Little Women Legacy: Alcott, the Environment, and Real-Life Heroes

In this blog post series, we’ve featured contributing authors from our anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. In this post, we’ll share some final thoughts from Julie Dunlap, ecologist, teacher and writer.


Contributor Julie Dunlap reads Little Women in Old Ellicott City, Maryland.

Little Women teems with uncomfortable truths. Hardworking families can fall into poverty; loving care cannot forestall death; a country founded on shared ideals can descend into war. Amy March resists the shape of her own nose, but Jo’s determination to front realities is at the core of her appeal, and at the heart of the novel.

Jo March’s rectitude in the face of a society pitched against women has made her a feminist icon for 150 years. Though Alcott preferred imaginary heroes to real ones, since girlhood I’ve admired Louisa’s quest to surmount social barriers to become an author. As a teen aspiring to work in male-dominated field science, I reveled in Jo’s work as a Civil War nurse. To me, her boldness resembled Jane Goodall’s and Dian Fossey’s. Such scientists are exemplars of Jo’s and Louisa’s conviction that women’s work is encompassing; it may include chasing answers through hospital wards, or truths down jungle paths.

As my ecology studies shifted toward science writing, my view of Alcott and literary heroes resonated increasingly with another true-life champion, Rachel Carson. Carson, in the 1950s, was a marine biologist and best-selling author of three poetic books about the sea, looking forward to writing more about terns and starfish, when a friend’s letter alerted her to songbird decimation following aerial spraying with DDT. Though she would have preferred to look away, Carson peered closer, sifting through data for half a decade, then confronting the facts of synthetic pesticides and their cumulative toll on the natural world. As Louisa required of Jo so often, Rachel insisted on speaking the truth she uncovered. “Knowing what I do,” she wrote, “there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.”

So to celebrate the publication of Imaginary Heroes, I took my tattered copy of Little Women to Old Ellicott City. This Maryland town has endured two devastating thousand-year rains in less than two years. Three lives were lost, and dozens of livelihoods in the washed out stores and businesses now boarded up against the next deluge. Ever cautious, scientists resist linking individual events to global climate changes. Yet even the most prudent recognize that such extreme precipitation events grow more likely as rising temperatures increase the atmosphere’s ability to retain and release moisture back to the ground. The Patapsco River looked placid on the day of my visit, but like the Concord where Amy fell through the ice, the danger will remain until someone speaks up, and others listen.

My essay in Imaginary Heroes is one small attempt at being a voice for those rivers, and for those who may someday want to skate them. “Love covers a multitude of sins,” wrote Alcott, but we need more than love, urgently, to face the harm we inflict daily on our Earth, and to resolve collectively to stop it. But love may be part of the answer, as love supported Louisa throughout her life, and their story emboldened girls like me to follow our own life quests. Carson’s love of birds and the sea empowered her too, through illness and loss, to share her truth.

Louisa, in a vortex of creativity, would shut herself away in a scribbling suit, and write as if her soul depended on it. I’ll be adorned in a different guise, a t-shirt with an anti-fossil fuel slogan, at the next climate rally. Odds are, I won’t be the only Jo March admirer in the crowd. But I’ll be the one with Alcott’s own words scribbled on a poster, held high: “Strong convictions precede great actions.”

Julie Dunlap teaches wildlife ecology and environmental science at the University of Maryland University College. She has written and edited numerous articles, essays, and books, including Louisa May and Mr. Thoreau’s Flute (with Marybeth Lorbiecki), Janey Monarch Seed (forthcoming) and Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet (edited with Susan A. Cohen). She earned a PhD in social ecology from Yale University, and serves on the boards of the Audubon Society of Central Maryland and of the Community Ecology Institute.

Visit our homepage to order your copy of Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy today!

2 responses to “Little Women Legacy: Alcott, the Environment, and Real-Life Heroes”

  1. What a beautiful and thoughtful article! “Alcott’s imaginary Heroes” has introduced me to so many great women and so many different points of view. It really shows the value of Little Women that there can be so many different points of view. Julie and I have known of each other and written to each other and I’m just so delighted to finally see what she looks like and to read her wonderful writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on A Thousand Finds and commented:
    I loved reading about the intersection of science and environmental writing with Alcott’s feminist activism, grounded in love.


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