Today is the birthday of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, one of the best loved books of my childhood. It was one of several books that I read because I was fascinated with the idea that my mother had read the same book as a little girl, but it became a favorite on its own merits. My sister and I reread Little Women and its sequels more times than we can remember, and we moved on to read Alcott’s other books for girls, including the lesser known ones such as Under the Lilacs and Jack and Jill. But none captured our imaginations as did the story of the March sisters, who became as real and as cherished as the cousins and friends who shared our lives. The first full-length stage production we ever saw was Little Women, performed by the drama department of the local college with matinees especially for area elementary schools. Even though we knew everything that would happen, we cried copiously when Beth died, and we argued heatedly about heroes, an argument that remains unresolved till this day. Today I celebrate Alcott’s story, my memories of it, and the remarkable history of a book that girls are still reading.
On September 30, 1868, the first volume of Little Women was published by Roberts Brothers of Boston. The book has never been out of print since. The girls who read that first edition of Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy read only twenty-three chapters rather than the forty-seven that I read nearly a century later. That first edition ended with the words “So the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception give the first act of the domestic drama called LITTLE WOMEN.”
Critical reception for that first volume was tepid at best. The Nation, for example, condemned it with faint praise, calling it “an agreeable little story.” Even the author lacked real enthusiasm for the book. Alcott tried her best to get out of writing a girls’ story, much preferring to write about boys because she found them more interesting. In May 1968, she wrote in her journal, “Mr. N. [from her publishers] wants a girls' story, and I begin ‘Little Women.’ Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don't enjoy this sort of thing.” “Plodding” seems a strange description of the two and a half months of furious writing that produced the first volume. And despite the author’s reluctance and the critics’ condescension, her audience loved the book. More than 2000 copies sold immediately and another 3000 sold before the second volume was published.
In fact, readers wanted a sequel, and Alcott, surrendering to their requests and to pleas from her publishers, wrote the second volume. Originally called Good Wives, it was released April 14, 1869, and early sales more than doubled those of the first volume. Fourteen months later, more than 30,000 copies had been sold. In a letter written not long before the release of the second volume, Alcott wrote,
A sequel will be out early in April, & like all sequels will probably disappoint or disgust most readers, for publishers wont let authors finish up as they like but insist on having people married off in a wholesale manner which much afflicts me. ‘Jo’ should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didnt dare to refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her. (The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott 124-25).More than 140 years after Alcott wrote these words, some readers still complain about her choice of a "funny match" and feel cheated that Jo and Laurie didn’t get their HEA.
However, Little Women served its purpose for Alcott. It helped her to relieve some of her family’s pressing financial problems. It also made her an immensely popular writer and a founder of the new genre of juvenile fiction, the girls’ book. In 1870, parts one and two of Little Women were published together as a two-volume set, and in 1880, they were combined into a single volume. Alcott’s success with Little Women was followed by other girls’ books, including An Old Fashioned Girl (1870), Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (1871), Eight Cousins (1874), Rose in Bloom (1876), Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to "Little Men" (1886), and other lesser known books. Before her death in 1888, Alcott’s book sales had reached one million, and she had earned $200,000 from her writing.
But none of her other novels attained the iconic status of Little Women. Perhaps the unique position of this novel within Alcott’s oeuvre can be attributed to the character of Jo. From the beginning, the flawed Jo has been the character with whom most readers have connected. In an article, “Books That Girls Have Loved,” published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine (Sept. 1897), Erin Graham wrote of the March sisters: "We liked them all, but with one voice Jo was declared our favorite. Every girl whom I have known regards the boyish Jo with feelings of tenderness. Meg was more domestic, Amy more graceful, and Beth more gentle; but Jo, dear old blundering Jo, romped into our hearts at once" (430-31). A century later, author Anna Quindlen, who put Little Women in first place on her list of “Ten Books for a Girl Who is Full of Beans (Or Ought to Be),” must have had Jo in mind when she described Alcott’s best-known novel as "the first great American coming-of-age book for girls, the companion piece to Huck Finn's raft trips down the Mississippi."
Countless girls have read Little Women in the past 142 years. They have grown up like Meg and Jo and Amy to become “good wives,” or like “Naughty Nan,” the irrepressible tomboy of Jo’s Boys, they have grown up to become become “spritely spinsters.” Writers, actresses, politicians, doctors, and teachers affirm the influence of Alcott’s first girls’ book on their lives. The novel has been adapted for stage, television, opera, anime, and more than a dozen movie versions from a 1919 version shot in and around the Alcott home to the 1994 version starring Wynona Ryder as Jo. My personal favorite is the 1933 George Cukor-directed film that starred Katharine Hepburn as Jo. An Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, that version also has been credited with being “an important step forward in the cinematic treatment of women.” I think Alcott would like that.
Did you read Little Women as a child? Was Jo your favorite character? What’s your favorite film version? Do you think Jo and Laurie should have ended up together?