Teaching Little Women at 150

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This year is the sesquicentennial of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women. Based on Alcott’s own family and home in Concord, Massachusetts, the novel was immediately popular and has never been out of print. While the novel is a perennial favorite and culturally ubiquitous with multiple film and television adaptations, Little Women is rarely taught in American literature courses at the college and university level. In her newly released book Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, Anne Boyd Rioux reports that the “Open Syllabus Project,” “a database of texts in all genres used in colleges and university courses,” ranks Little Women at 431. Walden comes in at 31 and Huckleberry Finn at 47.

There are many explanations for why the novel has been overlooked in the canon of American literature that is regularly taught and studied at the college level including its “popularity,” its stigma as children’s literature (Alcott herself called her novel “moral pap for the young”), and its emphasis on women’s lives and experiences–not to mention its length. Nonetheless, there is a case to be made for integrating Little Women into American literature survey and topics courses as a core text “students must know if they want to understand the roots of American and women’s literary traditions.”

Little Women, Realism, and Genre

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Literary critic G.K Chesteron claimed that Little Women, published in 1868, “anticipated realism by at least twenty to thirty years.” Chesterton cites Professor Bhaer’s proposal to Jo as an illustration of the novel’s realism. Nether Jo nor Bhaer are idealized or romanticized; both are rain-soaked and unkempt as they awkwardly, yet authentically, express their love and loyalty to each other. While readers today may see the portrayal of the March sisters as overly-sentimental, “[e]arly reviewers almost unanimously viewed the emotions evoked by the novel as ordinary and natural.” Rather than seeing the novel as over-wrought and emotionally manipulative, its original readers saw it as “true to life.” Although Alcott enjoyed writing sensational and sentimental stories, “she staked her literary reputation on her realistic writing.” Indeed, Little Women can be taught as a realistic novel on par with those of Mark Twain, Henry James, and other exemplars of the tradition.

That said, Little Women can also be taught in the traditions of sentimental, domestic, and women’s literature and examined for the ways in which it conforms with and deviates from traditional generic conventions. With its portrayal of four young women navigating the transition from girlhood to womanhood, it could be taught as a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel. The depiction of Jo’s literary ambitions and trials, based on Alcott’s own, means it could also be taught as a künstlerroman, a novel of artistic development.

Literary Influence and Adaptations

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Present-day writers as wide-ranging as Barbara Kingsolver, bell hooks, Anne Lamont, and J.K. Rowling have cited Alcott as an inspiration for their literary ambitions. Through the writerly Jo, Alcott has influenced women writers such as Mary Gordon, Anne Tyler, Gloria Steinem, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jhumpa Lahiri.  Little Women has left a mark on American and women’s literature, and studying it in our classes shows students its worth and provides them with an important context for understanding contemporary literature.

The novel has not only inspired multiple film and television adaptations, but several literary adaptations that could make terrific classroom pairings to explore issues of genre, gender, and point-of-view. Joyce Carol Oates’s 1982 A Bloodsmoor Romance is a satirical spoof of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, Alcott’s Little Women, and Alcott’s sensational thrillers. Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005) re-tells Little Women from the perspective of the absent Mr. March and emphasizes the injustices of the Civil War and slavery, both in the background of Alcott’s novel. English Pakastani author Sarvit Hasin’s This Wide Night (2006) re-casts the March sisters as “colonized subjects” after the end of British rule. The novel is told from the perspective of the girls’ neighbor Jimmy, thereby re-imagining the novel from Laurie’s perspective.

Beth Matters!

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I haven’t taught the novel since 2013, but colleagues around the country tell me that their students are noticing and relating to the shy and reclusive Beth in ways they haven’t before. Perhaps Beth’s social anxiety and agoraphobia speak to a generation of students facing emotional and mental health issues; those of us in the classroom have witnessed a marked increase in emotional fragility and sensitivity among young people just in the past few years. The real-life Beth, Louisa May Alcott’s sister Lizzie Alcott, today probably would have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. In the novel, Marmee is more worried about Beth’s “spirit” than her physical health.

Beth’s substance and significance as a character have been overlooked, although it is Beth who voices the most beloved themes of the novel—that family, home, and love matter most. Jo, the novel’s protagonist, changes because of Beth, as Beth’s illness and death prompt Jo’s passage into womanhood and her more serious literary aspirations. The recent BBC/PBS adaptation of Little Women on Masterpiece Classics pays much attention to Beth, especially compared to previous adaptations. This is another indication that Beth is receiving renewed recognition as a compelling and vital character, and that the novel continues to speak anew to each generation of readers.

Teaching Alcott’s Other Writing

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Little Women was by no means Alcott’s only literary endeavor. Alcott’s other writing can be integrated into American literature classrooms to introduce a variety of themes and aesthetic and literary concerns. Her short story “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873) tells of the Alcott family’s time living at Fruitlands, a utopian farming community led by Alcott’s father Bronson when Alcott was a young girl. It is a satirical critique of the toll that utopian reform takes on women. Because Alcott seriously considers women’s lives and experiences, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) should not be taught without it.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873) tells the story of a woman who seeks financial independence and pursues several career paths including actress and governess. Students relate to Christine Devon’s search for vocation—meaningful work that is also financially remunerative. They are also fascinated by her love interest David Sterling, supposedly based on Alcott’s teacher and friend Henry David Thoreau. Moods (1864), Alcott’s greatest literary ambition, portrays a woman who marries and then regrets it. The novel portrays Alcott’s early crushes on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I’m currently teaching it as a major text in my senior capstone on Transcendentalism along with Emerson’s Nature (1836), Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1843), and Thoreau’s Walden (1854).

Alcott’s first literary success was Hospital Sketches (1863), based on her work as a Union Army nurse during the Civil War. Taken directly from Alcott’s letters home to her family in Concord, Hospital Sketches’s discussions of women’s work, women and war, and women and medicine make it a teaching possibility for a wide range of interdisciplinary and general education courses. That Alcott wrote sensational, darker fiction is well known at this point. My favorite of these stories is based on Alcott’s experience as a war nurse. “My Contraband” (1863) is about a formerly enslaved man and Union hospital orderly who exacts revenge on his former master, a captured Confederate soldier and patient in the hospital. Alcott’s Robert is no Uncle Tom, and the short story is an antidote to the romantic racialism of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and other anti-slavery and abolitionist literature of the day.

Men Should Read Little Women

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Perhaps a major factor keeping some instructors from teaching Little Women is its very title and the fact that it is an overtly gendered novel. Women and girls, of course, have always been asked to read and identify with literature written from the male perspective. All too often when making decisions about syllabi and reading lists, we may, consciously or not, consider the male experience as the universal default. Yet over the years, I have found that all of my students—women and men alike—love reading Little Women. Some of the novel’s noted male fans have included Teddy Roosevelt, George Orwell, and Rudyard Kipling.

Little Women passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and Rioux reminds that it is important for boys and men to occasionally, at least, read books about girls, particularly books in which “girls appear as individuals, rather than as extensions” of male protagonists. Jane Roland Martin writes: “Given that the ability to take the point of view of another is a basic element of morality itself, it is unconscionable—I would say positively immoral—to deprive [boys] of the opportunity of identifying with the other half of humanity. . . . How can boys respect girls if they are never encouraged to see the world as girls do?”

Teaching Little Women at 150 provides today’s students with opportunities to think deeply about gender, genre, literary influence, and the tension between “popular” and classic literature. Its themes and characters resonate with audiences today more than ever, as indicated by several new adaptions, including the BBC/PBS adaptation that appeared earlier this year. A new film adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig and featuring Meryle Streep as Aunt March will be released in 2019, and an adaptation set in the present day starring Lea Thompson as Marmee will come out later this year.

Have you ever taught Little Women or any of its adaptations? In what classes and contexts? How did your students respond? Do you know of other great resources for teaching the novel? Please leave your comments below!

Select Resources for Teaching Little Women

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Louisa May Alcott. Little Women. 1868. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein. Norton, 2004.

Along with the novel itself, this edition includes contemporary reviews and relevant cultural and literary contexts such as excerpts from Pilgrims Progress and Alcott’s sensational fiction.

John Matteson, editor. The Annotated Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Norton, 2015.

This edition includes a scholarly introduction and annotations, including a nineteenth-century recipe for pickled limes!

Anne Boyd Rioux. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Norton, 2018.

Rioux’s book is a “must have” resource for teaching Little Women. Her chapters on Little Women’s literary and cultural influence and its portrayal of female development are excellent lecture and classroom resources.

Elaine Showalter, ed. Alternative Alcott. Rutgers, 1998.

This volume contains many of Alcott’s lesser-known works cited in this blog post, including Hospital Sketches, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Work: A Story of Experience, and “My Contraband.”

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Fostering Complexity in the Age of Oversimplification: Teaching American Culture in 90 Minutes or Less, Part Two

Check out Part Two of Theresa Dietrich’s ideas about teaching in Norway. Dietrich writes about discussing immigration and multiculturalism and making connections between Norway and the U.S. You can find Part One here

In Part One of this post, I offered a few strategies for facilitating productive, rather than reductive, classroom conversations as a Fulbrighter teaching American politics and culture in Norway. I wrote about using images as an opening for discussion, as well as the conversational rewards of grounding discussions of the fraught American present in accounts of the past. Here is one final idea with accompanying lessons that address immigration and the meaning of multiculturalism in both American and Norwegian contexts.

Movers & Shakers: Students as Artists, Activists, and Policy Makers

One final way to meaningfully probe contemporary problems is to ask students to come up with solutions and empower them to imaginatively implement them. This pushes the discussion beyond identification—the refugee crisis is a problem—to application—what should we do about it as individuals and as a society?

I frequently ask students to imagine themselves as artists, activists, and policy makers. In a lesson on global migration, students analyze Norway’s refugee policy before rewriting it.  The lesson begins with a rhetorical analysis of this interview with Norway’s conservative, controversial (and recently resigned) immigration minister. Through independent research, students create a table comparing the refugee policies of three countries: Norway, Germany, and the U.S.,  answering the questions:

  • How many refugees will this country take per year?
  • What are the requirements to qualify as a refugee?
  • What kind of vetting system is used? How does this country decide who to let in?

All of this leads to a discussion about the responsibility of developed countries to asylum seekers in the rest of the world. But the most interesting part comes at the end when students are invited to imagine that they are the Norwegian Minister of Immigration and re-write Norway’s refugee policy in light of what they have learned. Because they are armed with both the factual (via research) and ideological (via the interview) motivations for Norway’ policy, they are able to be considerably more critical, detailed, and thoughtful.

Creative Invitations: In a lesson called “The Melting Pot: America’s Multicultural Past and Norway’s Multicultural Future,” students explore the metaphors that America has used to describe shifting attitudes towards multiculturalism over time before creating their own metaphor to capture what they see as the future of Norwegian multiculturalism. Asking students to think through metaphors exposes ideological layers of meaning that are sometimes inaccessible in a more literal, factual discussion of this topic.

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The lesson begins by giving students the vocabulary they’ll need to discuss the metaphors. We define the terms assimilation, integration, cultural monism, and pluralism. Next, we analyze two visual iterations of the melting pot metaphor: the 1889 political cartoon “The Mortar of Assimilation and the One Element that Just Won’t Mix” which deploys the metaphor to target Irish immigrants and another from 1919 entitled “We Can’t Digest the Scum” which draws on the metaphor to target perceived radicals in the context of the Red Scare. We spend time teasing the metaphor out: What sort of multiculturalism does it promote (monism, pluralism)? Does this metaphor represent the kind of multicultural society that you’d like to live in? Students are generally critical; they astutely point out the metaphor’s desire to dissolve difference, the forceful assimilation it promotes, and the troubling image of boiling immigrants in a pot. Next we look at the metaphor of the Salad Bowl as an alternative, using this image. We investigate the implications of the metaphor in detail: What is the lettuce? What does the dressing stand for? Students prefer this metaphor: salads are delicious because they are heterogeneous; the elements maintain their distinct integrity, but they come together to make something better.

Finally, students create their own metaphor and accompanying cartoon to capture their vision of multiculturalism for Norway’s future. Some memorable examples include: a burrito in which the ingredients remain distinct, are enhanced by one another, and are enveloped in a protective tortilla. Another student offered an umbrella in which discrete panels formed a resilient, protective structure. Interestingly, there are often implications of protection in the metaphors, a sense of national identity in which everyone is looked after. When we probed this trend, students pointed to pride in Norway’s legendary welfare system.

I ask students to present their metaphor and accompanying illustration without comment. The rest of the class discusses the implications before the artist comments on their vision. The metaphors can reveal unconscious values: often the class finds meaning that was unforeseen to the artist.

The larger point about America (and Norway) that I hope to come to in this lesson is that debates over multiculturalism and national identity are at the heart of contemporary division. The changing ethnic and cultural makeup of many nations have revealed the hypocrisy of societies which claim to value “multiculturalism” but cling to a racist reliance on ethnic kinship to define national identity in the face of a truly diverse society where everyone gets a seat at the table.

The question of how we become societies which truly value diversity, in both word and in deed,  can’t be answered in 90 minutes. But asking students to express the way we should relate to our fellow human beings through a metaphor has generated insightful critiques and visions for the future of both American and Norwegian multiculturalism.

BIO

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Theresa Dietrich is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway where she facilitates an academic writer’s workshop at the University of Bergen and offers weekly lessons designed to engage Norwegian teens in discussions of American history and culture.

Dietrich completed an M.A. in English and teacher licensure program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She looks forward to teaching English Language Arts in a Boston-area public school next year. You can read more about her teaching and learning in Norway here.