What Greta Gerwig’s movie adaptation of Little Women gets right about the book

I recently saw Greta Gerwig’s new version of Little Women in the theater and really enjoyed it. (Some spoilers ahead: yes, you’ve had 150 years to read the book, but not as long to see the movie, which does differ from the book in a few ways, good ways, I’d argue.) Seeing it reminded me of a paper I wrote on the composition and publication history of Little Women more than twenty years ago for Steve Railton’s graduate seminar on popular 19th- and 20th-century American novels at UVA that I revised to give as a conference paper at the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association in San Diego. I searched for the file and found it in my 1999 archives in some crazy early version of Word, which my current version of Word on my Mac wouldn’t open (back then, I think Mac and PC files were still incompatible!), so I hauled out my mother’s HP notebook and managed to tweak the Word settings on that so that I could open it. I proofread it and posted a PDF in the Humanities Commons CORE repository at hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:28389/ as well as uploading it here.


For those of you who were not in academia in 1999, please note that at that time it was not at all common to create slides for one’s talks: we wrote out our talks and then stood at the front of the room and read aloud from the paper. I still find that mode useful on some occasions, and when I adopt it, I do at least try to write with the rhythms of speech and to speak with flair. No monotones! Ugh. I had a great time at the conference, which was huge: I went to a talk on Nancy Drew, I met a South African academic and played backgammon with him in the hotel bar as he told me about protesting to end apartheid, I ate oysters and banished all thought of my credit card bill. The panel I was assigned to had plenty of people in the audience, and my paper was well-received.

The paper holds up, I think, perhaps less as an argument than as a piece of research. I for one tend to think of novels, especially highly successful novels, as having been painstakingly planned and crafted and revised and re-revised before publication, and as being the best possible expression of the author’s most personal beliefs and worldview, but such was decidedly not the case for Little Women. Alcott wrote it quickly, just to earn some money by cranking out a fairly basic and typical morality tale for girls, society then as now being ravenous for improving and inspirational stories that would help the youngsters shape up and fly right. Those scenes in the movie (and the book) of Jo in the publisher’s office flogging him some throwaway “content” for a few bucks? Little Women was just such a piece of content at first, but in the moral mode instead of in the horror mode.

Most importantly, it was published in two parts: what we now think of as the book Little Women actually came out as two separate books published six months apart in October of 1868 and April of 1869. And even the first part was written in two parts: originally, the book ended exactly one year after it began, at Christmas, with Mr. March having returned and the girls finally getting some Christmas presents as a reward for their “pilgrim’s progress” in overcoming their various character flaws. It was only at the behest of her publisher that Alcott appended an extra chapter to the first book in which Meg and John Brooke get engaged, and she wrote that chapter without any effort to blend it in with what she’d written so far — she didn’t even have a copy of her own manuscript to consult. In the paper I do some close reading of the novel to highlight how suddenly the addition of that chapter to Part One shoves the story out of its moral improvement plot into a romantic marriage plot. Which, of course, Alcott then rebelled against in a number of ways in Part Two.

Gerwig’s adaptation of the novel does a couple of things that are unlike any previous film version of Little Women, and both show that Gerwig is highly aware of the contradictions in the book that arise from its having been written and published piecemeal. First, brilliantly, she starts with the second half of the book. That’s the part that everyone loves! That’s the part where Jo really comes into her own as a writer, and that’s the part where she flat-out refuses to marry Laurie. Can you imagine if Little Women had ended with its strong hints in Chapter 23 that Jo will marry Laurie? They’re there, make no mistake. Because it’s told in flashback, the first part is made important only as grounding for the girls’ adulthood. Secondly, Gerwig introduces a lot of “meta” commentary on the writing of Little Women, even going so far as to show an image of a book with the title Little Women on it with the author’s name shown as “Jo March.” I thought that went a little too far, actually, but it made its point: Jo is a figure for Louisa May Alcott. That’s clearly true in the book as well, even though to a lesser extent. Gerwig also suggests that, hey, Jo didn’t even need to marry Professor Bhaer: that was an authorial decision that could well have been driven by exactly the kind of influence that the real Thomas Niles exerted on Alcott to add a chapter “in which allusions might be made to something in the future,” such as whom the girls will marry.

In any case, I beg your indulgence for posting here one of my grad student papers. Just thought it might be interesting for anyone who enjoyed Gerwig’s film as much as I did. Cheers!

A Visit to the Rayburn Building

The Walter Sidney Miller Family Musicians. Digitized with NEH funds.

Two weeks ago I went to DC to have various meetings related to my new position at George Washington University as Director of the Resilient Networks project (about which more later). In early February, knowing I would be in DC for that purpose in that first week of March, I emailed my House representative, Congressman Morgan Griffith, for an appointment to express to him my support of the NEH. He makes it quite easy, which I appreciated – he had a form on his website for requesting an appointment, and his staff responded within a few days to set up a meeting for me in DC with the Congressman’s Legislative Correspondent, Elliott Silverman. On the advice of Virginia Tech’s Professor Tom Ewing, before I made the appointment I called Virginia Tech’s Office of Government Relations to let them know about my planned visit; they were having a very busy week that week, what with the travel ban, but they too responded quickly and told me that as long as I was going as a private citizen and not as an official representative of Virginia Tech, they didn’t need to be involved.

There are things I would trade the NEH for. I personally would give up the NEH (and maybe even the NEA, and the IMLS, and the Wilson Center, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) for universal health care, for entrenched federal protection of civil liberties for LGBTQ citizens, for policies that welcome refugees and immigrants after an appropriate amount of vetting, for anything that keeps Black people from being killed by the police, even for an infrastructure bill that created millions of stable, good-paying jobs to build and repair things (as long as the proposed infrastructure to be built is not something as useless and offensive as That Wall). But I decided to advocate for the NEH not because it’s the most important issue facing us in these weird days, but because it’s the one I know the most about. And that conceit of “trading” one federal program for another is just a fantasy: no one is offering to make any such trade, and if anyone were to offer, I wouldn’t believe them—I’d be certain that I’d give up the NEH only to find that universal healthcare never materialized. Similarly, I think that those who propose to eliminate the NEH don’t do so in order to free up the funds for other purposes: it’s primarily a matter of theory, or principle (a kinder word than “ideology”). Those principles hold that the federal government shouldn’t fund the arts and humanities and that the federal government should be smaller.

I don’t know whether strongly held principles can be dislodged by real-life cases: I suspect not, or rarely, or only over a great deal of time. Suffice it to say that my principles hold that the federal government should definitely devote a little money to supporting the arts and humanities and libraries and museums in addition to all the other things we ask it to support. It makes us seem to be a better nation globally, and I think it actually makes us a better nation. I’m also all for a more streamlined federal government, but if you’re going to ensmallen (a perfectly cromulent word) the US government in any effective way, you should probably start with the biggest parts of it and not the smallest ones. When you’re cleaning out the garage, you should start by getting rid of the broken car and the broken dishwasher and the broken bicycle and the broken leaf blower rather than getting rid of four toggle bolts.

In any case. On Wednesday, March 1st, I left an hour-long 1pm call with Toniesha Taylor at Prairie View A&M (one of the partners on the Resilient Networks project) a little early to run and grab a cab across town from GWU’s Gelman Library over to the Rayburn Building.

Even though I had been careful to book the meeting at 2:15pm instead of 2pm, I was still running a little late (AS USUAL), so I sent an email to that effect with my phone from the cab. It’s dreadful etiquette to be late, I know, but I wasn’t really THAT late, and I relied on the kindness and humanity of the Congressman’s office to be understanding. Also, I figured if anything, I was only hurting myself (and possibly the NEH), since I knew I’d only have about 15 minutes to make my case. The cab ran into complete gridlock in front of the building itself: seems like a lot of people were headed to the Rayburn Building. At about 2:14pm I was out of the cab and in front of the building, and I was grateful that the line through the metal detector wasn’t very long at all and was moving briskly.

I followed the signs to room 2002, which didn’t look at all like the correct room. About eight or ten young staffers were sitting at desks in a kind of bullpen, and I caught the eye of one who was free who was eating something and had to finish chewing and swallowing before she apologized for keeping me waiting (which of course I didn’t mind at all, though I was still feeling anxious and rushed because I was late). I explained I was looking for Congressman Griffith’s Office, and they looked blankly at each other, at which point I rechecked my phone and realized that I was looking for room 2202 instead and was at that moment intruding upon the time (and lunch) of folks in the Liaison Office for the Navy. They helpfully pointed me in the right direction, so I finally bumbled my bumbling way up to the correct room via a beautiful marble-treaded stairway and made my presence known.

This looked more like a congressman’s office, with a pair of reception desks in a kind of foyer, manned by a couple of young men in suits. (So many of the people I met in the Rayburn building seemed so young: mid-twenties or so. I remember that phenomenon from living in DC before. Those who govern are often in their mid-sixties at least, but their staffs are always barely out of college, seems like. The people in their thirties and forties and fifties don’t even seem to work in government.) They were chill about my tardiness, bless them, and I waited for just a couple of minutes before Mr. Silverman (also young) came out to meet me. We shook hands and exchanged business cards, and then he took me into a big, very Congressional-looking office, with that typical DC décor of silk curtains and carpet and bookcases and Colonial furniture. There was a bag of Fritos on the Colonial couch, which he apologized for.

And then I went into my spiel, which is encapsulated in this one-page document, which I printed out and gave to Mr. Silverman:

The first thing I mentioned was that the NEH has given Virginia’s Ninth District nearly two million dollars in direct funding in the last twenty years. Mr. Silverman looked visibly surprised at that, which I took to be a good sign. Not all of it has gone to large research universities like Virginia Tech, either, and much of it has gone to projects that, I dare swear, even conservatives would approve of. Congressman Griffith has most recently been working hard to retain a provision in the Affordable Care Act (which otherwise he is keen to repeal) that benefits coal miners, making it unnecessary for them to submit extensive and burdensome documentation in support of claims related to black lung, which certainly seems like a provision I can get behind. Knowing of Congressman Griffith’s support for coal miners, I made sure to mention the most recently funded NEH project in the district, which is a project at Radford University to preserve historic images in their collection of coal miners and their culture.

19th-century Stock Certificate for the Virginia & Tennessee Rail Road Company. Digitized with NEH funds.

I’m afraid, but also rather glad, that very early on in my fifteen-minute meeting at the Rayburn Building I stopped advocating for the NEH and instead started talking about the three high-resolution color images I had printed out and attached to the one-pager. All three were historic images brought in to the Christiansburg Public Library last year for digitization as part of the Montgomery County Memory project initiated by Samantha Parish and funded by the NEH as part of its Common Heritage program. I mean, a survey map of the region from 1795! How cool is that! I would never have expected someone to bring in something like that. Another of the three was the 1930s or 1940s photograph of a family of musicians that heads this post, and the third was a nineteenth-century stock certificate for the Virginia Tennessee Rail Road Company.

1795 Land Survey of Poor Mountain, Elliston, VA. Digitized with NEH funds.

Another encouraging sign from Mr. Silverman was that he took special note of that survey map; he mentioned that it might well be from the very area where Congressman Griffith grew up. He also closed our meeting by mentioning that he himself had studied the humanities: his LinkedIn profile reveals that he minored in U.S. History at Southern Methodist University.

None of those small signs of encouragement necessarily mean that Congressman Griffith will refuse to zero out the budget of the NEH, NEA, IMLS and similar agencies, of course. But his office was more than willing to hear me out on the subject, which I appreciated. I’ve also heard from a few colleagues who participated in Humanities Advocacy Day earlier this week that there may well be broad bipartisan support for retaining these agencies, and I take comfort from the knowledge that only a few months ago Dr. Carla Hayden was confirmed as Librarian of Congress with bipartisan support.

Many individuals and organizations have been writing advocacy guides and statements of support this week. Here’s a select list:

• “To Protect the Arts and Humanities, Go Local,” by Jason Rhody
• “Federal Cuts are About You and Me,” by Sheila Brennan
• “Statement on US Administration Proposal,” by Digital Library Federation Leadership
• Anything by the National Humanities Alliance

In such a climate of turmoil for the humanities, it seems arrogant to suppose that anyone will care that I have a new position, but, yes, I have a new position, which is why I was in DC to begin with. I am directing the Resilient Networks project, a Mellon-funded project to create a support network for the digital humanities with four institutional partners: George Washington University (where I’m now an employee in the Libraries), Davidson College, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The project is funded by the Mellon Foundation, so my new position is in no danger of disappearing, unlike some others I might name. I’ll add here that my reasons for leaving Virginia Tech were primarily personal (mainly geographical): I have nothing but respect for the direction Dean Tyler Walters is taking the library, and I’m sorry to leave some of the projects I had percolating there, not least my support role on Dr. Ed Gitre’s “American Soldier” project to create an online full-text database where students and members of the public can read and transcribe tens of thousands of descriptions by WWII soldiers of their military and wartime experiences – a project for which we collaborated on a proposal to the NEH’s Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program. I think it was a marvelous proposal, fully deserving of funding. I hope the country agrees with me.

The National Endowment for the Humanities. A good thing. 

THATCamp, me, and Virginia Tech Libraries

This is a “book.” That is, an audio cassette. This other “book” is a screen
and a microchip. This other “book,” the sky.

–Albert Goldbarth, “Library,” Saving Lives, Ohio State University Press. Originally published in The Iowa Review 29.1 (Spring 1999). Reproduced by Poetry Daily by permission.


Going to the second-ever THATCamp at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media back in 2009 was definitely one of the best career decisions I’ve ever made. It was exciting, and interesting, and informal, and generally one of the most fun, productive, and collegial academic experiences I had ever had. I was therefore thrilled when Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt asked me to come to RRCHNM to serve as THATCamp Coordinator on a two-year grant from the Scholarly Communications program of the Mellon Foundation. Building on the work that Jeremy Boggs, Dave Lester, and Josh Greenberg had done in creating THATCamp was easy, not least because other visionaries like Ben Brumfield and Julie Meloni and Erin Bell and Daniel Chamberlain and Ethan Watrall and Marin Dacos had begun to organize THATCamps of their own in Austin, the Pacific Northwest, Columbus, Southern California, and Paris before I ever entered the picture officially. Seemingly without any effort on my part besides the obvious (cough website), THATCamp spread and spread and spread, and more and more people told me that it was fun, productive, collegial, and, above all, useful.

It’s been just over a year since I left RRCHNM upon the expiration of the second two-year Mellon THATCamp grant, a grant whose primary purpose was to make sure that THATCamp could sustain itself through volunteer efforts. I joked fairly often from 2012-2014 that my job was to eliminate my job, and I’m actually quite proud of the work I did in that period to make THATCamp mostly self-sustaining (although I must admit that a fair amount of work has fallen on Patrick Murray-John in the last year as RRCHNM appointee and as Chair of the THATCamp Council in the last year: you rock, Patrick!). I always believed that THATCamp should be a community-run project: the last thing I wanted was to milk the funding agencies for unnecessary money just to keep myself employed. But, of course, personally, I was getting very tired of bouncing from term-limited job to term-limited job. It would be nice to say that I’ve spent the last year writing a book or developing software, but in fact I’ve spent the last year doing freelance grant-writing (notably for the Modern Language Association’s new alt-ac Connected Academics initiative), running the second instance of Northwestern’s Arthur Vining Davis Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop, participating in a couple of book sprints, working a little bit on my online catalog of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s personal library, and, of course, job-hunting.

I’m therefore very pleased to announce that after a long search (46 rows in my job-hunting spreadsheet, 39 cover letters written, 14 or more phone or online interviews, and 4 on-site interviews), I’ve found a position I’m really excited about. I will be joining the Virginia Tech Libraries as Director of Research and Informatics beginning Wednesday, April 22nd. The Virginia Tech Libraries are clearly heading in a great direction under the leadership of Dr. Tyler Walters, who is also the founding director of the new and interesting SHARE project, and I can’t wait to work with him and with Associate Dean of Research and Informatics Julie Speer Griffin (to whom I’ll be reporting). The announcement was made at Virginia Tech last Friday, on the first day of THATCamp Virginia 2015, where I got to meet and re-meet many of Virginia Tech Libraries’ terrific team of librarians and archivists as well as many smart and friendly Virginia Tech faculty and grad students from English, History, and Computer Science. A more perfect welcome for me is impossible to imagine (obligatory “closing of the circle” reference, gratuitous link to corny Joni Mitchell song).

Virginia Tech is the place where Electronic Theses and Dissertations got their first strong start; it’s the place where the universally-used ILLIAD system for Interlibrary Loan was invented; and it’s the place where I plan to spend my own foreseeable and unforeseeable future, helping to develop and implement all kinds of libraryish and libraryesque technologies and initiatives. Libraries are my happy places, and this library in particular, I’m certain, is going to be a particularly happy place for me to spend a good long time. I’ll do my very best to fulfill the tremendous early promise of this promising beginning.

Special thanks to Trevor Owens, who suggested I apply, and to Dan Cohen, from whom I’ve borrowed a title.