When conversation turns to the classic book "Little Women" and its chronicles of the adventures of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, images of domesticity and quiet, feminine backdrops are most likely to come to mind. But look beyond the fiction to the real-life Louisa May Alcott, and the domestic tranquility obscures a more turbulent reality.
The fact is, the Alcott household was progressive; one could even say it was “woke” for its time. The family were ardent abolitionists participating in the Underground Railroad, and hanging out with the likes of Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (whom Louisa May Alcott seemed to have a crush on as a teen-ager). Bronson Alcott was a radical Transcendentalist who practiced a vegan, pacifist lifestyle and famously forced his family to live on a commune where they nearly froze and starved one winter.
This was not your average 19th-century tea-in-the-parlor family.
Then, there’s Louisa May herself. She went running every day. She was highly ambitious. At one point, she hired herself as a domestic worker to support the family. During the Civil War, Louisa May, unlike her idealistic father, journeyed as close to the frontlines as she could, working as a nurse in Washington DC before succumbing to typhoid pneumonia. And eventually, Alcott obtained her goal of supporting the family through her writing, calling herself as she did so “the man of the family,” just like her gender-bending protagonist Jo.
There’s no way around it: Louisa May was way ahead of her time.
Now, understandably, author Anne Boyd Rioux in Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, wants us to re-think this book and the cultural factors that created it. Rioux is on a mission to make us all read "Little Women," and then to re-read it. She wants feminists to read it more closely and open-mindedly. She wants men to read it (props to Stephen King, who, as Rioux points out, appears to be a few steps ahead of the crowd in his
appreciation of Alcott, judging from a New York Times review of her sensational novel "A Long, Fatal Love Chase"). And most especially she wants even boys to read "Little Women."
(Rioux asserts that because of the “gendering” of children’s books, certain works of literature are marketed or assigned as girls’ books or boys’ books. Her research finds that girls read both kinds, while boys generally don't read books for girls. If girls and the critical establishment are OK with "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," Rioux asserts, then there’s no reason under heaven that boys and the same critical establishment shouldn’t be even more OK with "Little Women.")
Rioux makes an excellent case for all of this re-reading, providing a cultural-historical tour of the classic book and its many reiterations in popular culture. She explore the book’s impact in film, from Katharine Hepburn’s Jo to Winona Ryder’s; its influences on women writers – she calls it arguably the most influential book for American women writers; and the book’s contemporary pop-culture descendants in Katniss, Hermione, and even the brainy Rory Gilmore.
Their intellectual ancestor, Louisa May Alcott was an inspiring, multifaceted contradiction. She sought out a life of ambition and action while also dreaming of a “companionate marriage” of intellectual and moral equals. Alcott, after all, grew up with not only Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau as neighbors, but more importantly with the journalist and Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, who wrote the influential feminist tract “Woman in the 19th Century,” and traveled through Europe writing dispatches from the Italian revolution while simultaneously conducting a massive love affair. Even today, that combination of passion, intellect, and independence – also found in the multifaceted, gender-fluid character of Jo March – can be read as a contradiction. In the 19th century, it was radical.
Perhaps because of these wonderful, multiple dimensions of Alcott and her creations, critics have through the ages been confounded by the book. This traversing between “man of the family” adventures and tea-and-corsets settings has created challenges for readers across the generations. As Rioux points out, the bold adventures of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy all end in either happy, domesticated marriages or – in Beth’s case – in death. Those options are less than exciting for our feminists sisters of the 1970s.
But things get exciting when one considers that these contradictions can be enlightening, and may even be the point. “Multidimensionality” is a word Rioux uses often, and it’s a good one to describe the Little Women of the book, their choices, the pressures to conform and the pain of noncomformity, and the paths they take toward womanhood. In this way, Alcott – a writer who churned out, and enjoyed, sensational stories that dealt in melodrama and power struggles between the sexes – was after all a realist.
Rioux could even more deeply explore and re-envision the place of the multifaceted Alcott and Jo March in the literary lineage connecting them with Henry James and his Daisy Miller, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre, and with Jane Austen and the likes of Elizabeth Bennet. Like Alcott, the creators of Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre – whose works are also constantly adapted into made-for-TV tea-and-corset romances – endured hardship and humiliation, sometimes caused by the male relatives whom they had no choice but to depend on.
Even as Alcott, Austen, and the Brontes indulged in the romantic idea of a man of wealth, strength, integrity, and intellect coming to the rescue, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Jane Eyres, the Eliza Bennetts, and the Jo Marches were, like their creators, the smartest people in the room. The man they sought to save them was the one who could equal if not surpass them: the one person as kind, as intelligent, and as high-caliber as they were. The one who, like Jo’s older, intelligent Professor Bhaer, could challenge them. And in their real lives, often enough, such a man was not to be found.
So the strength of Alcott and her little women is also borne of a massively strong intelligence, grindingly hard work, and character, even when it’s confined to domesticity. It’s why their story still matters.
Then, there’s the most confounding element of all – the one of unflinching female desire, equally strong. That unflinching female gaze of Alcott’s toward her Professor Bhaer and Jane Eyre toward Rochester is possibly the the most confounding thing of all, considering that the creator of Little Women also penned the thriller "Pauline's Passion and Punishment." But perhaps that's another story.