Keep up with Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House blog

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House now has a blog with many informative and interesting posts related to the Alcott homestead. Click here to read more.

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Available for pre-order: The Annotated Little Women edited by John Matteson

Author John MattesonI am pleased to announce The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts and The Lives of Margaret Fuller.

This volume will contain over 200 illustrations. It is being published by W. W, Norton and Company, the same group which published the popular Norton edition of Little Women.

You can pre-order your copy now from Norton or from Amazon. It contains an amazing 668 pages! The book is expected out in the Fall of 2015.

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Little Women in a changing world: Chapter Two of The Afterlife of Little Women– “Waxing Nostalgic 1900-1930,” part one

In the early twentieth century the world was changing at a breathtaking rate. As a country we moved onto the global stage with the Great War. Dazzling technological innovations created time- and work-saving devices along with new entertainment venues. Medical breakthroughs promised longer and healthier lives. Now that day-to-day survival was no longer the all-consuming task, people had time for leisure, to think and to create.

How did Little Women fare in this changing world?

Beverly Lyon Clark, in her book, The Afterlife of Little Women, indicates that people were already waxing nostalgic about Little Women even though the book was only thirty-two years old by 1900. Adults generally found the book to be “old-fashioned” while children continued to love it. (pg. 42).

Do you consider Little Women to be timely despite its age? What about the book transcends time?

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenDespite the book’s enduring popularity, Little Women was not held in high esteem by scholars mostly because children’s literature had not yet attained any status. (pg. 43). Yet G. K. Chesterton notes that there are “few women in England, from the most revolutionary Suffragette to the most carefully preserved Early Victorian, who will not confess to having passed a happy childhood with the Little Women of Miss Alcott.” (pg. 48). The universal appeal of Little Women speaks to Louisa’s genius, a genius nurtured by an upbringing combining progressive ideas with traditional values.

What are the universal themes of Little Women? Why does it still speak to you today?

gamaliel bradfordIn his essay, “Portrait of Louisa May Alcott,” Gamaliel Bradford was one of the few who praised Louisa’s artistry: “The worshippers of art for art’s sake may sneer at her but the great poets don’t necessarily deserve much more of our gratitude than those who make our souls forget by telling charming stories.” (pg. 53-54). Clark notes that Bradford observed that Louisa may have been motivated more out of a sense of duty rather than love to help her family out of poverty.

Do you consider Little Women to be a work of art? Why or why not?

Yet it is the safer traditional values of home and family that maintained the book’s popularity, generating the spinoffs of a Broadway play, two silent films and several novel series. With World War I jading the population, Little Women was likely seen as a return to “the good old days” despite being considered “too sweet” by many in the tumultuous twenties (pg. 49).

The adaptations began with children’s books. Clark writes, “If ‘publishers complain of the scarcity of good books for girls, and their readers say that no successor to Louisa Alcott has yet to come to view,’ then one approach was to reframe Little Women.” (pg. 58). She lists Seven Little Australians (1894) by Ethel Turner, Sisters Three (1900) by Jessie Mansergh, The Little Women Club by Ames Taggart, Four Little Women of Roxby, or The Queer Old Lady Who Lost Her Way (1926) by May Hollis Barton, and the four books in Gabrielle Jackson’s Three Little Women series (1908-14).

three little womenOf these books Clark found the Three Little Women series to be the “most interesting in how it addresses the cultural moment even as it attests the continuing significance of Little Women … For it harbors inconsistencies that speak to cultural contradictions at the beginning of the century, especially those associated with the occupational opportunities available to the New woman and the continuing expectations of domesticity, at a time when Alcott might be called ‘one of the finest of pioneer American business girls.'” (pg. 62)

A detailed analysis of this series, along with other adaptations and spinoffs (including the Broadway play as we shall see, and the silent films) begs the conclusion that while Louisa was lauded, she was not to be imitated.

What I found most interesting in Clark’s analysis was the differing interpretation of “littleness” in Alcott’s book and Jackson’s. Frances Armstrong has noted that for Alcott littleness at times entailed diminishment but at other time was a means to greatness. In Jackson’s novels–with their “little girls,” “little mothers,” “pretty little rooms,” “trembling little fingers”–diminishment is the rule.” (pg. 67)

Did Jackson miss the deeper spiritual dimension of littleness as described by Alcott? Beth was indeed “little” but she demonstrates largeness in her example of courage with the Hummels, literally risking her life to comfort the dying baby. Her tending to headless doll Joanna provides a metaphor for a more public caring of the disabled, aka, the “least of these.” In exploring the spiritual dimension of littleness, Alcott uncovers its greatness. Judging from Armstrong’s remarks, Jackson appears to have missed that point entirely, reflecting a more secular approach to the story.

How do you think Louisa viewed “littleness?” How do you feel about the character of Beth?

In part two of this post, I will discuss the Broadway play (which, by the way, is available for free through Google Play Books; it’s called “Little Women: A Comedy in Four Acts” by Marion de Forest) and silent films, and the creation of the Orchard House museum home.

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Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women – Fiction, Fame and Romanticism 1868-1900

Continuing our discussion …

Looking at fiction

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenLittle Women was a subversive work in many ways, putting new ideas into the heads of children while managing not to upset their parents. One such idea was its endorsement of reading fiction. According to Beverly Lyon Clark, a leading authority on children’s literature, children were not encouraged to read fiction because of the way it absorbed the mind. Of Little Women‘s influence she writes, “its other oral would seem to endorse the pleasures of subverting adults’ strictures and of reveling in the glory of fiction.” She continues, “the text sets up two models for reading: readers have generally followed Jo’s enthusiastic example for their own reading even if they may endorse the moralizing model when they image how reading Little Women should affect others, especially those others are young.” (pg. 10)

If you read Little Women as a child, what was your reaction to Jo’s love of reading? Perhaps like me, you read it as an adult–did you find Jo’s enthusiasm infectious and if so, how?

Bronson’s influence

Louisa was compelled to write Little Women not only by her publisher but by her father, in part because he was promised publication of his book, Tablets, if she complied. But Bronson’s desire was genuine–he felt certain his daughter could write the perfect children’s book as he had shaped and molded Louisa and her sisters in his own image (or at least, attempted to). At any rate, he knew she would want to please him. While Bronson encouraged his daughters to read fiction, he deplored many of the books of his day. Little Women was to fulfill his desire for the perfect children’s book.

How much of Bronson’s influence do you see in Little Women despite the fact that Mr. March plays such a small role in the story?

I am currently going through my second reading of Little Women (listening, by the way, to a wonderful dramatic reading, available free on Librivox) and I see Bronson’s influence everywhere, from the use of Pilgrim’s Progress as the backdrop to the spiritual and moral lessons in the book. While Louisa could not seem to embody her father in a major character role, Mr. March is quite “present” despite his absence.

Why did Louisa May Alcott seem so approachable?

louisa readingLouisa deplored her fame even as she had wished for such as a child. Why did readers feel so bonded to her? And what was so onerous about it to Louisa?

Clark writes on page 20, “An early twentieth-century biographer declared that Alcott ‘felt the annoyances of glory more that most authors.’ But it seems likely that she was besieged more than most.” She goes on to cite sales of Little Women and writes, “Alcott was also a woman: she would have seemed more approachable than a ‘great man’ would, and … she had no wife or personal assistant to protect her. As an author whose works targeted children (as well as adults), she must have seemed more approachable still. Finally, given how autobiographical her Little Women series was, and given her willingness to call herself Aunt Jo, readers who felt intimate with the fictional Jo March seem to have felt intimate with Alcott. As an obituarist noted, ‘She wrote so much of her own life into books that she was nearer to the public than most writers.'”

Imagine yourself in Louisa’s time–would you have approached her? What would you have said to her? Do you think her fans were too intrusive?

I probably would have been too embarrassed myself to approach her and might have been disappointed in what I saw. I get the sense that Louisa could not always find it within herself to be gracious to fans. An inherently shy woman, the level of fame she experienced must have been excruciating at times. Still, that fame gave her entry into virtually any place where she could hob knob with other well accomplished and famous people. One of the things I most enjoyed about Madeleine B. Stern’s biography was how she described the pleasure Louisa sometimes took in her fame.

pickwick portfolioI think about the five Luken sisters who wrote to Louisa about the newspaper they published that was fashioned after the Pickwick Portfolio. How glorious it must have been to have the author of Little Women endorse your efforts! Louisa even made free contributions to the newspaper, impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the sisters.

Louisa the Romantic

jo writing (norman rockwell)As much as Louisa denied adopting the philosophy of her father, she could not prevent herself from living it. As Transcendentalism was influenced by the Romantic era in Europe, it makes perfect sense that drama queen Louisa (who I believe also had a martyr complex) would adopt such colorful images of herself as the artist possessed by her writing in the garret. She could not escape her upbringing no matter how hard she tried. She was excessively pragmatic in order to undo the damage of her father’s way of living that so deprived the family of material necessities and basic security. But at the same time her upbringing oozed through her writing and this is what attracted so many readers. It was so different, deep and inspiring to girls leading dull and limited lives. Jo March represented a breaking out of sorts, not only with seeking a career over marriage, but in her basic personality: her reading habits, the way she behaved, her use of the vernacular, and just the very fact that she lived her tomboy desires openly. Jo may not have always been the most likable character but she was real.

What is it about Jo March that attracts you? How has she inspired you?

I admit that Jo has not always been my favorite sister. I was first attracted to Beth as a child and always associated her name with beauty. As an adult I came to appreciate Amy as I learned more about her real counterpart, May. But now that I have become a writer, Jo is speaking to me. She hides out in the garret; I hide out in my cellar room decorated with posters of Norman Rockwell paintings of Jo. I love the whole romantic image of Jo as a writer and an artist. I relate to her bad temper, her unbridled enthusiasm and her desire to lead an uncompromising, authentic life.

There is much more in Chapter One but I will leave that for you to read in The Afterlife of Little Women. The next post will dive into Chapter Two: Waxing Nostaligic 1900-1930.

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Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women: “Everybody’s Aunt 1868-1900″

the afterlife of little womenTime for a deep dive! Let’s examine the introduction and Chapter One of The Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark.

First a disclaimer. This and subsequent posts on The Afterlife of Little Women is a summary of the notes I scribbled on the pages of Beverly Lyon Clark’s book; I am giving you the highlights of my reading experience. I cannot trace my opinions to any particular source; they simply come from my immersion in Louisa May Alcott’s life and works. Feel free to prove me wrong; the idea of this free-for-all is to have a lively discussion. Many of you know way more than I do!

Let’s begin …

Introduction

I first loved this quote from page 4: “… at the turn of the previous century, reading was both ‘an esteemed practice’ and ‘a wellspring of aspiration'; indeed, ‘at once study and play. A source of knowledge and pleasure, public performance and private dreaming, reading opened up space like no other.”

How many of you still find that true today?

It occurs to me that reading can still be that virtual trip to exotic places, interesting people and new ideas. It’s finding that quiet space to let it happen that is the challenge with technology always competing for our time.

In the introduction Clark writes, “Alcott’s critical reputation was still at a low point, but Little Women continued to be popular … Alcott’s standing … changed since 1960, in the wake of the feminist movement and of the publication of Alcott’s lost thrillers …” (pg. 7)

paulineWhy was Little Women so popular, so loved by so many, and yet couldn’t merit the critical acclaim of serious literature? Why was its author summarily dismissed as merely a children’s writer until the revelation of her potboilers?

It is ironic to me that it was her so-called “rubbish” that brought her the serious attention she deserved. It’s like she had to become a “bad girl” in order to be respected. And yet today these potboilers would be akin to the Harlequin romance.

I realize that the whole genre of children’s literature did not gain respect until recently; perhaps Little Women‘s critical standing will improve on that account.

Chapter One: Becoming Everyone’s Aunt, 1868-1900

Louisa_May_AlcottOn page 9, Clark quotes Louisa’s famous line: “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

Of this quote I would like to make two points:

First, Louisa had great difficulty in being recognized as a serious artist. While they generally cited “the thorough reality of her characters, her ‘power of intense realization and portraiture,’ ‘her thorough genuineness and steady adherence to the real,’ her being ‘truer to nature than a veritable narrative of actual events … [her work was] healthy and vigorous,'” they did not equate this with art: “Enthusiasm for the lifelikeness of Alcott’s work had its dangers; it could readily lead to dismissal of her writing as artless, a mere transcription of reality.” (pg. 33)

Why is this so? Why was it not “artistic” to represent a vibrant reality brimming with emotion? Is this still true today?

One critic from Scribners in 1871 got it right: “‘She is entitled to greater praise as an artist than has been bestowed upon her; ultimately she will be recognized as the very best painter, genre of the American domestic life in the middle classes; the very faithfulness, the aliveness–there ought to be that word–of her pictures prevents their having full justice done on them at once.'” (pg. 34)

If, as a reader, being moved to tears, laughing out loud and seething with outrage is not considered sophisticated and artistic, then count me in as unschooled, naive perhaps on what constitutes true art.

Illustration by Jessie T. Mitchell for Little Women and Good Wives (London: Sunday School Union, [1897]).Isn’t art meant to challenge, to disturb, to move the heart? Doesn’t Little Women accomplish this in the guise of a simple children’s book? What do you think?

Second point: It occurred to me that to Louisa, her unusual upbringing was in fact her “normal.” What seemed mundane to her was fascinating to her readers. The only girls she knew well were her sisters, each outstanding in their own way. Her parents openly encouraged activities that most parents did not: free self expression (unless it involved anger or selfishness), cultivation of the imagination and the interior spiritual life, and independent thinking.

How I wish I could have read Little Women from the mindset of a typical girl of the 1860’s! I read it far too late, having already immersed myself in the author’s life, and I missed the book’s impact.

What was your initial reaction to Little Women when you first read it? Did you find the ideas in the book exciting, different, radical? Why did you feel that way?

Enough for now. Stay tuned for more discussion on Chapter One of The Afterlife of Little Women.

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Little Women Devotee Feast! Book Review: The Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark

In 1868, a writer desperate to pull her family out of a lifetime of poverty sits down at the tiny half-moon desk in her bedroom to begin work on the book she has dreaded writing. Assigned by her publisher to write a “girl’s” book, Louisa May Alcott draws upon the lives of the only girls she ever knew: herself and her sisters. Declaring their childhood experiences “queer,” she writes a semi-autobiographical account of portions of her life through the characters of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and the brother she always longed for, Laurie. Little Women is an instant bestseller, catapulting this relatively unknown author into fame and fortune.

the afterlife of little womenThe Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark documents the stunning and continuing impact of this children’s book around the world and throughout history. This book is a sumptuous feast for every devoted Little Women/Louisa May Alcott fan. Clark, professor of English and Women’s Studies at Wheaton College and one of the leading authorities on children’s literature has put together the go-to book about the impact of Little Women on the world since its publication in 1868.

Clark takes the 147 years of the novel’s life and divides it into four historical periods:

  • Becoming Everyone’s Aunt, 1868-1900
  • Waxing Nostalgic, 1900-1930
  • Outwitting Poverty an War, 1930-1960
  • Celebrating Sisterhood and Passion since 1960

What Little Women shows us

By peering through the lens of Little Women‘s aftermath, we get a fascinating glimpse into the thinking of the day and how American society in particular saw itself. Though this lens we witness the evolution of children’s literature and its impact on Alcott’s standing as a serious writer. One point becomes clear: in the end it doesn’t matter whether Little Women is considered “great literature”; it is here to stay.

The “softening” of Little Women

Clark’s descriptions of the numerous offshoots of Little Women (including books, plays, musicals, movies and television programs) reveal a reoccurring theme: that of softening the enigmatic Jo March in favor of a focus on traditional home and family. This “softening” began with the author, allowing herself to be marketed as “Aunt Jo” by her publisher, and Roberts Brothers trifling with the text for a revised edition of the book in 1880. Edited were many of the colloquialisms in favor of a more polished dialogue. Character descriptions were modified to reflect gender ideals (as in calling Marmee “tall” rather than “stout” and “noble-looking” rather than “not particularly handsome.”) (pg. 24). As a smart businesswoman intent on making a profit, proper marketing was always in the forefront of Alcott’s mind, and her publisher’s as well. Jo March had to be maintained as a “safe” inspiration for girls.

Fun!

The Afterlife of Little Women is a must-read on so many levels. Let’s begin with the “fun” factor:

Detailed analyses of just about every derived book (including spinoffs and online fan fiction), play, musical (including an opera), movie and television program ever made about Little Women

  • Statistics regarding sales of the book throughout the years from countries around the world
  • Discussion of famous people influenced by Little Women
  • A listing and discussion of adult and juvenile biographies of Alcott
  • Translations and interpretations of the book
  • Analyses of the various illustrations
  • And of course, reviews of the work

The Afterlife of Little Women is a wonk’s paradise: every detail you ever wanted (and then some) is included in this thoroughly researched book. It documents not only the public’s response to Little Women but also those of scholars, critics and librarians. There are times when the statistical information becomes excessive but overall this does not distract from the enjoyment of this work.

What role did feminism really play?

I had two small quibbles with this book. First there seems to be an insinuation of twenty-first century feminism into the discussion, particularly with regards to plays and movies produced about Little Women in the early and mid twentieth century. Perhaps this was unconscious on Clark’s part but it appears that fault is assigned to these productions for their focus on the more mainstream themes of domesticity and romance rather than Jo’s artistic goals and independent spirit. It’s likely the mainstream audience of that era was simply not ready for the more feminist message of the story. It does however demonstrate just progressive Alcott was.

I was also disappointed that the many adult Alcott biographies that have emerged since the 1960’s received small mention (since this is a pet interest of mine). Eden’s Outcasts was singled out along with Madeleine B. Sterns’ definitive biography. I was however quite surprised that Eve LaPlante’s Marmee and Louisa did not warrant a mention; nor did Martha Saxton’s controversial work or Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter’s PBS documentary, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women.

These are hardly fatal flaws; this book was a most entertaining and informative read (engaging this reader in a wonderful “conversation” with each page book as evidenced by the numerous comments, questions and underscores).

Little Women lives!

Little Women is a work that quite likely was an accident of genius. Clark’s book plumbs that genius through the incredible depth of interpretation explored by illustrators, reviewers, teachers, librarians, scholars and devoted fans alike. It is this level of interest that continues to ensure Little Women’s viability. The Afterlife of Little Women shows clearly why this fascinating and endearing book continues to be read and cherished as a classic.

You can find The Afterlife of Little Women on the Johns Hopkins University Press website or on Amazon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In a series of posts I will be exploring each historical period covered in The Afterlife of Little Women and hope to engage all of you in a lively discussion. We will start with chapter one in a few days. Hopefully some of you will have had the opportunity to purchase and read this book. I look forward to your comments.

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The Alcotts at Fruitlands, seen through the eyes of a “regular child:” Book Review: Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass

little women next doorSome of the best books written about Louisa May Alcott are those geared for children.

One of my favorites is Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass. In a gentle yet poignant story Klass shows the Alcotts during their time Fruitlands through the eyes of a child from a typical family of the 1840s. That view does much to tone down Bronson’s reputation as a crackpot or lunatic. While he was probably his most extreme self during this period, Klass shows the valuable gifts he instilled in his children. Bronson may have been a lunatic at times, but he was also a gifted teacher who opened the world to his children.

About the main character

In this story, Louisa and her sisters help a girl deprived of her childhood to gain it back again by helping her to blossom from within. The main character, Susan, is a child who lost her mother at birth and whose father keeps his distance because he associates Susan with the loss of his wife. While her aunt is kind and caring, Susan is lonely with no friends her own age and no inner life of imagination. Furthermore she stutters which makes communication very difficult. Her father’s lack of patient with her affliction only makes it worse.

New friend

Sheila Solomon Klass www.bmcc.cuny.edu

Sheila Solomon Klass www.bmcc.cuny.edu

Susan and her family live next door to Fruitlands and soon meet the Alcotts after they move in. Here Klass shines a light on the Alcotts by comparing them to Susan and her family in terms of what they deem important. Those of us who immerse ourselves in all things Alcott forget how extraordinary this family was. Susan discerned immediately that Louisa was special.

Learning self expression

Susan takes lessons from Bronson along with the Alcott girls and William, the son of Charles Lane. Susan finds Bronson to be a very different kind of teacher, kind and patient as he works with her to overcome her stutter. Anna and Louisa help too. In addition Louisa gives Susan a journal and invites her to write down her thoughts.

Growth and reconciliation

Susan’s exposure to the freedom and imaginative games that the Alcott children enjoy transforms her. Growing in confidence and now able to communicate with her father through her writings, Susan and her father reconcile.

Bronson’s greatest gift

I really loved this book. It was a very different look at the Alcotts as seen through the eyes of a “regular” child who blossomed because of her friendship with Louisa and her lessons with Bronson. With all the talk about Bronson’s many flaws, he did give Louisa the key to the interior life, one full of adventure, and a place where she could retreat when the world around her was too hard to bear. It was that interior life that would eventually equip Louisa with the tools to take her family out of the perpetual poverty to which Bronson had subjected it.

You can find Little Women Next Door on Amazon.

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