National Review’s esteemed editor, Rich Lowry, recently posed a question on a podcast: Who was the greatest American author? From my silent seat in the producer’s chair, I mouthed three words at my boss: Louisa May Alcott. Of course, he told me I was wrong. Obviously that accolade belongs to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. “Mark Twain.”
Perhaps Twain does deserve this title. He is certainly the greatest American humorist, with a knack for clever turns of phrase and scathing insights into the human character. But Alcott? Our poor, misinformed general public seems to think her books are merely “children’s tales” or “stories for girls.”
I protest! It’s true that Alcott’s books don’t feature heroic adventures with harrowing tales of bravery and daring deeds. But their domesticity is precisely what makes them great. We should not forget the quiet simplicity and struggle that is the living out of daily life. The seemingly boring, mundane, and commonplace are all tiny moments of formation, and it is because Alcott captures this beauty of the everyday that her books continue to delight.
Despite its 150 years, Alcott’s most famous work, Little Women (along with its sequel, Good Wives), remains spry and witty. But, sadly, the academic vise that seems inescapable in our era is trying hard to crush its joyful spirit. Determined to make Alcott’s story fit their faddish social agendas, academics employ themselves by dissecting her masterpiece, ignoring her other works, and turning her into a fierce feminist.
A book continues in print and popularity because it contains enduring ideas applicable to all eras. Little Women is a perfect example of this, but, to the detriment of girls today, we are so determined to read all of our own modern-day social constructs into this story that we miss those enduring ideas.
Take tomboy and aspiring writer Jo March, Little Women’s main protagonist — modeled, incidentally, after Alcott herself. Readers and academics alike have searched the author’s life for clues to understanding both women, but so often they see only the conclusions they want. Many readers today consider Jo a rebel, an iconoclast, someone who wanted to break with the status quo of keeping to a “woman’s place” that strictly defined her day and age. Some wilder theories even place her on the cusp of the transgender movement, with her defiant wish to be a boy so she could fight in the Civil War. In a recent interview about her upcoming film version of Little Women, director Greta Gerwig noted that “Jo” is typically a boy’s name, while “Laurie” (the boy next door) is typically a girl’s name, commenting, “They find each other before they’ve committed to a gender.” English professor Anne Boyd Rioux in her book Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of “Little Women” and Why It Still Matters draws parallels between Katniss Everdeen (of Hunger Games fame) and Jo: “In both texts, we see tomboy heroines make the uneasy transformation into wives and mothers.” These readers and academics misread both Alcott and Jo.
In a way, Little Women is a feminist book. But today’s society has such a skewed view of feminism that we don’t understand Alcott’s wisdom. Often, readers who identify with Jo’s character at the book’s outset become outraged when she marries and begins to raise a family. They feel she “conformed” or “sold out.” But this is where they miss Alcott’s depth. She is showing us how Jo embraces the beauty of womanhood and learns about true freedom.
Freedom isn’t license to do whatever we please. Jo must learn to channel her passion, zest, and enthusiasm into more-constructive paths than her youthful hijinks. This passion and zest are lovable qualities in Jo, and she ultimately focuses them on running a boarding school for boys (the subject of a subsequent Alcott novel, Little Men), a long-time dream she’s held dear. By refining — but not losing — those traits, she is able to be a strong leader and mother figure to the boys in her care, modeling true womanhood to them.
Little Women reaches across generations because it attempts to answer an age-old question: How do I grow up well? Alcott takes us farther, exploring growing up as a woman and how to do that well. In the chapter “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair” this is summed up wonderfully in a speech from the girls’ mother, Marmee. Meg, the eldest March sister, has returned from a fortnight of frolicking with wealthy friends and “’fesses” that she let them dress her up like a doll for a party and spent the evening acting silly. During the party, she overheard the mothers of her friends gossiping and implying that Mrs. March is conniving to get Meg well married. She “bashfully” confronts Marmee: “Mother, do you have ‘plans,’ as Mrs. Moffat said?”
This is Marmee’s response:
Yes, my dear, I have a great many, all mothers do, but mine differ somewhat from Mrs. Moffat’s, I suspect. . . . I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience. . . . My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. . . .
Make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not. One thing remember, my girls. Mother is always ready to be your confidant, Father to be your friend, and both of us trust and hope that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives.
Would that we all had a Marmee to speak thus to us.
Space demands I confine my topic to the example of Little Women, but Alcott’s lovely stories do not end there. Her other books, such as Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Old-Fashioned Girl, and Jack and Jill, all contain the truth and beauty we so long for in our lives.
Alcott’s stories are not some kind of preachy fluff. Neither are they feminist manifestos. Rather, they are timeless tales meant to inspire noble thoughts and aspirations. If you can, find your mother’s worn copy of Little Women, and let the clear, lively prose of Louisa May Alcott tend to your soul.
This article appears as “A Woman For All Ages” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.