Perhaps no other book provided a greater guide, as I set out on my youthful path, than Louisa May Alcott’s most beloved novel, Little Women. I was a wiry daydreamer, just ten years old. Life was already presenting challenges for an awkward tomboy growing up in the gender-defined 1950s. Uninterested in preordained activities, I would take off on my blue bicycle, to a secluded place in the woods, and read the books I had checked out, often over and over again, from the local library. I could hardly be found without book in hand and sacrificed sleep and hours at play to enter wholeheartedly each of their unique worlds.
Many wonderful books captured my imagination, but in Little Women something extraordinary happened. I recognized myself, as if in a mirror, the lanky headstrong girl, who raced on foot, ripped her skirts climbing trees, spoke in common slang, and denounced social pretensions. A girl who could be found leaning against a great oak with a book, or at her desk in the attic bowed over a manuscript. She was Josephine March. Even her name breathed freedom, a girl called Jo. Louisa May Alcott had wrapped herself in her glory cloak, labored at her own desk, and penned a new kind of heroine. A stubbornly modern nineteenth-century American girl. A girl who wrote. Like countless girls before me, I found a model in one who was not like everyone else, who possessed a revolutionary soul yet also a sense of responsibility. Her dedication to her craft provided my first window into the process of the writer and I was moved with the desire to embrace this vocation as my own. Her missteps, comic to bold, were enviable, giving permission for my own.
Set in New England in the mid-nineteenth century, in the throes of the Civil War, Little Women is not a sweeping epic. Instead we are drawn into the lively, combative, and caring atmosphere of the March family parlor. There we are introduced to the four young sisters, each with intriguing personalities, processing an energy specifically their own. We become privy to their dreams and disappointments, their squabbles and collective imagination, the immediate world they learn to maneuver. Each struggling with their lot, but accountable to the expectations placed upon them.
The March family is of the genteel poor, beneath the middle class, somewhat deprived, scoffed at for not having the proper attire. In the opening pages, the four young girls huddle about the fire, mourning a Christmas alone, no presents beneath the tree, their father away at war, their charitable mother serving the poor. Yet in the absence of the comforts they wish for, they follow their mother’s example and further deny themselves by donating the little they have to their less fortunate neighbors. Jo writes gothic tales for a penny a word to raise money for the family. She sells, at the horror of all, her one source of vanity—her long chestnut hair—to help support the war effort. Beth, painfully shy, goes out in all weathers, compromising her own frail health, to tend to the sick children of those poorer than herself. The oldest, beautiful and controlling Meg, struggles with a consuming desire for fine things and a higher station. Yet she provides a stable, concerned, and principled center for her sisters. And the youngest, the somewhat self-centered and artistic Amy, evolves into a graceful and forward-thinking young woman.
Louisa May Alcott loosely based Little Women on her own family. Like Jo, who can easily be traced to the author, Alcott was the second of four sisters. Her mother, placing duty and charity above all, was the inspiration for Mrs. March. Her own idealistic father, though vigorous and open-minded, does not surface. Perhaps to avoid his dire impracticality in regards to the wants of his family. The Alcotts moved some thirty times before they settled into a dilapidated farm in Concord, Massachusetts, the birthplace of transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson arranged for the purchase of the land, surrounded by apple orchards. Henry David Thoreau helped her father repair the house. Alcott grew up amid a swirl of continuous discourse by some of the most expansive minds of the time: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Whitman. On the banks of Walden Pond, Thoreau joined her father in tutoring her, answering the barrage of questions burning in the mind of an impetuous young girl.
Her childhood may seem to have its idyllic ring, growing up in a spirited household, being liberally educated, and moving freely among the great minds of the nineteenth century. But common reality was extremely harsh—the family slept in a house with little heat in winter, straw mats on the floor and often an empty table at suppertime.
Alcott vowed to find a way to support her family, draw them out of poverty, just as Jo strived to support hers. A vow I also uttered, privy to my own family’s postwar financial struggles.
Louisa desired and eventually insisted on a room of her own, and her father built an oval desk, with an inkstand, that stood between two windows. It is here she penned her first attempts at pulp fiction under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, providing bread for the family. Like Walt Whitman, she had risked her life volunteering as a nurse during the Civil War and published Hospital Sketches, receiving popular acclaim. But it was the publication of Little Women that provided, almost instantly, national success, financial security, and a legion of devoted readers.
The success of Little Women cleared the course she had set for herself for the rest of her life. Alcott refused to marry and embrace the social conventions of the day. She wrote and traveled extensively in Europe. As did her character Jo, she found her method for following her creative path while still attentive to crucial domestic matters, remaining the breadwinner, ever responsible for the needs of her family. And as Jo, within her work, she conveyed the joy of her wild imagination, her terrible longing, and ultimately the tragedy of loss. Through the March girls I came to know extreme poverty and the cost of war. I learned from Jo’s example that art is not produced solely by dreaming but through discipline, steadfast and confident application, and the willingness to accept and grow from astute criticism. Jo, as her creator, was always scribing, littering the floor with her failures, until such skins were shed and she connected with the core of self-expression.
Touched by want in childhood, I learned to look beyond, to others less fortunate. Touched by the death of my own young friend, I was given the example of how to negotiate loss. When Beth becomes gravely ill, she implores the inconsolable Jo not to grieve too deeply. Determined to match Beth’s stoic courage, Jo finds the words to assure and comfort her gentle, favored sister. Words that have stayed with me always.
More than anyone in the world, Beth. I used to think I couldn’t let you go, but I’m learning to feel that I don’t lose you, that you’ll be more to me than ever, and death can’t part us, though it seems to.
There are some moments within literature when a new character is born, one who sits at the summit with others, emblematic of an age, or steps ahead of it. There have been many high-spirited characters before Jo March, but none like her, who wrote, remained herself. Creating Jo at a time when women had yet the right to vote was an unflinching move. She was an activist by example. And standing apart to extend a sister’s hand, she has always been there to greet maverick girls like myself, with a toss of her cropped hair and a playful wink to say come along. To guide us, provide encouragement, lay her footprints on a path she beckons us to follow.
One can imagine Louisa sitting at the desk her father built, before the arc of that white half-moon, creating new scenarios to inspire and incite her readers. But none would resonate more than Little Women, an elemental guidebook for the evolution of consciousness and the value of conscience. A chronicle of four unforgettable girls, each offering something of their own. And Jo March, like her creator, a comprehension of sacrifice, as well as the responsibility to one’s self, one’s art. Louisa May Alcott infused life, laughter, and unremittent hope and determination to the March girls and, thus, to the little women of her time, and time to come.
Patti Smith is a writer, performer, and visual artist. Her memoir Just Kids received a National Book Award. Her most recent book, Devotion, is an exploration of where inspiration and the craft of writing meet. Smith was awarded the prestigious title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French Republic, and in 2007 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Smith lives in New York City.
From Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Foreword copyright (c) 2018 by Patti Smith.