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In May of 1868, Louisa May Alcott started her most famous novel, Little Women. It was a story that she was loathe to write and would ultimately call “moral pap for the young”. Her editors demanded it of her so she obliged, begrudgingly.
Despite her reservations, readers love it. I don’t believe that Little Women has ever gone out of print. It has been illustrated multiple times and has been made into at least four movies (1918, 1933, 1949, and 1994) and two different t.v. miniseries starring actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, June Allyson, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Winona Ryder, Meredith Baxter, and so many more.
I think there are many reasons Little Women persists as a great American classic. More than just a book for children, it is a book that captures very true things about American culture at that time, has some beautiful storylines, has a spirited but traditional moral point of view and, essentially, captures something of what it meant to be an American woman who was coming of age during changing times. Even though Alcott resented having to write it, we as a culture have been blessed by it.
Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, was part of the American transcendental movement. His friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne may have been something akin to the famous Inklings friendships of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. Louisa ultimately eclipsed her father in recognition, but she was strongly influenced by her father’s intellectual appetite and work in social and educational reform. She grew up knowing some of the great American thinkers of that time and feasted on their ideas.
Bronson Alcott was a teacher, a poet, and a transcendental mystic. At one point in his career, he formed a school in Boston called “Temple School” (1834-1841) where he honed and “perfected” progressive methods for education. (The word progressive here is not to be confused with today’s political association of the word.) Instead of the dry rigor of conventional schools, he believed in a more living approach to education. His ideas of education were inspiring to Louisa and she used them as the backbone of her beautiful story about Plumfield in the 1871 sequel to Little Women, Little Men.
Readers of Little Men are treated to a utopian educational model. One that concentrates on the character of children while tending to their very hearts and souls. The boys and girls of Plumfield live in an idyllic old mansion complete with sprawling natural property and a barn with animals. Each student studies Latin and Greek, gets excellent exercise, has pillow fights, takes care of his own plot in the garden, studies nature, learns useful skills, converses with good mentors, and feasts on living books. Modern readers may easily see this as a model for a Charlotte Mason boarding school and wonder if Alcott was inspired by Miss Mason. In fact, Louisa was ten years older than the British education reformer. Miss Mason formed her “House of Education” in Ambleside, England in 1891 – a full twenty years after the publication of Alcott’s Little Men.
In Little Women, Louisa blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction. Sort of like Charles Dickens in David Copperfield, Little Women is based very loosely on her own life and experiences. In Little Men, we get something different.
There is no way for me to write this without spoiling the end of Little Women. If you are unfamiliar with the conclusion of that book, you may want to refrain from reading the rest of this review. And yes, that means that you cannot read Little Men without first reading Little Women if spoilers bother you. The story does stand on its own, but it is impossible to avoid knowing who marries whom and who dies.
At the end of Little Women, we learn that Josephine and her Professor Bhaer have inherited the great old mansion of wealthy Aunt March. A poor German immigrant teacher and an equally poor author could not hope to occupy Plumfield as the fuel costs alone would devour their meager salaries. What they could do, however, with some help from Jo’s brother-in-law, was lovingly fill it with a school for boys. In typical Alcott and Josephine March fashion, the school would be nontraditional and very lively.
When Little Men opens, a poor orphan musician boy is deposited on the stoop of Plumfield. He is ushered into what he thinks must be a little heaven on earth. Nat is one of many charity students at Plumfield sponsored by Teddy and Amy Lawrence. We are oriented into Plumfield as Nat is. Just as he settles in, however, Nat fades into the supporting cast and we view Plumfield through the eyes of another newcomer. This technique is used several times throughout the book to help the reader see Plumfield from different perspectives.
While each student comes under very different circumstances and for very different reasons, their reception is essentially always the same: they are welcome, their souls are attended to, their minds are trained, and Plumfield strives to correct their flaws.
“July had come, and haying begun; the little gardens were doing finely and the long summer days were full of pleasant hours. The house stood open from morning till night, and the lads lived out of doors, except at school time. The lessons were short, and there were many holidays, for the Bhaers believed in cultivating healthy bodies by much exercise, and our short summers are best used in out-of-door work. Such a rosy, sunburnt, hearty set as the boys became; such appetites as they had; such sturdy arms and legs, as outgrew jackets and trousers; such laughing and racing all over the place; such antics in house and barn; such adventures in the tramps over hill and dale; and such satisfaction in the hearts of the worthy Bhaers, as they saw their flock prospering in mind and body, I cannot begin to describe.”
On a first reading, this story has a sufficiently rich texture to occupy the imagination of the reader. On subsequent readings, however, it becomes obvious that this story is a treatise on education. Through each of the different characters, we see how the Plumfield education is customized for that child’s best end. Each of the principal players has different strengths and different weaknesses and we see how the educational philosophy of Bronson and Louisa May can be adapted to suit the needs of the child.
The summer between my junior and senior years at Hillsdale College, I did my first of two terms at the University of Oxford. Between terms, I backpacked through Europe. My pack was very heavy so I had to be very judicious about which books I would bring with me. The only two I remember reading during that month were the Count of Monte Cristo and Little Men. I think this was my first time reading what has now become my most favorite Alcott book.
What I remember most about that first reading of this classic was how I fell in love. Something about Plumfield stirred something in the core of my being. Something about the approach to formation of character and helping to shape souls prompted me to want to become a teacher and, most assuredly, a mother of boys. Even though Alcott grew up in the home of sisters, she clearly loved boys. Thanks to Alcott’s Little Men, I too now love boys and their boyish beauty.