Summer Conversational Series 2018: John Matteson: “Little Women at 150: A conversation”

The day began with a conversation with the venerable, entertaining and much-loved Pultizer-prize-winning Alcott author and scholar John Matteson. He remarked on his good fortune to have this association with Orchard House and everyone present admitting that “I come here and I don’t feel worthy.” The kindness, goodness, and dedication that he feels every time he walks on the property is more than he could have ever dreamed of.

Happy Birthday!

Calling this year’s Summer Conversational Series this year as “somewhat of a birthday party,” he encouraged all of us to take some time to “just be happy” before the discussion turns towards a more serious vein. Since Little Women has transformed the life of everyone present, it still shines as brightly as ever and that is a real reason to rejoice.

A poem for the occasion

John then presented a poem which he claimed was largely plagiarized from Jo March’s anniversary ode; it was met with delight:

Again we meet and congregate to praise Louisa May
At this great anniversary at Orchard House today
We all are here in perfect health, none gone from our dear band
Again we see each well-known face and press each friendly hand
Dear Jan who beams with cheerful eyes for all us doth preside
She tends the flame at Orchard House with patience and with pride.
Kind Lis who organizes all smiles sweetly from her corner
May our good wishes, one and all, perpetually adorn her.
Our scholars, bold, brave want and fate their papers to produce
As eager listeners gather up the fruits they’ve shaken loose.
Though time be short we still unite to laugh and joke and read
And tread the path of literature that doth to glory lead
Long may Louisa prosper and long may heaven bless
The attendees aplenty at Concord’s SES.

Questions to ponder

Comparing his position to that of Professor Bhaer coming empty-handed, John admitted that after spending 17 years immersed in the Alcotts (“and it’s been a wonderful love affair”), he had nothing new to say. Thus it was decided that a conversation would take place instead. John then laid out the following questions/challenges upon which to reflect:

  1. What does the event we celebrate really mean? Why Little Women? What is it about this book that has raised it above the obscurity that has claimed so many other notable works?
  2. Little Women looks well and healthy at 150 — how will it fare when its current age has doubled? It used to be that reading Little Women was staple for girls but it is no longer. Is there a risk of it falling away due the coarsening of our culture, the encroachment of other media and the accelerating collapse of our education system?
  3. Rather than being loud and preachy, Little Women is more of a still, small voice. Can such a voice be heard in our culture today? Are we entering a time when books like Little Women will no longer be read, or matter? What can we do to ensure that it continues to make a difference?

Sharing our stories and ideas

The discussion began with many of us sharing stories of how Little Women shaped and transformed our lives. This led to many excellent ideas on how to share the book with this current generation including taking a stealth approach in the classroom by reading parts out loud but not revealing that it was Little Women until the students were hooked. Several described how wonderful it was to read the book aloud to their own elementary-age children and how such reading aloud enhanced the understanding of the book. A fascinating fact was shared by a trained linguist who said that language has changed so much in the last 150 years that the proper age to read Little Women should be raised to 16.

Becoming ambassadors of Little Women

There was no doubt during the lively 90-minute discussion that those of us who cherish this book need to be its ambassadors, thinking of ways to share it with future generations of children who read less and less. There was a particular concern expressed about boys and reading, and encouragement was given to expose boys to this book as it has much to say to them as well.

These themes would come up again in the course of the day.

Bio

John Matteson is a Distinguished Professor of English at John Jay College in NY and has authored Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father and The Many Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography. He also edited an annotated volume of Little Women. He is currently working on a book about the Battle of Fredericksburg and its impact on five major persons of the time of the Civil War.

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