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A Responsible Freedom: Patti Smith on ‘Little Women’

24 September 2018

From The Paris Review:

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG recalls reading and loving Little Women when he was in elementary school. He followed that book up with Little Men, which was not quite as good.

During this time period, PG’s family of origin was living in a small house at an altitude of about 10,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

There was not a lot of money available to purchase books. The closest real library was over an hour away and required traveling on a narrow and winding mountain road that was more than a little intimidating when PG drove it as an adult.

PG will be forever grateful for his mother’s efforts to provide lots of reading material for her children, regardless of the cost in time, money and energy on her part.

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One Comments to “A Responsible Freedom: Patti Smith on ‘Little Women’”

  1. As a kid, I liked Little Women, but I loved Little Men. Everyone I knew loved Little Women and either thought I was crazy for preferring Little Men or didn’t know it even existed. 😉

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