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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“Hope and Keep Busy”: Teaching American Women Writers as Models of Moral Courage in Dark Political Times

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After the election of 2016, like many educators, I had to challenge my previous assumptions about teaching and students. As a progressive educator, I had always believed in the human capacity to change and grow through knowledge, empathy, and education. But a presidential campaign based on anti-woman, anti-immigrant, and racist rhetoric had culminated in the victory of Donald Trump. In the face of the election’s outcomes and the subsequent attacks on vulnerable American populations that followed, my previous pedagogical assumptions seemed naïve and ill-informed. Yet even as I grappled to find my pedagogical way in this new world, the words that kept running through my mind were from my favorite childhood novel—one that I teach often— Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:

“Hope and keep busy.”

In the novel, Marmee comforts her four daughters with these words when she must rush to her dangerously ill husband, a Union chaplain in the Civil War. The 1869 novel’s “little women” were based on Alcott and her three sisters. Although the novel doesn’t mention it, Alcott’s parents Bronson and Abigail Alcott were social reformers and abolitionists; their home was part of the Underground Railroad. Alcott herself was involved with the Women’s Suffrage Movement and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.

As a professor at a small college in Texas, this past year I often encountered students who are worried about the loss of LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and Civil Rights in general. Some students feel lost and let down by the Republican Party, the political party they were raised in. In the aftermath of the election and to this day, I don’t know what to tell students when they come to me with these concerns or bring them up in class discussion. But in the spirit of Alcott, I tell all of my students to be strong and brave, to “hope and keep busy.”

Before the election of 2016, I had cynically taught Marmee’s words in the context of the “cult of true womanhood” and separate spheres ideology. “Hope and keep busy,” I would tell my students, was a platitude to satisfy nineteenth-century women and children with little political power and influence. But over the past year, I have come to see Marmee’s instructions as wisdom for those of us who feel disconsolate by our current political moment. To “hope and keep busy” is to believe in a better future and to fearlessly endeavor toward it, even if you are not sure of the outcome.

In response to my students’ worries, over the past year I have been intentionally teaching nineteenth-century American women writers like Alcott as models of moral courage and political empowerment in the face of political and social injustice. Many women writers from this time period were active in abolitionist and women’s rights activism and writing. In a previous PALS blog post, I wrote about “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature,” a very popular 200-level topics course for English majors and minors that also fulfills a general education requirement for non-majors. I am currently teaching a class for English majors on nineteenth-century social reform movements and literature. I’ve also had the chance to speak about some of the writers featured below at community fora and an International Women’s Day teach-in on my campus.

Angelina and Sarah Grimké: “Read, Pray, Speak, Act”

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Students are consistently inspired by the words of Angelina and Sarah Grimké. The two sisters were daughters of an influential judge and slave owner in Charleston, South Carolina. Outraged by slavery, they became abolitionists and moved to Philadelphia. Through their writing and speeches, they were some of the most powerful voices of the abolitionist movement. They initially spoke only to female audiences, but when men joined their audiences the Grimkés received censure and criticism. This lead to their advocacy for and involvement in the women’s rights movement as well.

Several of their most significant pamphlets are included in the Heath Anthology of American Literature and are easily accessible for classroom use. In her 1836 pamphlet An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, Angelina Grimké provided four interconnected strategies that women could use to fight slavery:

1) Read

2) Pray

3) Speak

4) Act

Because I teach at an institution with a religious tradition and an emphasis on service, my students see the relevance of Grimké’s words to the social justice issues they care about today. Students comment that Grimké’s advice to be informed and reflective makes their activism and political involvement intentional and structured, a contrast to the mayhem and dysfunction they see in Washington, D.C. and the state capital of Austin. To them, Grimké’s words mean 1) First, educate yourself on the issue; 2) Then reflect by connecting your fears and hopes about the issue to your own values or a “higher power”; 3) Next, foster dialogue with your family, friends, and others in your sphere of influence; 4) And finally, take action in your community by contacting lawmakers, protesting, and volunteering.

Grimké’s pamphlet was burned in the south, and the Charleston police warned that if the sisters ever returned, they would be greeted by—and not protected from— violent mobs. Things only got worse for the abolitionist movement after that with the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the events leading up to the Civil War; yet the Grimké sisters remained committed to the abolitionist movement and women’s rights causes.

Questions for class discussion:

  1. How did the Grimkés’ religious commitments inform their writing and activism?
  2. What does “Read, Pray, Speak, Act” mean to you? Is this an effective political strategy in the present day?
  3. How would the Grimké sisters respond to today’s social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March on Washington?

Sojourner Truth: “Make This Nation Rock Like a Cradle”

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Sojourner Truth was a formerly enslaved woman and a vociferous abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was the first black woman to win a court case against a white man when she sued for her son’s freedom. During a speech in 1858, an audience member accused her of being a man, so she opened her blouse and showed her breasts. Truth was a deeply religious woman whose millennial vision for an ideal world informed her activism. Throughout her life, she worked as an itinerant preacher to tell the “Truth” of the Christian gospel and work against injustice and inequality.

Truth is most known for her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, an extemporaneous oration she gave at the Women’s Right Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Truth demands equal human rights for all women, including black women. She identifies the intersection of race, slavery, and gender in her critique of national inequality:

Nobody eber halps me into carriages, or ober mudpuddles, or gibs me any best place! [….] I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off the slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ar’n’t I a woman?

Truth had not been invited to the Women’s Right’s Convention and was not on the program due to tension between black and white women in the abolitionist and women’s movements. Because she could not read or write, white women later rewrote Truth’s story, including multiple transcriptions of her famous speech. Indeed, teaching “Ain’t I a Woman” as a literary text raises pedagogical questions about cultural appropriation, textual mediation, and issues of white privilege that students see as relevant and ongoing in the present day.

After the Civil War, Truth worked in the Freedman’s Village of Washington D.C. When threatened with arrest for this work, she said she would “make this nation rock like a cradle.” Teaching Truth’s life and work as a model of moral courage encourages students to think deeply about the United States’s legacy of slavery, racism, and sexism and the tensions between idealism and activism.

Questions for class discussion:

  1. How can Truth’s experiences as a black woman, a former slave, an anti-slavery activist, and a women’s rights advocate offer us insight into our own experiences?
  2. What did it mean for Truth to “speak truth to power”?
  3. How can Truth’s positive and negative relationships with white women help us see a better way for race relations in the present day?

Today’s Students: “Structure to the Chaos”

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There are any number of American women of letters who joined the ranks of Alcott, the Grimké sisters, and Sojourner Truth: Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, just to name a few. All of these women writers used their voices and the written word to point out the nation’s flaws and injustices and imagine “a more perfect union.”

My once despondent students have been heartened by the influence of these writers’ thoughtful and committed activism over the past year, and especially by the outcome of the December Senate race in Alabama and the recent activism and voice of Parkland, Florida student Emma Gonzalez. But through the study of earlier activists and writers, they now realize that change comes slowly and there is still work to be done. Many of my students have said that learning about the perseverance of these women writers makes them feel “safe and comforted” and brings “structure to the chaos” of today’s unpredictable political news cycle.

The students find it encouraging that all of these women writers believed in the democratic institutions of the United States, even when our country’s promises seemed distant and unachievable. The lives and writing of these American women provide students with examples of moral courage and remind us that those who “hope and keep busy” engage in a profound act of pedagogical resistance in our daunting political times.

Questions for classroom discussion:

  1. What do these authors have in common with present-day protest writers and activists such as Claudia Rankine and Emma Gonzalez?
  2. What did these writers have at stake? Do you think they worried about the outcome?
  3. Which quote from the readings makes you feel better about the future? Is there a quote that helps you see your present-day situation more clearly?

Questions for pedagogical reflection:

  1. Has the election of 2016 changed the way you teach specific authors, texts, and courses?
  2. Is it appropriate to promote students’ personal development—along with their intellectual development—in American literature courses? How do you do this? Through class discussion? Reflective essay prompts? Other strategies?
  3. How is the framework of “moral courage” applicable to other authors you teach? What does this pedagogical approach allow us and our students to see in the literature that other approaches might overlook?

Note: This blog post is based on an opinion article published in the Dallas Morning News. Click here to read that article.