Louisa May Alcott and the Godmother of Punk

We love it when new UNC Press books seem to be in conversation with other books of the moment.  Take Patti Smith’s acclaimed new memoir, Just Kids (HarperCollins 2010), which offers an inside look at the punk pioneer’s artistic influences and collaborations, including Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Springsteen, Sam Shepard, and Fred “Sonic” Smith–all men.

However, right there on page 10, Smith points to reading Little Women as a turning point in her development into the rocker, poet, and artist that she was to become.

“I drew comfort from my books. Oddly enough, it was Louisa May Alcott who provided me with a positive view of my female destiny. . . . [Jo March] gave me the courage of a new goal, and soon I was crafting little stories and spinning long yarns for my brother and sister. From that time on, I cherished the idea that one day I would write a book.”

We asked Barbara Sicherman, author of Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women (UNC Press 2010), whose book takes a close look at Little Women’s Jo March and how she served as a youthful model of independence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for her take on Smith’s quote.

“Patti Smith. I am surprised. But I shouldn’t be. Jo March has been inspiring girls since she first appeared on the literary landscape nearly a century and a half ago. I am convinced that a major reason for the novel’s staying power is Jo’s success as a published author. She was a new kind of heroine to Alcott’s first readers who were thrilled to encounter a feisty literary tomboy and bookworm in print; some of them even kept journals in Jo’s name.

But what is truly amazing, given how much the world has changed since then, is that Jo remained the exemplar of female ambition well into the twentieth century–for writers as different as Simone de Beauvoir, Ann Petry, and Cynthia Ozick. And now Patti Smith, whose account of crafting stories and spinning yarns for her siblings after reading Alcott’s classic is in the same tradition.”

So, without Jo March and Little Women there may not have been a Patti Smith Group, one of the few rock bands with a woman leader and lyricist. And without Louisa May Alcott, Smith might not have created the body of work for which she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2005.

Read a full interview with Barbara Sicherman on the transformative power of reading in women’s lives see at the UNC Press website.