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 …


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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10 Replies to “Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women: “Everybody’s Aunt 1868-1900””

  1. I read Little Women with the mindset of a girl in the 1940s. I did not find it radical, but deeply fascinating. What a wonderful family Jo had! How they all loved each other, even when each was very different and they did not always agree.

    Also, LMA had sisters and always wanted a brother, so she created Laurie. I had brothers and always wanted a sister. I loved Laurie and wanted him for my brother — I thought he was much better than the ones I actually had.

  2. At almost 12 I read Little Women for the first time, and while I loved the overall themes, I was vocabulary and experience deficient enough to not truly understand it for another ten years. I always felt the author was writing for adults rather than children. However, because the overall stories were so intriguing, I “pegged away” at little passages over the years, and now I practically have it memorized. I was never able to appreciate other serious literature, in any language, as much as “Little Women.” It became my “Guide Book” along with the Bible.

    1. I can relate. As much as I loved Louisa as a child I couldn’t read her writing. I wasn’t a very sophisticated reader. 🙂 LW is an excellent spiritual guide. As much as Louisa said that she did not subscribe to her father’s philosophy, she embodied much of his teaching whether consciously or unconsciously. There are several simple yet profound spiritual lessons in Little Women. It’s amazing to me that Sunday schools originally would not recommend LW, all because is was lacking the more overt religious language and practices they wanted.

  3. I read Little Women when I was in high school, but I didn’t see it as radical. I read it as a book about a group of girls in the 1860s. Looking at the book now with adult eyes I now see some aspects were radical, but I think the second part made the book lose that. Everyone gets married and become typical women of the time. I find Eight Cousins and Rose in bloom far more radical. I also realized I missed great deal when I read it as a teen. But children back then read so much and I daresay their vocabularies were better than ours.

    1. Agreed. And I agree that part one of Little Women does present more radical ideas. It’s as if Louisa the businesswoman caved to her public in part two. She was the first to begin dumbing down the message. I wonder if the book would have been such a sensation if she had had her way with it?

      1. It is certainly true that she must have been responding to her readers’ desires in part 2. Still, she handles it impressively. Meg makes a conventional love marriage, then has assorted troubles adjusting to her new role. Amy and Laurie are ready to marry only after they mature beyond their adolescent personalities. Both must become more responsible, more caring of others.

        Then Jo, of course, makes the unconventional marriage, within which she can work and be herself, not submerged in social expectations. This is even more true in Little Men, where she is actively engaged in running the school.

      2. Bingo, you nailed it! I just listened to the chapter about Meg and John and thought that Louisa should amazing insight considering the fact she never married. Even though in jest Louisa says she created a strange match for Jo, I have to wonder if Professor Bhaer was the dream husband she never hoped to find. Jo and Fritz had an intellectual love union; this is why I thought marrying Jo off to him was far better than to Laurie. Fritz too had a calm demeanor that Jo needed for her ups and downs.

  4. I always felt that Louisa was writing for adults rather than children, because I was in my 20’s before I had the vocabulary and experience to fully comprehend it. At 11, I was just like Amy: didn’t know the difference between satirical and satirical, nor what it meant, and didn’t know that commy la fo was supposed to be comme il faut, nor what it meant, didn’t know what a Märchen was, had never heard of belladonna nor salts and senna. I was 11 in 1962…

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