The joy of rereading

I don’t remember when I first read Little Women.  I do know how I discovered it.  We had a small collection of classics that had been my aunts’–they were girls in the 1930s and 1940s, so they were really beautiful editions.  Little Women was in that collection (I think with illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, but that copy is at mom’s house), along with Heidi and Bambi and all sorts of other wonderful books.  I also remember loving the book–until Meg got married and the girls grew up and it got kind of mushy.  Eventually, I grew up a bit too, revisited it, and fell in love with the whole wonderful book.

But it has been many, many years since I’ve read Little Women.  Not that I’ve ignored Alcott in the last decade or so.  I’ve been to Orchard House twice–the only literary landmark I’ve visited twice.  I’ve read some of her other works, including Hospital Sketches.  I devoured the dual biography of Louisa and her father, Eden’s Outcasts.  But I haven’t actually read Little Women in at least 10 years.

Currently, I’m preparing a talk on the Civil War in children’s literature, so I simply had to reread it.  And I’m enjoying it so much more than I thought I would, and I can’t figure out why it’s been so long since I’ve reread it.

For the last several years (really, since the advent of goodreads and realizing exactly how many books are on my to-read list), I haven’t spent much time re-reading.  There are so many wonderful, unread books that I haven’t wanted to spend my limited reading time on old friends.  And yet, as I revisit the March family, I’m seeing so many things I’ve never seen before.  Jo is so imperfect and yet so real.  Amy isn’t nearly as annoying as I had previously thought.  Every girl struggles with her faith journey (I love the scene with Amy’s little corner for reflection and prayer).  Before, I had always been of the camp that believed Jo and Laurie should have ended up together.  Now, I agree with Marmee that it would have been a disastrous marriage.  Plus, I’m head over heels with Professor Bhaer!  Even though I know exactly what’s going to happen (we shall not speak of Beth’s death just yet), I’m eager to get back to the story and keep reading.

So friends, what old favorite have you neglected in recent years?  Is it time to renew your acquaintance?

A New Year’s Wish

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.

The Battle for ChristmasSo, 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!”

Ordinary things

Last week, I finished American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work by Susan Cheever.  It’s an odd little book, full of lots of literary gossip and fluff and not much substance.  But towards the end, there’s this passage:

“Reading Little Women again, now, I can see how profoundly the book influenced me–as a woman, but even more than that as writer.  Without intending to, Louisa May Alcott invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women, and to tell stories that are usually heard in kitchens or bedrooms.  She made literature out of the kind of conversations women have while doing the dishes together or taking care of their children.  It was in Little Women that I learned that domestic details can be the subject of art, that small things in a woman’s life–cooking, the trimming of a dress or hat, quiet talk–can be just as important a subject as a great whale or scarlet letter.  Little Women gave my generation of women permission to write about our daily lives; in many ways, even though it’s a novel, in tone an dvoice it is the percursor of the modern memoir–the book that gives voice to people who have traditionally kept quiet.  In fact, the foundation of the American memoir can be found in Alcott’s masterpiece and in that of her friend Henry David Thoreau.  Alcott’s greatest work was so powerful because it was about ordinary things–I think that’s why it felt so ordinary even as she wrote it.  She transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature.  Without even meaning to, Alcott exaulted the everyday in women’s lives and gave it greatness.”  p. 191-192

Little Women has been a part of my life for a very long time.  I think I first read it around the age of 8 (post Little House, but probably pre-Anne).  I only made it through the first half.  Once Meg got married, I decided it was icky with all that romantic stuff and stopped reading.  A few years later, I picked it up again and it was no longer icky.

I think I’ve always known it was an important book, and my admiration for Alcott and her work has only grown in recent years.  But I don’t think I’ve ever thought of this book as the forerunner for my favorite genre of fiction.  Because when I’m not reading kidlit, I’m usually reading fiction about women and their lives.  The books published by Persephone leap to mind, along with a lot of others.

But it does make me wonder: without Alcott, would there have been a Lovelace or Wilder or Taylor or Enright?  What do you think?

Idol or friend?

As a kid, my focus was always on the stories.  Eventually, I figured out that some of my favorite authors had careers beyond the books I loved so much.  Or that their lives were very different from what I imagined based on their novels.  But no matter what, they were my literary idols.

My love for L. M. Montgomery was growing just as the scholarship was taking off.  Volume 1 of the journals had been published in 1985, and I received my copy in 1993 (I was 13.  Yes, I’ve been a nerd for a very long time).  I think by then I had read a biography or two, so knew that Montgomery’s life wasn’t all sweetness and light.  But the journals were still a bit of a shock.  Part of me admired her more–there are few hints of the darkness in her novels.  But another part of me realized that I probably wouldn’t have been friends with her if our paths had happened to cross.  You know, if I lived in Canada 100 years ago. . .

I’m not saying that I feel a need to be a kindred spirit with the writers I love.  But some of these writers feel so familiar and cozy, even though I’ve only “met” this one side of their life or career.  I want to know more, but it always changes the relationship a bit.

File:Louisa May Alcott.jpgI hadn’t realized that Louisa May Alcott did anything besides write children’s novels until college.  And suddenly, she was in my American Lit class and I was reading a story called “Transcendental Wild Oats.”  In the last couple of years, I’ve read a lot more of her other writing–Hospital Sketches, a few other essays, etc.  My admiration for her has only grown.  Personally, I don’t think any of Alcott’s children’s books can be fully appreciated by the average fan without taking her extraordinary life story into account.  But I don’t think this is necessarily true of Montgomery.  Sure, it’s important for scholars to dissect these intricacies of life and fiction, but I’m not sure how much more I personally get out of her stories by knowing the larger context of Montgomery’s life.

Elizabeth EnrightOne of the great things about this blog for me personally is that it is forcing me (well, force may be a bit strong of a word) to re-read books or try ones that have been on The List for a long time.  I’ve mentioned several times that I am completely head over heels in love with Elizabeth Enright and the Melendy family.  A friend who is also on the Elizabeth Enright bandwagon offered to lend me Doublefields, a combination memoir/short story collection by Enright.

I was almost nervous when I picked it up.  My love of her is new and strong–I’ve now read most of her kidlit (Thimble Summer  and all the Melendy books) and really, really liked them.  But what if that didn’t transfer to the rest of the work?  Would I be disappointed?

Umm, no.  The memoir section was fabulous. I saw traces of the Melendys in her life, and her personality really seemed to come through.  I could be completely wrong, but I think the two of us would have a great afternoon together, talking and laughing.  I think I could have been friends with Elizabeth Enright.  We have the same philosophies about kids.  Her childhood was different than most, but not heartbreaking like Montgomery’s.  She’s someone I would love to have gotten to know.

I don’t feel that way about all of the authors I love.  Most of them, I am perfectly content to love them from afar.  But, if time were not a limitation, I would be writing lots and lots of fan letters to Enright, begging her to come to my house for tea or wine.  My fan letters to Montgomery and Alcott would be very, very different.  Plenty of admiration, but not offerings of friendship.

Are there authors you wish you could be friends with?  Or is this my own strange fantasy world?

Wanting to know more. . .

A big part of the intrigue with kidlit history is the idea that there’s always more to discover.  These favorite stories are based on something within the author’s life, which should make the biographer or historian tingle with anticipation.  But, because these were written for children, these authors are rarely given the same consideration that writers for adults receive.  It can be really hard to find more than basic biographical stats on many of these authors.  In my mind, there are different levels of biography–the very basics (usually just a few paragraphs), a full length study of the subject’s life with little to no historical context, and then a full, rich study of the subject’s life and times.  It’s become social history, not just biography.  Isn’t the saying “no man is an island”?  But it seems to me that many biographies (of anyone, not just writers) treat their subject as if that individual was only affected by their own actions and perhaps a few family members. 

I have yet to find a decent biography on Frances Hodgson Burnett, though based on the little bit I do know, it’s a great story.  There are lots of biographies on Laura Ingalls Wilder, but I’m not sure any of them have jumped to that final level of biography.  I’ve not seen anything significant on Sydney Taylor or Elizabeth Enright.  And though work has been done on Maud Hart Lovelace, none of it is what I would call biography.  Each of the recent non-fiction books focus on one part of her life, not the whole story.  And while Sharla Whale’s Betsy-Tacy Comanion is a commendable piece of research, it’s not even close to a biography.  The snarky part of me thinks it’s really just a collection of BT trivia.

Two exceptions for this lack of scholarly consideration for children’s authors are Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery.  In recent years, Alcott has finally become know for being more than just the writer of Little Women, but also part of one of the most interesting and intellectually well-connected families of the 19th century.  Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson is a stunning dual biography of Alcott and her father Bronson.  Bronson was a fascinating though frustrating man.  I’ve long been fascinated by how much happened in Concord in the mid-19th century, and this book help explains how it became such an intellectual hot spot.  This week, PBS’s series, American Masters, is featuring Alcott.  In Dallas, it’s airing on December 28 at 8 p.m.  No idea on where this particular documentary falls in the biography spectrum, but it’s probably worth a look, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Alcott’s work beyond Little Women.

Currently, I’m in the middle of one of the best biographies I’ve read in quite some time: Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio.  Montgomery scholars have a truly amazing cache of primary sources.  LMM kept a journal for most of her life (and constantly recopied and revised it).  They began publishing the volumes in the mid 1980s–I received my copy of Vol. 1 back in 1993.  (I was 14–yep, the nerdiness goes way back!)  Many, many biographies have been written.  Books of scholarly essays have been published.  Books of her letters have been published.  When I heard about the new biography, I figured I would probably read it eventually, but it wasn’t a huge priority.  After all, I’ve read more than a few biographies of LMM.  I’ve read 3 volumes of her journals.  I felt like there wasn’t too much more to learn.  But then I had a conversation with another LMM fan/scholar at a convention about the other Maud.  Kate told me it was the definitive biography, a must-read, and fabulous.  It took me a few months, but I finally followed her advice.  And now, I can barely put it down.

Rubio’s research is astounding.  She sets LMM’s life in context, her writing in context, and has remarkable insights into why LMM did what she did.  I have newfound respect for LMM’s grandmother.  I have more sympathy for her husband.  And I cannot wait to re-read all of LMM’s novels.  This is the kind of biography that more writers of children’s literature deserve.  Again, Rubio has it easier than many with the wealth of material.  However, she also gives LMM the respect she deserves–and the place she deserves in our society.

Frankly, I’m tired of these author’s stories being discounted because they only write for children.  Aren’t children the most important audience?  These stories have become a part of our lives and our psyches, because we read them when we were young.  They have shaped generations of young minds.  Isn’t it time we know more about what shaped them?

Excuse me, I have to get back to my book.

PS  If I’m missing any key and wonderful biographies of kidlit history authors, please let me know!

The best presents. . .

I admit it–my favorite part of Christmas just might be presents.  And it’s not so much the receiving (though don’t get me wrong–I do love receiving), but the giving.  It’s the joy in finding just the right thing, something that is more than the sum of its parts, and seeing the reaction when it hits its mark.

Below, in no particular order, are some of my very favorite gift-giving incidents in kidlit history.  Most of them occur around Christmas, but not all of them.  Most of these scenes I first read as a child, and they certainly stuck in my head–particularly the first one. . .

Puffed Sleeves!  Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.  Anne finally has a group of friends, but Matthew notices there’s something different between her and her friends: she’s not dressed like the other girls.  So, he does his very best to get her a fashionable dress for Christmas, first braving the store (and winding up with rakes and brown sugar) and then enlisting the help of Rachel Lynde.  And Anne’s reaction is wonderful to see:  “Breakfast seems so commonplace at such an exciting moment.  I’d rather feast my eyes on that dress.  I’m so glad that puffed sleeves are still fashionable.  It did seem to me that I’d never get over it if they went out before I had a dress with them.”

Why I love this scene:  First, what girl hasn’t wanted something fashionable, only to be denied because it’s not “practical”?  And then, lovely Matthew comes along and does it anyway.  Anne has been so lonely for so long, and Matthew’s gift is so thoughtful.  She was already a part of the family, but this is the first time she gets a gift where others are thinking of what she wants.  Quite a change for an orphan!  And yes, part of me still wants a dress with puffed sleeves.

The feast in A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett).  Though not a Christmas gift, I can’t help but include it.  Sara and Becky are in deep trouble, and the Magic won’t save them.  But they awaken one morning and the attic has been transformed: “In the grate there was a glowing, blazing fire; on the hob was a little brass kettle hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a thick, warm crimon rug; before the fire a folding chair, unfolded, and with cushions on it; by the chair a small white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a teapot; on the bed were new warm coverings and a satin-covered down quilt; at the foot a curius wadded silk robe, a pair of quilted slipper and some books.  The room of her dream seemed changed into fairyland . . . ‘It does not–melt away.'”

Why I love this scene: On the magical level, this is right at the top.  Yummy food and beautiful things!  I am amazed that neither she nor Becky heard a thing, but then, I guess that’s part of the magic.  Another moment where an orphan realizes she’s not alone.  Plus, the makeover of the attic sounds delightful–it’s like an early home makeover show.

Jo’s HairLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Marmee must rush off to tend to their sick father.  Money is tight, and so Jo sells her hair.  She insists it was the best thing to do in the situation, but does confess: “I felt queer when I saw the dear old hair laid out on the table and felt only the short, rough ends on my head.  It almost seemed as if I’d an arm or a leg off.  The woman saw me look at it, and picked out a long lock for me to keep.  I’ll give it to you, Marmee, just to remember past glories by; for a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again.”

Why I love this scene:  Yes, Jo makes a big sacrifice for her family.  But the real reason I love this scene is the series of exclamations from her family when she reveals her shorn head.  Best line in the book: “Oh Jo, how could you?  Your one beauty!”  Makes me laugh every time.  And could anyone but a sister get away with that?

The Brass BowlHeaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace.  Mrs. Ray falls in love with a brass bowl and insists that her husband buy it for her.  Mr. Ray keeps insisting that he would never give her such a gift.  The entire family visits the brass bowl and insists that it’s right for Mrs. Ray.  On Christmas Eve, he caves, but the bowl is gone.  Panic sets in.  But on Christmas morning, the brass bowl is there–because Mrs. Ray bought it for herself!

Why I love this scene:  There’s almost a domino effect as each family member becomes convinced that the Brass Bowl is the Perfect Gift.  But Mr. Ray stands strong–until that last minute Christmas Eve panic sets in.  I just love how Mrs. Ray takes matters into her own hands.  It’s a scene that makes me giggle and rings oh so true.  On this reread, I also couldn’t help but love the following lines:   “‘I have no intention of buying it,’ Mr. Ray answered.  ‘I’m going to gie you a personal present, not a house present.’  ‘I love this new house so much that it’s practically me.”  My sentiments exactly, Mrs. Ray.

As You Like It Besty and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace.  “It was proper for a boy to give a girl only books, flowers, or candy.  It would be proper for Betsy to give Joe nothing more.”  And so she purchases the red, limp-leather edition of As You Like It.  Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth.  Tony asks Betsy to the New Year’s Eve dance first, and Betsy and Joe fight over it: “Either you’re my girl or you’re not.”  He tosses her present at her.  She opens it and realizes it is the exact same edition of As You Like It.  “Inside he had written ‘We’ll fleet the time carelessly as the did in the golden world.’ But Betsy knew he had written that before he knew that she was going to the dance with Tony.  She put her face into her hands and began to cry.”

Why I love this scene:  Well, it’s certainly not because it’s as happy and joyful as some of the other gift giving scenes.  But for an old-fashioned romantic like me?  Well, it’s perfect.  Not quite on the level of the O. Henry story, “Gift of the Magi,” it still has to mean something extra special to give the exact same present to each other.  If nothing else, it’s another sign that Betsy and Joe are made for each other.

Trinket’s First Tree  Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer.  Lucinda realizes that her little friend Trinket has never had a Christmas tree.  And one can’t just have a tree–but a party and presents too.  So she works extra hard to earn money in December and invites the whole neighborhood to surprise Trinket.  She is completely captivated.  “There is always one Christmas that belongs to you more than any other–belongs by right of festival and those secret feelings that are never spoken aloud.  This Christmas belonged to Lucinda in that way, and I think it belonged to many of her friends.”

Why I love this scene:  Lucinda is only 10, and it may be a bit hard to believe that she’s so thoughtful.  But I love the way the ornaments are almost all handmade and everyone joins in.  And it’s so easy to imagine the look on Trinket’s face when she first sees the tree.  What magic!  It’s not so much the gift, but the experience–they’ve made a wonderful memory.

Mr. Edwards as Santa Claus Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  No snow and a practically flooding creek means that Santa won’t be able to get to the Ingalls family in time for Christmas.  Luckily, Mr. Edwards meets Santa in Independence and is able to bring the gifts after all.

Why I love this scene:  First, it’s really funny.  When you read again as an adult, you sense the worry that Ma and Pa have that Christmas won’t happen as planned for his kids.  And when Mr. Edwards arrives, the story is told with plenty of ( )s and interjections and questions–exactly the kind of questions any kid would ask about Santa.  For example, when Mr. Edwards says he meets Santa, Laura asks: “‘In the daytime?’ She hadn’t thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime.  No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.”  Giggle.  The presents themselves are simple–a tin cup, peppermint candy, a heart-shaped cake, and a penny.  “Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.  There had never been such a Christmas.”  What puts this tale over the top for me though is Mr. Edwards–that man knows how to tell a story and keep kids believing in Santa.

Originally, I set out to find 10, but at 7, I ran out of steam.  Do you have a favorite scene that I’ve left out?  What is the greatest kidlit history gift of all time?

Christmas won’t be Christmas. . .

This Christmas will be quite a bit smaller than usual.  Of course, with the economy still in the doldrums, I don’t think I’m alone in this.  But it’s not like things are quite to the point of Jo’s moan: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!”

Looking back at kidlit history, there are plenty of bleak Christmases–or Christmases that would certianly be bleak by modern standards.  Marmee has encouraged her children to not buy presents because “it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army.”  Of course, it being Little Women,  after their initial conversations about spending money on themselves, they decide to buy gifts for Marmee.  And then they sacrifice further by giving up their breakfast.  I do not think I am quite this good.  They are rewarded, of course, for their goodness with an evening feast from Mr. Laurence.  After all, this is Little Women.

I’ve always been interested in when traditions get started and how quickly they take hold for the vast majority.  Though children’s literature isn’t perhaps the best way to judge these transitions, it is one way to trace their paths into our daily lives.  Little Women was published in 1868.  Two classic Christmas traditions are casually mentioned–stockings (mainly, that they weren’t hanging up them up that year) and Santa Claus (a possible culprit for the Christmas feast?).

Based on some quick research, it appears that the stocking tradition came to America through European immigrants.  The stocking story is part of the myth of St. Nicholas.  Clement C. Moore first publshed A Visit From S.t Nicholas back in 1823–so stockings were certainly being hung by the chimney with care in at least a few American homes.  This poem, and later the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast, helped cement our ideas about St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus.

The Santa Claus refeFile:Santa Claus 1863 Harpers.pngrence confused me a bit more.  For the holiday event at the Village, kids meet St. Nicholas, in part because that particular name was more common in the 19th century.  So what’s Santa doing in Little Women in 1868?  Nast first drew the image that we now recognize as Santa–plump and bearded–in 1863.  

In the coming years, he refined that image.    My guess is that the 1860s were indeed a time of transition from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus.  I do wonder what picture was in the girls’ head when they gave credit to Santa.  Was he in red or green?  Tall and skinny or short and plump?  Perhaps being on the East Coast made that transition faster for Alcott.

What other Christmas traditions have you noticed in your reading?  Have any of them surprised you?