Thursday, December 31, 2009

Memory and Documentary

Miss Alcott wrote this story book in 1886,

The year that Grandpa came to earth,

And so when someone picks

This great old-fashioned story to cherish and enjoy

It pleases Gramps because it makes

Him think he's still a boy.
—A. C. Phillips, fly-leaf dedication, Xmas 1945

When I was ten and a half years old I was delighted that my grandfather had read the book before he gave it to me (I saw later that he had only to size it up quickly). I'm sure I remember his verse correctly, though the book was among those I left, I thought for safety, with my younger sister, because they were inscribed, either with verses or in my father's hand, of which I had fewer examples. Her husband, when their children began to grow up, got rid of all the children's books and old pictures (and negatives).
Only a couple of evenings ago did I realize that Jo's Boys was so much the latest of Louisa May Alcott's books or that her sister May, the model for Amy March, had actually made her way as an artist. I always had been content simply to take my authors in their own works, not supposing that the characters and events corresponded exactly but believing that the author was really everything in the books that identified them as his or her own.
So, when I say that, to my surprise, I was pleasantly impressed by the PBS "American Masters" documentary on The Woman behind Little Women, it was because it did make the whole of her work hang together, for I was one of the girls (there were many I think) who read them over and over and well into my teens, until I did so almost secretively, knowing that I could be teased by my classmates and corrected by my teachers, to move on to Willa Cather, for example (and, indeed, I did like Cather and Edna Ferber and others, too). But I clung to the Alcott books, while relinquishing the likes of Pollyanna and assorted animal stories. Without knowing the word yet, I realized that I was turning to them for the subtext (not that I knew that word).
I had to ask myself, eventually, why? Today, the answer would be for her feminism, but I belong to an intermediate birth cohort who thought feminism was bloomers and the Vote and all taken care of. Not only Bryn Mawr college had been founded in 1885 but my own land-grant university, Berkeley, dated from 1868 and had graduated women from the beginning. Sorority girls who came to the university, we opined, only to earn an Mrs. were simply just the girls that had only cared to be popular in high school, not serious persons like oneself and other serious students, but the female counterparts to the males who went in for hazing and drinking (and at least once having panty raids). They weren't earning their own way. We spoke among ourselves of the Greek Playpen, meaning student government.
So I was thinking, night before last, whether it was Miss Alcott who had been formative in making me determined to pay any price to become what I wanted to be, to be great if I could, to be independent of family (my family) and of a husband, or whether in growing up with a similar need to take care of myself I had clung unusually long to her girls' books.
For, by the time I was twelve or thirteen (thinking, 8th grade), I realized that her plots were not realistic and that, at least, a lot was omitted. I don't mean only sex; I knew that its description was forbidden (remember that the code concerning double beds, kissing, handling and so on still ruled Hollywood, and that the very word 'homosexual' was not printed in Time or the other general periodicals), so that, even if Miss Alcott had wanted to include it, or knew how to include it, really, she couldn't: even my mother's Doubleday Dollar bodice busters did not quite cross that line. There was both wish fulfillment and evasion of adult complication in all of her books. But there it is: Rose in Bloom took young women seriously, and the bodice busters did not. Alcott seemed confusing on some points; both in Eight Cousins and in An Old-Fashioned Girl she evidently thought that it was only in the third quarter of the 19th century that girls in their teens became fashion plates, having been wildly free in their grandmothers' days! Those high school teachers who wanted us all to read Willa Cather, from whom we learned that it was pioneer girls, farm girls, as opposed to urban girls, who were free of corsets, ought to have had us reading Emerson and a bit of American intellectual history on the Transcendental movement as a whole.
As I said, in 90 minutes the PBS documentary really put things together quite satisfactorily. Not all TV documentaries are nearly so good.

P.S. Finding a copy of Jo's Boys, I have re-read parts of it. The nicest word for the writing is "unaffected". It is just plain awful. It helps a bit that she herself, in the preface, calls it the worst of her books. The earlier books are unaffected, yes, but this one, plainly, she didn't really want to write, and she had lost touch with all of her characters. It helps only a bit, likewise, that I sympathize with many of her opinions.