Time 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 …
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)
Why 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
On 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.
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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