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!

Does Reading Shape Moral Vision? Little Women and Don Quixote

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!

WHO READS DON QUIXOTE?   A friend who teaches a non-credit grammar course at a community college recently tried to give away a copy of her favorite book, Don Quixote.  There were no takers.

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.

Is Joey in “Friends” Qualified to Review a Book on Alcott’s Little Women?

Clark The Afterlife of Little Women k2-_e2c95994-a61e-4453-afed-e85121e2cf8f.v1In the Feb. 6 issue of the TLS, there is a review of Beverly Lyon Clark’s new book, The Afterlife of Little Women (Johns Hopkins University Press), a 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.

It sounds fascinating.

And then I read the review in the TLS.

Samantha Ellis, the reviewer, is not a fan of Little Women.

I am a fan of the TLS, but I have a question.

How did Samantha Ellis, an English playwright who mocks and misreads Little Women, land a plum assignment to review a book about the reception of an American classic? There are surely many Alcott scholars, among them Susan Cheever, author of Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography and American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, and editor of the second volume of Alcott’s works for the Library of America, who are much better qualified to review this.

How can we trust Ellis on the effectiveness of a book on a book she does not esteem?

The editors must have deemed Ellis an expert on children’s literature because she is the author of a new book that The Guardian calls “a warm-hearted biblioautobiography,” How to Be a Heroine.

Ellis blithely denies that Little Women is a feminist novel. She says that Clark’s reading is “unusual.”

As for [Clark’s] own response to the book, she writes that, growing up int the 1950s, Little Women allowed her to “dream of having it all—family and career.” This is a very unusual reading. Notoriously, none of the four heroines grows up to have it all. Meg (who doesn’t want a career, marries and devotes herself to family life, Beth (who has no ambitions for career or family) dies, Amy marries Laurie, who is fabulously rich, and decides that instead of being an artist she wants to be a lady philanthropist—and there’s Jo. Like most of Alcott’s readers, Clark identifies most with Jo, the misfit who wants to write. But, again, her response is singular; she did want Jo to marry Laurie, “but not passionately so.”

Heavens, the reviewer’s response to Little Women is extremely eccentric.   Jo does have a family and career.  What is this bit about “notoriously” none of the characters “have it all?”  “Have it all” is an expression that none of us takes literally.

Women raised on Alcott, as I have always maintained, are different.  We value our creative talents from an early age, believe in the equality between men and women (Marmee and Father are equals), understand the importance of charity and social justice, and that there is no shame in working at honest if unprestigious jobs since most of us women need an income.

The four girls in Little Women are clearly role models.  They are not only creative but help support their poor family at jobs they dislike:  Jo works  a companion for Aunt March, and Meg as a governess.  With the exception of Meg, the March girls are artistic.  Jo loves to write and later sells her stories to help support the family.  In the sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, she and her husband run an experimental school for indigent boys.  (Ellis thinks the school, founded by Jo and her husband with a legacy from Aunt March, is a comedown for a writer, but many of us value education.) Amy sketches and paints.  Beth is musical, an excellent pianist.  Meg is domestic, and what is wrong with that?

Little Women is not only realistic, but extremely entertaining.

And, yes, Alcott wrote this autobiographical novel for money, but that does not preclude its brilliance.

By the way, did you ever see the episode of Friends in which Joey hears that Beth dies?  He and Rachel swap favorite books and quarrel over spoilers for  Little Women (Rachel’s favorite book) and The Shining (Joey’s favorite).

Perhaps Joey could review The Afterlife of “Little Women”!

Here is the clip from Youtube.

The Amazon sample from Clark’s The Afterlife of “Little Women” is beautifully-written.  In the introduction Clark writes:

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.

Little Women il_570xN.150449237I had that same abridged edition (albeit with a different cover).  Later, I spent my allowance on a nicer Grosset and Dunlap edition (unabridged).

The Grosset and Dunlap edition.

The Grosset and Dunlap edition.

Now I have the Library of America edition.

little women library of america 1931082731.1.zoomI am willing to take a chance on Clark’s The Afterlife of Little Women.

The great thing about the TLS is that one learns about books that haven’t been reviewed in the more popular papers.

But whether Clark’s book is good is good or bad, it was a mistake to assign it to Ellis.  I have seldom read a lazier, more superficial review.