Historians, even cultural historians, don’t usually pay a lot of attention to children’s literature. I learned this the hard way when I was working on my own (and only, so far!) article for a publication. I searched high and low for someone else that had done something similiar–using an author’s work to see how change trickled down through society. One of the review comments was that I needed to find more scholarly back-up for my premise. They had no suggestions. And the article was ultimately published without any more scholarly back-up.
So, you’ll forgive me if I was a wee bit excited when Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book The Battle for Christmas mentions Little Women on multiple occasions. The 19th century was a time of extraordinary change in the way we celebrate Christmas. All those complaints we make now. . . too commerical, too much pressure with gifts, and where does the whole Christmas story figure into all of this. . . were first made in the 1830s. There’s much, much more to the story, and if you’re interested, well, read the book! Meanwhile, here’s how Little Women fits into things.
First, remember how Marmee gives each of the girls a different edition of the New Testament? This was part of a much larger trend–there was a whole genre of books that were published soley to be gift books, starting in the 1820s. By the 1840s, Bibles were also being published as gift books and there was much commentary about the array of choices. Nissenbaum has this to say about Marmee’s gifts: “The gift of these Bibles is an effective gesture of emotion intimacy . . . But at the same time they are part of a process by which Marmee is training her daughters to make informed decisions of their own in the confusing world of consumer preferences.” Point 1 for kidlit history!
Niseenbaum spends one chapter discussing charity and Christmas, comparing everything from Tiny Tim to the Children’s Aid Society (this is the group that started the whole Orphan Train thing). Nissenbaum uses Little Women again as an example of children learning the gift of charity at Christmas (think of them giving their Christmas breakfast away). Apparently, by the late 19th century folks were becoming increasingly concerned about the excess of Christmas and hoping to teach children how to give to those less fortunate. Nissenbaum writes “Beginning in about 1840, yet another kind of Christmas story began to appear. This kind of story was about children who were already perfect in the Romantic sense, children who did not need to be taught a lesson about selflessness because they were utterly unselfish by nature. At the very least, these children were willing, even eager, to sacrifice their own Christmas gifts to make other children (or even grown-up) happy.” Sound familiar? Point 2 for kidlit history!
Of course, Alcott has a bit of an advantage over other children’s authors. Between her famous father and being at the center of the Cocord intellectual circle, she’s bound to be on more historians’ radars. But one of my wishes is to have such references, even brief references, be less of a novelty. I would love to no longer get these thrills, but instead say “But of course!”