Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Girl: And In Conclusion

Today is December 7th. In addition to being the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it's the last day of the Cuci Mata discussion of An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. Fortunately, I am just about out of thoughts on this subject and ready to put it to rest. The bottom line is we're supposed to decide if we think this book stands the so-called test of time when it comes to race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Does it deserve classic status?

An Old-Fashioned Girl deals much more with gender and class than it does with race and ethnicity. The little it has to say about race is not positive. Early on, Polly, the protagonist whose values and behavior are superior to that of almost all the other characters, objects to a play she's been invited to for a number of reasons, one of them being that the players, whom she originally thought were supposed to be "sparkling creatures" from "fairy-land," "sang negro melodies, talked slang, and were a disgrace to the good old-fashioned elves whom she knew and loved so well." Of course, given that Alcott had that Transcendentalist thing going and the Transcendentalists were pro-abolition, maybe she really is just talking musical taste. I guess you can believe a people shouldn't be enslaved without loving their music. Today's young readers, however, living in a twenty-first century world where African American musicians are highly regarded and popular, may be mystified by the comment. The same is true of Alcott's depictions of Irish women servants. Most child readers will never have seen a servant, anyway, forget about one who arrived from Ireland so recently that she still speaks with a heavy accent.

Are there enough race and ethnicity problems to deny An Old Fashioned Girl classic status? Probably not.

I have to say that the same is true for gender and class. An Old-Fashioned Girl is all about gender and class. While I don't like the stereotypes here and would even go so far as to say that I find most of them uninteresting, I have to say that a lot of them appear in contemporary fiction. Maybe stereotypical, uninteresting teenage behavior makes a book timeless.

I would argue that An Old-Fashioned Girl isn't a timeless work of children's literature for other reasons--its awkward structure connecting what is essentially an adult book with an older children's story, its extremely judgmental and instructive attitude, and its romanticizing of poverty and women as wives and mothers. But that's not what we were asked to consider in making our judgment.

An Old-Fashioned Girl is a marvelous piece for an adult reader interested in children's fiction and women's history, though. It's been a fun blogging week.


Charlotte said...

shoot. I forgot about this one....

Gail Gauthier said...

I became kind of obsessed with the thing. Next year I hope to do some reading on Alcott.