December 21, 2010

The CCLaP 100: "Little Women," by Louisa May Alcott

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women (1868-69)
By Louisa May Alcott
Book #53 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
A largely autobiographical tale that takes place in one of the homes where the author grew up, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (first published as two smaller volumes in 1868 and '69) tells the story of a typical liberal New England family in the middle of the Victorian Age, where the optimism of Transcendentalism has given way to the pessimism of the Civil War, and where random death and disease hover around our characters at all times, but where people still tried to live their lives by the newly rediscovered Protestant Christian principles that the booming "Fundamentalist Reawakening" of those years was so profoundly encouraging, a mix of Ten Commandment platitudes that included daily devotion to the Golden Rule, and a kind of unquestioning deferral to parental authority we haven't seen among the young since literally before World War Two. As such, then, the two-part novel is largely episodical and anecdotal in nature, telling in the first half the charming little adventures of the four teenage March sisters (vain Meg, argumentative Jo, selfish Amy, and doomed, angelic Beth), as they hold delightful little parties, re-enact the pious Pilgrim's Progress storyline on rainy afternoons as a way of morally bettering themselves, and develop four different types of crushes on the smooth, rosy-cheeked next-door-neighbor Laurie; then in the second half catching up with the sisters now in young adulthood, as they struggle with various romantic entanglements, delve into motherhood, modern careers and adult feminism for the first time, and suffer through the infamous tearjerker death of one of the main characters (SPOILER ALERT: it's the sickly, martyr-like one), almost a staple among all good morality tales of the mid-1800s. Add some quirky minor characters, a healthy dose of "New Woman" outspokenness, and the metafictional struggles experienced by Alcott's doppelganger Jo as to the fate and purpose of her writing, and you've set a perfect stage for the two sequels that were to eventually follow, creating an indelible portrait of middle-class American life that's been passionately adored by generations of middle-class American girls ever since.

The argument for it being a classic:
The main argument for this being a classic, its fans seem to argue, is its sheer timelessness; a cherished object of childhood for almost 150 years' worth of preteen girls now, it espouses the kind of classic advice that may seem at first old-fashioned, but only because it's so sensible that it keeps getting repeated over and over again throughout the ages. But at the same time, though, this is ironically also a great record of its specific times, and a sly look at what daily life was like among the politically aware radically liberal of the 19th century; because for those who don't know, Alcott's father Bronson was a famed Transcendentalist and education reformer who moved his family to Concord, Massachusetts specifically to be around other leaders of the movement, and who forced his family to live in a series of failed utopian communities which is where most of the moral lessons of this book were derived. A "proto-Realist" groundbreaker from an age still mostly marked by the flowery, overwritten "Genteel" style, its eternal popularity proves its classic status more than any argument could, a plain-spoken and moving look at family life that continues to have plenty of wisdom to impart.

The argument against:
While few of this book's critics accuse it of being out-and-out terrible (although they're out there), certainly you see a lot of people argue that this only holds appeal specifically to adolescent girls, a saccharine-sweet potboiler that in good "Sunday School story" style features an unrealistically omnipotent parental figure who is obeyed without question by a gaggle of overly docile children, and where there isn't anything that can't be solved by another forced smile and a little more faith in Our Christian Lord And Protector. And hey, the critics have no less a personage to back them up than the author herself, who notoriously had to be talked against her will into writing this in the first place, after recently establishing an adult career as the penner of gritty true stories regarding life as a battlefront Civil War nurse*, and who found the first draft of this manuscript "dull and tedious" until giving it to some preteen friends of the family and watching them collectively go bug-crap crazy for it. Like a lot of stories geared towards children, critics argue that it's maybe not the quality of Little Women that's in question but merely its categorization, and that it's perhaps better to think of this as a pioneering work in Young Adult fiction from long before the term itself was invented. Also -- seriously, what's up with Jo and Laurie not getting together at the end, Alcott? Are you trying to make our lives deliberately miserable?**

My verdict:
Although I'm glad I finally made it through the book that so many of my female friends have glowingly talked about over the years, and even though I too bawled like a ten-year-old girl at the stoically heartbreaking death of sweet little Beth, I have to say that I quite quickly and strongly found myself in deep sympathy with this book's critics; because sheesh, talk about a novel that's nearly impossible to not roll your eyes at while reading unless you're a preteen girl yourself. Although make no mistake, I can absolutely see why adolescent girls would feel this way, a story that taps into the very heart of what it must be like as a woman to traverse that infinitely confusing journey from child to adult; and I can no more blame nostalgic middle-aged women for hailing this as an undisputed classic than I can middle-aged men for doing the same with Lord of the Flies. Although fascinating from a historical perspective (and seriously, all Transcendentalist scholars should read this as a side-part of their studies), and for sure strongly recommended to all the 10- to 14-year-old girls in your own life, it's my opinion that everyone else can pretty safely skip it, garnering Little Women an only limited recommendation today.

Is it a classic? Only for preteen girls

The next four books scheduled to be read:
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis
Le Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory

Read even more about Little Women: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

*And a wonderful little piece of trivia I discovered while researching this, that I couldn't find a good place for in the review itself -- that much like Jo in the book, Alcott herself wrote a series of trashy romance novels under the nom-de-plume "A.M. Barnard" (best title -- Pauline's Passion and Punishment), all of which were huge commercial hits but that left the proto-feminist and liberal Christian morally troubled.

**And as a matter of fact, she did mean to make our lives deliberately miserable -- a lifelong bachelorette who was always more interested in her work than in romantic relationships, Alcott took great pride in keeping Jo independent and manless throughout the book's first half, despite receiving literally thousands of letters in the year between the two volumes from teenage girls practically begging her to marry Jo off to Laurie. Alcott was so incensed by this blind devotion to gender roles, in fact, that she eventually gave Jo a deliberately ridiculous, deliberately unromantic adult relationship with a bumbling European professor; ironically enough, and calling back to what I mentioned before, many believe that Alcott modeled this charmingly absent-minded intellectual on Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose children Alcott tutored in her youth), the spiritual leader of the Transcendentalist movement who played a heavy role in another "CCLaP 100" title as well, Henry David Thoreau's Walden.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:58 PM, December 21, 2010. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |