Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Oxford, $9). Written as a novel for young girls, this book is a superb, mature novel about family, domestic life, and the choices between love and money that women still struggle with today. The iconic Jo March is one of the most influential characters ever created—women from Hillary Clinton to Gloria Steinem credit Jo with inspiring them.
Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott (Dover, $5). Alcott was a Civil War nurse at a Washington-area hospital after the Union Army’s defeat at Fredericksburg. This moving, poignant account of her time on the wards is a rare look at the life of a nurse desperately trying to heal some of the damage wrought by the conflict.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Vintage, $10). Inspired by critic Margaret Fuller (a figure left out of many accounts of the Concord circle), Hawthorne wrote this thrilling story about a woman proudly raising her illegitimate child. Filled with false promises, predatory villains, and sexual aberration, Hawthorne’s story plumbs the depths of human perversity.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau (Beacon, $11). This angry, powerful book about man, possessions, and nature was the first American memoir. Thoreau’s sentences were masterly: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Belknap Press, $27). Alcott spent days in Emerson’s library talking about books. Her first novel, Moods, took a paragraph from his essay “Experience” as its guiding idea. Without Emerson’s literary and financial generosity (he helped support the Alcotts, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and others), we would not have American literature as we know it.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (Penguin, $12). James and Louisa May Alcott were friends. He wrote the worst review she ever got of her first novel, yet they continued to talk, exchange letters, and read each other’s work. Could there have been a Jamesian protagonist like Isabel Archer without Jo March?
—Novelist, memoirist, and critic Susan Cheever is the author of several books, including a new biography of Louisa May Alcott