RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Since Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" was first published 140 years ago, generations of girls have wished they were Jo, the second oldest of the four March sisters, whose trials and tribulations are celebrated in the book. Headstrong, independent and determined to be a writer and forge her own way in the world, Jo was a feminist before feminism was born.
In our latest installment of the series In Character, NPR's Lynn Neary considers the long-lasting influence of Jo March.
LYNN NEARY: For me, "Little Women" was more than just a book. It was a parallel world, because just like the March sisters, I came from a family of four girls. So Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy became templates against which to compare myself.
As the youngest, I couldn't possibly be Meg, the calm, collected oldest, but I was certainly no Amy - vain, spoiled, self-centered Amy. Good, kind-hearted, Beth appealed to me. But in the end, she dies.
So, of course, like every other girl who ever read "Little Women," I wanted to be Jo: creative, strong-minded and independent. But the competition was tough, because, of course, my sisters also saw themselves as Jo. And even now, the question nags. Which of us was the most like Jo?
To find out, I called on my friend Mary Campbell(ph), who grew up with us.
Ms. MARY CAMPBELL: It was Jean.
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NEARY: I knew you were going to say that.
Ms. CAMPBELL: Sorry, Lynn.
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NEARY: So here I am, a grown women, and once again, you're crushing my aspirations by telling me that I could never be Jo.
Ms. CAMPBELL: But there were bits of Jo in all of you.
NEARY: Bits of Jo. Small consolation, even if it is true. In my heart of hearts, I knew I could never be Jo. She was an ideal, not only the kind of woman I wanted to be - she was the kind of woman Louisa May Alcott wanted to be.
Ms. ANITA SILVEY (Children's Book Expert): She's very much a fantasy for Louisa May Alcott herself.
NEARY: Children's book expert Anita Silvey. "Little Women," says Silvey, was not Louisa May Alcott's idea. It was her publisher's. He wanted Alcott to write a girls' book. So Alcott drew on what she knew: her life with her sisters
Ms. SILVEY: And so she wrote their story, but she very much wrote their story as she would have liked it to have been. She really softens the hard edges of her life. She makes Jo a much more lovable, accepted character than Louisa May Alcott herself ever was.
NEARY: At a time when women's lives were restricted to hearth and home, says Silvey, Jo represented the possibility of another kind of life.
Ms. SILVEY: You know, such divergent people, like, say, Simone de Beauvoir said that she loved Jo because they shared the same horror of sewing and housekeeping and love of books. So Jo always makes you think that anything is possible, and anything is possible for a woman.
NEARY: But I would soon discover something of a backlash against this idealized vision of a woman, loving sister, good daughter, best friend, career woman and devoted wife. And who would guess that I would hear that backlash in a leafy, suburban neighborhood, where a mother-daughter book club meets?
Ms. VERA ASHWORTH(ph) (Book Club Member): This is the book that I found at the library that has the same illustrations as I read. I was so excited to find it.
NEARY: Vera Ashworth loved "Little Women" when she was just around the age of the girls in this book club. Twelve-year-old Mazey Deans(ph) is one of a new generation of Jo March fans.
Ms. MAZEY DEANS (Book Club Member): I loved the book, and I loved Jo. And I, like, I just loved her character and how she was rebellious, but she still was good.
NEARY: Mostly, the girls liked Jo, though they disagreed with her decision to turn down a marriage proposal from the rich and handsome Laurie, her friend and next-door neighbor. And they thought Professor Bhaer, the man she does marry, was too old for her. But they were impressed by Jo's lack of vanity, especially when she cut off her thick, chestnut hair, her one beauty, and sold the locks to get money to help her family.
Eleven-year-old Emily Martin thought Jo was a little reckless sometimes, but she admired her, anyway.
Ms. EMILY MARTIN (Book Club Member): She spoke her mind. She was the one who was like a boy, she tells herself. And she doesn't care what other people think. I really admire her and wish I could, like, live up to her standards and stuff.
NEARY: But there's the rub: Who could possibly live up to Jo's standards? Mandy Katz, one of the mothers in the group, said re-reading the novel made her sad.
Ms. MANDY KATZ (Book Club Member): It saddened me that I liked it so much when I was a kid, and I feel like it was a big influence on me in what we should aspire to. But in some ways, it was a pernicious influence, because the mother even tells them and the sisters tell each other how important it is to be liked by people. And I think that we spend way too much effort and energy as women trying to live up to that ideal.
NEARY: For Rachel Moon, returning to "Little Women" was a revelation. She realized that as a child she had liked the book because everybody told her she should.
Ms. RACHEL MOON (Book Club Member): And it was only reading it again that I realized that I didn't really like the book. I liked Jo the best of them, but I really didn't like Jo, either.
NEARY: Why not? What didn't you like about Jo?
Ms. MOON: That family was just too good, and I think part of the thing that bothered me when I was growing up was that it made me feel very guilty because I knew I couldn't be that good.
NEARY: Ironically for Mandy Katz, it was not the idealized Jo she wanted to read about as an adult. It was the real Louisa May Alcott, who, unlike her character, never married.
Ms. KATZ: Louisa May Alcott was the Jo that I would have liked to see, the one who stayed independent, who supported her family because she was a working woman who was able to earn off the, you know, the output of her mind. So yeah, I thought, felt that she had to betray a little bit of herself to write Jo in as yet another little woman who marries and looks up adoringly at the man who comes into her life.
NEARY: But Karen Deans argued that Jo deserves to be understood in the context of her time, when options were limited, and choosing not to be married meant the lonely existence of spinsterhood.
Ms. KAREN DEANS (Book Club Member): I don't think she wanted to be alone, and the whole old maid thing at 25 was kind of daunting. I mean, you think of putting it in its time - I mean, we can all look back where we are right now and sort of say oh, yeah, you know, they were so stifled. They were so submissive. And, you know, this was the time, and this is what they had to look for.
NEARY: And though Jo may have been an impossible ideal, she was, as Vera Ashworth pointed out, an inspiration.
Ms. ASHWORTH: I think for all of us who had fond memories of her, she inspired us to go on and do something and believe in ourselves.
NEARY: And as the girls in this book group were discovering Jo March for the first time, they were also watching Hillary Clinton's historic run for the presidency. Like so many other women her age, one of Hillary Clinton's favorite books is "Little Women." And I'd be willing to bet her favorite character is Jo. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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MONTAGNE: Go to npr.org if you'd like to see a clip of Wynona Ryder playing Jo March or read the first chapter of Louisa May Alcott's novel. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.