Why Little Women Endures: A Novel's Sesquicentennial

Pat Young

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Jan 7, 2013
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Long Island, NY
From the article:

When Louisa May Alcott was a child, her father Bronson asked her to define what a philosopher was. She replied, tongue in cheek: “a man up in a balloon with his family at the strings tugging to pull him down.” Later, as a grown woman, Alcott would write a short story loosely based on day-to-day life at Fruitlands, the short-lived utopian community her father founded in the 1840s. Titled “Transcendental Wild Oats,” the story satirized men like her father and his circle (Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and others), noting how “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away” when it came time to harvest the crops. Throughout her life, Alcott knew how to puncture the buoyant intellectual men floating above the people stuck down in the muck of cooking and sweeping and dying in childbirth.

4b1fc48a9e5e5a8cf7ee23ded101a6b6e1b2f842.jpg

MEG, JO, BETH, AMY: THE STORY OF LITTLE WOMEN AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS by Anne Boyd Rioux W. W. Norton & Company, 288 pp., $27.95

This sharp perspective is easy to miss in the work for which Alcott is best known, her beloved 1868 novel Little Women. The earliest reviewers described the story of the four March sisters and their mother Marmee as “fresh,” “healthy,” “natural,” and “sincere.” In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway characterized Little Women as full of “sweetness and light.” Critics since then have largely followed suit, continuing to describe the novel as amiable and charming, though often disagreeing as to whether that was a good or bad thing. In the 1960s the British critic Brigid Brophy asserted that the novel’s sentimentality was a form of “technical skill” on Alcott’s part, whereas Mary Gaitskill, writing in 1995, criticized the story as treacly: an “impossibly sweet view of life.”
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
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Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
From the conclusion of the article:

Rioux concludes that Little Women has endured because of the power of its “lessons” about balancing family and career, individualism and selflessness, and the value of (truly) companionate marriage. I’m not sure I share her faith in the usefulness of lessons drawn from fiction. I love, and have always loved, Little Women because of its perversity, because of the way its characters often work against their own best interests (Meg marries the worst man of all time basically to stick it to old Aunt March), and because of its anger and eroticism (consider the sausage pillow!). These aren’t lessons, but they are life.

Likewise, the affections Little Women inspires aren’t necessarily “good” lessons, even as they accurately reflect our culture’s distorted views of womanhood. “Am I a Jo or an Amy?” is as pleasurable a question to consider, as it is revealing of the tight strictures that govern our understanding of womanly selfhood. Some of the best television shows about women have been founded on Little Women’s presentation of women as types (Golden Girls, The Facts of Life, Sex and the City, Girls); so are many of our literary stories about womanly life (“Am I a Lila or a Lenu?”). Our most popular and lucrative stories about women are still based on this premise, which can begin to feel narrow and limiting: Am I the type of woman who marries or the type who writes? The type who’s a prude or the type who’s experienced? The heroine or the *****?

Still, Little Women is, ultimately, a generous book. Alcott wrote it, first and foremost, to be generous to herself: It allowed her to rewrite and re-envision painful aspects of her life, both current and past, and to make bank while doing so. But it’s also generous to the reader. The first time I reread it after having children, I was gobsmacked to find a chapter on sleep-training a baby! Horrible handbooks that simplistically teach sleep-training abound, but a literary representation of this complicated, terrible aspect of new motherhood? I hadn’t even realized I’d been starving for it, and there was Alcott waiting for me at the table.

Readers’ relationships with Little Women, Rioux shows, are always also about rewriting ourselves, our histories, and our frustrations with the misogyny of our world. It’s easy enough to love heroines who don’t want to be girls, or to fantasize about floating off and away from patriarchy’s harrowing entanglements. But it’s less easy to know what to do with the fact that so many of us end up back down on the ground—married, dead, making jam. Little Women still matters because in it, Alcott insists that the ground is where the work, the harvest, and the nourishment is.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Feb 14, 2012
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Central Pennsylvania
As awful as it is to read ( her dying blacksmith will make you weep every time ), ' Hospital Sketches ' is kinda a carry-over. Written earlier, it's still one of the sisters as an adult. She's so accurate in portraying foibles attached to men in power ( and women, and throws in Army mules ) it's a little breathtaking. The thing is, down in the nitty gritty, she writes of a lot of hope. Doctors whose crusty exterior was just that, exhausting themselves to save wounded, others taking time in a 24 hour work day to save her life, wounded men at close quarters heroically, anonymously surviving or dying. And her father arriving to take her home.

If anyone hasn't read of Jo, as a Civil War nurse in Washington, DC, good to look it up. There are around 20 on-line copies.
 

Pat Young

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Joined
Jan 7, 2013
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Long Island, NY
As awful as it is to read ( her dying blacksmith will make you weep every time ), ' Hospital Sketches ' is kinda a carry-over. Written earlier, it's still one of the sisters as an adult. She's so accurate in portraying foibles attached to men in power ( and women, and throws in Army mules ) it's a little breathtaking. The thing is, down in the nitty gritty, she writes of a lot of hope. Doctors whose crusty exterior was just that, exhausting themselves to save wounded, others taking time in a 24 hour work day to save her life, wounded men at close quarters heroically, anonymously surviving or dying. And her father arriving to take her home.

If anyone hasn't read of Jo, as a Civil War nurse in Washington, DC, good to look it up. There are around 20 on-line copies.
A good reminder of Alcott beyond Little Women.
 

Jimklag

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Mar 3, 2017
Location
Chicagoland
From the article:

When Louisa May Alcott was a child, her father Bronson asked her to define what a philosopher was. She replied, tongue in cheek: “a man up in a balloon with his family at the strings tugging to pull him down.” Later, as a grown woman, Alcott would write a short story loosely based on day-to-day life at Fruitlands, the short-lived utopian community her father founded in the 1840s. Titled “Transcendental Wild Oats,” the story satirized men like her father and his circle (Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and others), noting how “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away” when it came time to harvest the crops. Throughout her life, Alcott knew how to puncture the buoyant intellectual men floating above the people stuck down in the muck of cooking and sweeping and dying in childbirth.

4b1fc48a9e5e5a8cf7ee23ded101a6b6e1b2f842.jpg

MEG, JO, BETH, AMY: THE STORY OF LITTLE WOMEN AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS by Anne Boyd Rioux W. W. Norton & Company, 288 pp., $27.95

This sharp perspective is easy to miss in the work for which Alcott is best known, her beloved 1868 novel Little Women. The earliest reviewers described the story of the four March sisters and their mother Marmee as “fresh,” “healthy,” “natural,” and “sincere.” In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway characterized Little Women as full of “sweetness and light.” Critics since then have largely followed suit, continuing to describe the novel as amiable and charming, though often disagreeing as to whether that was a good or bad thing. In the 1960s the British critic Brigid Brophy asserted that the novel’s sentimentality was a form of “technical skill” on Alcott’s part, whereas Mary Gaitskill, writing in 1995, criticized the story as treacly: an “impossibly sweet view of life.”
I was forced to read this in high school and found it a little saccharine for my taste but otherwise a beautiful book. I re-read it in my 30's and my opinion of it actually got better. Maybe I'll give it another go one day.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
I was forced to read this in high school and found it a little saccharine for my taste but otherwise a beautiful book. I re-read it in my 30's and my opinion of it actually got better. Maybe I'll give it another go one day.


Yes, I can see where a high school boy would find it lacking. Can't imagine! She is very good although you get a little exhausted adjusting between the tragic and humorous. IMO it's also an excellent work just reeking of ' New England '- so may be a little bias. Still, there's a good bit of work out there about life elsewhere- the South, western adventures, not much on period New England.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Yes, I can see where a high school boy would find it lacking. Can't imagine! She is very good although you get a little exhausted adjusting between the tragic and humorous. IMO it's also an excellent work just reeking of ' New England '- so may be a little bias. Still, there's a good bit of work out there about life elsewhere- the South, western adventures, not much on period New England.
Thanks for your insights.
 
Joined
Oct 3, 2005
From the article:

When Louisa May Alcott was a child, her father Bronson asked her to define what a philosopher was. She replied, tongue in cheek: “a man up in a balloon with his family at the strings tugging to pull him down.” Later, as a grown woman, Alcott would write a short story loosely based on day-to-day life at Fruitlands, the short-lived utopian community her father founded in the 1840s. Titled “Transcendental Wild Oats,” the story satirized men like her father and his circle (Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and others), noting how “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away” when it came time to harvest the crops. Throughout her life, Alcott knew how to puncture the buoyant intellectual men floating above the people stuck down in the muck of cooking and sweeping and dying in childbirth.

4b1fc48a9e5e5a8cf7ee23ded101a6b6e1b2f842.jpg

MEG, JO, BETH, AMY: THE STORY OF LITTLE WOMEN AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS by Anne Boyd Rioux W. W. Norton & Company, 288 pp., $27.95

This sharp perspective is easy to miss in the work for which Alcott is best known, her beloved 1868 novel Little Women. The earliest reviewers described the story of the four March sisters and their mother Marmee as “fresh,” “healthy,” “natural,” and “sincere.” In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway characterized Little Women as full of “sweetness and light.” Critics since then have largely followed suit, continuing to describe the novel as amiable and charming, though often disagreeing as to whether that was a good or bad thing. In the 1960s the British critic Brigid Brophy asserted that the novel’s sentimentality was a form of “technical skill” on Alcott’s part, whereas Mary Gaitskill, writing in 1995, criticized the story as treacly: an “impossibly sweet view of life.”
I've read "Transcendental Wild Oats" Alcott's satire of the theorists, food faddists and occasional nudist. Its very funny, but there is a strong thread of fury at her father for making her mother's life so hard.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
I've read "Transcendental Wild Oats" Alcott's satire of the theorists, food faddists and occasional nudist. Its very funny, but there is a strong thread of fury at her father for making her mother's life so hard.
I never read Wild Oats, but it sounds pretty interesting.

Louisa and her mom had some justified anger at Dad. As Michele says "Nothing wrong with a man being a dreamer, as long as he doesn't marry or have kids."
 
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