Contextualizing "Little Women"

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Contextualizing "Little Women"

Critical and historical writing on Alcott's classic novel

There’s no doubt of the lasting popularity of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Though there’s evidence that Alcott did not wish to write Little Women, the novel and its sequels have proven to withstand the test of time and then some. Today, you can visit her home in Concord, Massachusetts, see many cinematic adaptations and interpretations of the story, and revisit the story in modern and other written takes. Below, you’ll find a list that will also help you read up on the literary criticism of the work as well as the author’s life to contextualize the enduring and endearing work.

The Annotated Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, notes by John Matteson
Start at the beginning with this line-by-line take on Little Women with Louisa May Alcott scholar John Matteson. This edition allows readers to dive into the original text with a guiding hand. Illustrated with photographs, The Annotated Little Women helps bring the story to life over a century after its original publication. 

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux
Considered an “expert on American women writers,” Anne Boyd Rioux provides this in-depth look at Little Women, in which she describes the history of the book itself and how the context of Alcott’s life informed the novel, which is considered semi-autobiographical. Then, Rioux examines the famous novel in modern times, noting how it continues to be relevant to so many readers today. This complete discussion of the March sisters was met with high praise from various review journals and makes an excellent companion to the original work. 

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen
Emphasizing the massive success Alcott experienced, particularly as a woman writer, Harriet Reisen maps Alcott’s life in this biography. With information on her father’s educational leanings, the impact of the proximity of famous thought-leaders Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (among others) to the Alcott home, and details about her life and work during the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman behind Little Women is another fantastic piece to contextualize the semi-autobiography that is her best-known work.

Louisa on the Front Lines: Louisa May Alcott in the Civil War by Samantha Seiple
Although Little Women focuses, naturally, on its little women -- the four March sisters -- there’s no doubt of the importance of the March parents’ involvement in the Civil War on the Union side. Old enough to contribute herself, Alcott also assisted troops during the war with a brief stint as a nurse. This formative experience informed her writing of the novel, leaving Seiple to characterize that impact in this fascinating biography.

Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante
Listed as a best book of the year by NPR, Marmee & Louisa explores the influential relationship Louisa and her mother, Abigail May, shared. With an unusual opportunity to act as her own person given her husband’s liberal leanings in the nineteenth century, Abigail May led her daughter’s growth by example, which ultimately led to the spirited personality of the most outspoken and active March sister, Jo. Find out more about the women’s uncommon lives in this equally uncommon biography.

Bonus: The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott
Written when Alcott was just a teen, The Inheritance is purported to be the work which Jo wrote. Here, readers can experience the semi-autobiographical nature of Little Women themselves, taking note of the details revealed about Jo’s work and comparing them to the actual novel Alcott penned in 1849. The story of an orphan who comes into a great inheritance, this story is characteristic of O. Henry’s and Oscar Wilde’s tales -- full of domestic drama, hi-jinks, and unexpected endings to delight the reader.