XVI. Letters

By Jean Stevenson

My introduction to Little Women came when I was eleven and “between” books and my regular visit to the public library. My mother rescued me by handing me her copy of the novel, saying, “I was your age when I read this. You might enjoy it.” Like many readers, I found myself captivated by Jo and the March family. My reading of Alcott’s novel coincided with a unit on the Civil War in school, so Jo’s account of the home front, her father’s service to the Union Army as a chaplain, and Marmee’s travel to Washington to care for him when he fell ill became real to me and further fueled my interest in the Civil War.

This led me to explore the trunks in my grandparents’ attic in search of evidence of family involvement in the war. On the top tray in a trunk I came upon an empty leather wallet and a small brown pocket-sized copy of the New Testament including the Psalms, which was inscribed: “Presented to F. A. Edmands as a Memento of the existing Rebellion of the Southern States. B. W. Edmands, July 1864.” It also contained a label that indicated the volume was “From the cargo of the Anglo-Rebel Blockade Runner Minna for sale by W. H. Piper and Company 133 Washington Street, Boston.” I ran downstairs, book in hand, to ask my grandmother who F. A. Edmands and B. W. Edmands were. She identified the names as those of my great-grandfather (F. A. Edmands) and great-great-grandfather (B. W. Edmands).

After reading the letters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy wrote to Marmee, I headed back up to the trunk in the attic in search of further evidence of family involvement in the war—perhaps in the form of letters my great grandfather might have written to his family. I found none. I later learned that my great grandfather, who was born on December 31, 1847, had lied about his age and taken an assumed name when he enlisted in the Union Army. When he returned to Boston after the war, he never divulged the name he had used or the unit he had served with, and he never talked about his experiences. Without this vital information, neither my great grandmother, Eva Augusta Davis Edmands, nor his six children, could obtain veteran’s benefits when he died in 1885 at age 38. His death and lack of documentation meant my grandfather, Horace Frederick Edmands, would be sent to the Boston Farm School on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor in 1885 when he was six years old. Although Grandpa Edmands’s description of living conditions at the Boston Farm School could be described as harsh in today’s terms, he maintained that the skills he learned there probably saved his life.

Although I didn’t find any correspondence in the attic, letters as a source of information about people (real and fictional) and the times they inhabit have long intrigued me. Curiosity about history, the people who make it, those who write fiction and nonfiction stories about events, and their creative processes propel my scholarly life. I regularly use primary sources in the form of working papers that include notes, drafts, sketches, galley and page proofs, and correspondence. I can’t draw a direct connection between the letters in Little Women and the New Testament my great grandfather carried. But my memories of the intellectual adventure Louisa May Alcott and my ancestors initiated are still alive.

On the verso of the page containing the inscription, my great grandfather wrote “F. A. Edmands” in pencil. Tracing the inscription and signatures and turning the small volume in my hand, I am still filled with a powerful sense of connection with my ancestors.

Jean M. Stevenson is Associate Professor-Emerita at the University of Minnesota Duluth where she taught courses in children’s literature and literacy.  Although retired, she continues to conduct research at the Kerlan Collection-CLRC.

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XV. A Telegram

By Ashley Cook

In the fall of 2006, I enrolled in an American survey course; one of the selections on our course list was Little Women. I had no idea when I picked up that used Norton Critical Edition in the campus bookstore what a place Alcott’s writing would have in my life. Her words provided inspiration for a Maid of Honor toast during a friend’s wedding—thankfully my friend married before she became a “haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty”—while Eight Cousins became the foundation for my Master’s Project. Some might view Alcott’s work as moral guidance for the young, but I see in it resistance and a desire to change the status quo—a bit of “sticking it to the man,” if you will.

Within the pages of “A Telegram” is a scene that remains etched in my mind even years after my first reading of Little Women. When Jo reveals to her family that she has cut off and sold her hair so that Marmee will have money to support her rush to Mr. March’s bedside, some members of her family are first shocked—perhaps even appalled—that she would cut her “beautiful hair…[her] one beauty.” While the others focus only on how Jo looks with her cropped hair, Marmee alone understands the magnitude of Jo’s sacrifice and the resolve Jo must have had to follow through with her decision to sell her hair. Marmee knows the gift of the lone lock of chestnut hair is more than just a bit of hair—it is a piece of Jo herself that she sacrificed for her family.

As an adult, I see younger Jo as someone who struggles to find her identity in a world that tells her she isn’t pretty enough or feminine enough or, simply, enough. I’ve always thought Jo’s decision to cut her hair served two purposes. First, she was able to give a bit of herself to help her family. Second, what better way to thumb her nose at a society that tells her she MUST present a certain way than to cut her long hair? Jo is sure of her decision to sell her hair and shed conformity until her family’s negative reaction gets in her head. Only then does she lament the loss of her “vanity” as she describes it.

Why is long hair so associated with womanhood and femininity? Is Jo’s only motivation to provide money for her family? Jo’s haircut leads me to think of other women who have shorn their long hair in response to something traumatic in their lives. Frida Kahlo cut her long hair off shortly after her divorce from Diego Rivera. Carrie Bradshaw flaunts a cute, short haircut after her second break-up with Aidan. Mulan cuts her hair to pass as a man so she can take her father’s place in battle. These are just a few examples.

I do believe that the chief motivation behind Jo’s decision to cut her hair is to provide for her family, but I also see it as an act of defiance. In a time when her options are limited, Jo’s haircut is a rebellion against societal norms.

A former Kansas State University student, Ashley Cook spends her time riding bicycles, fostering cats, and reading books.

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Chapter XIV. Secrets

By Jacinta Mioni

It was just another sweltering June afternoon in Kansas, the summer between my fifth and sixth grades, when I happened upon a shelf in my local public library dedicated to the works of Louisa May Alcott. The rest of that summer vacation was spent in the air conditioning, immersed in the lives of Alcott’s characters. Thirteen years later, you can imagine how my breathe quite literally caught in my throat when I saw the course listing for English 720 at K-State, a class dedicated solely to the creator of my childhood heroes and heroines, of whom I was particularly fond of the March sisters. Of course, I enrolled in the class immediately and I want to give you a little peek into our classroom and its many lively discussions.

A theme that has resurfaced several times in our consideration of Little Women, and one that fascinates me, is the change that necessarily accompanies growing up, and the various ways that Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy react to it. I don’t  know about you, but for teenager me, the thought of growing up was a dismal one. When my older sister got married, I cried for days because I realized that my seven siblings and I were not going to stay together forever. I wanted to stay in high school for the rest of my life because if I did, my best friend and I would get to share every moment with each other forever.

I think that is why I connect so much with Jo in the “Secrets” chapter of Little Women, as she experiences similar “growing pains.” In this chapter, Laurie discloses to Jo that John Brooke stole Meg’s glove and has been carrying it around in his pocket, cherishing it with romantic hope. Far from being delighted by news of her sister’s potential suitor, Jo is horrified by the revelation. Realizing that her sister and best friend will eventually get married and move on without her, Jo declares—in typical Jo fashion—that she wants to stay young for as long as she can and advises Meg to wish for the same.

Blinded by the painful thought of losing her sister, Jo overlooks the fact that her own life is beginning to change right alongside Meg’s. At the beginning of the chapter, she submits some of her stories for publication at the local newspaper. Although it takes her several attempts before she summons the courage to enter the publishing house, this moment marks Jo’s blossoming independence and maturity.

At the end of the chapter, Jo no longer cries tears of sadness over growing up, but tears of joy over her story that is chosen for publication. She is thrilled by the possibilities that adulthood holds for her as a writer and as an independent woman. Over the course of this chapter, Jo learns something that most children realize as they make the transition into adulthood: that growing up is not so bad after all.

Jacinta Mioni is a senior pursuing her B.A. in English literature and French at Kansas State University. After graduation, she plans to travel a great deal and then pursue further studies in children’s literature.

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Illustration by Boopliette, http://boopliette.tumblr.com/archive, December 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XIII. Castles in the Air

By Angela Hubler

“Wouldn’t it be fun if all castles in the air which we could make could come true and we could live in them?” says Jo, in chapter 13, “Castles in the Air.” Jo thus encourages utopian dreaming, not only by Laurie and her sisters but by generations of readers, revealing why this text has been a touchstone for artistic and ambitious women for 150 years. Laurie and the March girls express their hearts’ desires, and as the novel progresses each sister achieves—at least to some degree– what she has pined and labored for: Meg is mistress of the “lovely house, full of…pleasant people”; Jo writes books “out of a magic inkstand”; Beth remains “at home safe with father and mother” until she flies in at “that splendid gate”; and Amy goes to Rome and develops her talents as an artist.

Of course, generations of critics have argued about the degree to which the trajectory of the girls’ lives, especially Jo’s, diminishes and tames their dreams, and the power of these arguments must be acknowledged. However, Alcott’s depiction of the force of traditional constructions of gender upon girls’ lives may be liberating rather than limiting. As Judy Simons and Shirley Foster argue, classic girls’ literature, including Little Women, “conveys the difficulties and anxieties of girlhood, and . . . suggests that becoming a ‘little woman’ is a learned and often fraught process, not an instinctual or natural condition of female development” (What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of Classic Stories for Girls, 93). Thus, Alcott’s depiction may allow readers to understand the insidious ways that patriarchy shapes girls and boys, and enable their resistance.

The dreams in this chapter are liberatory in yet another way: the March sisters dream of improving not their appearance but their character and accomplishments. As Joan Jacobs Brumberg shows in her fascinating analysis of girls’ diaries from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, the resolutions that girls made historically pertained to being better people. Indeed, a journal entry made by thirteen year-old Louisa exemplifies Brumberg’s claim:

I have made a plan for my life, as I am in my teens, and no more a child. I am old for my age, and don’t care much for girl’s things. People think I’m wild and queer; but Mother understands and helps me. I have not told anyone about my plans but I am going to be good. I’ve made so many resolutions, and written sad notes, and cried over my sins, and it doesn’t seem to do any good! Now I’m going to work really, for I feel a true desire to improve, and be a help and comfort, not a care and sorrow to my dear mother. (Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals, ed. Ednah D. Cheney, 48)

By contrast, twentieth century girls’ diaries, says Brumberg, focus on “good looks” rather than “good works” (The Body Project xx). The body, not the mind and character, is seen as central to “strategies for self-improvement or struggles for personal identity” (xxi). Such an argument resonates with my students, who share stories of “boob jobs” as graduation gifts. Seen in this light, the venerable Little Women offers a progressive challenge to contemporary cultural attitudes about femininity.

Angela Hubler is an Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Kansas State University where she has the pleasure of discussing Alcott and Little Women with students in many of her classes.

Cecilia Latella. cabepfir

Illustration by Cecilia Latella.

Chapter XII. Camp Laurence

By A. Waller Hastings

Like many of the chapters of Little Women, chapter 12 – “Camp Laurence” – could be a self-contained short story, moving along a trajectory from the arrival of invitations to the picnic to a satisfactory day’s end, when Mr. Brooke responds to the British Kate’s observation that “American girls are very nice when one knows them” with the comment “I quite agree with you.” What more is needed?

The first half of the book, covering a year in the March family’s lives while Father is away at the war, is constructed as a series of such episodes. If chapter 12 could function independently, though, it also fits into the overall arc of the novel, in two ways. First, it offers additional evidence about the characters and romantic attachments of several characters. And second, it is a rare chapter that makes explicit, if satirical, reference to the war itself.

I first noted this chapter a few years ago when exploring the degree to which the Civil War plays an explicit role in Volume One of Little Women. Although Laurie’s “jolly time” games and picnic are not all that different from what might occur just as well in peacetime, he presents it as a kind of military exercise. The picnic site is designated “Camp Laurence” and every participant is assigned a military-termed role. During the croquet game, the American contingent “contested every inch of the ground as strongly as if the spirit of ’76 inspired them,” and disputes about the game are called “skirmishes.” In the mock-military company, Brooke is named as commander-in-chief; and he is the one member of the party who will actually go on to serve in the army.

When Meg turns to Brooke to ask about Laurie’s future (and by extension, his own), he says “as soon as he is off I shall turn soldier,” an aspiration of which she strongly approves: “I should think every young man would want to go, though it is hard for the mothers and sisters, who stay at home.” His bitter reflection that he lacks anyone to miss him then gives her an opportunity to state obliquely that she – and the other Marches, of course – “should all be very sorry to have any harm happen to you.” Thus more hints are dropped of the growing attachment of the couple, and add weight to Brooke’s closing remark.

Generations of readers have lamented that Jo does not end up marrying Laurie, but despite the close friendship the two share, there is little here to suggest that Jo, at least, has any romantic notions about her neighbor. She appears oblivious to any such possibilities, most notably in her segment of the “Rigmarole” storytelling that follows the group’s lunch.

Brooke starts off seriously, establishing a poor knight (himself) searching for a “certain beautiful face” (Meg’s) to be found in a group of captive princesses (the other March girls). As each member of the party takes up the story, it veers wildly according to the teller’s personality. Meg introduces a Gothic element: a ghost. Jo parodies the romantic tale, having a ghost threaten the knight with a snuffbox that makes him sneeze so hard his head falls off; Amy converts the narrative into a fairy tale, and Laurie tops things off by replacing the knight’s head with a cabbage. So the serious romance between Brooke and Meg is offset by the more juvenile, not to say silly, attitude toward such romance by the younger Marches and Laurie.

Professor of English at West Liberty University, where he teaches young adult literature, Wally Hastings wouldn’t be caught dead reading Little Women in his childhood. As an adult reader, he forced himself and became hooked.

Chapter XI. Experiments

We are experimenting again this week with two very different looks at the same amazing chapter, one of the richest, wisest, and funniest in the book. Enjoy!

By Mark Gallagher

Louisa May Alcott was deeply affected by the Fruitlands experiment. While she eventually wrote a satirical history of it, her first published commentary on her father’s failed utopia appears in Chapter 11 of Little Women, “Experiments,” where the March sisters indulge in the “all play, and no work” lifestyle that led to Fruitlands’ failure and the near ruin of Alcott’s family.

The chapter begins on June 1st, the same day Fruitlands was founded in 1843. Meg is relieved of her governess duties for the summer, while Jo is reprieved by a vacationing Aunt March. Deciding that lounging is the preferred course of inaction, all four sisters abandon their domestic duties for a week of personal freedom. Mrs. March consents, “You may try your experiment for a week, and see how you like it. I think by Saturday night you will find that all play, and no work, is as bad as all work, and no play.”

Neglecting their domestic work, the girls are not unlike the carefree, aspiring-vegetable-eating idealists who lived with the Alcotts at their new Eden in Harvard, Massachusetts. As Alcott noted in “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873),

Slowly things got into order, and rapidly rumors of the new experiment went abroad, causing many strange spirits to flock thither, for in those days communities were the fashion and transcendentalism raged wildly. Some came to look on and laugh, some to be supported in poetic idleness, a few to believe sincerely and work heartily. Each member was allowed to mount his favorite hobby and ride it to his heart’s content.

Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s utopia failed in spectacularly foolish ways, particularly because the men failed to assume an equitable share in domestic responsibilities—or any responsibilities at all, for that matter. In her journal for Friday, November 2nd, 1843, eleven-year-old Louisa writes:

Anna and I did the work. In the evening Mr. Lane asked us, “What is man?” These were our answers: A human being; an animal with a mind; a creature; a body; a soul and a mind. After a long talk we went to bed very tired.

Years later, Alcott commented, “No wonder, after doing the work and worrying their little wits with such lessons” (Journals 46-47). The contrast between Alcott’s work ethic and Lane’s attitude is striking. Sharing his vision of the “consociate family,” Lane writes, “Of all the traffic in which civilized society is involved, that of human labour is perhaps the most detrimental” (The New Age [November 1, 1843] pp. 116-120). Lane subsequently left Fruitlands for a Shaker community, where “he soon found the order of things was reversed, and it was all work and no play” (“Transcendental Wild Oats”).

The “Experiments” story is similar to one Alcott remembers Lane reading at Fruitlands. She recounts the story of “The Judicious Father” in which a “rich girl” is punished for being cruel to a “poor girl” who only wanted to “look over the fence at the flowers” in her yard. The girl’s father makes her exchange clothes with the other girl, forcing her to wear the old rags for a week. The moral lesson was not lost on young Louisa: “I liked it very much, and I shall be kind to poor people” (Journals, 45). Such kindness is evident in the charity the March sisters give to the less fortunate Hummels. In “Experiments,” however, we hear the story from the perspective of the “shabby girls” who escape the drudgery of their housework to enjoy a week in their own flowerbeds. Luckily, they have a judicious mother to give them a lesson in the vice of idleness and the virtue of work.

The girls soon tire of the experiment and wish it were over. They are ready to take up their responsibilities again but not before one vulnerable friend suffers, as Daniel Shealy notes, the “consequences of neglected work” (Annotated Little Women, 168). Pip’s death is a melodramatic reminder to those children for whom Isaac Watts’ warning against the evils of “idle hands” is not enough of a moral. When Jo promises, “We’ll work like bees, and love it too, see if we don’t,” it is an imperative as well as a prediction. For while it was common for children to work with their families—on farms, in the family business, or doing housework—too often families suffered from failed entrepreneurial schemes and other risky endeavors that made child labor an economic necessity. Alcott’s experience at Fruitlands taught her that.

Mark Gallagher (@MarkRussellG) is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at UCLA. His primary teaching and research interest is American Transcendentalism.

The burial of a bird
“Here lies Pip March, / Who died the 7th of June; / Loved and lamented sore, / And not forgotten soon.” — Jo [Image courtesy of J. Alden Weir, “Children Burying a Bird” (1878), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.]

Chapter XI. Experiments

We are experimenting again this week with two very different looks at the same amazing chapter, one of the richest, wisest, and funniest in the book. Enjoy!

Melissa McFarland Pennell

I did not read Little Women until I was an adult, but since that first encounter, I’ve enjoyed rereading the novel many times and often include it as a text in one of my courses. Perhaps that is why when asked which might be my favorite chapter, I picked “Experiments” –a chapter about lessons learned and the value of trial and error.  It is also a chapter about work, presenting some forms of paid employment that women held in the nineteenth century, but also speaking to much of the invisible work that women did and continue to do. For me the key to the chapter is in Marmee’s commentary near its end that “Work . . . gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion”—but then she cautions her daughters to seek a balanced life, to make each day “both useful and pleasant.” Alcott seems to anticipate the desire for a work-life balance that so often arises in our lives.

The chapter opens with the four March sisters expressing their joy at having some “time off,” the chance to set aside their daily responsibilities and embrace, at least briefly, freedom from duties. Asking their mother’s permission to do just as they please for the week, the sisters soon discover that things are not as pleasant as they had expected: time drags, they feel out of sorts, and boredom is creeping into their anticipated ease.  Even saintly Beth becomes cranky. The chapter’s humorous highpoint comes in Jo’s attempts at cooking, as she assumes that skill and experience are negligible while preparing a company dinner as long as one has a recipe book to follow. Her burnt bread, undercooked potatoes, and salted strawberries result in a dinner disaster that “became a standing joke.” Fortunately, Jo’s guests could join her in laughing over her kitchen fiasco, and the sisters learn the wisdom of Hannah’s belief that “Housekeeping ain’t no joke.”

In this chapter Marmee, with Hannah’s help, proves herself to be a skilled and patient teacher. She and Hannah are both amused by what they see but step back and allow the sisters to make their mistakes. To move her daughters toward a better understanding of the lesson she is trying to impart, Marmee, who admits that she “never enjoyed housekeeping,” gives herself and Hannah a day off, to let the full effect of chaos and inexperience take hold. In doing so, she allows the girls to discover how much “invisible” work goes on around them every day and that knowledge, planning, and organization allow goals to be achieved.

As I began thinking about this blog entry, an article appeared in The Boston Globe that discussed gender-neutral skills necessary for modern adults.  Some of the items on the list are specific to our own era. Among the others, however, being able to cook a meal, do your own laundry, take responsibility, listen, ask for help, and make and hold onto friends are all ones that I think Mrs. March would endorse.

Melissa McFarland Pennell, Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, specializes in the study of nineteenth-century American literature and culture.

Miss Crocker
Miss Crocker, one of the Miss Marches’ unhappy dinner guests from chapter XI of Little Women (image by Frank T. Merrill, from the 1880 illustrated edition of Little Women).