The Original Sex and the City

Reading about girls named Joo and boys named Laurie

It’s easy to relegate Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved story of the March sisters, to the fourth-grade-chick-lit shelf along with Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Baby Sitters’ Club. But 16 Harvard students and one history professor are singing Little Women’s merits as an informative and unique historical work.

This semester, visiting Professor in History Catherine Allgor is teaching a conference course entitled “The World of Little Women,” which uses Alcott’s novel as a primary text. Modifying a course she taught at Simmons College, Allgor hopes to use the course to discover to what use historians can put such novels.

“It’s such an interesting book as a primary source,” says Allgor. “Many think it’s just saccharine…but it touches on a number of vital historical topics—transcendentalism, domesticity, women’s issues, slavery, and the Civil War.”

The course also plans to study Louisa May Alcott herself. The daughter of an impoverished social outcast, Alcott has become as legendary as her books, although often mistakenly so. “Little Women is always represented as a typical American family, but neither the Marches nor the Alcotts were,” says Allgor.

Students in the course are equally effusive about the perspective Little Women gives to American history. “Little Women is a good way to look at history because it is so deeply imbedded in the social history and context, not only from the time that it was written, but also for youth today,” says David L. Blazar ’06.

Allgor and her troupe of little women (and men) applaud Harvard’s decision to teach more non-conventional history courses, focusing on cultural and women’s history and using diverse historical perspectives. “History is changing and Harvard’s changing with it,” says Allgor. “The challenge is to incorporate these splintered, alternative histories into the regular history curriculum.”

Little Women’s historical use aside, the class still gets sentimental over Jo’s love life and Beth’s death. Several students admitted to crying while re-reading the novel.

“I don’t think it’s possible for me to read Little Women 100 percent objectively because I have such an attachment to the book,” said Melissa R. Brewster ’04. “The book was a favorite of my grandmother and mother, and I hope to pass the book on to my own daughter.”

Historicism completely aside, the class overwhelmingly agrees that Laurie (the prototypical boy next door) would lose in a fight to Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. “I think Mr. Darcy would also win in a wet t-shirt contest,” said K. Allidah Muller ’05.

Naomi M. Ages ’05 even admits that Laura Ingalls Wilder would take Louisa in a fight. “Didn’t Laura Ingalls Wilder rough it on the prairie for her entire life? Killing chickens with her bare hands and stuff?”

Indeed she did. But historically, Louisa’s holding her own.