New book: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

What is it about 19th century English literature that is so infuriating? I say English literature because, until Walt Whitman and Mark Twain liberated the American tongue, there is little that the amateur student can distinguish between British novelists and American ones. The Americans, in fact, were aspirant imitators of their British peers. Consider how Poe milks the gothic and mystery styles of Wilkie Collins and the Bronte sisters. Or how Washington Irving and Hawthorne’s romanticism is wrapped up in the same culture that spawned Mary Shelley and the taboos-in-the-boonies hokum of Thomas Hardy. 

 Before Whitman and Twain, American writers followed the British lead in addressing the three big challenges of Victorian England:

1. Get rich

2. Get married

3. Get free of all those suffocating social constructs

After Whitman and Twain, the sky is the limit. Travel writing, science fiction, noir, war novels, sexual liberation. 

That brings us to Louisa May Alcott’s book, Little Women. It is the next book we’re reading here at Letters Republic.

Alcott was a contemporary of Hawthorne and Emerson and Longfellow. Though they predate Twain and Whitman, at least in their influence on the American literary scene, none of them were particularly keen on writing stories about men and women finding love and fortune. Even Hawthorne, whose work deals explicitly with lovers, is more interested in who is doing the oppressing. 

Is Louisa May Alcott’s book a British literature clone, then? Or is it distinctly American? Not American in subject matter (location and historical events) but American in its sense of liberation, its sense of intellectual curiosity and naturalism. 

Alcott’s book was famous because it struck a chord with young girls in 19th century America. Obviously, it has to do with love, familial responsibility, and personal goals…not unlike the themes of Victorian literature in general. But I will be looking for how this book treats the themes in a particularly American way. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. 


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