When Louisa May Alcott was a child, her father Bronson asked her to define what a philosopher was. She replied, tongue in cheek: “a man up in a balloon with his family at the strings tugging to pull him down.” Later, as a grown woman, Alcott would write a short story loosely based on day-to-day life at Fruitlands, the short-lived utopian community her father founded in the 1840s. Titled “Transcendental Wild Oats,” the story satirized men like her father and his circle (Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and others), noting how “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away” when it came time to harvest the crops. Throughout her life, Alcott knew how to puncture the buoyant intellectual men floating above the people stuck down in the muck of cooking and sweeping and dying in childbirth.
MEG, JO, BETH, AMY: THE STORY OF LITTLE WOMEN AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS by Anne Boyd Rioux W. W. Norton & Company, 288 pp., $27.95
This sharp perspective is easy to miss in the work for which Alcott is best known, her beloved 1868 novel Little Women. The earliest reviewers described the story of the four March sisters and their mother Marmee as “fresh,” “healthy,” “natural,” and “sincere.” In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway characterized Little Women as full of “sweetness and light.” Critics since then have largely followed suit, continuing to describe the novel as amiable and charming, though often disagreeing as to whether that was a good or bad thing. In the 1960s the British critic Brigid Brophy asserted that the novel’s sentimentality was a form of “technical skill” on Alcott’s part, whereas Mary Gaitskill, writing in 1995, criticized the story as treacly: an