- The Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark
This book is a comprehensive study of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868, 1869) in its function as a material, literary, and cultural influence. Clark’s goal is to “track the afterlife of Little Women” in many modes, including adaptations on stage, in film, and in print; she also examines the extensive material artifacts influenced by the novel, from dolls to scarves and from stamps to collectors’ plates (7). Moreover, she gives significant attention to the novel’s many illustrated versions. In addition, Clark explores Alcott’s former homes Orchard House and Wayside as sites of historical and material significance. Having examined reviews of the novel, the plays, the films, and the television shows, she provides a compendium of the story’s critical reception in every era since the first part of the novel was published in 1868.
Clark organizes her examination of the physical and literary influence of Little Women by era. In the first chapter, she analyzes how a reputation came to be built around Alcott (herself childless) as “everyone’s aunt” with a growing renown for work that “was read and appreciated by adults as well as children, by males as well as females” (40). In the second chapter, she traces how popular response to Alcott waxed based on cultural desires that privileged nostalgia. Clark observes that the early plays and films emphasize the novel’s domesticity, and she performs a fine deconstruction of the tensions between sentiment and sentimentality that reside both within the text itself and in changing cultural values that led to a collapsing of the two terms and subsequent disdain for both.
In chapter 3, Clark traces how Alcott’s academic and critical reputation reached its critical nadir between 1930 and 1960. Nevertheless, Little Women influenced a great number of women who “went on to have prominence in the arts and in politics,” such as “Joan Didion . . . Barbara Bush, Ursula Le Guin, Shirley Temple, Sonia Sanchez, Susan Sontag, Judith Krantz, Gloria Steinem, Jane Yolen, Bobbie Ann Mason, Laura Bush, Connie Chung, Patti Smith, Sara Paretsky, and Hillary Clinton” (107). Judith Martin, James Carville, and Juris Jurjevics also receive attention for being influenced by Alcott’s novel. An increasing number of Alcott biographies appeared during this era, perhaps inspired by the popularity of the two major film releases of Little Women in 1933 (RKO) and 1949 (MGM). Clark explores how both films were influenced by the 1912 Broadway play directed by [End Page 406] Jessie Bonstelle, especially in emphasizing the romance plots of the novel rather than those about careers, Jo’s internal struggles, or the family’s Transcendentalism-influenced values.
Chapter 4 is a triumphant assessment of Alcott’s increasing academic reputation, which Clark notes may also correlate to her decreasing popularity among general readers. Nevertheless, Clark points to the work’s continued international regard by tracing its reception in Japan, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Chile, and South Korea. She reviews the 2004 Broadway musical, the 1998 Mark Adamo opera, the 1994 movie (Columbia Pictures), various television shows, multiple spin-off novels (such as Kit Bakke’s Miss Alcott’s E-mail, 2006), and an AOL series that started in 2012: Little Women Big Cars. With each of these adaptations, Clark deftly demonstrates how the revision interacts with the original text as well as how it also comments on the contemporary zeitgeist.
Clark speculates that perhaps the novel’s ability to endure with such widespread influence is a result of its failure to resolve many of its own internal tensions, particularly those involving gender. As she astutely observes, “A work becomes powerful if it captures key cultural conflicts and does not fully resolve them: a disjunction between overt and covert messages can be valued as a source of power” (147). Observing that “responses to Alcott often enact, even now, a central feminist tension between an ideal of autonomy and an ideal of connectedness,” she asks an intriguing series of questions:
Does Jo provide a model of independence, even if...