‘Jo Was Everything I Wanted to Be’: 5 Writers on ‘Little Women’
While the latest film adaptation of “Little Women,” which opened on Christmas Day, has been getting all the attention lately, Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century classic has influenced women writers for generations. Five of them told us what the novel means to them. These are edited excerpts from their responses.
“Little Women” was our favorite book in English. My sisters and I discovered it soon after arriving in this country. It was the only book we had ever read about an all-girl family of four sisters, just like ours. I don’t know how many times we read and reread that book. We couldn’t get enough of these strong, lively, resilient March girls. Wow, what an accurate portrayal of sisterhood and all its complexities. What a critical story for us at this juncture in our lives, when we, too, were facing so many changes, losses, challenges to the certainties we had known. Check, check, check.
The March girls were white New Englanders, and we were newly arrived immigrants from a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, but there the differences stopped and the uncanny similarities began — down to our very names. The first letter of each sister’s name was the same as each of ours, in the same birth order: Margaret-Meg/Maury; Jo/Julia; Elizabeth-Beth/Estela; Amy/Ana. Our personalities and passions matched our twin character. (I, Julia/Jo, wanted to be a writer.)
Long before “multicultural literature,” before we would find our faces or traditions or histories in American literature, we found our reflection here. The novel beamed me a powerful message that stories were about what we shared with other people, families, sisters — even a story that wasn’t overtly about us. Conversely, it meant that someday, if Jo/Julia wrote about the Mirabal sisters or the García girls, readers from other backgrounds might find themselves in my stories, too. Louisa May Alcott was one of my first muses. (A for Alvarez, check again!)
Julia Alvarez is the author of “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” and “In the Time of the Butterflies.” Her forthcoming book is “Afterlife.”
My grandmother gave my sister and me a copy of “Little Women” when I was about 10. I grew up with the story, and it grew with me, each of the sisters — unique, flawed, relatable — offering a different path and a distinct perspective at various points in my life. There’s a warmth and kindness that breathes from the book, a story of family supporting each other through tough times. When I was younger, I wanted to go live with the March sisters — and in a way I did, because they inspired my journey in so many ways, as a writer and a woman. It’s as if a piece of each of them lives on inside me.
Virginia Kantra is the best-selling writer of nearly 30 novels. Her most recent book is “Meg & Jo.”
It’s simple: Jo wants to be a writer. Her entire family assumes she will become a writer. And we understand, by virtue of the book we hold in our hands, that she has become a writer. As a girl, that made my own highly improbable professional dreams seem possible. “Little Women” is the first sign I ever had that I might someday become who I am today.
Anna Quindlen is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose most recent book is “Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting.”
I identified with Jo, the main character in “Little Women,” because not only was she independent but she also wanted to be a writer. She was situated in the middle of a large family but she was always alone, I thought, with her words in the midst of everything — just as I was alone in a small family with one sister. She preferred her room of books, pens and papers where the morning and evening air circulated, and I preferred my small, shared room with my sister in Harlem, facing a blank wall where no air moved. But I knew and shared her spirit, and I laughed and smiled always when she spoke her words of independence and rebellion.
Sonia Sanchez, the author of “Homecoming,” is a professor emeritus of English at Temple University.
It’s hard for me to imagine any woman writer who did not see herself in Jo March. Jo was a smart, headstrong, clumsy misfit; a loving sister and daughter who knew her own heart and could be brave, not just in service of her family but also in service of her own ambitions, a poor girl who turns down the rich, handsome dreamboat next door to pursue her ambitions. When I was 10 years old, Jo was everything I wanted to be when I grew up.
At least, Part One Jo was.
Part Two Jo, as many a brokenhearted reader learned, goes to New York City to work as a governess. Living in a boardinghouse, working part time as a governess, earning a dollar a column for her “‘rubbish,’ as she called it, Jo felt herself a woman of means, and spun her little romances diligently.”
But Jo’s ink-stained fingertips betray her as an author to her fellow lodger, one Prof. Friedrich Bhaer. A reader, a scholar, rumpled and stout, Professor Bhaer is perfect for Jo, except for the part where he — how to put it? — tells her that her life’s work is crap, and that he would rather give children “gunpowder to play with than this bad trash.”
Instead of telling him where he can stick his judgments, Jo agrees with him and consigns her literary output to the flames (No!). Instead of asking him to support her while she hones her craft, she stops writing (JO!). And then, in a betrayal for which I still have not entirely forgiven Louisa May Alcott, Jo marries her critic, puts down her pen, presumably forever, and resigns herself to a life of noble poverty at his side (AFSKLJGFHGHGH).
It felt like an enormous betrayal as a reader. At least I can count myself lucky, insofar as it prepared me for what happened after I myself became a writer of popular fiction. Swap “chick lit” for “sensation stories” and Bhaer’s critique — this is silly, pandering, dangerous; this is not real literature — could have been cut from the 19th century and pasted into the 21st. For every successful female writer, in any era, it seems, a Professor Bhaer is likely somewhere nearby, waiting to explain to her what qualifies as literature and why her work does not.
Understanding the circumstances of Alcott’s own life and times help me make sense of Jo’s capitulation.
Alcott, the daughter of a starry-eyed Transcendentalist father whose utopian community was a noble failure and who was content to let his wife and daughters support the family, wrote her share of “sensation stories,” with titles like “A Long Fatal Love Chase” and “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment.” She never married — “I’d rather be a free spinster, and paddle my own canoe,” she said. She had no interest in writing for or about girls, and wrote “Little Women” at a publisher’s behest, for money. After Part One was complete, she told a friend that she would have preferred Jo to remain a “literary spinster,” “but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her.”
Which means that the man telling the woman, “You should be ashamed to write popular stories for money” appears in a book written by a woman, for money; and that a book extolling the unmatched bliss of marriage and children was written by an unmarried woman who never had children.
Like life, it’s complicated, but complicated in a way that invites endless interpretation and reinventions. Jo March was one of the inspirations for the heroine of my most recent novel, “Mrs. Everything.” I’m not the only woman writer to have written a Jo of her own, and I imagine there will be other Jos to follow. Whatever we make of the grown-up Jo’s marriage, the headstrong, ambitious girl will live on, to inspire generations of girls to come.
Jennifer Weiner is a best-selling author and contributing Op-Ed writer for The Times.
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