Elaine Cottler Showalter '63 took early retirement from Princeton in 2003 to embark on a literary history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000, the first of its kind. She edited the 2005 Library of America collection of Louisa May Alcott's trilogy: "...an acknowledgement that she is in the pantheon, that she is one of the great American writers and no longer will be pigeon-holed as a children's book writer or a writer for girls."
By ALICIA BESSETTE
“Where you have groups of women—consciously or unconsciously, they’re looking back to this,” says Elaine Cottler Showalter ’62.
Little Women, of course: the classic novel that recounts the coming-of-age adventures of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy; inspired two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys; and vaulted its author, Louise May Alcott, to instant fame.
The Library of America recently collected the March trilogy in one volume: Louisa May Alcott: Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys. Showalter, a scholar of Victorian literature, is the editor.
She calls the occasion a landmark. “To have Louisa May Alcott included in the Library of America is an acknowledgment that she is in the pantheon, that she is one of the great American women writers and no longer will be pigeon-holed as a children’s book writer or a writer for girls,” she says.
This edition is the first to fully annotate Alcott’s use of literary allusions in Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Showalter and an assistant, Briallen Hopper, a graduate student at Princeton, comprehensively tracked the allusions—“some of them very obscure, very local, very 19th century.” In creating a
chronology, Showalter and Hopper discovered that the many biographies of Louisa May Alcott clash, giving different dates for major events. They could not simply compile information from the biographies, but frequently found themselves cross- referencing. They hope their chronology proves to be definitive.
Showalter finds what she calls “March family values” timely, especially in light of popular reality television programs such as Nanny 911. She praises Louisa May Alcott’s parenting skills and sees Little Men and Jo’s Boys as handbooks for child-rearing. “I am just startled to see how ahead of her time Louisa May Alcott was in thinking about raising children, boys and girls,” she says. “There are so many wise words about discipline, boundaries, love, and the agendas children need to flourish. Louisa May Alcott, who never had children to raise of her own, somehow really understood in her heart what children needed.”
In Little Men, for example, students at the boarding school Jo runs with her husband, Friedrich Bhaer, are allowed to have a 15-minute pillow fight every Saturday night. But the remaining nights of the week they must go to bed properly and on time. “That’s a very contemporary view of dealing with children,” Showalter says. “It’s a kind of negotiation and a setting of boundaries for children.” Jo values nutrition, exercise, chores, and a few simple rules that are consistent and enforced.
Noting that Friedrich often expresses his emotions and is as involved as Jo with the children, Showalter praises Alcott for taking a very modern look at marriage and households. Showalter also credits Alcott for inventing a typical Mark Twain character before Mark Twain himself. Dan, from Little Men and Jo’s Boys, is “profoundly represented” in Alcott’s literature. “He’s an untamed character whom she gets completely. He’s that kind of American male adventurer, and Alcott honors him in every way.”
In fact, Alcott seems to understand—and write—men and boys remarkably well, and the question of why men and boys do not read Alcott’s works is often posed to Showalter. “There cannot be a book in the world that has been read more completely by one sex and less so than the other,” she says. “It is so formative of a book for women, and so completely left out for men. I hope the Library of America edition will repair that to some degree.” Sexism, plain and simple, counts for the discrepancy, she says—the same reason that Hawthorne, who wrote many stories for children, is remembered for his serious literature, while Alcott, who also wrote serious literature, is remembered primarily as a children’s writer.
“This kind of pigeon-holing is not over,” she says. “There are so many stereotypes and blinkers and blinders as people approach the subject of women writers. I think people are so stuck in some of these views about what they expect to see, and it’s very sad.”
Showalter took early retirement from Princeton in 2003 to embark on a literary history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000, the first of its kind. “No one has ever written a literary history of American women writers,” she says. “There is no such book. There is not even a bad, horrible one full of prejudices and mistakes. No one has ever attempted it,” probably because of the size of the country, the vast number of libraries, and the sheer volume of materials and catalogues.
Elaine Cottler Showalter ’62 and the March trilogy.
But the past 30 years have seen an explosion of scholarly work on American women writers. With a good percentage of primary texts back in print, excellent biographies, and collections of letters from many writers, Showalter has found the task possible. The Internet, too, has been an enormous asset, thanks to 19th-century magazines and newspapers being entirely available online. “So I can sit at home at my laptop and read the complete run of Petersons or Harper’s Weekly, and even some of the ones that Alcott published her sensational fiction in,” she says.
The 1860s, Showalter argues, is the American female renaissance, when American women’s writing reached its potential of excellence. Little Women, in 1868, drew on that moment of excitement and inspiration. “Jo, with all of her ambitions to be a Shakespeare—not just a writer, but a Shakespeare—comes out of this decade of real confidence and real literary ambition of American women,” Showalter says.
Her literary history argues that the work done by women at this time is not only of cultural, material, sociological, or historical importance, as many scholars proclaim, but great literature, just as weighty as Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, or other male writers of the period.
“One of the things I really hope to show is how ambitious these women writers were, how connected they were to each other, what a strong tradition there is,” Showalter says. “What you think about the great Concord sages—that they were all hanging out—this was true of the women as well. They also had very serious literary networks, both in the U.S. and abroad, and maintained them. They make fun of themselves, that’s the difference I think. They make fun of themselves in a way that I don’t quite think their male contemporaries did.”
Showalter hopes to bring Julia Ward Howe, in particular, to wide public attention as a great American woman writer.
Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), concerning American and British fiction about university professors from 1950 to the present, is another of Showalter’s projects. Bryn Mawr’s Taylor Hall is on the cover.
Showalter is professor emeritus of English and Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. She currently is the R. Stanton Avery Distinguished Fellow at California’s Huntington Library.
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