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Our fascination with Louisa May Alcott's enduring classic "Little Women"

The enduring classic "Little Women"
The enduring classic "Little Women" 07:50

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, in a house in Concord, Massachusetts, Louisa May Alcott wrote one of the most beloved books in American literature, "I don't remember ever not knowing what 'Little Women' was," said Greta Gerwig. "It was read to me, and then I read it to myself when I was old enough."

For the two-time Oscar-nominee, the house itself was inspiration for her new movie, "Little Women" which she wrote and directed. She told correspondent Rita Braver, "Being here, and actually being in the presence of her room and her books and her things she touched, it's incredibly meaningful, and it made me feel like I could make her movie."

The film, with an all-star cast (including Meryl Streep and Laura Dern), is the story of the four March sisters growing up in New England during Civil War times. It's based on Alcott and her own sisters.

From left: Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and Laura Dern in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women."  Sony Pictures

Amy March, the youngest, is an aspiring artist (as was May Alcott).

Shy Beth (like Lizzie Alcott) loves music.

Meg is the oldest and the first to marry (as was Anna Alcott).

And then there's Jo, the main character – a brash, ambitious and funny tomboy who, like Louisa May Alcott, is determined to become a famous writer.

"Jo March was such a beacon for so many women of so many different generations," said Gerwig. "Everyone from Simone de Beauvoir to Patti Smith to J.K. Rowling to me, we loved Jo March because she wanted to be bigger than the world would allow her to be."

The Alcott family was poor, moving 20 times before scraping enough money together to buy their first real home in 1857. Alcott's father Bronson, a schoolmaster, fixed it up, and painted it brown. Gerwig said, "He wanted a brown house because he wanted it to melt into the natural world."

Writer-director Greta Gerwig with correspondent Rita Braver outside Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House, in Concord, Mass.  CBS News

"And filled with warmth and love," said Braver.

"Yes, and also just run by women," Gerwig laughed. "When you're in the house and you see all the paintings on the wall and you see the costumes for their plays and you see everything, you think it was a magical fairyland for them. And to think of girls in the 19th century being able to explore all of those artistic pursuits with some amount of seriousness, it takes a special mother and father to create that kind of utopia."

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888).  CBS News

The girls would present plays in the living room, for an audience of family friends. "Just down the road was Mr. Alcott's closest friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet-essayist," said Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House. "and Henry David Thoreau, who would take the girls hiking around Walden Pond."

The house has attracted visitors since adoring readers knocked on the door in the 1800s, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous author.

In the room where Louisa wrote "Little Women" is a desk built especially for her. At that time, said Turnquist, "It was considered improper for a woman to have a desk of her own."

"Seriously?" said Braver.

"Yes, seriously. First of all, culturally you should be cooking, you should be cleaning. The Alcotts thought that was ridiculous.  Mr. Alcott built Louisa this desk, which was a tremendous gift to her."

A desk of her own: Where Louisa May Alcott wrote "Little Women." CBS News

Only two chapters of the original "Little Women" manuscript remain, kept at the Concord Free Public Library. Why those two chapter?  "Well, we know because she wrote in her hand on the back of one of these, 'Saved by Mother's desire,'" said University of New Orleans Professor Ann Boyd Rioux. "These apparently were her favorite chapters."

W.W. Norton

But Rioux said Alcott got her start writing sensational stories to help support her family. She published them under a pen name, A.M. Barnard.  "She found a lucrative market for writing that was full of sex and intrigue and murder and drug use," Rioux said. "She was embarrassed; she didn't want people outside of her family to know. She especially didn't want Ralph Waldo Emerson to know!"

Alcott gradually began publishing under her own name, and then "Little Women" took off beyond her wildest expectations:

"It wasn't just little girls reading the book; everybody was reading it, so, not just women of all ages, but men of all ages, too," Rioux said.

Still, she thinks the book has not always gotten the respect it deserves: "Unfortunately, it has been called a girls' book. And there is no reason why 'Huck Finn' should be considered an American classic, and 'Little Women' is not."

But it's been the darling of filmmakers, with everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Winona Ryder playing Jo March. Saoirse Ronan plays Jo in the new version of the film, basing her portrayal in part on Louisa May Alcott herself:

"It was like she was going into battle every time she had to write," said Ronan. "It was like an essential thing that she had to do.  So, understanding that from Louisa's point of view just made Jo, for me, all the richer, because I had so much more heart to bring to her."

"Little Women" star Saoirse Ronan on "stubborn" Jo March 01:15

Louisa May Alcott chose never to marry, but as her publisher (played by Tracy Letts) makes clear in the movie, her fictional characters had to follow a different course:

Publisher: "If the main character is a girl, make sure she's married by the end … or dead. Either way."
Louisa: "Excuse me?"

"Right, married or dead, that's how we like our girls!" laughed Gerwig.

But the director understands Alcott's decision to marry Jo off to an older professor: "Because that's what's gonna sell books.  And I respect that decision, and I respect that Louisa May Alcott made that decision."

Braver asked, "What do you think viewers in general can get from this movie?"

"I think they're gonna have a most wonderful time seeing this movie!" Gerwig laughed. "I'm biased, of course – I made it!

"I want people to crawl inside and live in there. I'm very moved by how good all of the characters are;  not perfect, [but] they're kind. It's not chic, it's just wonderful!"

To watch a trailer for "Little Women" click on the video player below:

LITTLE WOMEN - Official Trailer (HD) by Sony Pictures Entertainment on YouTube

For more info:

Story produced by Mary Lou Teel. 

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