Let me start this post with a bit of a disclaimer. I’m not saying that Little Women is bad, or that there is anything wrong with you if you adore this story.
My own mother is one of the second wave feminists who love this novel, and there is nothing wrong with that. I’m simply trying to explain why Louisa May Alcott herself likely never considered it the masterpiece it is viewed as today.
I live in New England. New English feminists love their revisionist history, and the history around women’s literature is often the most revised.
“It says that Jo should shave her head to overthrow the white male patriarchy.”
Ask someone at Mount Holyoke College about Emily Dickinson and you will get a glowing happy tale about how Dickinson’s poetry was inspired by the college. Conveniently forgetting that she quit college, and most of her poetry was about death!
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women gets much the same treatment. “It’s about her real life,” “Writers write what they know,” “She wanted to tell the story of real women!”
Lies, All pretty little lies!
Yes, she drew inspiration for her real life. and yes, the characters are very relatable. But that doesn’t mean that the March family WAS the Alcott family! For example: Louisa’s father never went to war. That difference changes a family dynamic.
Alcott was writing at the dawn of the Victorian society, the late 1800’s, and it’s important to note that there was a fascinating cultural contradiction going on in America at the time.
2016 saw a similar cultural contradiction in the United States. Take for example the concept of white privilege. This is the idea that white people have “perks” just for being white, and they should acknowledge this privilege and use it to help minorities. but it is important to recognize that to many, the concept of “white privilege” is just a cleaned up version of “the white man’s burden.”
This is how otherwise sane people voted Donald Trump into the Presidency.
Much the same thing was happening in late 1800’s America. The difference was that instead of talking about oppression, they were talking about spiritualism.
Belief is ghosts, poltergeists, psychics and the paranormal were going mainstream. In contrast, there was a moral push from the religious against this “pagan” movement. The result for New England was D.L Moody and the great revival.
So there was conflict in the culture with the traditional religious on one side, and on the other were the victims -I mean- believers in psychics and mediums.
Louisa May Alcott actually liked to write about the paranormal. Most of her early work was gothic tales akin to Mary Shelly’s. Alcott loved mystery and horror. Today she would probably be a fan of slasher movies.
Alcott was never a proper woman. Her father was friends with the “On Walden Pond” crowd and the Alcotts were big believers in education and promoted their daughters in the arts.
Louisa wanted to write horror stories about the paranormal, but at the dawn of Victorian society, a woman writing about such things was a social taboo. Just like Mary Shelly had to do with Frankenstein in 1818, Alcott’s early gothic tales had to be publish it anonymously.
Alcott wanted to write these dark tales like “The Abbot’s Ghost” but it was hard enough to be taken seriously as a authoress back then, even when one was writing “Wholesome, children’s stories” let alone horror like Louisa wanted.
It was ultimately art that inspired Alcott to write Little Women but not the way it is often imagined. The family needed money to put Louisa’s sister May through art school.
So Louisa wrote Little Women not as a magnum opus of self expression, but to put her sister through school because Louisa knew that this was the kind of story that would sell. Or in her own words “Moral pap for the young” because “Money is the means and the ends of my mercenary existence.”
That’s right, Little Women was a cash grab by an artist trying to pay the bills. but that doesn’t take anything away from Little Women itself. Even Shakespeare had bills to pay. Richard III was written as Tudor propaganda, but it’s still a great play about politics and manipulation.
It’s also worth noting that Alcott wrote Little Women in two parts. After the first part came out, fans sent her letters about how they couldn’t wait to see Laurie and Jo end up together. . . Which is why they don’t.
Alcott wrote “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” Louisa May Alcott screwing with fan expectations since 1869 and laughing her ass off about it!
Again, please note that I have said nothing negative about the story of Little Women. It is enjoyable. It is safely rebellious. but for my feminist buck, Alcott’s short horror stories are more my style.
While I doubt that Alcott herself would consider Little Women a classic work of art. There is no doubt that great art did come from Little Women.
You’ve probably never heard of May Alcott the artist. You’ve probably never even heard of Daniel Chester French, the young artist she mentored and encouraged to pursue formal art training. But somehow I think you know his work.
“Alcott: ‘Not The Little Woman You Thought She Was’.” NPR, NPR, 28 Dec. 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121831612.
“Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.” Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, http://www.louisamayalcott.org/.
“Mary Shelley.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 28 Apr. 2017, http://www.biography.com/people/mary-shelley-9481497.