Discovering Alcott

Discovering Alcott

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Discovering Alcott

When I was a child, I spent all my free time reading. I loved the Nancy Drew series of mysteries and even read a few Hardy Boys. I also read every other book available in our house, especially the children’s book I read to my younger brothers and sisters. Each of them had a favorite book. Those books were read over and over at bedtime or to entertain them while my mother was busy. As I grew older, the responsibility of reading to the other children passed to my younger sister, Cathy.

I looked forward to summer vacations because that meant more time to read books that I chose. There was no library in our small town but my mother had lots of books. I also had a two friends, girls who were the only child in their families, and they had all the latest books, ones my family could not afford. I had the privilege of borrowing books from them. When I was eleven years old, I discovered Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I was a child who noticed details so the author’s name immediately intrigued me. Louisa was my grandmother’s name. I could not remember this grandmother but she was my mother's mother and May is my mother’s middle name, so I felt this had some significance. I was sure that Louisa May Alcott had written something especially intended for me. I did not underestimate how important she would be to me.

In addition to our regular household chores of cleaning, babysitting, bed making and helping with cooking, washing and ironing, my older sister, Marian, and I were old enough now to help with canning and freezing fruits and vegetables. We were aware that this must be done in order to feed the family through the winter. We felt our mother’s worry about being able to provide for us so endured the hot, muggy kitchen when we, or at least I, would much rather have been curled up in a quiet corner with a book.
I was intrigued from the first page of Little Women because it was about four girls and they were talking about being poor. I could feel and understand their worries. Not only that, one of them reminded the others that they were lucky, they had each other, something my own mother often told us we should appreciate. As the story continued I could not help comparing them to my own family.

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Like the March girls, our world revolved around our mother. I thought it natural that they were so close to their mother. I
am sure the first time I read the book that I gave little thought to their father. While they had no brothers, I just decided they were lucky that way. I was sure the story was about Alcott’s own family and I wanted my family to be just like hers.

At this time there were only three girls in my family, which presented a problem. Once I
understood the order of the girls’ ages, however, I was still sure this book had a special message for me. Meg was the oldest and my oldest sister was named Marian so the names both started with M. Jo was next and she had a boyish nickname. I had always felt that my name was boyish. I was named for George Washington because I had been born on his birthday. The fact that Jo chose to have a boyish nickname and I wanted to have a less boyish name did not bother me. I identified with Jo. The two younger girls were a little puzzling at first. The third March girl was named Beth and the youngest, Amy. Cathy was the youngest sister in our family and I wondered if she was Beth or Amy. I
settled on Beth. Cathy did not seem particularly interested in art, and besides, of all us children, she was the least healthy and that was like Beth. My mother finally settled any doubts I had a year later by having another daughter. Unfortunately, she was unaware of my determination to make my family like the Marches. She named my new sister Beth.
Every year I consoled my self when school ended for the summer by reading Little Women. I
never tired of reading about these girls. I read what I thought were all of Alcott’s other books, Little Men and Jo’s Boy, each once, but Little Women became a yearly ritual. Every year I was disappointed when Jo refused Laurie, cried when Beth died, was interested when Meg had twins and was happy when Jo achieved her desire to become a writer, even if it seemed to include getting married. Each year, my own growing
maturity made a different part of the story seem important.

The year my grandfather died and I really understood what that meant, I watched Cathy anxiously for any signs of declining health. I imagined myself taking care of her and felt the stress of my mother’s anxiety each time that Cathy was sick. That year I was not only happy to return to school but relieved that we all, including Cathy, returned to school right on schedule. That fear has lurked at the back of my mind all my life. Even now, when I have experienced the deaths of other siblings, I know her death would bring an added echo of the grief that I felt each time that Beth March died.

As Marian got older, began dating and planning to start college, I had another identity crisis. She was Meg, who taught and then got married but never moved far away, not Jo who left the nest and found her own way. She planned to be a teacher, so that was Meg, but going away to college would make her Jo. I guess that is when I began to understand that none of us is one-dimensional. She could be Meg and Jo, I finally realized, and I could be Jo and Meg, or Jo and Beth, or Jo and Amy. I was only sure that I wanted a Jo part. I can remember other years when I focused on the details about the Civil War, details of Meg’s courtship and marriage or details of Jo’s life away from her family. I can also remember the year that Marmee came into focus for me. That year I saw my own mother more clearly as the source of most of the things that made us a family. I suppose it was matched with my growing sense of my own father’s distance from his daughters. While my father was home every day, unlike Mr. March, and while he financially supported us, unlike Mr. March, it was my mother who was responsible for all our physical needs. Like Mr. March, I saw my father as a benevolent presence but not a force in my life like my mother was. If I wished my mother were more like Mrs. March that was only adolescent rebellion.

When I was fifteen, I anticipated my annual visit with the March sisters. The birth of my youngest sister changed those plans. I spent that summer caring for her and the rest of the family while my mother was ill. I thought it was something Jo would have done but it left little time for reading. The next year I was old enough to have a summer job and start saving money for college. The yearly tradition ended, but when my youngest son was born, the sentimentalist in me made Laurence his middle name. I remember the movies of Little Women. I find it hard to comprehend that my favorite version was filmed in 1933, long before I was born. I remember seeing a version with Katherine Hepburn as Jo, and one with June Allyson as Jo. I also saw the version made a few years ago with Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as Marmee. I enjoyed all the movies, even though I thought the latest version tried too hard to show a feminist view. Little Women is remarkably supportive of female independence with out any tweaking by Hollywood.

I can not remember the first time I saw the older versions but carry images from them in my mind. My image of Jo will always be Katherine Hepburn, her long dark hair and coltish figure the epitome of my Jo. Strangely enough, my image of the perfect Laurie is Peter Lawford and I was surprised to learn he was in the later version that starred June Allyson. I learned this last year when my granddaughter was twelve. My daughter-in-law asked me one day if I had heard of the play “Little Women”. I corrected her that it was a book, and was dismayed to learn she had never read it. I marveled that a whole generation of American women might have grown up without the March girls, and without the moral lessons they teach. She had tickets to take my granddaughter to see the play at a community theatre. They saw the play and said it was “all right”. Disappointed that they had not been enthusiastic, I was compelled to revisit the book, and the movies, to reassure myself of Alcott’s magic. Little Women still casts its spell over me. Forty years have not diminished the novel’s effect on me but my own life experiences have changed the impact I feel from the stories it tells. Some of the trials the characters face now seem more humorous. Amy’s punishment over the lemons, for instance, now seems less humiliating. The lessons in morals and manners still seem appropriate even though some of the trappings of the time have vanished. The novel as a whole gives a good picture of what every day life robably was for people like the Marches. Is longer and more detailed than I remembered.

While Marmee seems more idealized to me now, I still admire her gentle, loving ways and think I could have profited by continuing to read Little Women every year while my own children were young. I also find other passages more meaningful now. The lesson Meg learned from not staying with in her budget, and John’s reaction to that, is a good lesson in marriage for any era. Beth’s death still touches me deeply, but now I do not cry until “on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh” (Alcott 383) Beth dies in her mother’s arms. I no longer see it as a girl who is afraid for her sister, but as a mother sharing the experience of losing a child. What I had read and enjoyed as a child and teenager, and what I had considered a juvenile classic, rings true to a woman long past her juvenile years. For the first time, I was curious about the woman who could write this. I wondered if it really was about her and her family, as I had assumed so many years before. I learned that Louisa May Alcott was all her book implied, and more.
The book is very much about her real family. They were extremely poor, kept in poverty by the idealism of Mr. Alcott. Louisa was the second of four daughters. She was born on her father’s thirty-fifth birthday. It seems an eerie coincidence that she also died two days after he did, as if she shared a deeper bond with her distant father than her book indicates. Louisa died on March 6, 1888, two days after her father’s death. “When she died, she did not know that Bronson Alcott had gone just before her. What she did know was that she had taken care of him to the very last of his needing her, that she had been able to guard and protect and watch over the entire family” (Meigs, 185). Her mother was the strong Marmee of her story and, with her daughters, provided for the family’s financial stability by working menial jobs until Louisa succeeded as a writer. Her father provided the same, behind the scenes, moral expectations that her mother taught. Most of the episodes in the book actually happened to Louisa’s family. She did write thrillers just like Jo, which surprised me. I also learned she wrote many more books and I have begun to read them all.

Alcott was a feminist, before there were feminists, an abolitionist, a suffragette, an Army nurse during the Civil War, an advocate of the Temperance Movement and always unmarried. Her stands on rights for women and freedom for slaves seem fitting. Reading her books with that in mind adds another level of meaning. Most surprising is the fact that there never was a “Professor Bhear” in her life. “Alcott claimed that she had “fallen in love” many times with girls, never with a man. Since any husband would
“bore” her she preferred to “paddle my own canoe” (Douglas, xvi). This brings in to perspective Jo’s remarks when Meg falls in love with John, her refusal of Laurie, and perhaps, explains her choice of the professor. Little Women has returned to its place in my life. It is the first book on my vacation reading list. I read it with new perspectives each time. New knowledge of Alcott’s own life enriches the treasures I find between the pages of this novel. I recently heard an English professor say that any adolescent girl who reads Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has to major in English in college. I remember reading that book as a teenager but felt no great impact from it. Rereading it now made it no more significant. It seems rather melodramatic compared with the domestic harmony of the March family.

I am grateful to the American author who inspired my love for great literature. She remains timely in the lessons she teaches about family values. She can be used as a model for the strength and independence we wish to teach our daughters, and granddaughters. Her personal life can be used to guide a generation struggling to deal with gender and sexual determination. Her concern for providing for her family speaks to everyone in my generation faced with the care of aging parents. She still has many
lessons for me. I will always feel I am one of Louisa May Alcott’s little women.
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Works Cited

Alcott, Lousia May. Little Women. A Signet Classic. New York:Penguin Putnam, 1983.

Douglas, Ann. Introduction. Little Women. By Louisa May Alcott. New York: Penguin
Putnam, 1983.

Meigs, Cornelia. Invincible Louisa. Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company,1933.
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