The librarian was also a fan of Little Women as a child, and she organized the tea party and made the lovely flyer. I set my childhood copy of the book, and my Madame Alexander Jo March doll (in red), there on the table. And I dressed up like a character from the book too: long brown skirt, high collar with a brooch, lace sweater, hair up. (What does it say about my wardrobe that I had all those pieces easily available in my closet?) This is what I talked about.
The 150th Anniversary
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Volume I was published in September of 1868, and volume II, originally called Good Wives, was published in 1869. Nowadays they are usually combined into 1 volume and published that way. Louisa wrote the first part–402 pages–in less than 6 weeks. Good Wives especially was written at the request of her publisher and readers. They all wanted to know who the girls would marry. Louisa herself wasn’t particularly interested in this: she said it was better to be an elderly spinster and paddle your own canoe. And she purposely disappointed all the Jo and Laurie shippers and made Jo what she called a “funny match.”
Many modern women writers claim to have been inspired by Little Women and its unforgettable protagonist, Jo March. Among them are J.K. Rowling, Simone deBeauvoir, Nora Ephron, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and Ursula K LeGuin. Singer-songwriter and punk rocker Patti Smith wrote:
There are some moments within literature when a new character is born, one who sits at the summit with others, emblematic of an age, or steps ahead of it. There have been many high-spirited characters before Jo March, but none like her, who wrote, remained herself. Creating Jo at a time when women had not yet won the right to vote was an unflinching move. She was an activist by example. And standing apart to extend a sister’s hand, she has always been there to greet maverick girls like myself, with a toss of her cropped hair and a playful wink to say come along. To guide us, provide encouragement, lay her footprints on a path she beckons us to follow.
Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott was a writer, Unitarian, feminist, and abolitionist living in Concord Massachusetts. She hobnobbed with the Transcendentalists and had a crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, when women were given school, tax, and bond suffrage in 1879 in Massachusetts.
As many of us know, Little Women was largely autobiographical. Like Jo, Louisa wrote, published, and supported her family with what she called “blood and thunder tales”–gothic thrillers with names like “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” and “The Abbot’s Ghost or Maurice Treherne’s Temptation.” She wrote under the androgynous pseudonym AM Barnard.
But when asked by her publisher Thomas Niles to write a book for girls, she acquiesced, writing in her journal: “Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.”
Bronson Alcott and Fruitlands
Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, was an idealist, philosopher, progressive educator, and man ahead of his time. He was not, however, a practical man, a farmer, or someone who knew how to put food on the table. When Louisa was 10, Bronson moved the family to Fruitlands, a utopian community based on Transcendentalist principles that he founded with Charles Lane in Harvard Massachusetts. This community had high ideals–for example, they eschewed cotton clothing, because cotton was picked by slaves, and they were abolitionists. But Fruitlands lasted only about 6 months. The men were more interested in talking about the Oversoul than bringing in the harvest, and the women and children couldn’t do all the work themselves. Louisa later wrote about her Fruitlands experience in the satirical short story, Transcendental Wild Oats. Because of Bronson’s inability to make money, the Alcott family was often poor. Louisa’s writing career was a passion born of necessity.
When the book was first published, it was extensively pirated, and now it is in the public domain, but it is estimated that more than ten million copies were sold, not including abridged editions. It has been through 100+ editions and been translated into more than 50 languages. Her publisher persuaded Louisa to take a royalty rather than a flat fee, and as a result, the book and its sequels supported her and her relatives, plus some of her relatives’ relatives, for the rest of their lives.
Little Women and I
So what about me and Little Women? I had a Jo doll, whose head and legs I had to reattach to bring her to the library. I was pretty into playing with dolls back then. I didn’t play mother and baby much though; I used dolls to act out stories. Little Women was one of those stories, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were another. Some of my dolls had an elected government, with Chrissy, a tall leggy redhead whose hair grew when you pushed a button on her belly, at the top. It was like a girls’school or a women’s college: girls did everything.
I received the Illustrated Junior Library Edition of Little Women as a gift. I read and enjoyed the book as a tween, and my mother also read it to me. One of the things about this book that has stayed with me since childhood is the image on the cover: the family gathered around the piano singing. Even though I’m not much of a singer, I am a musician. I play the violin and viola. My daughter played a number of different instruments growing up and my son plays the cello. I’ve always felt that was the highest purpose in music, not performance or musical skill or putting in your 1000 hours, but to bring people together.
When I started playing the violin and viola again after a long break, I started blogging at violinist.com. I wrote about reading Little Women to my daughter, and my blog was noticed by Susan W Bailey, author of the blog Louisa May Alcott is my passion, who contacted me. I started reading and following her blog, and there I found out about the anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes, edited by Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelley at Pink Umbrella Books.
As they explain in this interview, Gordon and Kelley believe that Little Women is a pivotal book for many women, one that they return to in different phases of life and learn something new each time. “I’m delighted to be part of it,” says Gordon of the anthology, “and to connect with a community of readers who are as passionate about the book as I am.”
Finding the Googleplex Beautiful
I reworked the ideas from my violinist dot com blog and submitted them as an essay called “Finding the Palace Beautiful.” As part of the publicity for the anthology, the publisher asked the authors to send a picture of themselves reading Little Women next to a local landmark. I chose the Googleplex.
One hundred and fifty years later, is Little Women still relevant?
When I told my writers’ group that I would be doing this reading, one guy said that he tried but he couldn’t get past the first chapter of Little Women. And some people claim, not without justification, that it’s not really a feminist novel. Everyone gets married off. Ambitions get smaller. Beth dies from her own self-sacrifice. And Jo marries Professor Bhaer, a man who deprecates her writing. Tween and teen girls these days read dramatic tales with kickass heroines like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Hate U Give. Is there still space for a book about four flawed sisters in which nothing much really happens?
For me the relevance of Little Women 150 years later is captured well in Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article of August 2018, called “How Little Women Got Big”. Acocella argues that Jo had to marry Friedrich Bhaer, a poor immigrant Professor, because Jo, unlike her rich neighbor Laurie, thinks hard about things and fights (her) way through them in darkness.
Not surprisingly, since like Jo I moved to New York and married a German, I’m “team Friedrich” not “team Laurie.” But even without that personal analogy, Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer isn’t just a funny match to me. It is a marriage of true minds and intellectual equals. Jo asks him to sing, “Kennst du das Land,” a favorite song that at first meant to him Germany, his country of birth, but later meant to both of them a purer, higher vision of home and love. The book’s ending is Louisa’s transcendentalist love letter and her philosophical masterpiece.