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Little Women

Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that Louisa May Alcott and Judy Chicago have much in common. Each is having a contemporary moment: an innocuous British production of Little Women, filmed in Ireland, aired recently on PBS, while Greta Gerwig is said to be at work more promisingly, on another; Judy Chicago has or had shows this year at the Brooklyn Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, among others. Both are famous women, who made/make art about women, detailing their domestic and intimate lives, who have been charged, with sentimentality and preachiness in Alcott’s case, with kitsch and sleaziness in Judy Chicago’s, whose reputations remain unstable.

My earliest response to Little Women was my first failure as a literary critic. Jo is the heroine, it’s a portrait of the artist; there’s an extended allusion to Pilgrim’s Progress; the novel’s tone is often didactic, moralistic, and yes, preachy; it’s a tearjerker. All this I missed on my first encounter, and yet that “reading” in my mother’s voice, chapter by chapter after dinner on the claret colored couch in our Jackson Heights apartment, determined the course of my life.

Give me a child until he is seven, mantra, so it is rumored of the Catholic church. I was a little older, eight or nine, and the 1949 film, in which Elizabeth Taylor as Amy wears a disastrous blond wig, is mixed in somewhere, but mostly it was the way my mother wept when she read the ending to my sister and me. Beth has died; a kind of diluted sorrow lingers in the thought that she is well at last. Father, recovered from the wound he received as a chaplain in the Civil War, remains a shadow in his study, preoccupied with obscure religious scholarship. Meg has become a competent homemaker, very much in charge of her classic family: devoted husband John Brooke and twins with opposing personalities, named for their parents, Demi, short for Demijohn, and Daisy, a nickname for Margaret. Amy and Laurie have married and returned from Europe benevolent and prosperous, but with a sickly daughter named Beth or Bess, who, like her Aunt Beth in the past, is said to be growing stronger. Jo is not a spinster after all, but has married Professor Bhaer. Together they have produced two sons and turned Aunt March’s grand estate Plumfield into a school for rowdy boys. In the novel’s final sentence, the girls’ mother, Marmee, surveying her brood, pulling them in around her, declares: Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I can never wish you greater happiness than this.

This is the key word, which Virginia Woolf turns inside out when she writes in one of her diaries, Children are nothing to this, by which she means the thrill, amounting to ecstasy, of writing the novel she’s working on. Woolf suffered and died a premature suicide because of mental illness. I believe she was at times envious of her sister Vanessa, a painter with children, but she had wealth, a supportive and literary husband, like-minded friends, and the genius and ruthlessness required to sustain her as a writer.

What “this” was for me was being a woman, falling in love, getting married and having children, making a family and keeping it, getting along, folding everything in, every hardship, satisfaction, disappointment, accident, fever, grief, and dream, anger, triumph, betrayal -- gently, egg whites into a batter, making it, though imperfect, whole. I saw that my mother believed this, and consequently so did I. I still do. Words and tears. Words and tears. Words and tears formed my primal idea of happiness.

I see clearly now where I went astray, lured by the usual blandishments. Each girl in her way appealed to me. I didn’t want to die, only to play at being sick, just before falling asleep or during a siesta, trying to imagine the extraordinary weakness which could make Beth’s needle heavy, reading the chapter in which she dies over and over, lifting my hand in a test. Amy might be silly and selfish, but I admired her instinct for drama, her willingness to invest in beauty. Of course I wanted Jo to conquer her temper, marry Laurie. Get with the program, so to speak. But why would I want to carry a dirty glove to an elegant party, or be a wallflower, my back literally to the wall, because I had scorched my only gown by standing too close to the fire? Or have a boy’s name? Or be a boy? Or even, my dungarees notwithstanding, a tomboy? I found Professor Bhaer repulsive: too old, too sloppy, too foreign. It was a relief to learn, many years later, that Alcott never intended Jo to marry, but bowed to her readers’ wishes.

Right along with Little Women was my habit in the late 40s of rating actresses in movie magazines and contestants in the Miss Rheingold (a popular beer) contest (There were lifesize cardboard images of these mostly blond beauties everywhere; everybody talked about them; everybody voted.), of listening to soap operas like Our Gal Sunday, who landed an English lord with dubious results, of following Can This Marriage Be Saved in McCall’s magazine, of sleeping with my hair rolled in socks to make it curly like Shirley Temple’s. Meg was my idol in those days. Meg, the pretty one, popular with the right people, proud of her smooth, white hands, the fashionista, the one who, after purging herself of various vanities and temptations, wants nothing more than to be an exemplary wife and mother, which Marmee abets, supplying tips on cooking and ways to make life agreeable to her husband. But by the final chapter, in which John Brooke, who is soon to die, takes no part, Meg, entirely satisfied with her life, has in effect no future, while Jo and Amy remain ambitious.

I listened to my mother, I read on my own. All of Louisa May Alcott’s books for children, Little Women, over and over, into adulthood, reluctantly letting go of Meg, forming a new idea of the book’s deep interest in art and artists, a persistent theme, as Alcott explores the difference between talent and genius, pitfalls, detours, roles and rules, the power of art to push back against death.

Of the four sisters, Meg is the only one who is not an artist, unless homemaking and motherhood are arts: Meg learned, that a woman’s happiest kingdom is her home, her highest honor the “art” of ruling it, not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother.

Beth’s art is music. Her tuneless piano brings the family together in the evenings to sing favorite songs and hymns. Perhaps she took lessons before Father lost his money, but we are never shown how much she has learned or whether she has talent, only that her love of music temporarily knocks out her crippling shyness, reminding her wealthy neighbor Mr. Laurence of his beloved granddaughter. He invites her to practice on his own instrument and later gives her the dead granddaughter’s piano along with sheet music especially chosen to meet her taste and skill. Beth’s presence at the final family gathering is felt in the collective memory of her playing as they sing her favorite hymn. (Jo’s professor elevates these proceedings, introducing Mozart and Schubert, along with his own singing and playing, flute and violin.)

Amy wants Faber’s drawing pencils for Christmas, she takes art lessons; at the end, she is sketching and reveals that, while a patron of the arts, she has not given up her personal artistic hopes, has begun to sculpt the figure of a baby, which she and Laurie consider the best thing she has ever done. This is a stunning if maudlin detail since the model is her own frail child who may not have long to live.

Mr. Laurence and his grandson Laurie show what wealth (often seen here as leading to vain and frivolous pursuits) can do in support of art and artists. Jo describes Laurie as a steady and sensible businessman doing heaps of good with your money,” while also acknowledging his love of beautiful things. We hear nothing in the end of Laurie as an artist, but do not forget that he wanted to skip college in order to play the piano and compose music, but his grandfather wouldn’t allow it. Mr. Laurence thwarts his grandson to keep him from going the way of Laurie’s father who married a musician Mr. Laurence disliked, causing a never to be repaired family rift, since the couple died young. When Laurie does eventually try to compose, he fails, mistaking his sorrow over Jo’s refusal to marry him for inspiration.

As a man among women “artists,” Laurie enlarges Alcott’s perspective, suggesting that limitations bind men as well as women in that male artists may be seen as effeminate. Still, Alcott keeps the men in Little Women very much in the background, allowing them little complexity. The rapacious villain (found in her gothic tales for adults) she banishes to the lurid stories Jo writes for money. Old Mr. Laurence achieved wealth and eminence in the past as an autocratic India merchant, but younger men must work (women marry for money, Meg observes). What can a poor and humble man do? Pastor, soldier, scholar, tutor, professor/teacher and school head are the roles allotted the thoroughly defanged, yet in theory masculine, Father, John Brooke, and Professor Bhaer. None is an artist. Wealthy Laurie, whose name could be a girl’s (he is later more often called Teddy), who outgrows his former moodiness associated with artistic temperament, at first is not permitted and later fails to become one.

Jo, alone among these amateurs, these wannabes, is a writer from beginning to end, author of plays the girls put on, founder and editor of their home newspaper. So powerful is the emotional fallout when Amy cruelly burns every page of the novel Jo has been writing that I haven’t felt the same about Amy since. Marmee talks Jo out of it, but readers may continue to be angry. Jo has the strength to start over and grows up to be a paid professional, though she publishes anonymously, ashamed of her sensational stories. Alcott has along the way sprinkled hints of an attraction between Jo and the older, remote Professor Bhaer, but until the final chapters she seems on track to find her voice and the reader to discover that the novel she has been reading (à la Proust) is in fact its manifestation.

How is it then that Jo allows herself to be first smothered, by marriage to an overweight, unkempt, immigrant German teacher, then drowned, by a flood of boys of every size, shape, color, temperament and background, including her own two, to whom she must be a mother? She is still a writer, even a successful one, in the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys, but we hear no more of ink-stained fingers, of refusing food and drink, of days spent writing in the attic. Where would she would find time? Even her breakthrough is engineered by Father and Professor Bhaer, full of paternalistic admonitions, who advise her to look into her heart and write.

This is how: lonely and depressed after her favorite sister Beth dies, Jo begins to see happiness and value in marriage and children, Meg’s in particular. She doesn’t want Laurie, whom she thinks of as one of her “boys,” but is frankly envious of Amy who marries him. Jo is far too restless and ambitious to play Beth’s part, the stay at home spinster aunt keeping house for her aging parents. Her energy must have some outlet which a husband and children provide. Thus do forces within the book, romantic readers, publishers hungry for profit, and cultural norms without, gang up on Jo to downplay, almost eclipse, the writer.

Like Jane Austen’s, Alcott’s women must marry. Their creators, however, diverge, and at last, in the 20th century, Judy Chicago seats Louisa May Alcott (alias Jo) at the table. Little Women, open to Chapter 10, in which a facsimile of the girls’ newspaper appears, is her place setting at the Dinner Party (1979), now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. Certainly, Chicago sees a connection between herself and Louisa May Alcott, and I would pursue this further. Take Meg’s house, the “Dovecote”: It was a tiny house, with a little garden behind and a lawn about as big as a pocket handkerchief in front. Various inconveniences are noted, but the happy bride saw no fault from garret to cellar. Skip ahead to the installation Womanhouse to which Judy Chicago contributed Menstruation Bathroom, described in the NYT as a pristine white-tiled space with a garbage can overflowing with bloody tampons.

I was among the 10,000 people who visited the Hollywood mansion Chicago and other artists renovated to house the installation for its one month run in 1972. By this time, not without much anxiety over marrying late at 27 and adopting a baby, I had become Meg March, a married woman, devoted mother, keeper of a house I was proud of. Without these I felt I was nothing. Yet I could hardly wait to get back to work. I was happy, but deeply unsettled inside myself, far from satisfied. What I remember best about Womanhouse is not the bathroom, but the pink kitchen where two breasts, made to resemble fried eggs, looked up from a frying pan on the stove.

This strikes me now as comical rather than shocking, and I find Womanhouse a natural (logical?) extension of Meg’s Dovecote (See Chapter 28 of Little Women in which her jelly refuses to jell, causing domestic meltdown.), not its contradiction or repudiation. Amy with her interest in money, in what these days is called wellness and self-care, reminds me of Gwyneth Paltrow. Androgynous Jo could be seen as genderqueer or transgender, Alcott, with her tolerance of boys and their wild oats, part of the “he-too” movement. Or in making women dominant and emasculating men, did she contribute to the decline of sperm now causing anxious males to seek testosterone injections? Or point the way to women who “curate” photos of their vaginas to send to their boyfriends or post online? Alcott is all over the place and positively hip!

I’m joking, of course, but only half. Alcott, like Chicago, makes the personal political, but the worth of Little Women resides in the vividness of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, alive today in so many imaginations, and in Marmee, not the saccharine peacemaker some see, but a secretly savage reformer, who homeschools her children, who sacrifices fragile Beth to her social conscience by sending her into an infected, poverty-stricken household, a woman, angry, as she tells Jo in confidence, every day of her life. Why is Marmee angry? What was my mother, a New York social worker with a hotline to Mayor LaGuardia before retiring to take care of me and my sister, crying about?

So. What is Little Women? A sentimental family saga? An old fashioned children’s book read today rather by nostalgic adults than by modern little women? A dissertation on the difficulty of becoming and holding one’s place as an artist, male or female, in America, where trash pays while talented writers fail to publish? A story which promises, but finally refuses, to depict an independent woman artist? A truly revolutionary tale in which liberated 19th century girls, as novelist and critic Alison Lurie calls them, anticipate contemporary trends? All of these and more.

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