Little Women (American History Through Literature)
The novel Little Women (1868869), by Louisa May Alcott (1832888), tells the story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, four sisters in a New England family whose father is serving as a chaplain for the Union during the Civil War. The first volume follows the family through the events of a single year; in the second volume, the story commences three years later, as the sisters transition into adulthood and come to terms with their ambitions and responsibilities.
Louisa May Alcott, the second daughter of the educator and transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott and Abba May Alcott, was editing a children's magazine, Merry's Museum, when she was asked in September 1867 by Thomas Niles, an editor at the Boston publishing house Roberts Brothers, to write a novel for girls that might approximate some of the success experienced by the contemporary writers Horatio Alger and William T. Adams ("Oliver Optic") in their series books for boys. Initially scoffing at the request, Alcott noted that she did not know many girls or care much
Familiarity with Alcott's earlier work, however, would show that in some ways she had been writing or preparing to write Little Women all her life. For instance, "The Witch's Curse," the melodrama enacted by the March sisters on Christmas Day, alludes to characters and plots from the theatricals written and performed by Alcott and her elder sister, Anna, during their adolescence (published in 1893 with Anna Alcott Pratt under the title Comic Tragedies). The book of fairy stories written by Jo and burned by Amy in Little Women is reminiscent of Flower Fables, a collection of fantasy tales and poems dedicated to Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter Ellen and published by Alcott in 1855. "The Masked Marriage," a romantic story excerpted and attributed to Meg in the Pickwick Club newspaper published by the March sisters in Little Women, was written by Alcott and published in 1852 in Dodge's Literary Museum. Jo's first published story, "The Rival Painters," shares its title with Alcott's first published story, which appeared in a Boston periodical, the Olive Branch, in 1852. An 1856 short story published in the Saturday Evening Gazette, "The Sisters' Trial," dealt with the artistic trials and romantic tribulations of four sisters: there, as in Little Women, one aspired to be an actress, another a writer, a third a musician, and a fourth a painter. Inspired by Anna Alcott's marriage to John Bridge Pratt, the story "A Modern Cinderella," which Alcott originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860, depicts the courtship of Nan and John, forerunners of Meg and John Brooke in Little Women. The thriller stories published by Jo in New York City in part two of the novel are reminiscent of the blood-and-thunder stories that Alcott publishedometimes anonymously, sometimes under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, or, occasionally, under her own namen such publications as the American Union, Frank Leslie's Lady's Magazine, and the Flag of Our Union throughout the 1860s. The critical response Jo receives when her first novel is published is drawn from Alcott's own experiences upon the publication of her adult novel Moods in 1864.
Although she did not begin to write Little Women in earnest until May 1868, Alcott had finished the manuscript of the first volume by mid-July. Her youngest sister, (Abby) May Alcott, provided illustrations for the volume, and Roberts Brothers released it at the beginning of October to an overwhelming positive response. Prompted not only by the novel's considerable financial success but also by the thousands of letters Alcott received from eager young readers who wanted to know more about the characters, she began to write a sequel on 1 November. Finished by 1 January 1869, it was published in April 1869. Part two, also known as Good Wives, was illustrated by Hammatt Billings (who also illustrated, among other works, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin).
Volumes one and two were published in separate volumes for several years, although beginning in 1870 they were available in a set. In 1880 Roberts Brothers published a revised, 586-page single-volume edition with over two hundred new illustrations by Frank T. Merrill, which Alcott enthusiastically praised. The following year, as part of an eight-volume set of Alcott's works, Roberts Brothers issued what is known as the regular edition of Little Women, a smaller, 532-page edition without the Merrill illustrations. Neither Alcott nor Niles appears to have made the revisions that materialize in the 1881 text, although neither seemed to have objected to their being made; Niles commented in an 1883 letter to Alcott that the changes in style seemed to have resulted in additional sales. Among the textual changes, punctuation was modernized, spelling was modified, and instances of slang were deleted or changed. Characters were made more attractive and more fashionable: Laurie is taller, less ethnic (his "long nose" in the first edition becomes a "handsome nose" in the revised text), and more attractive; Marmee becomes a "noble-looking" woman; Meg's violet silk requires twenty-five yards of fabric, rather than twenty; and Professor Bhaer is described as more of a gentleman. The character of Jo in particular is altered so that she becomes less tomboyish, less colloquial, and more conventional.
Throughout the next century, the regular edition would be the version made available to most readers. It was not until the 1980s that the first edition was reprinted and studied. The changes in the novel and its textual history are the subject of ongoing scholarship.
LITERARY INFLUENCES AND ATTRIBUTES
In writing Little Women, Alcott alluded overtly in numerous instances to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (published in two parts in 1678 and 1684), a Christian allegory that was among her father Bronson Alcott's favorite stories and one of the most well-known texts of the nineteenth century. The preface to Little Women is an adapted quotation from the second part of Bunyan's work, which, like Little Women, depicts a mother guiding and inspiring her four children as they journey through life toward a heavenly reward. Early in the novel, Marmee encourages her daughters to take up their burdens and travel toward the "Celestial City" as they did when they were children with the goal of overcoming their personal shortcomings and finding confidence and moral strength as they transition into adulthood. Chapter titles in the first volume emphasize Alcott's association of her characters with scenes and situations from The Pilgrim's Progressor example, "Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful," "Amy's Valley of Humiliation," "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair," and "Jo Meets Apollyon," among others. Because of these allusions, many readers have assumed that the books Marmee gives her daughters on Christmas are individual copies of The Pilgrim's Progress. Other critics, however, have argued convincingly that Marmee gives each of her daughters her own copy of the New Testament. Nonetheless, the novel is inarguably structured on and inspired by Bunyan's Puritan allegory, although Alcott does translate Christian's journey into a more realistic nineteenth-century American female experience. Meg's "Vanity Fair" involves her weakness for French fashions and wealthy, if shallow, friends, while Jo's "Apollyon," rather than being an actual fiend, is her own temper, which she must learn to keep if she is to become an acceptable nineteenth-century American woman. Amy's "Valley of Humiliation" provides Alcott with an opportunity to point out the flaws in nineteenth-century American educational systems, and Beth's "Palace Beautiful," the Laurence mansion, features the artistic and aesthetic accoutrements of upper-class American culture.
Alcott's realism also draws from more contemporary American literary traditions. An important influence on Little Women is Susan B. Warner's (1819895) The Wide, Wide World (1850), in which the protagonist Ellen Montgomery must leave her ailing mother and go to live with a distant relative in New England. Like the March sisters, Ellen embraces The Pilgrim's Progress as a guidebook. She also struggles to fulfill her domestic responsibilities and resents her lack of economic and social status. Where the March family is befriended by the Laurences, Ellen is the beneficiary of moral, spiritual, and economic support from her neighbors John and Alice Humphreys. The Wide, Wide World follows Ellen from childhood into young womanhood, concluding with the promise of her marriage to John Humphreys. Though Ellen's experiences are more conventionally Christian than the March sisters', the realism of Warner's novel, with its folksy New England setting and occasional, rustic entertainments, would have been a model for Alcott's own work.
Another of Little Women's nineteenth-century American forerunners is Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811896) Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), with its insistence on the sanctity of the family and its rejection of the institution of slavery. Set during the Civil War, Little Women depicts a realistic home front, in which the March sisters and their mother sew and knit in support of the soldiers, forgo extras in order to contribute to the war effort, and tell each other stories about others who are sacrificing everything they have in support of the Union cause. Father March becomes ill and Marmee must travel to a Washington hospital to nurse him, and John Brooke serves in the Union Army and receives an honorable discharge. (Both Warner's and Stowe's novels are directly alluded to in Little Women.)
Alcott's realism extends beyond setting and plot, however, into her compelling characterizations. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their neighbor Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, strive for self-improvement, but in nearly every chapter they are doing something unusual, imaginative, and playful. They write and stage theatricals and found a Pickwick Club in tribute to the characters of Charles Dickens's 1836837 novel Pickwick Papers, who report to each other about their experiences as they travel around England; in the roles of Samuel Pickwick, Augustus Snodgrass, Tracy Tupman, and Nathaniel Winkle, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy write and publish a family newspaper very similar to one the Alcott sisters produced in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The March sisters also establish a neighborhood post office, go on picnics, and are each devoted to a branch of the arts. They squabble, demonstrate jealousy and pettiness, are grammatically incorrect, and are lazy. Alcott depicts their activities with humor and sympathyo's disastrous dinner party, Beth's dilapidated doll family, Amy's tendency to use the wrong words, Meg's romantic dreams. Because of the sisters' vibrant, appealing, realistic characterizations, readers have felt a strong connection to them since their first appearance in print. In comparison with another well-known nineteenth-century book for girls, also published in 1868, in which Martha Finley's (1828909) saintly title character, Elsie Dinsmore, dedicates her childhood to converting her father to Christianity, Little Women is surprisingly secular, playful, and real.
Particularly in the second volume, the characters of Little Women encounter more substantive personal disappointments and setbacks; they also struggle to maintain their moral and ethical beliefs as they leave home and venture out from under Marmee's careful supervision. Although Beth succumbs in the second volume to the aftereffects of the scarlet fever she contracted from the Hummels in the first volume, each of the surviving sisters finds male mentors with similar values who influence their choices and behaviors. Jo experiments with publishing thrillers before she recognizes, with Professor Bhaer's guidance, that she would be embarrassed to have her family know what she has been doing. Amy is determined to marry for money and status, yet when she is offered the opportunity to wed the Englishman Fred Vaughn, she ultimately cannot go through with her plan, in part because of Laurie's wise counsel. Meg is tempted by her desire for the kind of lifestyle her wealthy friend Sallie Moffat has, but an honest conversation with her husband deters her. In each case, Alcott contrasts "fashionable" or upper-class mores with the simple values originally established in the March family home. In addition, each character comes to appreciate the importance of relationships in connection with artistic achievement: Jo finds her greatest authorial success when she begins to write for her family; Amy recognizes in Rome that her talent, while evident, is not genius, and directs her talents to depicting her family and close friends; and Laurie, who originally wanted to be a famous composer, discovers that going into business is not the dreaded future it once seemed because it brings him closer to his grandfather. Although critics have complained that the characters seem to give up their artistic ambitions, Jo and Amy and Laurie are still practicing their respective artsriting and sculpture and musical compositiont the end of the novel.
One of the most continuously successful American novels of all time, Little Women is perhaps the most significant depiction in literature of American girlhood. It offers readers a relevant, enduring depiction of the complex relationships of sisters. It also features a compelling, substantive depiction of male-female friendship. Jo and Laurie, whom Alcott refused to marry to one another merely to please her readers, have an intense, attractive, intimate relationshipne to which readers continue to react passionately.
Since its first appearance in print, Little Women has attracted millions of enthusiastic readers, among them such famous figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Simone de Beauvoir. From the novel's first publication, Alcott became a celebrity. She published two sequels to Little Womeni>Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886)n addition to other novels for young readers as well as a number of short story collections and sketches collected in six volumes under the title Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag (1872882). Although highbrow authors such as Henry James and Edith Wharton disparaged her work and her talents, many authors of children's and adolescent literature have alluded to the influence of Little Women, among them L. M. Montgomery (author of the 1908 classic Anne of Green Gables), Jean Webster (whose orphan protagonist in the 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs, Judy Abbott, discovers that every other girl in the college she is attending has been raised on Little Women), Laura Ingalls Wilder (whose series of Little House books began in 1932), Beverly Cleary (whose series featuring the character Ramona first appeared in the 1950s), and many others. In 1893 Little Women was listed as one of the top forty best books in America, and in response to a poll sponsored by Current Literature in 1927 asking "What book has interested you most?" high school students chose Little Women as their first choice, followed by the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. As of 1968 Little Women was one of the two most circulated books in the New York Public Library.
Little Women has been the subject of two silent films (in 1917 and 1918), three major motion pictures (1933, 1949, and 1994), and two made-for-television films (1970 and 1978), in addition to multiple theatrical productions, including a 1998 opera by Mark Adamo. In addition, it has inspired postage stamps, comic strips, cookbooks, dolls, and a 1997 episode of the television program Friends.
Although the novel was rarely the subject of serious critical consideration before the 1960s, it has become one of the most often analyzed American novels of the nineteenth century, particularly following the discovery and republication of Alcott's thrillers by the Alcott scholars Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern. Critics have applied a wealth of critical approaches to the novel, including feminist, psychoanalytic, historical, New Historical, Marxist, and queer readings, with intriguing results. A bestselling popular novel, it has raised important critical questions about the connections between canonical and noncanonical works. A substantive, allusive, and compelling text, Little Women continues to appeal to professional and recreational readers alike.
See also Childhood; Children's and Adolescent Literature; Civil War; Domestic Fiction; Fashion; Female Authorship; The Wide, Wide World
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Alcott, Louisa May. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. Edited by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.
Alberghene, Janice M., and Beverly Lyon Clark, eds. "Little Women" and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays. New York: Garland, 1999.
Clark, Beverly Lyon, ed. Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Delamar, Gloria T. Louisa May Alcott and "Little Women":
Biography, Critique, Publications, Poems, Songs, and Contemporary Relevance. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1990.
Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott's Place in American Culture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Stern, Madeleine B. Louisa May Alcott: A Biography. 1950. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999.
Stern, Madeleine B., ed. Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.
Anne K. Phillips