Thursday, January 17, 2013

Louisa May Alcott: More than a Little Woman


Elizabeth Zelvin

I keep going back to Louisa May Alcott, and not only to reread my favorite books, including Little Women and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, and Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom (we used to call it “the Jewish Alcott book”).
I am convinced that Little Women is tied with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for the title of Great American Novel, or would be if not for the persistent and longstanding bias against books by women and books that attract mostly women readers. But beyond the work, Alcott remains one of American history’s most fascinating and admirable women. I’d include her in any what-historical-figure-would-you-invite-to dinner list, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

One of four daughters of Bronson Alcott, an impractical and controversial Transcendental philosopher and friend of Emerson and Thoreau, Louisa was born in 1832 and grew up in Boston and Concord, MA. In addition to becoming a successful writer after years of struggle and poverty, she served as a nurse during the Civil War. She never married and died in 1888.

An online bio from the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association says:

Confronting a society that offered little opportunity to women seeking employment, Louisa determined, "... I will make a battering-ram of my head and make my way through this rough and tumble world." Whether as a teacher, seamstress, governess, or household servant, for many years Louisa did any work she could find....

"Jo March" was the first American juvenile heroine to act from her own individuality --a living, breathing person rather than the idealized stereotype then prevalent in children’s fiction.

Available at:
http://www.louisamayalcott.org/louisamaytext.html

Thanks to the proliferation of e-books, I’ve now been able to read all Alcott’s minor works, including the Civil War nursing memoir, Hospital Sketches and some of those lurid Gothic tales that the fictional Jo stops writing because Professor Bhaer disapproves of their sensationalism. It was fascinating to explore the building blocks of the world of Little Women, in which I’ve been a frequent visitor since childhood. I learned that Louisa’s nursing career in a Washington, DC hospital filled with the detritus of battle—wounded, sick, and dying soldiers—lasted only a month: an intense and exhausting month in which a keen observer gathered ample material. She only quit because she got sick, and she certainly wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.

Like Jo’s sister Amy, Louisa apparently spent a year in Europe. There’s a delightful travel memoir about her adventures with a couple of women friends that could have been written well into the 20th century (not later only because pockets of unspoiled traditional cultures have more or less disappeared).

The feminist and post-sexual-revolution revision of Louisa’s life has put a few myths into circulation. One is that Louisa despised her children’s books and longed to write for grownups about passion. After reading her whole body of work, I think that’s misleading. Nobody could moralize quite so much if she didn’t believe the morality, even if it was the fashion of the time. I discovered that the Fifties hardcover copy of Jo’s Boys that I’ve had for decades cut out a chapter about Jo and a group of virtuous young women protegees spending a womanly afternoon sewing together. Her stories about doomed and passionate love seem absurd to the modern reader—possibly because as an unmarried woman, she couldn’t impart a hint of sexuality to the love relationships in her fiction.

I also learned the truth about the Polish youth who is supposed to have been the inspiration for Laurie in Little Women, the young man who loves Jo and eventually marries Amy. The way I’d heard it, this was Louisa’s near approach to love. From her own account, it was not quite like that. She did become close friends with this young man. Yes, she was very, very fond of him. But he spent an awful lot of time telling her about his fiancĂ©e back in Poland. And as she points out, they could go about together unchaperoned and remain respectable because she was twelve years older than he. Some of today’s admirers make her sound like a cougar. I don’t think so. And that’s okay--there are more kinds of love in the world than some people think.

12 comments:

TheaM said...

Thank you for this insight into LMA - I am currently re-reading Little Women for the umpteenth time - I always find a bit here and there that I must have 'skipped over' on some previous reading. Jo has always been my favorite character.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thea, do you still cry when Beth dies? I do. :)

Sheila Connolly said...

I still have my original copy of Little Women, which I read when I was home with the measles in fourth grade. LMA was a great role model, both indirectly through her books, and through her own life story.

If you can, visit the former Alcott home, The Orchards, in Concord MA--it gives you a much clearer sense of the family. There's a story that Bronson used to sit out front with a basket of apples, trying to engage passersby in converation--but many would cross the street to avoid him.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks for this, Liz. I realize now that I knew next to nothing about one of the greatest writers our country has produced.

Triss said...

I've loved Alcott's work pretty much my whole life - I first read Little Women at age 7 and have re-read most of her books many times. Like Liz, I know quite a bit about her fascinating and admirable life. I think the prejudice or underrating, though, is only partly due to being a woman. The rest is because she wrote most of her books for children. Though I think Little Women is more or less immortal, I don't think it's an adult book. (Ducking my head) While she writes head on about some adult topics, like poverty, others are missing, there is a lot of moralizing, and some topics are smoothed over.Eg.Beth's death is heartbreaking at any age, but the real Beth did not fade quite so beautifully. All of this is very appropriate for the intended audience, and I don't consider it lesser ( I used to be a children's librarian!) but I do think it's different.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

A perspective I hadn't thought of, Triss. Not sure I agree what's missing is because of the target audience. Rereading my post, I'm not sure I made the point clearly enough that I suspect the missing ingredient of sexuality, even in the emotionally stormy adult stories, is missing because a woman in Louisa's position at that time truly didn't KNOW anything about sex.

G.M. Malliet said...

Sheila - I would have crossed the street to avoid Bronson, too. But his irresponsibility - Marmee had to do everything, really - made Louisa what she was.

So thanks, Bronson. Or something.

Susan Bailey said...

I've loved Louisa May Alcott since I was 10 when my aunt gave me a biography of her life. She is fascinating and I agree totally about Orchard House - it's real experience. They have living history tours (just had one this past Christmas) where staff members dress up and act out different members of the family and their friends. The director has done one woman shows on Louisa for years.

I blog regularly about Louisa if you want to come over for a visit: http://www.louisamayalcottismypassion.com

Anonymous said...

Liz,
I think "Little Women" a great book too. Thanks for blogging on this!

I also have my first copy of "Little Women" and "Little Men" still and have been planning a reread. I've lost count of how many readings but it has been a numer of years now.

I love the 1994 movie of it too, haven't seen the others and cannot comment on them.

IMHO that recent novel (by the wife of the author of CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC) that tossed Marmee & Papa March in understood neither of them AT ALL & lost me for any of her future books.

Brenda

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