Gender norms: Mother of young adult lit identified as ‘man’
NEW YORK: Louisa May Alcott balked when her editor asked her to write a book for girls. “Never liked girls or knew many,” she journalled, “except my sisters.” Sisters were all it took. Alcott’s semi-autobiographical “Little Women,” which follows a family of four girls through the Civil War, made her a fortune upon publication in 1868. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy have become immortal. They’ve captivated readers around the world in 50 translations and numerous adaptations. Louisa May Alcott may never have liked girls or known many, but her name is now synonymous with girlhood.
It’s a name that she didn’t use all that often in her personal life. To family and friends, she was Lou, Lu, or Louy. She wrote of herself as the “papa” or “father” of her young nephews. Her father, Bronson, once called Alcott his “only son.” In letters to close friend Alfie Whitman, Alcott called herself “a man of all work” and “a gentleman at large.” All this leads me to wonder: Is Alcott best understood as a trans man? I became curious about this question while conducting archival research for my next novel, a contemporary interpretation of “Little Women.” As I pored over letters, journals, and personal papers, I found evidence that Alcott thought of herself as more of a man than a woman — someone, as she wrote, in one letter to Whitman, “with a boy’s spirit under [her] ‘bib & tucker.’”
Alcott scholars agree that she felt a profound affinity with manhood. “I am certain that Alcott never fit a binary sex-gender model,” said Gregory Eiselein, a professor at Kansas State University and the current president of the Louisa May Alcott Society. In “Eden’s Outcasts,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Alcott, John Matteson wrote that Alcott believed “she should have been born a boy.” Jan Susina, a professor of children’s literature, concurred: “Alcott may have experienced what we today would consider gender dysphoria.”
Still, these scholars hesitate to use the word “transgender” to describe Alcott. “I’d like to be cautious about imposing our words and terms and understandings on a previous era,” says Dr. Eiselein. “The way folks from the 19th century thought about gender, sex, sexual identity, sexuality is different from some of the terms we might use.” Dr. Matteson shares Dr. Eiselein’s hesitation, and points to the particularities of Alcott’s social circle. “Emerson, Thoreau, and Louisa’s father, Bronson, all believed that human beings were fundamentally spirits who happened to be in a particular physical form,” he says, “but that the spirit should not be limited, that the spirit has an obligation to develop itself according to its own unique genius.” Alcott’s description of the divide between her female body and her male nature was certainly trans, suggests Dr. Matteson, but -cendentalist, perhaps, more than -gender.
Some fans of “Little Women” regard this entire line of inquiry as sexist. In April, I wrote a Twitter thread on Alcott’s gender identity. Tennis player Martina Navratilova, who has argued that trans women should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports, replied to me with consternation: “Do you have any idea how hard you would try to convince me I am trans if I were born 50 years later?” Her question seems to imply a concern that understanding a historical figure as a trans man might undermine gender nonconforming women and girls. So is it inappropriate — anachronistic at best, misogynistic at worst — to describe Alcott as transgender? I believe Alcott’s own statements give the lie to the notion that transgender identity is strictly a modern fad. Alcott is a pertinent figure at a moment when trans books for youth are under attack from legislatures and school boards. What would it mean if the mother of young adult literature were actually the genre’s father?
Thomas is the author of the novel Both Sides Now