September 17, 2018

Anne Boyd Rioux

The enduring appeal of the March sisters
Interview by
In the loving and extensively researched Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Anne Boyd Rioux explores the history and enduring power of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women on the 150th anniversary of its publication. In a Q&A with Rioux, we asked her about her own relationship with Alcott’s novel, the March sisters and other female authors of the era. 
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In the loving and extensively researched Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Anne Boyd Rioux explores the history and enduring power of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women on the 150th anniversary of its publication. In a Q&A with Rioux, we asked her about her own relationship with Alcott’s novel, the March sisters and other female authors of the era. 

You first read Little Women in your 20s. What led you to the book at this time? How did it affect you upon first reading?
I first read Little Women in graduate school. It was assigned in a course on American literary realism as a kind of companion piece to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It meant a lot to me then to read about Jo’s literary ambitions and her conviction, as she says at the end of the book, that she believes she will write better books one day for her experiences as a wife and mother. When my daughter was born about 10 years later, I gave her the middle name Josephine, so obviously it really stayed with me.

When and why did Little Women become a subject of scholarship?
It was largely ignored by academics, who were mostly male, until feminist critics began to establish themselves in the 1970s. The first truly scholarly examination was in 1975 in Patricia Meyer Spacks’ The Female Imagination. Then Judith Fetterley’s essay “Little Women: Alcott’s Civil War,” published in the journal Feminist Studies in 1979, really showed what could be done in an extended analysis that applied the new tools of feminist criticism to Alcott’s novel. Ever since, the novel has proven to be a rich text for scholars using a wide variety of approaches, including Marxist criticism, cultural studies and queer theory.

Which March sister do you find the most relatable? 
Jo always meant the most to me. Her ambitions made her the kind of foremother I needed—someone who had grappled in the mid-19th century with the same things I was still grappling with in the late-20th century.

Why isn’t Little Women included on more teachers’ syllabi?
To put it quite simply, because it’s viewed as a book for girls. There is no room in today’s classrooms, (as far as I can tell from national surveys, what teachers across the county have told me, and my own knowledge about schools in my area) for books about girls—unless they focus on other issues such as civil rights or the Holocaust, as is the case with To Kill a Mockingbird and The Diary of Anne Frank. Teachers feel as if they have to teach books about boys because they believe boys won’t read about girls, but girls don’t mind reading about boys. As one school librarian told me, there is a lot of concern with making sure that students read books from the perspective of other cultures, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc., but no one appears to be concerned that boys aren’t reading books about the other half of the population. As I talk about in Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, there is plenty of evidence that boys can and will read Little Women and other books about girls if we help them overcome the stigma attached to all things female and feminine. And that is a larger project that will benefit boys and girls.

How have you seen your own students impacted as they study the novel at a collegiate level?
I’ve seen a range of responses. Initially, they are dismayed at its length (nearly 500 pages), and some wonder why we were reading a children’s book (until I remind them that Huck Finn is a children’s book, and it’s often taught in college literature courses). But once we start reading Little Women, they grow attached to the March sisters and Laurie and find themselves quite invested in the choices they are making as they mature. They realize that the book is dealing with some of the same life choices they are also facing, so it isn’t the children’s book they were expecting. Although I did have one male student who obviously refused to even buy the book, I’ve also found that many of the men are as affected by it as the female students. One man came into class very upset the day we read the part where Jo turns down Laurie. Another wrote in his final response that even though he was a 30-year-old man, he was so glad to have read the book and was sorry it was over.

In Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, you write about literary heroines who have followed in Jo March’s path. Is there one character in this tradition whom you find the most appealing?
Rory Gilmore, from the television series Gilmore Girls, is particularly interesting because we see her grow and develop over the course of about seven years. The summer my daughter spent binge-watching the series on Netflix, I realized that Rory was to her what Jo March has been for generations—she was a touchstone, a girl whose personality, experiences and life choices my daughter could identify with, measure herself against and learn from. And Rory’s choices aren’t always what we’d want them to be, just as Jo’s weren’t. But it’s the way that girls and young women see themselves reflected in these characters and how they judge and compare themselves to them that really interests me.

You’ve written extensively about Alcott’s contemporaries, including Constance Fenimore Woolson. Who are other female writers of the era you believe merit more recognition?
There are many, but I will mention particularly Fanny Fern, Elizabeth Stoddard, Sui Sin Far and Zitkala-Sa. And when we examine the writings of women from these earlier eras, we need to be able to evaluate them on their own terms as well as ours. Looking back and expecting women writers to conform to our contemporary ideas of what makes great writing is not going to help us understand the paths that earlier women writers have forged. Each of these writers is available in print with introductions or essays that can help put them into the context in which they lived and wrote. I highly recommend them!

Why do you believe it’s valuable to tell the stories of these 19th-century female writers?
In addition to the fact that if we forget the past we are in danger of repeating it, I’m also concerned that so many women writers today seem to feel, as Virginia Woolf did in the 1920s, that there isn’t much of a tradition behind them. Or they might not want to think of themselves as belonging to a separate tradition of female writers. But it’s important to recognize that they aren’t the first women writers to feel that way and to struggle to belong to an American literary tradition. There have been many who’ve been there before and whose legacies have been forgotten, ignored or suppressed. I see women writers today struggling with many of the same issues that early women writers did: wondering if they can combine their lives as writers with motherhood, trying to assert their value as writers and not only as women writers, pushing against male critics’ expectations, and resenting the bias they feel directed toward them as women writers. How can we move beyond these issues if we don’t recognize how long-standing they are and continually repress them as each new generation of women writers is largely forgotten?

What’s next for you?
I’ve actually become very interested in a forgotten woman writer from the 20th century: Kay Boyle. I have the same feeling when I read her stories as I did about Constance Fenimore Woolson’s—namely, why don’t I know her, why is she not read today, and what can I do about it? For now, I’d like to help get more of her incredible stories into print. She wrote about the rise of fascism in Europe, the German occupation of France and the aftermath of World War II in Germany. Her stories make you feel as if you are right there living the experience with her. I’ve never read anything like them.

Author photo by Jennifer Zdon.

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Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy

By Anne Boyd Rioux
ISBN 9780393254730

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