Atlanta’s Little Women Collaborative Altered Book Project
A teaser: Which March sister does Louisa May Alcott refer to as Atlanta? (i.e., the huntress and sprinter in Greek mythology who agreed to marry any man who could outrun her, spearing those who couldn’t)***
This year is the sesquicentennial of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), a book that is regarded, on the one hand, as a heart-warming tale of love, nuclear family, small-town community, and wholesome Christian goodness and a perfect read for the holiday season, or, on the other hand, as a pioneering work of distinct and independent female characters challenging the feminine norms of Civil War era society that continues to inspire girls in our own time. And a gamut in between. Sesquicentennial discussions and celebrations are happening all around the world, from the Alcott epicenter at Orchard House in Concord, MA, all the way to the Southern Hemisphere (see this compelling interview), from the pages of USA Today to those of the Paris Review. A sign the of book’s lasting popularity is that at the end of October Little Women was voted #8 of 100 best-loved American novels in The Great American Read. And take note: As part of this year’s festivities, high school students still have a couple of more weeks to submit to the Orchard House’s Louisa May Alcott short story contest (deadline November 29).
Little Women is more complicated and nuanced than it may at first seem. One reason is that Louisa May had to satisfy literary conventions while expressing the integrity of her own narrative, so many of the “radical” touches peek through the story of an idealized family. As is documented in recent works of the actual Alcott family, such as Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Louisa needed to publish the novel in order to support her poverty-stricken family. Getting published entailed compromises such as making the heroine, Jo, marry, despite Louisa’s own wishes that she remain a “literary spinster” like herself. Still, the book brims with female creative expression in the form of poems, stories, letters, a family newspaper, and play-acting. It is the story of four sisters, all of whom struggle with their own vanities: Meg, the oldest and prettiest, who dreams of luxury; Jo, the second oldest, the literary tomboy, who wants to be rich and famous and sells trashy stories under a pseudonym; Beth, frail, timid and self-sacrificing who retreats from school; and Amy, the youngest, who has as much pretension as talent. They also learn to sacrifice those vanities for a greater good: Meg marries a poor accountant, giving up the possibility for riches; Jo burns her trashy stories and turns to loftier pursuits; Beth makes rounds to sick and needy neighbors; Amy sacrifices credit for her art and status to a jealous rival. I think the characters inspire girls today to chart paths that are both true to themselves and also generous to something larger than themselves.
In Atlanta, Little Women has long been on the radar of artist Jesse Harris, founder of The Little Women Collaborative Altered Book Project. Jesse Harris and her identical twin sister Leslie were born in Leominster, Massachusetts, only 21 miles from the Alcott’s home, Orchard House, in Concord. The family moved to Atlanta when the twins were 2 years old: “It was like going to the wild west.” The twins acquired and shared (as they shared everything) a copy of Little Women at about age 10. As a baby boomer growing up in an era of restrictions, Jesse had a strong identification with Jo. “It was her nonconformity and her passion for being creative,” she says. “It wasn’t something that I could show. I didn’t find much of an authentic voice until my 20s.” She also identified with the March sisters’ creative collaboration in putting on plays and writing family newspapers; she and her sister similarly collaborated. Little Women was one of the only childhood books that Jesse took with her when she grew up and left home.
Here Jesse reads a passage from Chapter 1 of Little Women that shows what she admires about Jo:
In 2007, while moving her parents from the family home into a condominium, Jesse found a childhood drawing of herself and her sister Leslie intensely looking at each other. The drawing stopped where their dresses ended and so the girls didn’t have legs, which she took as highly symbolic. She also found a story called “The Adventure of the Twins.” She recognized them as collaborative childhood works but couldn’t remember many other details. At that time, she said, her memories of sisterhood fused with Little Women and “it seemed like I had to do something creative from the book.” The subject of the work was sisterhood and, specifically, the “push-pull of wanting to merge and be ‘the twins’ and the ripping apart and needing to be the self.”
Jesse started with a series of art collages on the subject. Then, working instinctively rather than in any premeditated way, in about 2014 she started physically altering her childhood edition of Little Women. “I love books but I always felt that books were fair game to take pages out of,” she noted. “I took pages out of encyclopedias to make collages.” She described the process of altering Little Women as a process of relating to it. Jesse’s altered book contribution, she said, was “a story of sisters fighting over body parts. It was fighting for space. It was fighting to exist separately.”
Jesse showed the fledgling work to friend HP Wellborn, who immediately wanted to contribute to the section of the book where Jo travels to New York City; HP had similarly traveled to New York while her sister simultaneously returned home to be the traditional daughter for her family in Mississippi. Other friends wanted to join the effort with more stories of sisterhood, and The Little Women Collaborative Altered Book Project was born. A core of 15 women contributed to the book and created a FaceBook page that drew additional women. Rules were simple – you could tear out, deface, burn pages, but could destroy the book as a whole or interfere with anyone else’s work. Ultimately 25 women joined the project, all but two from Atlanta, and their work is displayed online. As Jesse commented, “All these authors identified and felt like it [Little Women] gave them permission to lead a creative life. Everyone who got involved took the story where their story went. They found their place in the book that resonated with their story.” Jesse noted that Little Women “feels very relevant today, as women’s voices are getting squashed again.”
The project culminated at a showing of the work at the Sycamore Place Gallery on October 5-7, 2018. Large foam-backed photos of the art from the altered book were hung around the walls of the gallery, with a biography of each contributor.
Louisa May Alcott herself, played by Cathy Kaemmerlen, made appearances throughout the weekend. Kaemmerlen creates one-person shows about literary figures and performs them at schools through her business Tattling Tales Productions. She is also one of the altered book contributors. Cathy describes how honored she was to play Alcott: “She was truly a woman living in a transitional or pre-transitional period in the lives of women. She was one of the first recognized serious female writers. She also was a first as a woman learning to stand on her own and support herself and her family without the benefit of a spouse. I think she probably was a bit miffed over being labelled a ‘children’s author’ but I think she relished the idea of filling a much-needed niche–writing about the coming of age for young women pushing through the awkward transition between childhood and womanhood.”
It was a weekend of viewing the art, meeting old friends, and telling sister stories. There were stories about adopted sisters, severely disabled sisters, sisters who nursed each other in sickness, drug addict sisters, sisters who rejected their sisters’ lesbianism, sisters whose sisters slept with their husbands, women who had no sisters but had acquired symbolic sisters, and more. Entertainment and talks were organized by Lesly Fredman.
During a session on how the altered book was created, Robey Tapp talked about binding the book, Ruth Schowalter about taking the photographs, Jesse Harris about the genesis and trajectory of the project, H.P. Wellborn about working with the printer to create the hanging images, and Teresa Crowder about editing the text.
At the end of the weekend visitors left the gallery with a sense of the many meanings of sisterhood. And also that Little Women continues to be alive and well today.
***Jo, of course! Upon hearing that her older sister Meg had a secret admirer, Jo became so distressed that her male friend Laurie suggested they race:
“’Race down this hill with me, and you’ll be all right,’ suggested Laurie. / No one was in sight; the smooth road sloped invitingly before her, and, finding the temptation irresistible, Jo darted away, soon leaving hat and comb behind her, and scattering hair-pins as she ran. Laurie reached the goal first, and was quite satisfied with the success of his treatment; for his Atlanta came panting up with flying hair, bright eyes, ruddy cheeks, and no signs of dissatisfaction in her face.” (Ch. 14, Secrets).
No wonder, with the reference to Atlanta, readers expected Jo to marry Laurie…and many were sorely disappointed.