Little women, big impact: Celebrating the 150th anniversary of ‘Little Women’ at K-State

Anne Phillips (left) and Greg Eiselein, both professors of English, created the "Little Women 150" project to celebrate the enduring novel by Louisa May Alcott. (DJ Render | Collegian Media Group)

Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic novel “Little Women,” originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, celebrated its 150th anniversary of publication in the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019, which students and faculty in the English department at Kansas State University were eager to celebrate.

To commemorate the novel’s so-called sesquicentennial, Gregory Eiselein, professor of English and director of K-State First, and Anne Phillips, professor of English, launched their project “Little Women 150.”

As longtime Alcott lovers, Eiselein and Phillips said “Little Women 150” was a dream project for both of them. Their goal was to promote the relevance and significance of Alcott and her work 150 years later.

Last fall, the Department of English hosted two guest lecturers, Beverly Lyon Clark and Anne Boyd Rioux, who presented academic lectures related to “Little Women.”

Other elements of the project included an article coauthored by Eiselein and Phillips for the biography “Invincible Louisa,” extensive research on Alcott’s life and a 700-level class focusing on Alcott and her works.

On April 25, Phillips and Eiselein hosted a celebration at the Dusty Bookshelf bookstore, which included a readers’ theater version of “Little Women,” as well as students and faculty members presenting scholarly and creative work inspired by Alcott and her work.

Eiselein and Phillips also began a blog for the project “Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: A 150th Anniversary Celebration,” featuring weekly posts by guest authors. Each author wrote about a chapter of the novel.

“It’s just been really, really fun to have people give us new ideas about each of those chapters or to see them in fresh ways,” Phillips said.

Phillips’ love for Alcott and her work began early in her life, she said. The first time Philips encountered “Little Women,” she was 9 years old.

“I was home sick in fourth grade,” Phillips said. “My mom handed it to me and I was in the club from there on.”

Unlike Phillips, Eiselein said he did not discover Alcott and her work until much later. When he was in graduate school, each member of his teaching class had to sign up for a book to teach over.

Initially, Eiselein said he wanted to teach over an entirely different book, but when the sign-up reached him, the only remaining book was by Alcott.

“I signed up for it, and I became really fascinated by Alcott’s place in history,” Eiselein said. “[Phillips and I] came to Alcott from different directions.”

Kristen Emig, senior in English, worked with Eiselein and Phillips on the project. Emig’s primary role was helping with their research, she said, as well as conducting her own research about Alcott.

“They were fantastic to work with,” Emig said.

Emig added that she read “Little Women” for the first time when she was in eighth grade.

“My mom recommended it to me,” Emig said. “We had similar reading interests, so I took her word for it.”

Eiselein said “Little Women” is still important to many people in the U.S. 150 years later.

“The book still resonates,” Eiselein said. “This book is incredibly important to American culture.”

Eiselein offered examples of different ways “Little Women” has influenced American culture, from television shows like “Girls” and “Sex and the City” to punk rocker Patti Smith.

“I think a lot of the components of our ‘Little Women 150′ are about causing more public conversations about this book and keeping it more in the public eye and causing more people to read it and talk about it with each other,” Phillips said. “I’m enjoying every moment of our special year.”