All About Louisa

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

We’re visiting the Concord of Louisa May Alcott and talking about Little Women with Greta Gerwig, Jan Turnquist, and Maria Tatar. Listen today at 2 pm EST or anytime at our website.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adheres closely to Louisa May Alcott’s nineteenth-century novel about sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March. But it’s also an intensely contemporary film, and in our conversation with Gerwig, we learned one possible reason for this: Greta Gerwig is a lifelong reader of Louisa May Alcott, but she’s also drawn to the work of contemporary auto-fictionists—writers whose fiction (like Alcott’s) uncannily mirrors their actual autobiographies.

Greta Gerwig.

On this week’s show, Gerwig speaks with us about writers from Alcott to Walt Whitman to Sheila Heti, and she describes a profound consideration of how real life and imagined life interact.

The screenplay in the movie is a conversation between me, Jo March, and Louisa May Alcott. I think in general, I’m interested in how artists make art, male or female, because it necessitates some dividing of self, which is always interesting to me.

Louisa May Alcott is clearly a (if not the) star of this whole story. So we went to Concord to learn more about Alcott’s world, her home, and the ideas with which she conversed. There’s much to learn there. Her father, Bronson Alcott, is now often understood as a negligent dreamer, but the Alcotts’ scholastic Orchard House in Concord reminds you he also advanced educational ideals that created a home for nurturing more than one genius. Louisa May Alcott, we know, became the J.K. Rowling of her time, but her sister May (inspiration for Amy in Little Women) was also, we realized, an important and accomplished painter.

The luminous dining room of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

As you’ll hear in this week’s show, Greta Gerwig has a cinematic, literary, and scholarly understanding of Louisa May Alcott. Her interest in Alcott goes way beyond Alcott’s most famous novel—Gerwig speaks of Alcott’s Transcendendalist social sphere, of Alcott’s biography, of the novels that Alcott herself adored.

We couldn’t help but notice the George Eliot element of Gerwig’s Alcottiana.

Gerwig told us:

Thank you for noticing my call out to George Eliot. I put that in. It was scene in the movie where Jo is reading to Beth on the beach; she’s reading from The Mill on the Floss. I love that book. I love George Eliot. The passage is: “We could never have loved the Earth so well had we had no childhood in it.”

At the Alcott Home

The Alcotts’ Orchard House in Concord, MA.
Bronson Alcott’s Concord School of Philosophy (next to Orchard House).
From left to right: Jan Turnquist (executive director of the Orchard House), Louisa May Alcott, and Chris Lydon.
From Bronson Alcott’s study — a ticket to attend Alcott’s Concord School of Philosophy.
Painting by May Alcott. By permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.
Painting by May Alcott. By permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.
Pen at Louisa May Alcott’s desk.

Watch: Every Little Women Adaptation

William Shatner in Little Women, from 1978.

There are more adaptations of Alcott’s novel than most of us could ever keep up with, and they range widely—William Shatner is Professor Bhaer in the 1978 TV adaptation. Here’s an overview from PBS of those adaptations.

Read: Louisa May Alcott’s Novel

We’ve learned about Bronson Alcott’s belief in an invigorating and egalitarian kind of education that would advance ideals of freedom and creativity. And in Little Women, you see that emphasis on creativity and play advanced novelistically. Fun has a serious place in the education of the March sisters.

As spring came on, a new set of amusements became the fashion, and the lengthening days gave long afternoons for work and play of all sorts . . .

Gardening, walks, rows on the river, and flower-hunts employed the fine days; and for rainy ones, they had house diversions,—some old, some new,—all more or less original. One of these was the “P.C.”; for, as secret societies were the fashion, it was thought proper to have one; and, as all of the girls admired Dickens, they called themselves the Pickwick Club.

Pickwick, from Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.

With a few interruptions, they had kept this up for a year, and met every Saturday evening in the big garret, on which occasions the ceremonies were as follows: Three chairs were arranged in a row before a table on which was a lamp, also four white badges, with a big ‘P.C.’ in different colors on each, and the weekly newspaper called, The Pickwick Portfolio, to which all contributed something, while Jo, who reveled in pens and ink, was the editor. At seven o’clock, the four members ascended to the clubroom, tied their badges round their heads, and took their seats with great solemnity. Meg, as the eldest, was Samuel Pickwick, Jo, being of a literary turn, Augustus Snodgrass, Beth, because she was round and rosy, Tracy Tupman, and Amy, who was always trying to do what she couldn’t, was Nathaniel Winkle. Pickwick, the president, read the paper, which was filled with original tales, poetry, local news, funny advertisements, and hints, in which they good-naturedly reminded each other of their faults and shortcomings.

Literary, Dickensian study and imaginative play merge here, and clearly joined in the Alcotts’ Concord home. It’s an enduringly inspiring scene, as Gerwig’s film demonstrates.

Listen: The Alcotts via Charles Ives

Movements in the Concord Sonata by Charles Ives are inspired by Emerson, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa Alcott (linked above), and Thoreau. This is a modernist masterpiece with roots in Transcendentalism. Here’s Philip Clarke at Gramophone:

Philosophy spurs dormant and unused brain cells into action. Language and modes of expression shift. And, looking closer at the score of the Concord Sonata, Ives’s engagement with the writings of the New England transcendental philosophers . . . has palpably bled into the fabric of his piece. In Ives’s Piano Sonata No 1, finished in 1910, unbarred streams of consciously extending, compressing, collapsing phrases already sound like a music impatient with its loveless marriage to notational convention. The Concord Sonata moves that impatience to the next level, the whole composition but a lucky escape away from fracturing at the structural seams.

This Week’s Ephemeral Library

On gender and Louisa May Alcott. “Collapsologie”: Constructing an Idea of How Things Fall Apart. Patrick Cockburn on blundering into war. Jim Lehrer’s Rules of Journalism. What Edith Wharton Knew, a Century Ago, About Women and Fame in America. Doomsday, Closer than Ever.

That’s all for this week. Onward!

Your OS close readers.




An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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