Little Women
Louisa M. Alcott
1868-1869

Louisa May Alcott never wanted to write the book that she’s known for. She wrote semi-erotic stories to pay the bills, more politically-charged, reflective pieces for herself and the world she wanted to make, and Little Women…well, she wrote that cause a publisher who liked her writing style asked to her to. There could be big sales in a mass-market book about girls for girls, so maybe she oughta take a break from the work inspired by and engaged with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and give this other project a try.

The beauty Meg who seeks then abandons ‘good society’; tomboy Jo, the writer who longs to sign up to fight alongside men in the Civil War; the shy and frail Beth, forever loyal to her big sister Jo; and the graceful, proper Amy, who’s tension with her old sister simmers until a fall through the ice gives them all a scare. The four girls have become fixtures of children’s and early-adolescent literature, and of our cultural heritage more generally.

The first run of the book sold out immediately. The publisher raced to print more, but could never keep up with demand. Something here spoke to girls, and spoke to all of us about family and independence, about responsibility and passion, about the conflicts and frustrations that wind their way in and out of our closest relationships. And about kids in general, and girls in particular in a period where strict social etiquette and firm gender roles were beginning to be tested, tentatively, partially, carefully. But for the literary world the book mattered, too – and not just for its demonstration that a book about girls could be a best-seller. G.K. Chesterton noted that with Little Women Alcott anticipated, some thirty years in advance, the literary revolution that would be realism.

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