Barbara Sicherman: The Persistence of Little Women, or Still Timely after All These Years

Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women, by Barbara SichermanBarbara Sicherman is author of Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women. In a compelling approach structured as theme and variations, Sicherman offers insightful profiles of a number of accomplished women born in America’s Gilded Age who lost—and found—themselves in books, and worked out a new life purpose around them. She argues that with Little Women‘s Jo March often serving as a youthful model of independence, girls and young women created communities of learning, imagination, and emotional connection around literary activities in ways that helped them imagine, and later attain, public identities.

Today is the 180th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s birth. To mark the occasion, we welcome a guest post from Sicherman, who discusses how influential Little Women has been to other women writers since its publication.


What do Simone de Beauvoir, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Petry, and Patti Smith have in common?

The French existentialist, Jewish American author, African American novelist, and punk rock star are all celebrated writers. Beyond this, each woman has acknowledged the importance of Little Women, and its heroine Jo March, in their imaginative lives and their identities as artists and intellectuals. They are not alone.

Numerous women, some famous, most not, have vouched for the novel’s appeal since its appearance in 1868-69 (initially in two parts). As early as 1875, fifteen-year-old Jane Addams, future settlement leader and Nobel Peace prize winner, anticipated the formulaic pattern of rereadings when she observed: “I have read and reread ‘Little Women’ and it never seems to grow old.” Even friends growing up in the 1940s and 1950s claim they read the novel yearly when they were young and returned to it periodically as adults.

Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
[public domain image via Wikimedia Commons]
The pattern is remarkable when we consider that November 29 is the 180th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s birth.

Why should a “girls’ book” written for the juvenile market nearly 150 years ago elicit such loyalty? Dedicated readers will have their own answers, but here are a few thoughts.

First, Little Women is a surprisingly modern work that has aged well. It is true that it is a moral, even moralizing, tale: the four March sisters are expected to grow up to become virtuous and useful women, an approach that has led some scholars to view it as a disciplinary text. But compared to other books of the period, Alcott’s represents a sea change in sensibility. The March girls have plenty of fun (including amateur dramatics) unsupervised by adults, they speak slang, articulate individual desires, and are allowed to learn their own lessons.

Little Women has survived despite the cultural chasm that separates Alcott’s era from our own because it is an unusually porous text, one to which readers may find several points of entry. Nothing points to its openness more than the absence of historical markers. The novel is framed against the backdrop of the Civil War (which has conveniently called the father away), but the nature of the conflict is not discussed, although Alcott and her family were staunch abolitionists. A British woman who read and reread the book as a girl recently recalled: “It wasn’t until college and a second year American history class that I realized that the nameless war that took Mr March away was the Civil War. Until that time, the March family had been English to me in every respect.”

Perhaps the most important reason for the novel’s survival is a heroine with unusual appeal. Some readers have identified with the other March sisters, but it is Jo March, the rambunctious tomboy and bookworm who is unladylike and careless of her appearance, who carries the story. The vast majority of readers, past and present, have identified with her. Jo’s presumed flaws are precisely the characteristics that speak to preadolescent and adolescent readers, themselves struggling with issues of growing up.

Alcott, who modeled Jo in her own image, created a character that continues to appeal. As J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books and herself a “Jo,” observed: “It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a bad temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

For readers on the threshold of adulthood, the book’s embrace of female ambition has been a significant counterweight to more habitual gender prescriptions. For years there were few alternative models, although in my generation, the Nancy Drew books helped. Even today, some girls still respond to the portrait of Jo, the enthralled and enthralling writer.

Finally, Little Women is in important respects a “problem novel.” It is a work that lingers in the minds of its readers, generations of whom have found the story’s resolution unacceptable. To almost any devoted reader, the principal difficulty is Jo’s refusal to marry Laurie, the handsome, rich, and fun-loving, boy next door. Almost as troubling is Jo’s marriage to Friedrich Bhaer, a bumbling German professor who is not only much older but disapproves of her writing lurid thrillers, which Alcott had also written. Alcott intended that Jo—her alter ego—remain single. After publication of Little Women, Part I, when fans wrote expressing hopes that Jo marry Laurie, she compromised—but only by creating what she called “a funny match.”

Even today, when girls have many fictional heroines with whom they can identify, this seeming faux pas still rankles. Readers responding to a recent blog post at The Hairpin, “Texts from Little Women,” in October 2012 reiterated their double disappointment in the marriage plot Alcott devised for Jo. The exchanges also reveal intense resentment, some of it unprintable, toward Amy, the pretty, blond and stuck-up youngest sister, who marries Laurie. Some years ago, when I mentioned my interest in Little Women to a young African American academic, she exclaimed: “And I do think it was so unfair of Aunt March to take Amy instead of Jo to Europe.”

Alcott’s seeming misstep permitted girls to rework the plot on their own terms, to their own liking. Little Women, Part II, in which the sisters grow up and get married, is far less compelling than Part I, and many readers conveniently “forget” or ignore Jo’s marriage. Nevertheless, by combining a quest with a romance plot, Little Women covers all the bases. It is difficult to believe that the story would have remained so popular in the 20th century had it ended with an adult heroine who remained single.

I end with a confession: I was not an Alcott groupie. I read Little Women in grade school (I recall being sick in bed at the time). I had many of the “right” responses: I liked the book, liked Jo of course, and was disappointed in the resolution of the marriage plot. But it was not a book that haunted me or one I returned to. That is, until I was writing a book about women’s reading in the late 19th century and discovered that Little Women was the book most often mentioned in American women’s diaries and letters. Since then, I have reread Alcott’s classic often, always with pleasure. Even as I read as a scholar, I admire Jo’s youthful spunk and literary aspirations, am moved by Beth’s death, and above all appreciate Louisa May Alcott’s talent. You might say that Little Women is a book I grew into.

Barbara Sicherman is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Institutions and Values Emerita at Trinity College. She is author of Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women, Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters, and The Quest for Mental Health in America, 1880-1917.