What the Little Women Read

Posted on January 17, 2020 at 10:55 pm

I first read Little Women when I was in 4th grade. It became and remains one of my favorite books ever and I re-read it every few years since, most recently after seeing the new Greta Gerwig movie, which I loved.

It also gave me a gift. Over the years, I would come across other books and recognize them from references in Little Women. So I really enjoyed Trix Wilkins’ article about the books the March girls read, from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (which the March girls not only refer to but act out) to the dull essays by Belsham Jo has to read aloud to Aunt March to Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, whose characters inspired the names of the March girls’ club members and Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which Jo borrows from Mr. Lawrence.

In re-reading the book, I noticed a reference Wilkins did not mention. I happened to hear for the first time recently about an author named E.D.E.N. Southworth. According to a recent article:

Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth was one of the most successful American writers—male or female—of the mid-19th century, outselling contemporaries like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was a mainstay of Washington’s early literary scene: She hosted Friday night salons at her Georgetown cottage, attended Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, and is even credited with encouraging Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In Little Women, Jo refers to a popular author of lurid melodramas named “Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury,” clearly a reference to Southworth. Now I want to read one of her books! By the way, you can read the Southworth-ian stories Louisa May Alcott wrote, the ones Professor Bhaer scolds her about in Behind a Mask.

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Little Women

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 5:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, brief smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad death, references to other deaths including death of a baby
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 6, 2020
Copyright 2019 Sony Pictures

You need to know where I’m coming from on this one. There is no book more central to my life than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My mother, Josephine Baskin Minow, has been Jo since she first read Little Women when she was a child, And now our children call her Marmee. I loved it so much that I read all the other Alcott books on the library shelf (I especially recommend Eight Cousins and An Old Fashioned Girl). Little Women has been central to the lives of young women for more than 150 years, inspired by its heroine, who was inspired by Alcott herself. Jo March is fiercely loyal, impetuous, impatient, and a writer, both eager and reluctant to find her own voice. Authors who name the book as a major influence range from Cynthia Ozick, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ursula Le Guin and Nora Ephron to “Twilight”‘s Stephenie Meyer.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical story of four sisters has been adapted many times, including a Broadway musical, a 48-chapter Japanese anime series, an opera, and films starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Winona Ryder. The most recent BBC version (of four) was shown in the United States on PBS. One of two major adaptations last year was a modern-day retelling with a quartet of appealing young actresses, adapted with skill and understanding by writer/director Clare Niederpruem.

So, my standards and expectations could not have been higher and it is my very great pleasure to tell you that this new film from writer/director Greta Gerwig exceeded them all. Writer/director Greta Gerwig not only loves and understands the book, she also appreciates that in 2019 we are only beginning to catch up to Alcott’s vision of what is possible for young women and for all of us. Those who do not know Alcott’s work or have only seen the early versions may think that Gerwig has “modernized” the story. But every part of it comes from Alcott (some from other writings) and every part of it is entirely consistent with her fierce, independent, and devoted spirit and rebellious energy. And Saoirse Ronan is the best Jo March yet, her long-limbed coltishness not so much “boyish” as vitally engaged in a world that cannot always keep up with her.

The book was originally written in two parts, but the second volume (called Good Wives) has been a part of what we know as Little Women for more than a century. Gerwig begins the story in the middle of the second book as the now-adult Jo (a teenager in the first volume) meets with a newspaper publisher (a charmingly crusty and wry performance from playwright Tracy Letts, last seen as Henry Ford II in “Ford v. Ferrari”). In case we are not as quick as he is to see through her claim to be bringing stories written by a “friend,” Gerwig lets us see the ink that still stains her fingers. When her story is accepted (with the moralizing parts cut out), she exuberantly races home.

Then, as we will throughout the film, we go back and forth between the two parts of the story, indicated by different color pallattes, the warmer hues for the earlier years, when the girls were all at home and their father (Bob Odenkirk) was a Union volunteer in the Civil War. There were struggles and growing pains, but there was also a sense of purpose and possibility that is not as clear in the cooler-hued older years, when Jo is in New York living in a boarding house, and Amy (Florence Pugh) is touring Europe and studying art. Pugh may be too old for Amy in the early scenes, but she and Gerwig give Amy far more depth than any previous portrayal (perhaps including Alcott’s). Emma Watson is lovely as oldest sister Meg (obligatory complaint about what was left out of this version — the scenes of Meg coming to John’s defense when Aunt March attacks him and the scene of her showing off her “new dress” to him). Gerwig’s script softens the professor’s critique of Jo’s more lurid stories-for-hire and his involvement in getting the book-within-a-book published, but the scene of his telling her that the melodramatic stories she is writing for money are not good is still an important turning point.

Laura Dern plays Marmee, a woman of character, courage, and intention. The private moment she takes in the foyer of the house to make sure she can greet her daughters with good cheer on Christmas morning after caring for the impoverished Hummels is a small master class of acting. When Marmee tells Jo that she still struggles with anger every day, we see where Jo got her inner fire and how inner fire can become the foundation for determination and principle.

And then there is Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, the sensitive boy whose temperament is protected from becoming headstrong and careless by the example of the March family, their attitude toward work and also their attitude toward fun. Like Laurie to Jo, Chalamet is a perfect match for his “Lady Bird” co-star Ronan, and we could happily watch a whole movie of them putting on plays, attending riotous meetings of the Pickwick Society, and skating on the pond.

It is still one of the all-time great coming-of-age stories of a family and an artist finding her voice. By putting making the early year portion of the film flashbacks that comment on, provide context for, and deepen the “present-day” storylines, Gerwig makes us ready for a perfect ending that brings Alcott, her fictional avatar, and the story of all of us who have tried to tell our stories together.

Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and reference to other deaths including the death of a baby, family stress and conflict, and brief smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: Which sister is most like you? Was the publisher right about the ending to the story? Why do so many women, especially writers, say that this story was their most important inspiration?

If you like this, try: the book by Louisa May Alcott and the other movie and miniseries versions of this story

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Trailer: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Posted on August 14, 2019 at 5:25 am

Writer/director Greta Gerwig cast her “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan as Jo in this latest version of the beloved classic, Little Women, based on the real-life family of author Louisa May Alcott. The casting is exciting: Timothee Chalamet as Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March.

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Interview: Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen on Louisa May Alcott

Posted on August 6, 2015 at 3:34 pm

No writer has influenced me more than Louisa May Alcott, and it runs in the family. My mother’s name is Josephine, like Alcott’s most famous (and most autobiographical) character, and she was inspired by Little Women to insist on being called “Jo” — and to become a writer. And her grandchildren call her “Marmie,” inspired by “Marmee,” the mother of the little women. I loved the PBS show American Masters: Louisa May Alcott – The Woman Behind Little Women and am delighted that is is now available on DVD through PBS.

Copyright PBS 2015
Copyright PBS 2015

I enjoyed talking to the women who made the documentary about Alcott, Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen, who also wrote a book, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.

Porter lives in Lexington, not far from Concord, where the Alcott family lived along with their contemporaries and friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. She said, “We decided to try to make a film about her because there hadn’t been a film about her at all, number one and number two there had not been a biography about her in 30 years. So we felt that this was a good time to do it and so we started a very long process of applying for grants and fund-raising which began with the National Endowment of the Humanities, which gave us a large grant and then the American Masters series and a few others gave us the rest of our money.” It took five years to raise the money. But they were determined to tell her story, which will come as a surprise to those who think of Little Women as non-fiction. “She was no little woman and her life was no children’s book. In fact she was almost 6 feet tall it seems. She was very, very tall and so were all the others which is not how I think of them but they are.”

In Little Women, Jo, the headstrong, independent second daughter who grows up to be a writer, at first tries very dramatic, adventurous, even gothic stories to make money but then, guided by the man she will later marry (unlike Alcott, who never married), Jo writes from her heart, and it is her autobiographical novel about her family, written for children, that brings her true satisfaction as well as success. But the documentary makes it clear that it was the other way around. Reisen acknowledged that Alcott herself created the myth that she was Jo. But in reality she got more pleasure from her more bloodthirsty tales, many of which are collected in Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Porter said, “I think she thought she was writing “moral pap for the young” and she was bound to support her family because she certainly had came from rags to riches. She had many, many jobs and lived in 30 houses and she had this idealist father and her siblings and needed to keep this whole machine going.”

Reisen described her contribution to “a series called the No-Name Series, after the success of Little Women. It was a series of anonymous books by famous authors, anonymously. She wrote one called A Modern Mephistopheles and it’s quite heavy duty. The devil character gives the heroine opium in it and she had a wonderful trip on this drug. So I think she loved writing all the thrillers just to take her to those places.” That story won a prize, and no one believed she had written it.

Reisen and Porter knew that they would have to create re-enactments of some of the elements of Alcott’s story.  “First of all, there was almost no images,” said Porter.  “So to spin a story about her using archival material was virtually impossible. The other way to do it was to do a more stylized approach, skirts on stairs and shots of the woods, but we really felt like what we needed to do was introduce Louisa to our audience and to make her a living breathing person.”  “And modern,” added Reisen.  “Somebody who if she had dinner with you, you might not realize she was from the 19th century. Her voice was contemporary.  But we were concerned about re-enactments. So every word that the actors speak comes from primary sources. And then we had the scholars and interviewees and for that we had no narration. We wanted them to tell the story feeling that they were primary sources, too.”


Geraldine Brooks, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her novel based on the character of the father from Little Women and the real-life Bronson Alcott who inspired him, appears in the documentary as well. Reisen said, “I think the thing that really struck me about her was a comment she made that everybody says Louisa couldn’t deal with her father, which is why he is gone for much of the book, but she understood as a novelist why that was the only choice.”

Porter and Reisen talked about what made Alcott’s work so successful when it was first published and why it endured. “She is funny and I think girls identify with one of the characters, usually Jo but sometimes Amy or Beth. And all these girls have faults, serious faults and flaws and they work with them and they seem really imperfect but beautifully drawn female characters and they do silly things sometimes but none of them are silly,” Reisen said. “It’s told very well with a great female character and there aren’t that many written at that time,” added Porter. “It’s a classic coming of age story, too.”

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Movies About Writers

Posted on September 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm

In honor of this week’s release of “The Words,” the story of a writer who passes off another man’s book as his own, I thought I’d suggest some other movies about writers.  Movies are, after all, written by writers, so they understand and are fascinated by people who tell stories.

The Front is another story about a writer taking credit for someone else’s work, but this time it is based on a true story and with the writer’s permission. Woody Allen plays a man who is hired by a blacklisted writer during the McCarthy era to put his name on the other man’s scripts so he can continue to work.

American Splendor is the story of a man who turned his anguished view of life into a series of acclaimed graphic novels.

Shakespeare in Love is not exactly based on the real history of the greatest writer in the English language, but the script by playwright Tom Stoppard includes some insightful and heartfelt moments about the agony and inspiration of the writing life.

Little Women is a fictional version of Louisa May Alcott’s family and the character of Jo March reflects her real-life passion for writing.

Capote won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar for his portrayal of writer Truman Capote as he writes his last great story, the “nonfiction novel” about a brutal real-life murder.

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