November 29, 1832 – Louisa May Alcott
“I like good strong words that mean something.”
This post is in honor of the upcoming film adaptation of Little Women by Greta Gerwig, starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep.
This version is the eighth film adaptation of the famous Louisa May Alcott novel. Besides silent versions in 1917 and 1918, Little Women was filmed by George Cukor in 1933 with Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett; Mervyn LeRoy in 1949 with June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawford; David Lowell Rich in 1978 with Susan Dey, Meredith Baxter Birney, Eve Plumb, Dorothy McGuire, Greer Garson, Robert Young, and William Shatner; Gillian Armstrong in 1994 with Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, Mary Wickes and Susan Sarandon; plus a 2017 BBC miniseries directed by Vanessa Caswill with Emily Watson, Michael Gambon and Angela Lansbury.
Little Women was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books over several months at the request of her publisher. It is about the lives of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. It details their passage from childhood to young womanhood and is loosely based on Alcott and her three sisters. It remains one of the most read novels in history.
Little Women was a huge commercial and critical success, with readers anxious to know more about the characters. Alcott wrote two sequels to her popular work, both of which also featured the March sisters: Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Although Little Women was a novel for girls and sissy boys, it is not really a children’s book. It takes on themes of domesticity, work, and true love, all of them necessary to the achievement of its main characters’ individual identities.
Even those Brontë sisters could never have imagined a girl like Jo March, the tomboy hero of Little Women, who exclaims:
“It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games, and work, and manners. I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.”
Jo March became one of the most enduringly popular girl characters in literature. She seems to have fueled the imaginations and excite the desires of generations of young female readers precisely because of her refusal of normative girlhood identifications and desires. Jo March wants to be the man of the family, not the little woman; she wants to be a soldier, not a seamstress; and she wants to be like the young man Laurie, not have him. Little Women offers up a whole family of girls that most readers love because they love Jo March.
Jo’s appeal as the quintessential tomboy has always presented a particularly queer dilemma. She is a figure defined by conundrums. She is, by turn: cute and dangerous, understandably boyish and abnormally male-identified, merely passing through a common stage of girlhood development and a shining example of lesbian girlhood. How queer that a book considered wholesome and beloved by generations of girls, still manages to undermine society’s fantasy of stable identities of gender and sexuality. By doing away with the feminine and expressing masculine identifications and desires, a tomboy points up that such categories are both masculine and feminine and indeterminate and unstable.
Jo March exemplifies the notion of gender identity. By refusing to learn and enact femininity, she destabilizes gender as “natural”. Because some tomboys refuse to demonstrate femininity over their lifetime, preferring variously male-identified expressions, they expose the assumption that tomboyism is temporary and confined to childhood. Some tomboys do dramatically change their gender expression convincingly, usually in response to the disciplining pressures of “concerned” family and friends.
Although Alcott never explicitly stated her sexuality, there has long been speculating on her being a lesbian. She never married and never seemed to have any important relationship with a man. Jo marries at the end Little Women, but Alcott remained single throughout her life. She explained her “spinsterhood” this way:
“I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body. I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the second of four daughters. Her mother worked as a social worker and her father was an educator and a staunch transcendentalist, who moved the family to Boston in 1834 so they could join the Transcendentalists and hang out with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Financial difficulties forced the family to move once more to Concord, Massachusetts in 1840. Alcott left school and began working as a seamstress and a governess in order to help support the family. The Alcotts opened their home as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
During the Civil War, Alcott served as a nurse in a Union Hospital in Georgetown. Her literary success was Hospital Sketches (1864) a collection of the letters she wrote home during her time as a nurse that was published in Commonwealth, an abolitionist newspaper based in Boston. For many years after, she became a popular pulp novelist under the ambiguously gendered pen name A.M. Barnard. Her legacy was made when the first part of her Little Women series was published.
The lesbian-coding of the character Jo has been a piece of evidence pointing to Alcott’s own lesbianism. She proudly proclaimed herself as living a life of ”spinsterhood”.” In her later years, she took in her sister’s daughter – also named Louisa, nicknamed Lulu, and raised her after her sister died in 1879.
In 1877 Alcott was one of the founders of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. Alcott suffered chronic health problems in her later years, attributed to mercury poisoning. During her Civil War service, Alcott contracted typhoid fever and was treated with a compound containing mercury. Now, Alcott’s suggests that her chronic health problems are characteristic of what we call Lupus.
In 1888, Alcott died of a stroke at 55 years old in Boston. He last known words were “Is it not meningitis?” She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreau.
She wrote in her journals about going on runs up until she died. She challenged the social norms regarding gender by encouraging her young female readers to run as well.
She published over 30 books and is now known as one of the leading feminist American writers of the 19th century. She was an early supporter of Women’s Rights, advocating for Women’s Suffrage and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord.
Little Men was adapted to film in 1934, 1940 with Kay Francis as grown-up Jo, and 1998 with Mariel Hemingway as Jo. Other films based on Alcott works include An Old-Fashioned Girl (1949), The Inheritance (1997), and An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving (2008).