Summer Conversational Series 2018: All-star panel discusses the legacy of Little Women

Note: I am pleased to present this guest post by British Alcott scholar Kristina West.

On Sunday 15 July 1879, Bronson Alcott opened the first session of the Concord School of Philosophy; on the same date in 1879, Louisa May Alcott was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. In 1868, this day in history saw Louisa submit her manuscript for Little Women to her publishers. It was more than apt, then, that 15 July 2018 saw the opening session of this year’s Summer Conversational Series, celebrating Little Women at 150.

Concord School of Philosophy, founded by Bronson Alcott

Distinguished panel

An esteemed panel of scholars consisting of Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, Anne Boyd Rioux, and John Matteson, and ably overseen by Megan Marshall, began our conversations on the celebrated text.

L to R, Pulitzer-prize winning authors Megan Marshall and John Matteson, Anne Boyd Rioux, Daniel Shealy and Joel Myerson

“Making Meg Matter”

Willa Fitzgerald as Meg March

Speaking to a packed hall, John Matteson kicked off the proceedings with a potentially controversial paper entitled ‘Making Meg Matter,’ in which he discussed how he struggled to add visual interest to Meg’s story when putting together the annotated version of Little Women. As the sister who meets with the most conventional female fate in the novel, John wondered if Meg actually realized her dreams or instead, betrayed them in settling down and having a family with John Brooke. Her dream house (spoken of in her castle in the air) had not contained a family. It’s possible, John argued, that Louisa lost interest in Meg. In drawing from autobiography, it may just be that Louisa’s insights into the Pratt household were not as textured as her knowledge of her own, and that Meg continues to matter because she shows us how to live within our limitations.

Growing up female in Little Women

Annes Elwy as Beth March

Anne Boyd Rioux addressed what it means to grow up female with Little Women. Drawing on  her wonderful; new book Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters, Anne discussed how Louisa captured what Henry James called ‘the awkward age’ in presenting her ‘little women’ as works in progress. Louisa was not content to merely walk her heroines up the altar, but to portray them wrestling with what it means to grow up female. Anne spoke about Jo and how she can be read as a more modern form of adolescence, with a less gender-specific role, especially as she continues to be the family’s main breadwinner after her father returns from war. She discussed the performance of femininity in the novel, from Jo burning her skirts in front of the fire to Amy painting her clothes and boots. She also addressed the refusal of the family to see Beth as more than a child and the negotiation between illness and the female body.


Daniel Shealy focused on the theme of matrimony in Little Women, and how Louisa’s approach to marriage was innovative at the time. Louisa’s mind had been on marriage for some time before the writing of the novel: Anna married in 1860 and gave birth to two children leaving Louisa to wonder about the direction of her own life. She was well into spinsterhood at 36 when she wrote about girls accepting that fate by the age of 30. At the age of 30 herself, she went to work as a nurse in the Civil War, followed by the writing of her first novel, Moods, which focused significantly on marriage. Louisa was influenced by Margaret Fuller who felt that marriage should be a partnership of equals.

Excuses, excuses

The final paper was given by Joel Myerson, on three reasons NOT to read Little Women! In discussing his teaching of the text, Joel set out the three excuses his students gave most frequently for not reading it: it’s a children’s book; the writing style is too complicated; and it’s too dated. Students complain that the sentences are too long and the punctuation is oppressive; they ask what relevance it has and why they are reading old stuff; and, of course, they want to know if it’s going to come up in the test! Joel addressed these complaints, discussing how Little Women was only positioned as a children’s book when Ednah Dow Cheney released Louisa May Alcott: The Children’s Friend, which began her typecasting as a children’s author. He discussed the adult content of Transcendentalist principles and Amy’s malapropisms, and also how women’s writers have not been taken seriously by the academy.

The panel concluded with questions from the audience, setting the tone of debate beautifully for the week ahead, giving us plenty to discuss. Thank you to all the panelists for such an entertaining and stimulating debate!

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6 Replies to “Summer Conversational Series 2018: All-star panel discusses the legacy of Little Women”

  1. From reading the biographies of the family, we see that Meg did matter very much, as she was Daddy’s favorite, the best student, the family secretary, and organized theatrical for the kids. She gave up the stage mainly because of her hearing. If Beth’s death was pretty well addressed in the story, then why not also Meg’s hearing loss? It looks like nowadays we have all kinds of ideas for a rewrite, – ideas that didn’t fly in Louisa’s time.

    1. You’re right about the hearing loss — I guess Louisa didn’t see how it would fit into the overall story. Too bad though because it could have provided an interesting angle. It could have been addressed in Jo’s Boys as was Meg’s/Anna’s true passion for the theatre.

      1. One biography, maybe Cornelia Meigs’, mentioned that being deaf was a shameful thing in those days… Something the family wanted to cover up.

  2. Regarding yesterday’s post that mentioned Beth, biographer Martha Saxton observed that Beth was the most like Anna, but she was always overlooked as the other sisters managed to make the subject of the moment all about them. Daddy’s favorite, Louisa’s moods, and May always asking for, and getting what she wanted. More comments, anyone?

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