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I traveled all the way to Concord, Massachusetts, to read what survives of Louisa May Alcott’s original manuscript for Little Women: a dozen pages the color of corroded gold, so fragile they would crumble into pieces on contact with my 21st-century fingertips.
The chapter I held, sheathed in protective plastic, is the best in the book: Laurie asks Jo to marry him, Jo rejects him, and both poor kids drive themselves wild with despair in their efforts to persuade the other. Jo, at last, wins the argument. She’ll never marry, she says, not ever. In the original manuscript, Alcott’s next line of graphite-pencil chicken scratch reads:
“I know better!” broke in Laurie. “You think so now but there’ll come a time when you will
love care for somebody and you’ll love them him tremendously,”
I’ve spent much of the pandemic poring over Alcott’s letters, her journals, her better- and her lesser-known work. I’m writing a novel for Penguin Teen, a contemporary interpretation of Little Women. Though my book diverges from Alcott’s in important ways—Jo finds Laurie on the internet, for one, and not next door—I have no desire to send Alcott spinning in her grave. I want my story to honor her spirit, so I’ve done—I am doing—my research. And out of everything I’ve read, that straight line striking them has taught me the most.
She was defiant of restrictive gender roles, a woman to emulate. A proud spinster, she spurned marriage to pursue authorship. Is there truth in this narrative? Surely. But not the whole truth. My belief, borne out by archival research, is that Alcott did not identify with womanhood at all. What’s more, her famous spinsterhood may be due more to her desire for some unspeakable “them” than for literary acclaim.
Louisa May Alcott was born, she wrote, with “a boy’s spirit under [her] bib and tucker.” As a young child, she wrote in her journal, “I don’t care much for girls’ things. People think I am wild and queer.” Here, queer means “strange” or “unusual,” though I’ve heard Alcott’s sentiment echoed in many a modern transmasculine support group. Within her family, she was most often called “Lu,” “Lou,” or “Louy,” boyish twists on her feminine given name. Her father once referred to her as his “only son.” My own dad, by contrast, still talks around my transness; recently, reluctantly, probably owing to the arrival of a visible beard on my face, he stopped introducing me as his daughter, opting instead for “Have you met my kid?” The unconditional acceptance of one’s family is a rare thing for any queer or trans person. And yet, even in the long-ago antebellum period, Alcott had it.
In adulthood, her identification with manhood only grew stronger. “I long to be a man,” she wrote in a journal entry dating to the early days of the Civil War, and described herself as “a gentleman-at-large” and “a man of all work” in an 1859 letter to close friend Alfie Whitman. When a publisher asked her to write a “girls’ story,” Alcott hesitated, writing in an 1868 journal entry, “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters.” These sisters grew into celebrities when, later that year, thousands of young readers lapped up the auto-fictional Little Women. To Alcott’s great chagrin, her name became practically synonymous with womanhood.
Toward the end of her life, in 1884, Alcott had a conversation that was cheekily emphatic. “I am more than half-persuaded,” she told literary critic Louise Chandler Moulton, “that I am, by some freak of nature, a man’s soul put into a woman’s body.” Moulton asked Alcott why she felt that way, and breathlessly noted that Alcott’s “blue-gray eyes sparkled with laughter” as she answered: “‘Well, for one thing, because I have been in love in my life with ever so many pretty girls, and never once the least little bit with any man.’”
Alcott’s identification with manhood and her attraction to women existed simultaneously. She spoke about both with a remarkable frankness, even by today’s standards. Her interview with Moulton took place 39 years before sexologist Magnus Hirschfield coined the German word transsexualismus. Terms like homosexual and lesbian were a couple of decades from popular usage. And yet, even if Alcott didn’t have these words, she clearly knew their definitions. She passed this knowledge onto her audience, too. When Jo March jokes, “I just wish I could marry Meg myself,” or when she understands a boy’s habits “almost as well as if she had been one herself,” many readers feel as though a silent part of themselves has been spoken aloud. In April, when I summarized my beliefs about Alcott’s transness in a viral Twitter thread, the response from queer and trans readers was an overwhelming, “Oh. Of course.”
“It’s a complete cliché for a lesbian to claim Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as a key text in her self-understanding and relationship to the world,” writes scholar Elizabeth Freeman. “After all, who was Jo but our tomboy self, our ‘behind the mask’ self, our struggle against normative femininity?” The same is true for many a transmasculine person, myself included. I’ve read two retellings of Little Women, both for middle-grade audiences, that portray Jo as a lesbian. I’m grateful for these books, and I highly recommend them. But I haven’t yet seen an adaptation that gives Jo the gift of transition she’s spent 154 years begging for. So I’m writing my own. This is the project that’s brought me to Alcott’s journals, to her letters, to the archives of her family housed at Harvard’s Houghton Library, and, finally, to Concord, to those yellowing pages of parchment, to
Among close readers of the novel is Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 Little Women set me on my present path. Listen closely when Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie speaks to Saoirse Ronan’s Jo in that autumnal New England dreamscape at the film’s climax. “I think you’ll find someone and love them,” says this onscreen Laurie, “and you’ll live and die for them, because that’s your way.” There is no him, no eventual husband, in this dialogue; there is none in the film’s final act. Gerwig frames Jo’s marriage to a man as false, a concession to a misogynistic editor. In the closing shot, Jo is alone, clad in tie and jacket, watching as a printing press brings to life
his their her novel.
So much history in a single word, struck through. So much yearning. So much the author wouldn’t—couldn’t—resolve in her own lifetime. Alcott was not allowed to write the book she wanted to write. She wasn’t quite able to be the man she wanted to be. Perhaps this is why so many of us, myself included, feel the urge to adapt Little Women. Beneath the story’s staid surface lies a wealth of radical subtext. Who can resist the impulse to excavate Little Women, dig past the pious morality, and throw a little sunlight on the story Alcott was really telling?
 A “tucker” was a modesty garment worn around the neck and shoulders by women, girls, and very young boys, an early precursor to the bra. The phrase “best bib and tucker,” however, was a synonym for one’s Sunday best, and it could apply to clothing worn by anyone of any age.
Peyton Thomas is an author and a journalist based in Toronto. His debut novel Both Sides Now was named a young adult book to watch for by The New York Times, one of the top 10 young adult books of 2021 by The Globe and Mail, and one of the best Canadian young adult books of 2021 by the CBC. Thomas’s writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Billboard, and Pitchfork, among other publications. He was a 2016 Lambda Literary Fellow and a 2014 recipient of the Norma Epstein Foundation Award in Creative Writing. Thomas also hosts Jo's Boys, a podcast about Little Women and the novel's unsung queer and trans legacy.
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