Ordinary things

Last week, I finished American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work by Susan Cheever.  It’s an odd little book, full of lots of literary gossip and fluff and not much substance.  But towards the end, there’s this passage:

“Reading Little Women again, now, I can see how profoundly the book influenced me–as a woman, but even more than that as writer.  Without intending to, Louisa May Alcott invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women, and to tell stories that are usually heard in kitchens or bedrooms.  She made literature out of the kind of conversations women have while doing the dishes together or taking care of their children.  It was in Little Women that I learned that domestic details can be the subject of art, that small things in a woman’s life–cooking, the trimming of a dress or hat, quiet talk–can be just as important a subject as a great whale or scarlet letter.  Little Women gave my generation of women permission to write about our daily lives; in many ways, even though it’s a novel, in tone an dvoice it is the percursor of the modern memoir–the book that gives voice to people who have traditionally kept quiet.  In fact, the foundation of the American memoir can be found in Alcott’s masterpiece and in that of her friend Henry David Thoreau.  Alcott’s greatest work was so powerful because it was about ordinary things–I think that’s why it felt so ordinary even as she wrote it.  She transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature.  Without even meaning to, Alcott exaulted the everyday in women’s lives and gave it greatness.”  p. 191-192

Little Women has been a part of my life for a very long time.  I think I first read it around the age of 8 (post Little House, but probably pre-Anne).  I only made it through the first half.  Once Meg got married, I decided it was icky with all that romantic stuff and stopped reading.  A few years later, I picked it up again and it was no longer icky.

I think I’ve always known it was an important book, and my admiration for Alcott and her work has only grown in recent years.  But I don’t think I’ve ever thought of this book as the forerunner for my favorite genre of fiction.  Because when I’m not reading kidlit, I’m usually reading fiction about women and their lives.  The books published by Persephone leap to mind, along with a lot of others.

But it does make me wonder: without Alcott, would there have been a Lovelace or Wilder or Taylor or Enright?  What do you think?

2 responses to “Ordinary things”

  1. LMA was the pioneering writer of the family story. Other female writers, the ones you named, would have definitely come along, but Alcott was the first to make the family or domestic story appealing to young audiences. And what is so unusual, is that Alcott herself really didn’t care all that much for LW. She preferred some of her more grown-up stories. But LW is the one that made her a star!


  2. Exalting the everyday: what a great phrase! A similar case is made in the slim biography of L.M. Montgomery that Jane Urquhart published last year; it relies not only on the biographical facts but on her own skills as a novelist herself and considers LMM’s wife thematically and considers her influence in a context which is quite impressive. Interesting stuff…


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