In this blog post series, we’ll feature contributing authors from our new anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. Today we’ll catch up with Deborah Davis Schlacks, recently retired Professor Emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
Contributor Deborah Davis Schlacks reading her Companion Library edition of Little Women at Fairlawn Mansion in Superior, Wisconsin.
What is your favorite scene from Little Women?
My favorite is the scene where it is revealed that Jo has cut off her hair and sold it to finance her mother’s trip to tend to her ailing father. Jo’s willingness to sacrifice “her one beauty” to the sake of someone she loved was the first thing that impressed me about it way back when I first read Little Women. And it is also so important that in giving up her long hair, she is making a decision not to let physical beauty—which is so often deemed by society to be of supreme importance to women—govern her.
Later in my own life, as a professor of English, I’ve had occasion to write about this very scene in my scholarly work on an author who may seem worlds apart from Alcott: F. Scott Fitzgerald. In one of his stories, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” (1920), the titular Bernice has grown up regarding the four sisters in Little Women as “models for our mothers” and wants to be like them herself. Yet, under the spell of her popular cousin Marjorie, she becomes caught up in efforts to be “modern” and popular herself. Bernice develops a devastating “line” to attract boys and lets Marjorie goad her into cutting her hair off into a bob style (controversial at the time). When the hair-bobbing turns the crowd against her, Bernice gets revenge on Marjorie by cutting off Marjorie’s long braids as the latter sleeps. What a contrast in motives: Bernice cuts her own hair off for the most trivial of reasons and then cuts another’s hair off for revenge while Jo has her hair cut for much loftier reasons. A critic named Susan Beegel wrote about this connection (plus other LW parallels) in her article “’Bernice Bobs Her Hair’: Fitzgerald’s Elegy for Little Women” (New Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Neglected Stories, edited by Jackson Bryer, U of Missouri Press, 1996, pp. 58-73). I, in turn, cite Beegel in an essay I published on Fitzgerald’s story. So both personally and professionally, this scene has been important to me.
If the March sisters were employed where you work, what would their jobs be?
I just retired from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where I’d spent 22 years as an English professor. If the March sisters worked there, they’d all be teaching the fine arts. Meg could teach acting in the theatre program. Jo would be teaching creative writing in my very own department. Her shyness not a barrier in one-on-one situations, Beth could teach private piano lessons for the music department. Amy would teach the visual arts in the art department. These four creative people would be a wonderful asset to the university. Not only are they all creative but also they would, I think, have an implicit understanding of the students. Many of the students at my university are incredibly hard-working students—often first-generation, or non-traditional, or both—and I think Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy would find common ground with them and their struggles to get an education despite the financial hardships they often endure. Curiously, too, all but Jo would have their offices and classrooms in a single building as the visual arts, theatre, and music departments are all housed in just one building on our small, tight-knit campus. Meanwhile, Jo would be in a different building, in a department with all my own former colleagues in the writing program. I’m sure they’d all enjoy her company and her insights, and she, theirs. I could come visit all of the sisters, plus my colleagues, whom I miss. That would be such a treat.
Who are some of your other “imaginary heroes” from literature?
The reference to “imaginary heroes” in Little Women seems to refer to imaginary romantic partners, but I would broaden that to any sort of hero. When I use that broader definition, Nancy Drew comes to mind most especially. As a child, I read Nancy Drew books over and over, much as I read Little Women over and over. I reveled in Nancy’s adventures, longing to be that brave and independent, feeling I was neither, and also longing for some of the “exotic” (to me) little social nuances pictured in the Nancy Drew books. I clearly remember the first time I encountered Nancy. I grew up in a very small town in Texas where the only libraries in town were the tiny ones at the elementary school and the high school. One day, I went into the elementary school library and scanning the shelves, on the lowest shelf I found a group of old books: what I learned later were the original Nancy Drew books (as opposed to the 1950s/60s rewrites). I don’t remember which one I grabbed first, but I do remember that in one of the first ones I read, Nancy had tea with a Civil War veteran and was entranced with the stories he told. I was fascinated not only with his stories and Nancy’s adventures in the book but also with the very notion of someone having high tea! That was way out of my experience growing up in rural Texas in the 60s. I was to read all the Nancy Drew books that library had to offer, and later, my parents bought me a set of several of the books, though those were the rewrites rather than the originals. In any case, I do remember that my friend Mary and I (I mention Mary below) would talk about how we wished we could have adventures like those of Nancy.
Outside of children’s and young adult literature, I could also mention Frederick Douglass. Obviously, he isn’t imaginary at all, but he most surely a hero of the highest magnitude, including in his autobiographies, the earliest of which is my favorite: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It is such a great piece of non-fiction literature, a prime example of the slave narrative genre. We learn in it of Douglass’s experiences as a slave and of his early work as an abolitionist. The horrors he went through and his ability to overcome them and strive for freedom are amazing to read about. I taught this book many, many times in a first-year writing course that I regularly taught. I had students do research papers on issues that came to light for them as they read of Douglass’s life and work. Through the years, many of my students from this course commented on how enlightening they found Douglass’s book, how personally meaningful to them.
Amy goes to Europe, Jo goes to New York . . . where did your pivotal “coming of age” moment take place?
I went to Las Vegas! It’s not what you think. I am from Texas. I went to college, both undergraduate and graduate, in Texas. I’d always lived there. Then I got a teaching job, right out of grad school, at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and moved there, alone but for my little dog Daisy, not knowing a single soul in a town I’d never even visited before. I was exceedingly lonely at first. I’m an extreme introvert who does not make friends easily. But I made myself get involved in various activities, ranging from an obedience class for Daisy (she really needed it, believe me!) to a single’s group where folks played bridge or volleyball once a week and had various special events, too. It was, in fact, at one of those special events—a Halloween costume party—that I met my husband. I was a princess, and he was a judo master. The rest is history.
Tell us about the sisters, or sister figures, in your life.
I have no sisters (two brothers instead). My mother had no sisters (five brothers instead). In my extended family, I did not really experience or even see much in the way of sisterly bonds. Instead, I’ve had a few friends who were like sisters to me. In elementary and high school, my best friend, Mary, and I spent many an hour sharing our thoughts and dreams about everything from Nancy Drew (as mentioned above) to our desires to go to college (not a common destination at all for kids from our home town at that time). In college, I didn’t seem to find a friend like that, but in grad school, I did. I think of Ann and Vivian as my grad school friend who were like sisters to me. We went to conferences together, commiserated over grad class difficulties, shared stories of both wonderful and not-so-wonderful romances, and so on. When I got married a couple of years after grad school, it was Mary, Ann, and Vivian who served as my bridesmaids.
However, the most special bond I’ve observed—the one I live through vicariously to some extent—has been the bond between my two daughters, Beth and Laura. They are 3 ½ years apart and yet very close despite an age difference that might have meant relatively little time together. Perhaps they bonded as much as they did over a shared love of figure skating (they skated competitively as kids) and a mutual adoration of all things Harry Potter. To this day, as twenty-somethings, they can frequently be found in friendly arguments over every jot and tittle of every volume of the series. They talk about much more than that, of course. When Beth got married four years ago, Laura, as maid of honor, made a wonderful toast to the couple in which she talked about her bond with her sister. One example she gave in her toast concerned when she had first started college and was feeling very homesick. She told how she’d spent hours and hours on the phone to her sister, pouring out her angst, receiving comfort and advice, which had helped her greatly in getting through the transition to college life over a thousand miles away from home. This example is a true testimony to their great relationship. I look upon it with some awe.
Deborah Davis Schlacks is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She retired from the university in May 2018 after a 22-year career there teaching writing and literature. Before UW-Superior, she taught for 10 years at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. A native of the small town of Howe, Texas, she received a PhD in English in 1986 from Texas Woman’s University in Denton. Her literary specialty is American literature. She has published scholarly works on F. Scott Fitzgerald and has done conference presentations on such authors as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Louisa May Alcott. She first read Little Women as a third grader and proceeded to re-read the book dozens and dozens of times. As a girl, she aspired to have four daughters named Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. She and her husband, Eric, really do have two daughters named Beth and Laura, and they also have a son-in-law named Tim, a dog named Scout, and a cat named Delilah. They live on Amnicon Lake in far-northern Wisconsin, near a town called Superior, which is on the tip of Lake Superior.
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