What I’m Reading: Louisa May Alcott

Apparently, Lauren looks a lot like me. Or so people say. As my little sister, she gets to hear that a lot, but since they moved to Canada, plenty of people say I look just like her. I was here first, I reply. They smile and move on, nothing else to say.

We love a lot of the same things – musicals, Community, Switchfoot podcasts, other pop culture-y type things – but we’re vastly different in other ways. She’s extreme, whereas I’m moderate. She loves the spotlight, I prefer the shadows. She belongs on the stage, and I’m just fine backstage or in the audience.

Lauren attends a performing arts high school, and this year, her senior year, she was cast as Meg in the musical production of Little Women. Since I was far away and unable to see her starring role, I rejoiced from afar by pumping her for details, re-reading the book, and overanalyzing the characters. As evidenced in this Facebook comment I left her:
here’s what i think: you’re a jo-ish grown-up amy, and i’m a meg-ish jo. or maybe i’m a jo-ish meg. but you’re meg-ish too. maybe you’re a meg-ish amy with some jo-like qualities. and i’m a meg-ly jo with scant traces of beth.

Profound. But fairly accurate.

Every little girl wants to be Jo. She holds Little Women together – adored by her family, owner of a wicked temper of which she repents, and strong enough to make her own decisions despite the outside world. Only two things in the world matter to her: her family and her writing. Marriage isn’t part of the equation at all.

I, of course, wanted to be Jo, but realized early on that I lacked the strength of will – which my parents were grateful for, but got in spades with the birth of Lauren. But I wanted to write – I wanted to write and support my family. Maybe that’s part of the reason I like memoir so much, tracing it back to Jo’s own decision to write about her and her sisters. That’s what made her truly successful: her own life story.

Looking back at it now, after years and years, it’s a beautiful story, though overly sentimental for our cynical time period. At the time, though, to write about domesticity in a way that celebrates and elevates it, even while pressing young girls to think for themselves and do what they dream – this was novel. And the woman behind it was novel too.

Louisa May Alcott. I just finished a biography of her, and she certainly was an interesting woman. She was Jo, though a little rougher and edgier. In fiction, we smooth ourselves out, make ourselves more palatable…or more interesting. She wrote of her own family, but she smoothed them out too. The Marches were the family she wished she had. Her father became doting and wise, her mother sympathetic and strong, her sisters her favorite playmates and joyful friends. In the Alcott family, her father was overly idealistic to the point of fanatic, her mother swung between strength and utter depression, and her sisters had to work to keep their family fed – playtime wasn’t often an option.

And yet she grew up in one of the most thriving intellectual communities America has ever known: 1840s Concord. Ralph Waldo Emerson brought the brightest of the day to surround him, giving them money (in the case of the Alcotts, often) and inviting them into his circle. Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller were constantly around. Young Louisa fell in love with Emerson and Thoreau like only young girls can with charismatic older men who dote on them. To be surrounded with such brilliance! Ah, but she paid for it – according to this biographer – with the struggles of life.

Like Jo, she published fiery tales of love and lust for the money, but it wasn’t the Civil War that she sold her first serious book – Hospital Sketches – about her experience as a nurse. The Civil War also broke her health.

She didn’t want to write Little Women. She thought the subject dull. But she was anything but dull. She had a romance in Europe with a much younger man when she was in her 30s. She never married. She raised her niece after her sister’s death. And her temper always gave her fits. She was human and delightfully so.

A question posed in the book concerned whether you’d rather have an easy life or immortality through your work. (Side note here: I couldn’t stand how the book was written – poorly organized, frustrating paragraphs, and too many darn rhetorical questions) It was an interesting question, one that we don’t get to answer. I think we’d all say immortality, but that means suffer in the here and now, and who really wants that? Louisa may have chosen an easy life, but her life made her work harder. And though Louisa died at age fifty-five, Jo lives forever. So Louisa does too. Could a writer ask for?

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