I watched with interest the recent PBS dramatization of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, one of the first books I ever read cover to cover as a child. Alcott and her alter ego, Jo March, faced a dilemma common to all ambitious women of their time and place, nineteenth century New England: how to live a productive and fulfilled life while staying within the bounds of what was considered respectable womanhood. Although New England at the time was a relatively liberal place, a fount of many new social ideas, it was still no bed of roses for an ambitious female.
Alcott described Jo’s struggle to make herself a writer. Jo was determined to earn a living from it, because somebody in the family had to. They were a struggling family of four daughters, with a father who earned very little as the minister of a small congregation. A conversation between Jo and her father crystallizes their conflict. The character of Mr. March was undoubtedly inspired by Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, a founder of progressive schools and a well-known supporter of transcendentalism, but useless as a wage earner. We learn that Jo’s father has been working on the same book for twenty years, and has yet to publish it. By contrast, Jo writes “sensation stories” for the weekly rags that sell like candy and help to buy household necessities.
A showdown occurs when Jo asks her father to critique her newly completed novel. Jo has been offered $300 for the publication of it, a fantastic sum for that time and probably more money than the family has ever seen before. Her father advises her not to make the requested alterations, which he feels would rob the book of its heart and soul. “Let it wait and ripen,” he advises. “There’s more to it than you know. You’re more talented than you realize.” Jo loses patience and bursts out something along the lines of, “Let it ripen? For how long? We need the money now.” She can’t resist pointing out to her father that he hasn’t supported his family. He takes this calmly, knowing it to be true.
Even though I was indignant for Jo’s sake, I had the sneaking feeling that Mr. March would be proven right … and he was. All through Little Women, the father appears weaker than his wife and daughters, but like most fathers in literature and popular entertainment, turns out to know best. Jo’s more practical mother urges her to go ahead and publish the book, figuring she will not only benefit from the immediate cash, but receive some useful criticism. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that the book isn’t selling, and any reviews she gets are too contradictory to be useful.
Later, Jo escapes the doldrums of home life by decamping to New York to work as a governess, the career of choice for educated women in those times. Here she meets an important mentor, although it isn’t love at first sight. Professor Bhaer is an immigrant from Germany, probably old enough to be her father, with two nephews whom she has been hired to teach. When Professor Bhaer realizes Jo is a writer, he asks to see her work, but she’s ashamed to show it. By this time she’s broken into the big city rags and is making a nice bundle, but still fears the professor’s judgment. Sure enough, his advice is basically the same as her father’s … that her romance writing, although lucrative, is unworthy of her. “You must be true to your talent. Never write a word that you haven’t felt in your heart and soul.”
The moral of the story seems to be that the men in her life have it right, even though she might have starved if she’d listened to them. It takes time, but Jo learns to make use of genuine emotional experiences that enrich her writing. In the PBS series, her breakthrough comes when she writes and publishes a poem about the death of her beloved sister Beth. The piece travels far and wide, and puts her on the path to success.
Alcott herself, like Jo, wrote “sensation stories” for quick money. But it took Little Women, a novel drawn directly from her real life, to immortalize her. By some accounts, Alcott felt somewhat flustered by her own breakthrough. She had felt pressured by the publishing powers-that-be to make Jo choose a more conventional, “womanly” path than she did herself. In the fiction version, Jo marries her professor and takes a break from writing to open a school for boys. Alcott, by contrast, remained independent all her life and never put down her pen.
So what does this conflict between Alcott and her alter ego say about authors through the ages? I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy, which in my case would bore any potential reader to death. I can’t squeeze much drama out of my forty years spent riding subway trains back and forth from various workplaces in Washington, DC. Likewise, my office life was usually placid on the surface, with only a few eruptions here and there. Luckily, creative imagination can add spice to ordinary situations and people.
There’s nothing wrong with spicing up and exaggerating real life, of course, as long as an author still speaks his or her fundamental truth. Constrained by the social and commercial conventions of her time, Alcott didn’t quite tell the true story of Little Women. Later, as an established author, she seemed somewhat freer in the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys to introduce a few less conventional characters and situations. Still, you get the feeling Alcott remained under an edict to go on preaching platitudes to young girls and women. All in all, I find it a little sad that Jo starts out being Louisa May, but ends up being someone else.