Project Humanities Themes
Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
Site Support Notebook
Building on the content of the Louisa May Alcott documentary and biography, the five required public programs in libraries are designed to touch upon several humanities themes:
The evolution of the concepts of women’s nature, social role, and rights as individuals
Louisa May Alcott rejected the Victorian concepts of woman’s sexuality, mental ability, and physical strength that constricted women’s lives. Although she was quite accepting of women who freely chose a domestic life, she also fiercely advocated the right of women to pursue whatever talents and interests made them happiest. Enlightened women of Louisa’s generation recognized that all people, male and female, were fully entitled to fundamental human and political rights. Alcott used her characters’ lives and thoughts as vehicles to exemplify and convey her egalitarian views.
The concept and the culture of the family in nineteenth-century America
During the nineteenth century, American families were essential building blocks of the nation, and the unity of the family was critical to the survival of the country. Perhaps in all families, the need for independence contends with the need for acceptance and connection. This conflict within the family, and especially among women in the family, is played out in Alcott’s fiction, as in her life, without resolution. While the prevailing social ideal held that happiness was found only in family, Louisa recognized that the family realistically could be a setting for inadequacy and disappointment. In her writing, she expressed the beautiful ideal of family as well as its many inherent contradictions.
The new nineteenth-century American literary milieu: mass culture, literacy, and the rise of the professional writer
Before Louisa May Alcott’s time, the writing and reading of literature was largely the non-profit pursuit of a small, educated class. But when Alcott came of age as a writer in her late twenties in the mid-nineteenth-century, the benefits of royalty payments, serial publication and copyright laws were being introduced. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, now widely-distributed magazines, journals and popular books were becoming catalysts for the creation of mass culture. Publishing could be a profitable business. Professional writers could make a living and even become rich and famous. A prime example of a writer making a living, Alcott became a one-woman literary business. Her successful career in literature was a tribute to her ability to gauge and satisfy the tastes of her audience, as well as her astuteness in exploiting the new publishing and mass market conditions of her time.