Signal Boost: Barbara Sicherman on the Persistence of Little Women



via UNC Press Blog

November 29th was the 180th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s birth.  In honor of this occasion, UNC asked Barbara Sicherman, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Institutions and Values Emerita at Trinity College and author ofWell-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women, to write a guest post on how Little Women has influenced other women writers since its publication. Sicherman begins, “What do Simone de Beauvoir, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Petry, and Patti Smith have in common? The French existentialist, Jewish American author, African American novelist, and punk rock star are all celebrated writers. Beyond this, each woman has acknowledged the importance of Little Women, and its heroine Jo March, in their imaginative lives and their identities as artists and intellectuals. They are not alone.

Numerous women, some famous, most not, have vouched for the novel’s appeal since its appearance in 1868-69 (initially in two parts). As early as 1875, fifteen-year-old Jane Addams, future settlement leader and Nobel Peace prize winner, anticipated the formulaic pattern of rereadings when she observed: “I have read and reread ‘Little Women’ and it never seems to grow old.” Even friends growing up in the 1940s and 1950s claim they read the novel yearly when they were young and returned to it periodically as adults.”

I was one of those who grew up reading and loving Alcott, identified totally with Jo, and was thrilled when my grandmother took me and my sisters to visit Orchard House.  I’ve continued my fascination with Alcott into adulthood.  For those interested in finding out more, I highly recommend Eve LaPlante’s new books on Alcott and her mother, as well the book and film, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.

I asked my women’s history students if they had read and/or seen any film adaptations of Little Women.  Alas, most had not.  So, I showed the opening of the 1994 film version and walked through the first two chapters with them in class.  They also read Alcott’s riveting account of her work as a Civil War nurse, Hospital Sketches.

Many agreed with Sicherman’s suggestion that “Alcott, who modeled Jo in her own image, created a character that continues to appeal. As J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books and herself a “Jo,” observed: ‘It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a bad temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.'” Nearly all of the students were familiar with the Harry Potter books and films and could easily see how Jo helped inspire Rowling to create the brainy tomboy Hermione Granger.

Historiann asked her readers to give their thoughts and recollections of Little Women, so I invite my readers to do the same.

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