The Afterlife of Little Women.
Beverly Lyon Clark has long been interested in the critical and popular reception of Louisa May Alcott's oeuvre. In 2011, she published a revision of her 2004 American Critical Archives book, Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews, in which she compiled and commented on hundreds of nineteenth-century reviews of Alcott's works. In her latest contribution to Alcott studies, The Afterlife of Little Women, Clark expands the time period under scrutiny even as she narrows her focus to Alcott's most famous novel and the many forms in which it has remained alive in America and around the world to the present day. By examining a truly bewildering number of primary sources (including plays, films, spinoffs, translations, and biographies) as well as secondary sources such as reviews, fan letters, and library records, Clark builds her case that Alcott's 1868 novel continues to permeate contemporary culture via ever-expanding types and numbers of "re-visionings" (198), despite the fact that interest in the original text from its original primary audience continues to shrink.
Clark divides her study into four chronological periods. From 1868-1900, during most of which time Alcott was still living (she died in 1888), both the author herself and her book drew American and increasingly international esteem, being celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for, among other things, its Americanness. Her audience was not especially limited by age or by gender; there was a rather strong tendency to equate Alcott and her real family with the fictional Marches at this time. In the next era, 1900-1930, the primary audience for Little Women gradually shifted to a more female and educationally-centered one; Alcott's girls were deemed to have a lot to teach other girls in terms of proper behavior. At the same time, the novel was brought to the Broadway stage for the first time and Alcott's home, Orchard House, opened to the public, broadening public knowledge of her work if not necessarily the reading of it. Two silent films, now lost, were also produced in this era. Readership continued to decline from 1930-1960, the next period Clark examines, but there were two film versions (the first and most popular one starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo), as well as scholarly work by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stem that became the foundation of future academic studies of Alcott.
In the wide-ranging final chapter, "Celebrating Sisterhood and Passion since 1960," Clark brings her discussion up to the present day. In appropriately post-modern fashion, even as "direct popular interest has continued to decline" (139), Little Women has managed to remain more alive than ever due to contributions from disparate, fragmented areas. Springboarding from Rostenberg's and Stem's work (which included recovery and publication of many of Alcott's "sensation stories"), as well as from feminist studies, academic interest in Little Women is on the upswing. And even if fewer people read the novel, more now see it performed; Clark analyzes not only the 1994 film featuring Winona Ryder, but also television versions, Mark Adamo's 1998 opera, and a multitude of stage plays (she uncovered over fifty scripts written since 1960). New biographies, both for children and adults, have also appeared--and one of the most entertaining portions of this book is Clark's discussion of what she calls "spinoffs," books and television productions that (sometimes quite loosely) take Little Women as a basis and run with it (Danielle Steel's Amy is a super-model with an eating disorder)--and even mashups, in one of which the March girls appear as vampires! Consistently, Clark links the ways the novel was received and adapted over time to the particularities of each time period. Sometimes, for example, Jo's writing was foregrounded; at others, it was present but somehow subservient to Amy's art; often, domesticity was more consciously displayed than any form of creativity. Nuanced discussions throughout the book take the reader into the wealth of ideas embedded in Little Women as well as into the life of America itself.
Calling Clark's research meticulous is a massive understatement. To give but one example: neither of the two silent Little Women films (produced in 1917 and 1919) exists any longer. Nevertheless, Clark discusses the films and their reception in detail, gleaning information about them from newspaper reviews (even unearthing a newspaper called the Mohave County Miner and Our Mineral Wealth!), advertisements, theater reports, and studio publicity statements. She looks into the future careers of the actors to see if these films were in any way launching pads for them. The notes section at the end of the book is both a model of painstaking research and a treasure trove of resources for anyone who wishes to pursue any of the avenues Clark opens up in this book.
The Afterlife of Little Women provides convincing evidence that Alcott's novel remains alive in American (and world) culture today even though it is less read in its original form than it once was. As Clark writes, "[T]he text is permeable, inviting a multitude of approaches" (139). That is one great value of Clark's book as well. It is fascinating, cover-to-cover, for the many readers of Little Women still out there, whether scholar or generally interested fan, for Clark's prose is clear and lively; her ability to discuss so many diverse materials so cogently is admirable. The one minor quibble I have with this book is that the extensive discussions of illustrations would seem to require many more accompanying illustrations for full understanding of the argument. Nevertheless, the breadth of this text will also make portions of it valuable to students of art, text, film, drama, and cultural studies; the detailed index makes it easy to find the discussions of most interest. As the sesquicentennial of Alcott's most famous work approaches (2018), scholars and general readers can only hope that Beverly Lyon Clark will be among those assessing this classic in its 150th year.
CHRISTINE DOYLE, Central Connecticut State University
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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