The ambivalence of Little Women

little womenFlorence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Emma Watson in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019). Courtesy of Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures.

A recent story about Little Women in the Deseret News discusses why Alcott’s novel remains so popular:

“Why do we keep remaking ‘Little Women’?”

Several Alcott scholars were quoted for the article, including Greg Eiselein, Julie Pfeiffer, Anne Phillips, and yours truly.

One reason for all the new adaptations has to do with the book’s 150th anniversary. Both studios and publishers saw an opportunity to revisit a classic that has been a perennial seller ever since its first publication in 1868. The popularity of Little Women may also have much to do with the way that the story lends itself to performance. As an actress herself, Alcott gave her stories a theatrical quality that has made them more suitable to adaptations for stage and screen.

That said, Little Women was ready to be rediscovered by a generation of readers and audiences for whom the story is something new: an American classic about the ambivalence women feel about womanhood.

What made Little Women so popular when it was first published is what makes it popular today. It is a story about growing up and how one feels about reaching adulthood. At the center of the novel is an ambivalence about that. As such, the novel alternates between nostalgia for one’s childhood and an encroaching maturity.

The most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig interprets this self-reflexive sentimentality as a cross-cutting narrative splicing between the present day of Part Second and the memories contained in Part First. The effect can be confusing for some. There are moments when it feels a little belabored. For those who know the story well, Gerwig’s back-and-forth style connects the two parts of Little Women in a more cohesive way than they are in the original two-part novel.

Gerwig’s experimental style is a better statement of the conflict between conventionality and individuality at the heart of the story. That individuality is often associated with feminism, as it has been a touchstone in the lives of so many important women writers, artists, and leaders who find the story of Jo affirming and empowering. This is not to say, however, that Little Women is reducible to a socially progressive allegory. It is a novel that may be interpreted from a number of perspectives. The ways that the March sisters find compromise and follow different paths to happiness might be challenged depending upon the variety of feminism with which one may identify.

I see Little Women as a conflicted novel, forward-looking in some respects but in other parts it is quite conventional. It speaks to the same conflicted feelings we all have about how the world is and how it ought to be. This, I think, is the real secret to the novel’s popularity. One may find themselves identifying with the ways Jo or Amy challenge gender stereotypes and social conventions, while also indulging nostalgic feelings for traditional roles and values. It will be interesting to see how different audiences across the country respond to this latest adaptation.


ALA 2020 CFP: “Alcott and Adaptation”; “Teaching Alcott”

Sandra Harbert Petrulionis and I will be co-chairing a panel for the Louisa May Alcott Society at this year’s American Literature Association Conference in San Diego, California. Early submissions are welcome but we expect some will wait until after December 25th before submitting a proposal, which is when the new film adaptation arrives in theaters (directed by Greta Gerwig, starring Saoirse Ronan and Meryl Streep, and introducing my daughter Catherine as “Amy’s classmate.”)

Please feel free to email me if you have any questions about submitting a proposal.


The Louisa May Alcott Society invites proposals for two panels to be held at the 2020 ALA Annual Conference in San Diego, California, May 21-24, 2020:

Alcott and Adaptation

Louisa May Alcott’s writings have been adapted in many ways—for stage, radio, television, and film. As scholars such as Beverly Lyon Clark, Elizabeth Keyser, Elise Hooper, and others have documented, Alcott’s work remains timely and continues to inspire adaptations and spinoffs for diverse audiences. The best known, of course, are the numerous film adaptations of Little Women. Each new production of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel both represents and reinterprets the lives of the four March sisters for a new audience.

We invite proposals for a panel on film adaptations of Alcott’s works, including but not limited to Little Women. The many adaptations of Little Women include the 1933 RKO Pictures production directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 MGM feature directed by Mervyn Leroy and starring June Allyson, the 1994 Columbia Pictures production directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Winona Ryder, and the newest adaptation of Little Women, premiering in December 2019, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan. Other adaptations of Little Women include the 2018 Clare Niederpruem film and the BBC/Masterpiece miniseries as well as the transmedia series, The March Family Letters. Little Men and The Inheritance have also been adapted for the screen.

These are just several examples among the many artistic interpretations of Alcott’s works that could be discussed in papers exploring the ways film adaptations transform and reinvent Alcott’s stories and characters.

Potential topics may include:

– gender equality and feminism(s)
– representation and diversity
– sexuality and class
– textual fidelity and nostalgia
– (a)politics of Alcott
– labor and work
– adaptive challenges of the text (for instance, casting different actors as Amy at different ages)
– adaptations in conversation with each other

Please send 300-word abstracts by email to Sandra Harbert Petrulionis <> and Mark Gallagher <>. The deadline for proposals is Friday, January 17, 2020. Early submissions welcome.


Teaching Alcott: Alcott in Proximity to Other American Realists, Regionalists, Romantics

In college-level American literature anthologies, Louisa May Alcott enjoys an eclectic reputation. Her writings may appear in context with those of other Civil War or Realist writers or be catalogued as Transcendentalist works. Alternately, they can be regarded as Local Color or Regional writings, or considered in connection with the Gothic or with American Romanticism.

This panel seeks to consider Alcott’s works in proximity to other nineteenth-century American authors, including but not limited to figures such as Davis, Fuller, Hawthorne, Melville, Sedgwick, Spofford, Whitman, and/or others. Attention to her Gothic tales, writings for adult readers, and works other than Little Women is especially welcome. Papers offering a pedagogical approach are desired. At the conference, associated curriculum guides and other resources for teachers would be welcome.

We aspire to showcase up to five presenters for this panel, aiming for papers of approximately 6 pages and lively audience follow-up during Q and A.

Please send 300-word abstracts by email to Anne Phillips <> and Randi Tanglen <>. The deadline for proposals is Friday, January 17, 2020. Early submissions welcome.

“Newman as Novelist” in Commonweal


My article on John Henry Newman as the first novelist saint is available online at Commonweal:

When John Henry Newman is canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, the nineteenth-century cardinal and theologian will become the first new English saint in almost fifty years. He will also become the first novelist to be elevated to sainthood.

Of course, it is far from unusual for a saint to have an interest outside of piety and devotion, but Newman has the distinction of being the only saint with two published novels to his credit. Newman lived a life devoted to Christ and to serving the church, and his example of devotion led to a Catholic revival in England. His philosophical and theological writings have also had a major influence on Catholic life in the post–Vatican II church. So what might it mean to encounter Newman through his novels, one of which is semi-autobiographical?

“The Thought of John Henry Newman,” Merton College, Oxford

Newman seminar Oxford 2019

Last month I had the privilege of attending a week-long seminar on “The Thought of John Henry Newman,” sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute, led by Newman scholar Fr. Ian Ker, at Merton College, Oxford.

I am fascinated by the fact that, while the Transcendentalist movement was reforming religious life in New England, the Oxford, or Tractarian Movement was stirring controversy in Old England. These two parallel religious demonstrations–one liberal, one conservative–were led by two men who are in so many ways their equals and opposites: Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Henry Newman.

During our conversations about Newman, we discussed at length Newman’s sermons, theological works, and philosophical writings. I had the opportunity to present two papers, “Newman on Reason and its Relation to Faith” and “The Apologia as Autobiography.”

Our time at Oxford was spent retracing Newman’s steps through Oriel College, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and his retreat at Littlemore. I spent some time doing research at the Bodleian Library (the Newman section is on the second floor of the Radcliffe Camera, by the way.) I also got to visit with my dissertation committee co-chair, Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus Daniel Walker Howe.


“Song of Myself” reading at Whitmania


Whitmania creator and director Amber West (UCLA Writing Programs) and Mark Gallagher (UCLA English Department) stand beside the Good Grey Poet holding their copies of Whitman at the “Song of Myself” marathon reading at UCLA.

On Saturday, May 18th, 2019, UCLA kicked off its centennial celebration. It also marked the Whitman Bicentennial with a marathon reading of “Song of Myself.”

I was honored to be included in the program for this special event. Thank you to Whitmania organizers Amber West and Susannah Rodríguez Drissi for inviting me to participate.

The “Song of Myself” reading is one of a number of events planned for 2019 as part of UCLA’s Whitmania series and other events around the country celebrating the Walt Whitman Bicentennial.

“Building Writing Communities” at UCLA Writing Programs’ Creating Connections Symposium

On Friday, May 17, 2019, Writing Programs at UCLA held its second annual Creating Connections symposium on writing pedagogy. The event brings together UCLA faculty and graduate students to discuss teaching methods for writing instruction. It is organized by students in the Graduate Certificate in Writing Pedagogy in consultation with faculty and staff in UCLA Writing Programs.

As part of the symposium, I moderated a panel on the subject of “Building Writing Communities.” Muriel McClendon (UCLA History Department), Susannah Rodríguez Drissi (UCLA Writing Programs), and Reed Wilson (UCLA English Department and Writing Programs) shared their experiences with writing communities, ones that they have created and been a part of, speaking to the value that writing communities have for writers, students, and instructors. We discussed what makes a group of writers successful and how to build that sense of community that fosters creativity and productivity among our student writers and among our writing peers.

I offered the Transcendentalists as an example of a successful writing community. Their intellectual and cultural legacy—which includes the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, and those of many other, lesser-known writers—is a testament to how effective writing communities can be.

They are sometimes thought of as a group of self-reliant individualists who valued solitude over society, but the Transcendentalists were actually quite the opposite. They were a social group who supported each other’s writing in all possible ways. The “Transcendental Club” first came together in 1836 to discuss Ralph Waldo Emerson’s new book, Nature, and continued meeting in and around Boston on a regular basis for the next several years: conversing, discussing books, sharing their journals, writing each other letters and sharing letters, editing each other’s work, and publishing pamphlets, books, and a literary journal of their own. When the original group stopped meeting, Margaret Fuller started a series of “Conversations” which widened the circle of the movement to include more women and kept the movement going through the early 1840s. It is probably no accident that when the Transcendentalists ceased to function as an active writing community, their movement wound down as well but not without leaving its mark on the literary world.

“Sleepy Hollow in Concord” in NEQ

My article, “Sleepy Hollow in Concord: Melville’s Gothic Parody of Transcendentalist Spirit in ‘The Apple-Tree Table'” appears in the current issue of The New England Quarterly

From the NEQ site: “Inspired by Concord’s newly consecrated Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Herman Melville’s “The Apple-Tree Table; or, Original Spiritual Manifestations” (1856) undercuts spirituality with materiality in a gothic parody that is both a literal parody of the “Sleepy Hollow” genre and an ironic parody of both Thoreau and Hawthorne.” 

If you have not read ‘The Apple-Tree Table,’ I recommend that you do. There’s a lot of humor in it, but with a more playful and endearing quality that is not typically found in Melville’s short stories. Most readings of the story have been quick to label it a satire of Thoreau or spiritualism–and they wouldn’t be wrong. The question I ask is, why on earth is Melville writing a gothic parody? And what is with all the allusions to Concord? There’s also an egregious amount of references to “spirits” and trees–living and dead.

You can read the article here.

The Walden Project’s Thoreauvian Pedagogy

A few years ago I interviewed Matthew Schlein, founder and director of the Willowell Foundation about the Walden Project, an alternative education program for high school students based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Obviously I was interested in talking with Matt about his work because of our shared interest in Thoreau. But I also find it inspiring to see educators finding innovative ways to reach students.

What the experimental pedagogy of the Walden Project does is give students who are interested in the environment, literature, history, and just being outdoors a chance to study the things that they care about outside of a traditional classroom.

Personally, I think an overemphasis on STEM subjects and overuse of standardized testing is a misguided approach to secondary education. If we want to ensure a functioning democracy, if we want to promote civic values, if we want the next generation of Americans to learn how to think critically, then more must be done to give more autonomy back to teachers.

Little Women exhibit at UCLA

My exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women is currently on display at UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library.

“Not a Bit Sensational but Simple and True”: Little Women features materials from UCLA Library Special Collections as well as the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library and my own personal collection (which I share with my daughter, Catherine.)

The exhibit explores Alcott’s life and works, highlighting her commitment to women’s suffrage and “reforms of all kinds.” Also featured are some of the many women writers and leaders who have been inspired by Little Women and its rebellious protagonist, including Geraldine Brooks, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Susan Sontag.

little women jessie wilcox smith



Speaking at the 2018 SSAWW Conference

I recently spoke at the 2018 Society of American Women Writers (SSAWW) Triennial Conference in Denver, Colorado, where I presented part of a dissertation chapter that I am writing on nineteenth-century Transcendentalist reformer and writer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. I was also invited to participate in a roundtable on Louisa May Alcott and the public humanities, in which I spoke about an exhibit that I am curating for the UCLA Library celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women.

“The Aesthetic Vision of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody” was presented as part of the panel, “Recovering Nineteenth-Century Women Writers: New Readings.” My paper comes from my dissertation on “affective Transcendentalism” which reexamines Transcendentalism as both a religious and a literary movement within Unitarianism in the early nineteenth century. This includes reasserting what Phyllis Cole and Jana Argersinger have called the “female genealogy of Transcendentalism”—specifically the contributions of writers such as Peabody. My dissertation chapter on Peabody, a recovery of what I call her “aesthetic vision,” discusses how her idea of aesthetics shapes her own Transcendentalist view of history and social progress. Unlike the writings of Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, comparatively little had been said about Peabody’s writings despite her status as a major figure in the Transcendentalist movement. The most neglected of all of Peabody’s writings is perhaps her most provocative, most personal, and most imaginative, a piece simply titled “A Vision.” Most critics have dismissed this mystical mediation as vague and idiosyncratic. But what generations of Transcendentalist scholars have failed to see is her allusions to the work of Dante—an important literary model for both Fuller and Emerson, with whom Peabody engages in a dialogue that challenges their Transcendental ideas.

I also had the honor of being invited to speak as part of the Louisa May Alcott Society’s roundtable, “’Reforms of All Kinds’: Louisa May Alcott and the Public Humanities.” This was one of several highlighted sessions in the program and was chaired by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis and Daniel Shealy. For my part, I spoke about an exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of Little Women which I have organized for the UCLA Library. The exhibit features six display cases of original publications, historical documents, and other materials that tell us the story of Louisa May Alcott and her novel about the March Sisters. The exhibit’s themes include: Alcott and woman’s rights; Alcott and reform movements; Little Women’s cultural legacy; and the influence of Little Women, featuring some of the many women writers and leaders who have been inspired by the novel, such as Ursula K LeGuin, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ann Petry, Sonia Sanchez, and Patti Smith.