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!

A Louisa May Alcott Idyll: The Tasha Tudor Figurines

alcott-figuresMy cousin Megan gave me my Christmas gift today. After the P.O. delivered the package she had ordered from eBay, she came over unannounced to give me “the present of the century.”

“Open this now,” she said when she arrived at my house to find me, for the sixth day in a row, picking up Christmas decorations the cats have knocked off the tree and designated as their toys.  “It will put you in the Christmasy mood.”

It took 20 minutes to cut through the layers of tape and unwind the contents from mummy wrappings of brown paper and bubble wrap.  Inside were nestled  four hand-painted porcelain Little Women figurines, designed by Tasha Tudor and manufactured by Franklin mint.  In order of appearance in the DIY photo above are Beth with kittens, Jo holding a book, Amy sketching, and Meg sewing.

As Megan said, “It makes me want to play dolls.”

Instead, we just rearranged them in different groupings.

I have long been a fan of Louisa May Alcott, as readers of this blog may or may not remember. (I myself have trouble remembering where I read what online.)  Anyway,  my favorite Alcott is An Old-Fashioned Girl, which I wrote about here.  I posted about Eight Cousins here; and spent a lot of time musing on a strange TLS review of Beverly Lyon’s excellent book, The Afterlife of Little Women, here.

Although I do not have a large Alcott collection, I photographed the six books of hers I found on the shelves. This is a blogger kind of photoshoot, is it not?

My first copy of  Little Women was an adapted version, which I no longer have, alas,  purchased at the supermarket when I  was seven. Later I was given a Junior Illustrated Classic, with the complete text.  I longed to  whistle tomboyishly with my hands in my pockets, and cry out, “Christopher Columbus” and “capital!” like Jo.  I also wanted to be a writer.  And I loved the way Jo cares nothing for fashion, or inky pinafores.

Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and “fall into a vortex,” as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.  Her “scribbling suit consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action.  This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping gin their heads semi-occasionally, to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?”

After my first reading of Little Women, I checked out all the Alcotts I could find from the library:  Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, and Jack and Jill, to name a few.

Library of America editions of Alcott

Library of America editions of Alcott

I began to acquire my “adult editions’ of Alcott about a decade ago.  When Library of America published a collection of  Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys  in 2005, I reread these entertaining, witty classics.  In 2014  LOA published a second Alcott edition, comprised of Work (known as the adult Little Women), Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings.

An Intimate Anthology is a wonderful collection, and An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite Alcott.

An Intimate Anthology is a wonderful collection, and An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite Alcott.

I strongly recommend The New York Public Library edition of An Intimate Anthology, a collection of Alcott’s stories, diary entries, letters, and verse, including Transcendental Wild Oats, about life in her father’s commune, and Hospital Sketches, a fictional account of her experiences as a Civil War nurse.  And, as I have mentioned,  An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite of Alcott’s books.

alcott-sensation-fiction-behind-a-mask-inheritanceAnd here are Alcott’s sensational writings!  Behind a Mask is a collection of the thrillers she wrote for money, and The Inheritance, a Gothic romance she wrote at 17.

What is your favorite Alcott book?

Now I just want to sit here and admire my figurines some more.

Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving”

old-fashioned-thanks-giving-alcott-penguin-s-l300 You’re ready to roast the turkey…you’ve added mushrooms, onion, and chestnuts to the Pepperidge Farm stuffing…the pies are on the counter…and then you get a phone call from your cousin, who has been committed to the mental hospital.  To riff on a phrase from Little Women, Thanksgiving won’t be Thanksgiving without her!

In Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” an unexpected  illness also disrupts Thanksgiving.

At the beginning, Mrs. Bassett is cozily preparing the feast the day before the holiday.

“I do like to begin seasonable and have things to my mind. Thanksgivin’ dinners can’t be drove, and it does take a sight of victuals to fill all these hungry stomicks,” said the good woman, as she gave a vigorous stir to the great kettle of cider apple-sauce, and cast a glance of housewifely pride at the fine array of pies set forth on the buttery shelves.”

And then a stranger brings bad news.  Mrs. Bassett’s mother is “failn’ fast.” She and her husband drop everything, promise the children a feast later, and take the sleigh to Gram’ma’s.

The older girls, Prue and Tillie, decide to make the dinner themselves.  They’ve seen Ma do it many times. If you’ve read Little Women, you know the cookery may be iffy.  Jo’s salt instead of sugar in the strawberries doesn’t begin to cover it.

I can’t pretend this one of Alcott’s better efforts, but she is one of our very best American writers, and I have read An Old-Fashioned Girl (my favorite), Little Women, Work (her adult Little Women), and Hospital Sketches many times. I am now breezing throuhg Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, which you can download it free on the internet.

I do wish we had cider apple-sauce at our house.

And I love Alcott’s dialogue (and occasional dialect)!

Tilly Bassett, whatever made you put wormwood and catnip in your stuffin’?” demanded Ma, trying not to be severe, for all the rest were laughing, and Tilly looked ready to cry.

Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope all is well with you and your family.

A Caffeinated Readathon: Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, Eve Babitz’s Eve’s Hollywood, David Means’ Hystopia, and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

alcott loa work, rose in bloom, etc. 41hRjni4-DL

The Library of America edition.

I had a caffeinated readathon on Sunday. Too little sleep, too much coffee, and I read parts of four books, but finished only my comfort book, Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins.

It  started when I woke up on Sunday at 3:45 a.m.  I thought it was near dawn, and realized I would be up in time to watch the men’s Olympic marathon.


WHY WAS I AWAKE?  The marathon didn’t start till 7:30.  There was no possiblity that Bob Costas was working at 3:45, even Brazil time.

So I got up and I played String with the cats–this involves swinging a string , and my cats are so lazy that after a while they lie on the floor and bat at it.  (They learned this from the oldest cat, who is their street-wise role model in all things).

Then I read for several hours.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Whitman Classics edition, with cover illustration by Robert

My original Whitman Classics edition from the ’60s!

Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins.  A few years ago I bought a Library of America volume of Louisa May Alcott’s work, edited by Susan Cheever, one of Alcott’s biographers.  This is a superb collection of Alcott’s children’s and adult writing, and includes the novels Work (known as “the adult Little Women”), Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, and “Stories and Other Writings.”

Alcott is witty and  her dialogue is rambunctious, her best books are so fast-paced they can be inhaled, and her female characters are never,  as Jo says in Little Women, “affected, niminy-piminy chits.”  In Eight Cousins, the heroine, Rose Campbell,  an orphan, is a bit “niminy-piminy” at first, when fresh from boarding school, she is living on the “Aunt Hill,” with her great-aunts Plenty and Peace Campbell, both spinsters, who don’t  how to raise a teenager.  In the neighborhood live four other aunts, three of whom are the mothers of Rose’s seven male cousins, and each has her own ideas about bringing up girls.  Aunt Myra, a gloomy hypochondriac whose daughter Caroline died as a child (poor Myra and poor Caroline!), is convinced Rose is not long for this world and doses her with pills. Fortunately, Rose’s guardian, Uncle Alec, a charming doctor, returns from sea and  throws out the pills and forbids Rose to drink the  coffee which was supposed to calm her nerves.  He has brought back a chest of gifts from the exotic East to bribe her with, though that word is never used:  Soon she is drinking fresh milk in a special wooden cup that is supposed to make everything taste better,  substituting colorful sashes for the tight fashionable belt, wearing beautiful loose dresses,  running (the Olympics marathon next?),  gardening, and even camping (God help her!).  Endearingly, she befriends and “adopts” the teenage maid, Phebe, who was raised at an orphanage. And the girls have fun together and prove to be equal in intelligence, as we learn when Rose later helps her with her writing.  (Phebe surpasses her in arithmetic, due to keeping accounts.)

Alcott understands boys so well, yet she had only sisters.  When Uncle Alec arrives unexpectedly, a “warning” is sent to the Campbell boys to prepare them for Uncle Alec’s presence at church.

It was evident that the warning had been a wise one, for, in spite of time and place, the lads were in such a ferment that their elders sat in momentary dread of an unseemly outbreak somewhere.  It was simply impossible to keep those fourteen eyes off Uncle Alec, and the dreadful things that were done during the sermon will hardly be believed.

My favorite of the cousins is Mac, the bookworm, and when he strains his eyes, has to wear an eye shade, and cannot reads, Rose is the best “nurse”:  she spends hours reading to him and entertaining him.  (Mac plays a big role in the sequel, Rose in Bloom. when they grow  up, but I won’t breathe a word about it.)  Anyway, Rose learns to hold her own with the boys:  when Charlie (known as Prince) and Archie stop speaking to each other–both have fallen into bad company, the one drinking too much, the other in debt for betting–Rose sets a good example and mediates.  They have an easier time talking to a girl about their problems than to each other.

Alcott moralizes more overtly in Eight Cousins than in Little Women or my favorite, An Old-Fashioned Girl. but Rose is not perfect, thank God.  When her fashionable frenemy, Annabel Bliss, tempts her to have her ears pierced, Rose cannot resist, even though she knows Uncle Alec will disapprove..  It hurts like hell–there is no numbing with ice cubes–and she plans to keep it secret for a while–but she has forgotten that her six-year-old cousin, Jamie, and his little friend Doodie were witnesses:  they were playing in the corner!  And they tell!  ( I couldn’t resist getting my ears pierced either, though, alas, I have a metal allergy!  No jewelry for this girl…)  Uncle Alec gives Rose a break, and she does wear little gold earrings/

pierced ears eight-cousins-annabel-bliss-and-rose-chapter-15


Eve's Hollywood 41LfGk35RaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. Eve Babitz’s Eve’s Hollywood, which I learned about this from Jacqui Wine’s blog. Babitz’s autobiographical novel about coming of age in L.A. is witty and hilarious!

As a fan of Dancing with the Stars, I especially enjoyed the chapter about ballroom dancing in gym class.  When it rains,  Eve and the other girls are thrilled, because instead of changing into smelly gym clothes, they get to dance to records by Chuck Berry, etc.  They love it, but the  best dancers are the tough, cool Mexican girls.  Here is a description of one of their dances.

The Choke was a Pachuco invention. The Pachucos were what we called kids who spoke with Mexican accents whether they were Mexican or not and who lived real lives. The Choke looked like a completely Apache, deadly version of the jitterbug only you never thought of the jitterbug when you watched kids doing the Choke. There was no swing in the Choke, it was staccato. It was Pachuco, police-record, L.A. flamenco dancing.

3. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.  What can I say?  It’s Jonathan Franzen, and it’s addictively readable.  I’m fascinated by the characters living in a squat, but it unfortunately breaks up when a wife leaves her husband.  I’ve only read 100 pages so far, but much more on this later.

4. David Means’ Hystopia, nominated for the Man Booker Prize.  So far I love it: it is reminiscent of Samuel R. Delany’s very weird post-modern SF classic, Dhalgren.   Hystopia is an alternate history of the ’60s in which Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and is in his third term, Detroit and the rest of Michigan are burning because of fires that started in riots  in Detroit, and Vietnam vets are treated with a combination of drugs and reenacting their traumas that “enfolds” their traumas  and sometimes cure them but also causes amnesia.  Some rogue Vietnam vets  have not submitted to treatment or have not responded to it and are raising hell…  (Very well-written. So far this seems Booker-worthy!)