History of the Text

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Last Updated on August 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

Little Women’s Reception and Publication History: The first volume of Little Women was a massive success with both critics and the general public when it was published in September 1868. Readers became invested in the March sisters and demanded to know more, with one letter to author Louisa May Alcott declaring that if she did not “make Laurie marry Beth . . . I’ll never read another of your books as long as I live.” Volume two quickly followed in April 1869 and enjoyed similar popularity. The volumes were published together as a single novel in 1880; this edition remains popular and has never been out of print.

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  • Adaptations: Little Women has enjoyed enduring international popularity, resulting in numerous adaptations into different mediums, including radio, stage, film, and animation. The first major adaptation was a stage play by Marian de Forest, which debuted in New York in 1912. Two silent film adaptation followed in 1917 and 1918, but both films are now considered lost. The third screen adaptation was released in 1933 and starred Katherine Hepburn, who went on to consider it one of her favorite projects. The 1933 film adaptation, as well as the subsequent 1949, 1978, and 1994 adaptations, all received critical acclaim and were commercially popular. A seventh and eighth film adaptation were released in 2017 and 2019, respectively.

Inclusion in the American Literary Canon: Despite its popularity, Little Women was not always considered worthy of scholarly analysis—or even inclusion in curricula—because of shifting perceptions of what constitutes a serious work of art. Even its own author distanced herself from the book, describing it as “moral pap for the young.”

  • Sixteen years after the first volume of Little Women was published, Henry James wrote “The Art of Fiction,” an essay establishing the novel form as a serious work of literature. His definition left out sentimental fiction (which is often moralistic and focused on the domestic sphere) and children’s literature like Little Women, which was subsequently snubbed by literary critics for more than half of the 20th century. In 1952, Edward Wagenknecht famously wrote that the novel “needs—and is susceptible of—little analysis.”
  • Though often ignored by literary critics and scholars, Little Women was widely read in English classrooms in the 20th century. The novel only seemed to grow in global popularity, especially after World War II, when it was internationally distributed as an example of the American ideals that soldiers were fighting for. However, as literary scholars finally began to take the novel seriously in the 1970s, the general public gradually lost interest—including parents and teachers. Today, Little Women is less frequently taught than contemporary works like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Many educators avoid teaching it out of worry that the novel’s sentimentality and focus on 19th century female adolescence will prove unrelatable and uninteresting for modern students.

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