Ellen, I was fascinated by Acocella’s analysis of the love scene. Although I never wanted Jo to marry Laurie, I never quite thought Bhaer was quite right for her, yet I want to reread the book keeping Acocella’s analysis in mind. I loved the film with Winona Ryder, but Gabriel Byrne was much too beautiful to be Dr. Bhaer. Of course Winona Ryder was also way too lovely, but I found her a convincing Jo.

    I missed the BBC production!

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  7. I guess I’ll be re-reading my two favorite LMA books…”Little Women” and “An Old Fashioned Girl”. Looking forward to both the New Yorker article and the book by Rioux. And no one can match Jessie Wilcox Smith illustrations, but Tasha Tudor comes close!

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