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 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.
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.
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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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