Stephen Lewis: Correct or hypercorrect? Let your ear be the judge

Stephen Lewis

In spite of my extensive acquaintance with American literature of the 19th century, I never read “Little Women.”

I knew it had been written by the daughter of Bronson Alcott, a member of the Concord circle headed by Emerson, and that it had maintained its popularity. My daughters tell me they had read the book.

When friends invited me to see the new film, I was happy to go and see what all the buzz was about. I viewed it as I would any film with no preconceptions. On the whole, I was not disappointed nor was I overly impressed. However, I did take note of one jarring omission, for which I can propose a simple remedy.

Comments by those familiar with the book testify to the film’s faithfulness to its source. I must assume, then, that Alcott chose to ignore the Civil War raging during the time frame of the story. Admittedly, the war is in the background, arguably way in the background, as the sisters focus on their domestic concerns.

With the sisters in this domestic bubble, the nation was convulsed in a life and death struggle in a war that cost 620,000 deaths and took away so many arms and legs that Mississippi allocated half of its budget to prosthetics, a war that split the country into two, that precipitated the end of slavery, and concluded with the first assassination of a president.

None of which, except for a couple of brief moments, appear in the story. Early in the film, Jo March expresses her desire to fight alongside her father, and in another scene Marmee on her way to visit her husband talks with a father going to his wounded son, having already lost two others. And there is a dream sequence when the family welcomes the father home, and finally there is the father’s actual presence at the end of the film.

Meanwhile, the sisters pursue their separate lives. Amy wants to be an artist. Beth plays the piano. Jo works at her writing. In the background for all but Beth are the romantic possibilities. There’s rich and seemingly spoiled Laurie of interest to both Amy and Jo while Meg finds her mate in the poor tutor. Central character Jo first rejects, then pursues Laurie before turning down and then desiring a relationship with Professor Bhaer, apparently a significant change from the book.

All these scenes, in spite of the understated idea of genteel poverty, seem to be occurring in a richly textured world of fabulous costumes and gorgeous scenery. No doubt that was Alcott’s intention. She was writing what today would be called women’s fiction, a popular 19th century genre about which Hawthorne famously complained when he talked about “those scribbling women” writers who were outselling him.

Alcott did merge her feminism, espoused by her somewhat older contemporary Margaret Fuller, into the domestic context of that genre.

But the Civil War? Not so much.

All of which is fine, and about which I have no complaint. But yet it jars against the reality of the time frame. I promised an easy fix. Here it is.

Alcott’s problem was to remove the father of the family. Had he been around he would have dominated the sisters’ lives.

Having him off in the war solves that issue but creates the jarring juxtaposition.

The fix? Move the time frame to before the war and kill him off, maybe with fictitious brain fever, a favorite of Victorian novelists, or the very real tuberculosis.

Do that, and everything else can remain the same.

And now maybe I should read the book.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include three mysteries set in northern Michigan. Contact stevelew@charter.net.

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