In the fall of 1868, almost exactly 150 years ago, Louisa May Alcott wrote her famous children's story Little Women, and just for the sake of that anniversary we should probably note one obvious fact about the beloved classic: It's a rotten piece of work. Bloated by the demands of its publisher. Twisted by the dislike of the author for her own project. Alternately simpering and resentful. One half goop and the other half goo. Any sane child, settling under a tree to read, would fling the sodden mess up to hang itself in the highest branches, where the birds could use its pages for their nests. At least that way some of God's creatures would find it useful.
Of course, there's another fact that should be noted about the book: Little Women is a classic for a reason. Yes, Alcott wrote a children's book solely at the insistence of her publisher: "I never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters," she complained, and she scribbled out the thing "in record time for money." But she did it in a prose that was 20 or 30 years in advance of the realism that would come to dominate American fiction. The book shows that Alcott had a real idea of how to tell a story and a genuine talent for distinguishing characters.
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For that matter, the first half of the book possesses the ineffable quality of drawing in a reader as the March girls play and do their chores. And it is, after all, the early part of the first novel in a series that captures the devotion of young readers—loyally drawing them through what was, in Alcott’s case, a declining set of sequels: from the 1869 second half of Little Women to the 1871 Little Men and the 1886 Jo's Boys. Charlotte Yonge's 1856 The Daisy Chain is, I think, a superior example of Victorian girlhood storytelling, but in America it never enjoyed Little Women's kind of enduring success, in part because Yonge had not discovered the trick of seizing the imagination and identification of the child reader in the first few pages.
In other words, there's a case to be made that Little Women is a lousy book. Surveys still rank the book highly, but that seems mostly due to an aging population of adults who remember Alcott's work with the undying fondness for books they first absorbed as children. Younger readers seem not to be reading the text or even to be aware of it any more. And maybe that's because, with a massively greater selection of chapter books available to them, children these days are able to see that Little Women is basically a stinker.
But, we also need to remember, there's a case to be made that Little Women is one of the great American works. It's thoughtful about how the Civil War strained even the New England abolitionist families that understood it (as the appropriately named March family did) to be the great Protestant crusade to end slavery. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy act out a scene from Pilgrim's Progress in the first chapter of Little Women, and the reference is a little like the author tipping her hand—for John Bunyan's 1678 Christian allegory is, in many ways, the Protestant origin and model of English-language novels, and Louisa May Alcott knew it.
In fact, the best case for the greatness of Little Women may be the case made by the fact of Anne Boyd Rioux's new 150th-anniversary study, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Note that I said the fact of the book, which is not quite the same as the argument the book itself lays out. An English professor at the University of New Orleans, Rioux published in 2016 a fine study of Constance Fenimore Woolson, presenting a surprisingly strong argument for the importance of the nearly forgotten Victorian writer. Not ultimately a successful argument: Woolson remains resolutely second-tier—we remember her mostly through her friendship with Henry James because, well, she was friends with Henry James and we're interested in him. But still Rioux's Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist deserved the praise it received.
With Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Rioux has turned her attention to the more deserving Louisa May Alcott. Little Women, she notes, "has been called ‘the mother of all girls' books.'" Indeed, she claims, "it is also, arguably, the most beloved book of American women writers (and near the top for women writers around the globe) and has exerted more influence on women writers as a group than any other single book."
Along the way, Rioux presents a comprehensive history of the printing of Little Women, noting, for example, that the 1880 editors cleared out much of the slangy way the girls speak—"ain't it" and "don't it," for example—in what would become the standard edition. (The recent Oxford University Press version restores the original 1868 text.) In other chapters, Rioux gives the biography of Alcott, with her strange Transcendentalist father, whom she learned to see with a wry eye, and her now nearly forgotten first publications as the author of gothic romances. Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy races through the many stage plays and films made from the book, drags a little in a section about how boys should read Little Women, and notes the many women writers who have expressed their indebtedness to the book, from Ursula K. LeGuin and Susan Sontag to J.K. Rowling.
Anne Boyd Rioux clearly loves Little Women. Her joy in the book shines in chapter after chapter, and she has never gotten over, nor wanted to get over, the complete absorption of self she experienced when she first read the book as a girl. The trouble is she lacks the critical tools to turn that joy into an explanation for why the book succeeds—for why she disappeared into Little Women when she was young and why the text became an American classic, with Alcott ranking, Rioux argues, alongside Mark Twain as the foundation of a national literature.
That's not exactly Rioux's fault. As her study of Constance Fenimore Woolson proved, she's saner and a better writer than many of her fellow English Literature scholars. Still, she writes within the context of contemporary literary criticism: She wants her fellow feminist critics to like her as she makes a somewhat contrarian case that Little Women is a book that even feminists should like. And so we get passages informing us that Alcott has written a novel that is "fundamentally about how girls learn to become women or perform gender as it was constructed in the second half of the nineteenth century." Little Women even—she notes, while trying to sell the book to boy readers—"shows how men are educated into their gender, as Laurie must give up his music and prepare to take over his grandfather's business."
Now that may be right, within the frame of current critical theory. But what never emerges from Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is an explanation or even, in truth, a description, of the allure of what Alcott wrote. Little Women is, in many ways, a terribly constructed book that falls apart in the second half, and uses little Beth's death for every drop of sentimentality and moralism that can be wrung from it. But Little Women is also a significant book, speaking to its child readers in ways that Rioux seems reluctant to explore, despite her admitting that she heard the novel's seductive voice all the way back when she first fell in love with books.
Genuine works of literature are always deeper than our readings. They read us even more than we read them. The best case for the literary quality of Little Women may be demonstrated by the fact, rather than the argument, of Rioux's Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: As she applies the techniques of criticism in which she has been carefully trained, Rioux does her best to give a reading of the book. But Little Women itself, its ineffable character, avoids her grasp and slips away.