- The Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark
Those of us who have devoted most of our professional lives to studying Louisa May Alcott (or, “el-em-ay” as we call her) have a detailed knowledge of her varying roles as daughter, nurse, professional author, family breadwinner, loving aunt to her sister Anna's two boys, and surrogate mother to May Alcott's daughter, Lulu. To her contemporaries, she was, wrote the New York Times in 1880, “the most popular and successful literary woman in America” (12), and Little Women sold nearly 600,000 copies by 1910 (45). Today we have a general sense of the ways in which Alcott's Little Women fits into the popular imagination, from making its author a celebrity following the book's publication and through its many reprintings and illustrated editions, the movies of 1933, 1949, and 1994, and even recent morphings of the book's title characters into little werewolves and little vampires. And, of course, there's Orchard House, the “official” Alcott home in Concord, Massachusetts. Like Walden Pond, it is a place of pilgrimage, one where passionate readers of the book can see the “real” house in which the March family lived.
Beverly Lyon Clark's The Afterlife of Little Women might well have been titled “The Little Women Industry,” for she recounts not just an afterlife of the book, but a thriving, vibrant continuation of it by commercialism, stage and film productions, reprintings and translations, and continued reader enthusiasm and recent critical attention. The book's four chapters describe and evaluate what Clark sees as four distinct periods in the afterlife of Little Women. The first, from 1868 to 1900, saw Alcott serving as “the children's friend” and being held in high regard by both the general public and the “cultural gatekeepers.” From 1900 to 1930 she began to fall in the estimation of critics but was still popular with the general public, and interest in her continued with the opening of Orchard House in 1912 and a Broadway play of the book. Between 1930 and 1960, her “critical reputation was still at a low point” but the book “continued to be popular”—especially with the release of the first two films mentioned above—“speaking both to audiences struggling during the Depression and to those experiencing postwar prosperity.” Finally, since 1960 there has been a revival of interest in Alcott due to the critical establishment rediscovering her (especially feminist and gender studies), the publication of her gothic thrillers and other neglected works, and the multiple appearances of Little Women and reimaginings of it in popular culture (7). [End Page 116]
As Clark makes clear, Little Women is “a mutable text,” one in which the words, illustrations, and packaging change, the “social context in which we encounter the text varies,” and “what we already 'know' about the book before we read it colors what we read” (2). It is also a text that is important in showing how children's literature has been received over the years. It was not the typical moral tale that prevailed when Little Women was published, and it was “perhaps the first American book explicitly directed to girls as an audience, offering four models of girlhood, at a time when children's literature was only starting to undergo gender segmentation” (11). Also, it was published at a time when high- and lowbrow and/or juvenile and adult categories “bled into each other,” but after 1900 “the categories congealed” (35). Still, as Clark reminds us, “children's literature is literature” (148).
Each generation clearly creates its own Little Women, from contemporary, post-Civil War audiences who found solace in what they believed was an accurate picture of happier, domestic, peaceful times, to modern feminist studies that see a more complicated, “powerful” work that “captures key cultural conflicts and does not fully resolve them” (147). Clark's survey of these changes also raises such questions as how the definitions of “sentiment” and “sentimental” have changed and why the book has been viewed over time as a domestic...