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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PALS Summer Post Roundup

Site visits and page views are lean for PALS between the May and Labor Day. A summer readership drop-off is a common occurrence for many academic blogs, perhaps especially so for a blog focusing exclusively on teaching. Our traffic successes follow the rhythms of the academic school year. (You can read more about our traffic flow here). Our visits are robust during the fall and spring terms, but drop off during holidays and extended breaks. Again, the readership drop-off phenomenon isn’t exclusive to PALS, as these tweets from Robert Keys show.

 

By the way, if you’re not visiting Keys’ Adverts 250 Project throughout the entire year, you’re missing out!

We even joked about this drop-off earlier in the summer. Our joking paid off and turned into one of our summer blog posts! Side Note: We’re always looking for guest post pitches. Hit us up with your ideas!

The summer months have always been lean for PALS since our rollout in the late summer of 2015. Our readership has climbed over the subsequent years, but the summer drop-off has remained a constant. However, the summer of 2018 topped all previous summers for site views and visitors, no doubt facilitated by a rather substantial uptick in content generated by our regular and guest contributors. PALS usually takes the summer months off, a practice reflecting the fact we understand our success is tied to the rhythms of the academic year.

However, in the summer of 2018 we posted a lot more than usual, which might explain our uptick in visitors to the site. Today’s post is a rundown of our summer 2018 content; it covers May through Labor Day. Think of it as an extended ICYMI as your semester starts to ramp up!

Teaching (Vocation Optional) by Meagan Ciesla

I bring this up because the idea of teaching as a vocation has been on my mind. For many of us in academia, we came to teaching through some other pathway: an interest in lab research, reading that kept us up at night, writing we didn’t want to stop doing. And although teaching is for many enjoyable work, it is often not a calling, but a career.

Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine by Jessica Thelen

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight.

Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students by Clay Zuba

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

School’s Out: How to Focus Your Writing With a Summer Writing Group by Randi Tanglen

As many of us know from teaching writing workshops and incorporating peer revision into the classes we teach, writing is a collaborative and community process. Our students’ writing benefits from the feedback and support their peers provide. Yet for many of us, the demands of teaching and instruction make our own scholarly and creative writing an isolating and solitary process. Further, because many of us who read the PALS blog tend to emphasize teaching and pedagogy, our writing might not always be the priority we would like it to be on a day-to-day basis. A summer writing group may help you and your colleagues address concerns about writing in isolation and how to prioritize your own writing.

Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle by Caitlin Kelly

In my current position I have the opportunity to serve as advisor to first-year students and this was my first time to do that. In one way or another, almost every conversation with my advisees turned to struggle. While some of the struggle they face comes from outside of the university community, a lot of it comes from within. I can only speak to the students I’ve taught but one of the things I’ve noticed about selective institutions is that there is a sense that all high-aptitude students are capable of anything if only they try hard enough.

Schooled in Barbecue by Thomas Hallock

I confess, I had other expectations. Being summer, the time when teachers become learners, I asked Mr. Walker to teach me how to cook ribs. He agreed to school me.

The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning by Greg Specter

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall.

Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim by Matthew Luter

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism.

Writing Academically with Emotional Clarity by Brianne Jaquette

I also have come to realize that I didn’t just need to write more; I needed more explanations for what makes good writing. I think the focus on what makes for competent writing in academia is a bit off. Yes, people care about our argument. They care about our sources and our research. But rarely is anyone talking about the quality of our writing, and we fall into bad habits of super long explanations and wordy clauses. We think we already know how to write, so we do not ask anyone about the clarity of our sentences. We only ask, “Does this argument make sense?”

Making Space for Voice and Choice: Assignment Design in an Online Course by Jacinta Yanders

However, in recent semesters, I’ve been thinking more and more about student ownership in the classroom and working to provide opportunities in which students have a hand in shaping the course. In the spring semester First Year Writing course I taught, for example, I had students generate the assessment criteria for their essays and vote on what they believed to be the most important elements of that criteria. By this point, students had seen and worked with sample essays as well as given feedback on drafts from their classmates. They had some sense of concrete moves that came across well to them as readers and other choices that hindered them. Collectively, they were responsible for setting the stakes for the essays and ultimately revising their work to meet those stakes.

This is not a Desk Copy by Greg Specter

It is no wonder the books start getting beaten down physically just by going in and out of bags. Corners dinged. Corners bent. Corners peeling. Stains. The physical destruction of my books is disconcerting for someone that takes care of their books. I take pride in reading a book and finishing it in mint condition. The semester is cruel to my books.