I don’t pay attention to most Google Doodles, but I was glad that they had one celebrating Louisa May Alcott’s 184th birthday yesterday. She is best known for writing the Civil War era novel Little Women, of course, but there’s a lot more to Alcott than one novel, and everyone should become familiar with her other books and her life (the movie Little Women starring Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, and, yes, Christian Bale, doesn’t count). During a high school English class in which we read one of Alcott’s short stories, I was astonished to learn that none of my classmates nor the teaching assistant knew who Alcott was; they couldn’t even figure out that the short story took place during the Civil War.
For a writer during that time, Alcott’s books are a pretty easy read (they are technically considered children’s books), but they cover important themes such as women’s roles and the Civil War. Alcott was an unmarried feminist, abolitionist, and suffragist; her family’s home was a station on the Underground Railroad, and she was even the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Mass. While her books may seem innocent, Alcott was pretty radical for her time and was friends with intellectual greats like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Alcott was also a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, and her experiences inspired much of her work. Hospital Sketches described caring for the wounded, and it was this work that inspired her to become a serious writer. Little Women, a semi-autobiographical novel, was written in 1869 and made Alcott a success. It’s about the March family with four daughters growing up during the Civil War while the father is off fighting for the Union.
Since Alcott was an unmarried woman (or “spinster,” to put it in period terms), she addresses the roles of women using the four March daughters in Little Women. While they do get married and start families, they are far more independent than many women of the era. Their mother has to run the household while their father is at war, and she instructs the daughters to keep up with the news so that they know what’s going on in the world. Jo, the daughter Alcott fashioned after herself, is the most independent and turns down her first marriage proposal, and while she does eventually marry, she insists on working by her husband’s side, and she also independently writes stories and a novel.
But as feminist and progressive as Alcott was, there is more to her and her books than proto-feminist politics. Many feminists have tried to read between the lines of her books to justify their contemporary political agendas. Jo, for example, has apparently “inspired more female rebellion than dozens of treatises by feminist thinkers put together.” Yes, she was the most independent of the March sisters, but she still followed tradition. She does cut her hair off, but she does it for money for her family, not to be rebellious or take a stance on women’s rights. Others downplay the moral themes of Little Women in order to argue that Alcott preferred writing “lurid fantasies” rather than “moral pap” for children like Little Women.
If you focus solely on the feminist aspects of Alcott’s writing, or if you cherry-pick from her letters to highlight only her frustrations with her writing, you’ll miss the more important themes that populate all of Alcott’s work: family duty, loss, love, charity, and the burdens of poverty.
Alcott died in 1888 at fifty-five years old, but she made a lasting impression on the world. Let’s not let present-day feminist political posturing obscure the legacy of a writer who had much to teach us about her time—and enduring lessons to offer on character and virtue that still resonate in our own.