Barbara Sicherman offers some interesting thoughts about Little Women on the occasion of Louisa May Alcott’s 180th birthday (yesterday) and its influence on generations of women around the world (h/t to reader LKK for this.) She says that the book’s durability is due to its surprisingly modern sensibilities, perhaps most memorably in the person of Jo March, Alcott’s alter-ego:
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.
It’s a good time of the year to consider Little Women, as the novel opens with Marmee and the March girls cooking Christmas breakfast. I think I read LW when I was eleven, in the sixth grade. I remember being so moved by the idea of Jo reading a pile of books while eating “russetts” in her “garrett” as to climb a tree with an apple in my teeth and the novel under my arm in order to re-enact Jo’s escape as best I could. Continue Reading »