By Marian Lipschutz
Chapter 26 of Little Women directs our attention to art of the highest order: “It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius…” Alcott then lowers her tone, making Amy, youngest of the March sisters, the learner in question. Most of Amy’s varied artistic attempts are shown to be ludicrous trials, her plan to entertain friends from her painting class an unmitigated disaster, in which Amy is let down by her family and friends, Hannah, the weather, and a scarcity of local lobsters.
Why does Alcott belittle Amy in such hyperbolic terms? My immediate answer is sibling rivalry. Although Marmee seemed to succeed in persuading Jo to abandon her anger at Amy for throwing her precious book into the fire earlier in the novel, what we have here is Jo’s gleeful revenge, almost as though Jo, not Alcott, were writing the chapter. Although Jo rushes to break up the plaster which has hardened too quickly around Amy’s foot in a sculpture experiment, she is laughing so hard she cuts the poor foot in the process, leaving a lasting scar. Moreover, Jo’s preoccupation with the tragic ending of a work in progress of her own, and her instinctive disapproval of Amy’s luncheon altogether, make it impossible for her to help wholeheartedly; indeed, Jo’s clumsiness becomes an impediment. Jo and Amy may at bottom be loving sisters, but they are also rival artists.
A deeper answer suggests that the attempt of any American woman to be an artist is ridiculous. Jo often demeans her writing, calling it scribbling or rubbish, her overworked novel “a ruin.” Jo and Amy have “fits,” attacks of creativity to be endured, to be got over by the artists themselves and others within range. Amy’s models are European men. Her determined vision, itself a work of art in its scrupulous attention to detail, of a sophisticated afternoon of eating, exchanging ideas, and plein air painting becomes a family amusement for the ages: the time Amy spilled salad dressing on her best dress and got caught with a vulgar lobster by a young man of breeding. Alcott’s anger and fear that women can’t write or paint rumble below the surface.
While Amy goes underground, laughs with her sisters, and calls herself a fool, Chapter 26 looks forward to the novel’s end where she sketches in the midst of a family reunion, declaring her steadfast ambition to be an artist, whose best effort is a recent sculpture of her sickly baby daughter. Amy has every perk: a wealthy musician husband, who admires and supports her work, youth, patience, leisure, a willingness to make use of her own and her child’s body. She is the most modern of the four sisters, traveling further than the others, a networker who cultivates fellow artists, cadges painting supplies from wealthier girls without giving up her decorous identity. Amy is the shaper of her own world. Her drive to express herself comes from within, unrelated to helping her family or a paycheck. And yet I have never been able to forgive her for the calculated cruelty behind the burning of Jo’s book, for taking Jo’s dream of Europe as her due, nor Marmee for imagining her daughters as wives and mothers rather than developing artists, learners of humility and self- sacrifice on their way to the Celestial City.
The March sisters and their mother are so real they seem to us autonomous. We judge their behavior, unable perhaps to resolve conflicts among them, but passionately allowing one or another a permanent place in our hearts. It is Alcott’s genius that burns.
Marian Shaw Lipschutz, the author of the novel Land of Hunchbacks, served for decades as a teacher in and around Los Angeles. For more of her perspectives on Little Women and other topics, visit https://www.marianlipschutz.com/.
Illustration by Frank Merrill (1880).