Louisa May Alcott
Barnes and Noble Classic
Louisa May Alcott has always been a woman I admire because of her success as an author, particularly writing Little Women. How amazing for a woman writer in 1868 to sell out the first printing in four weeks. Today, this would be a feat equivalent to making the New York Times Best Seller List, followed by an honored location at Borders with a red 30% off sticker. Quite possibly her book would have been an Oprah Book Club selection. No doubt Ms. Alcott and her publisher would be waiting nervously for the announcement for the coveted Newbery Award for Children’s Literature. I would venture to say that she would have collected all of these awards and many others.
There are many women children’s authors who write realistic fiction today, with striking differences. Louisa May Alcott wrote her story with the idea of selling books. This is what prolific best selling authors do today. Children’s authors like Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Paula Danzinger(deceased). They repeat the same winning format, book after book with different characters, different setting and a few changes. In her time, wasn’t this what she was doing? Todays, authors of children’s books were not without controversy. Judy Blume, has been on the 100 Most Banned and Frequently Challenged Books per the American Library Association numerous times over the years. Her books are taught in school, shelved in libraries, continue to raise eyebrows and continue to make money.
Alcott didn’t have a winning format yet, this was her first book and she chose to eliminate her controversial opinions. She knew any inclusion of this talk would alienate readers, and she was her best publicist. There are several places in the book where Jo speaks about her writing,
“Sorry you couldn’t find nothing better to read. I write that rubbish because it sells, and ordinary people like it.”
Alcott has admitted the character of Jo is autobiographical so I wonder, is Little Women a product of her attempt to sell books? Women in her time were expected to marry, yet this was not Alcott’s view, preferring to make her own money, supporting herself and deciding not to marry. When Jo gets married in Little Women, even though, contrary to her personal preference. There is no disputing her incredibly brilliant talent as a 19th century writer who has withstood the test of the classics. However, writing was always her way to make money to help support her family.
Louisa May Alcott lived in the midst of the Civil War, believed in the abolitionist movement, women's rights, including the unpopular belief she held that women did not need to marry. Yet, in her book, we read a text that is devoid of these issues, in the style of our 1960s television show Father Knows Best, or perhaps the Brady Bunch. These shows were entertainment lacking controversy and continued long commercial success. Had she decided to write on the cutting edge and offer a book with a host of disputable topics, I doubt she would have achieved such overwhelming success.
Through the guidance of Mrs. March the March sisters learn a core set of values including self-control, self-denial, a strong work ethic, an altruistic behavior and the need for balance between work and play. Mrs. March in fact was the prominent parent in this book, yet in Alcott’s real life her father, influenced the family on a daily basis.
Could it be that his strict control the adherence to his transcendental beliefs was so constrictive that Louisa May Alcott decided to portray the vision of a father she wished she had? Why were all the other characters autobiographical and mirrored so much of her life? Yet, her father, who at one point wanted to leave his wife and children would have been scandalous, not a great image for selling books at that time.
The portrayal and behavior of the March sisters could take place in the 21st century. It would still be a best seller, but it would be an even greater commercial success if she included the controversial dogma she espoused yet omitted in Little Women. Women's rights, domesticity, women in the workforce, are topics still drawing readers to bookshelves. In fact, these debated issues would sell more books.
When I read this book as a teen and young adult, my impressions were not based on the author, but directed at the content of the book. I gravitated to Jo and her spunky personality, I wanted to be her. After all, we were almost alike, so I thought. I was the tom-boy in the family, the bookworm, the funny girl, a bit eccentric at times the writer and I never wanted to get married.
After reading the book numerous times, this is the first time I examined the author in the context of the period, looking at in counter-factually. She was not only a successful writer, but a publicist with vision, with modern marketing skills, because she knew her audience, knew what they wanted to read, and was able to give them what they wanted. I would have enjoyed talking with Louisa May Alcott, a women who I consider an anachronism in history.
Disclosure: Provided by TAH grant for graduate class.