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.

Mirabile Does Literary Fiction: Michelle Huneven’s Off Course

old-fashioned woman with computerLately I have been lazy about book-blogging.

Perhaps that is because I take books seriously. And perhaps it is because I need to pretend I am writing for somebody. I might be Rosalind Russell writing for her ex-husband/editor Cary Grant in His Girl Friday.  It takes less time to jot down an essay about bicycling, or a pop critique of Dancing with the Stars, than to scrawl even a short blog entry about books.

Some of us read books, others write them. When a friend was dying of cancer, bitter and in such pain that she would no longer receive her friends, she said on the phone that her whole life had been about reading.

“Do you think that’s good enough?”

Yes, I do.

She had regrets.

But perhaps being a reader is as important as being a writer.  If a writer’s work is not loved and kept in print, the pages soon disappear.

And here is a short digression. Our favorite book was Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl.  We once had an informal two-person book group discussion of it.  Both of us identified with Polly, the  country mouse who preferred simplicity to urban fashion, and who grew up to be an impoverished music teacher; we preferred her to Jo in Little Women, whom we loved, but…were we really tomboys?  And we were sure that reading Alcott had made us better people. Alcott’s novels are about making good moral choices.   Honestly, there is a difference between those who read Alcott and those who don’t.  (Can the same be said of today’s Harry Potter fans?)

This is a catch-up piece, dedicated to my friend.  “Do it,” she would have said. Oh, and she would have had her own book blog, too.

Off Course by Michelle HunevenMichelle Huneven’s Off Course, set in the 1980s, is a literary novel about a woman who cannot finish her dissertation.  Forget the fact that I am the kind of woman who finishes everything; I completely identify with Cressida Hartley.

Cressida Hartley moved up to her parents’ mountain cabin to finish her dissertation.  She would not become one of the aging lurkers around the Econ Department who hoped for sections of Intro to teach while the tenure track shimmered eternally on the far side of two hundred pages.”

A half-tame bear periodically visits the cabins.   Cress has to clean paw marks off the windows.  Nature is terrifying and yet domestic.  The episodes with the bear, and, later, with a bear rug which molds in the trunk of Cress’s car, reminds us that there is true wildness in the wilderness.  Not  even the bear rug is manageable.

Huneven’s writing is pitch-perfect:  few novelists write such graceful, unassuming, spare prose. And it is a quieter experience to read about the ’80s; I appreciated the time off from the 21st century.   Of course Cressida is distracted, but not by email, Facebook, or cell phones.   No, she is distracted by sex.  (We all were in the ’80s.)  She has a short relationship first with Jakey, the lodge owner. After he dumps her,  she has a long-term relationship with Quinn, a married carpenter, a semi-literate mountain man.  He asks her to marry him on the phone, and says he will divorce his wife; it is then that she falls in love with him.

Never trust a married man.  (Better:  don’t have a relationship with him.)

Cressida supports the sexual revolution, but some of her friends desert her because of her adultery.  This surprises her. And we do understand their harsh judgment of Cress: she is irresponsible at times.

But near the beginning of the novel, she wonders,

Wasn’t there romance that flowered differently, that didn’t morph right into marriage, pregnancy, childrearing, and monogamy for its own sake?  What was the sexual revolution for, if not to allow for more varied experiences, a wider range of happiness?  Cress was in no hurry to re-create family life–at least as she knew it.

The years pass, and she works as a waitress, always waiting for Quinn, who is sometimes there for her, other times with his wife.  Eventually Cress realizses nothing is going to happen and returns  to writing.  .

This is a very realistic novel, beautifully-written, and fast-paced. Yes, it makes my Best Books of 2014 sidebar.