After more than 150 years, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women still appeals to readers of all ages. First published in the late 1860s, this tale of the coming of age of four sisters in the aftermath of the Civil War remains one of the most famous books in the world. As part of Texarkana College’s Distinguished Lecture Series, Lauren Hehmeyer, professor of English and history at TC, will tell the behind the scenes story of Little Women’s author and her sister, May Alcott Nieriker, a successful artist and a genius in her own right, at a public lecture on Thursday, November 1, 2018, at 6:30 PM in Texarkana College’s Palmer Memorial Library. A pre-lecture reception will begin at 6:00 PM. The event is free and open to the public.
Featured lecturer Hehmeyer is a popular public speaker who was invited to present her paper, “Let The World Know You Are Alive: The Concept of Genius and May Alcott Nieriker,” at the one-day conference Recovering May Alcott Nieriker held this past summer at the Universite de Paris–Diderot. Her paper described the different reactions the Alcott sisters had to the built-in bias against women as creative professionals in the nineteenth century. The conference attracted scholars from the UK, America, Italy and Australia. Pulitzer Prize winning biographer John Matteson gave the keynote address and was an active participant.
Hehmeyer said the Alcott sisters’ stories are an inspirational look at what the rewards and the costs can be when we strive to reach the heights of our ambitions.
“When I was a child, I read Little Women and I loved it—like a lot of women do,” Hehmeyer said. “When I went to college I was a literature major, but a book like Little Women was regarded as third or fourth class. It wasn’t up there in the literary canon with men’s books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
As Hehmeyer continued her education and eventually became a librarian and a historian, she learned that Louisa May Alcott was considered a genius and an American transcendentalist in the nineteenth century, ranking alongside famous intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hehmeyer said the concept of a woman genius in the nineteenth century sparked her interest.
“The Alcott sisters, born in the first half of the nineteenth century, had to confront their own and society’s doubts about their genius, each making choices that determined their eventual fate,” Hehmeyer said. “Even very brilliant women during that time period doubted that a woman could be considered a genius. At that time, people argued there was no such thing as a woman genius because the examples they had in their minds were always males. They would ask, ‘Has there ever been a female Shakespeare? Or Michelangelo?’”
Wanting to find out more, Hehmeyer dug deeper into the life of Louisa May Alcott and learned that it was actually her younger sister, May Alcott Nieriker, who believed women could rise to the eminence of genius alongside men.
“What I learned through researching the lives of these two women was that although the sisters were raised by the same two parents, they were eight years apart in age and had very different outlooks on life and what could be achieved by a woman during the nineteenth century,” said Hehmeyer. “At a very young age, the sisters made choices that determined the fate of their lives. For a modern audience, the real story behind the sisters’ lives is perhaps even more compelling—one believed she was a genius, and the other succumbed to doubt.”
Hehmeyer said that as a professor, she works with people every day who are at a crossroads and have to make life-altering decisions.
“People have to make the same decisions today as they did decades ago,” Hehmeyer said. “It really boils down to how far you dare to go with your decisions that makes the difference. As for the Alcott sisters, it’s ironic that the one whose legacy has lived on through the ages didn’t believe she was a genius, and the one who just barely got started never doubted it was possible. There’s a life lesson there—plunge in and follow your dreams, don’t hesitate!”
Hehmeyer’s presentation is part of TC’s Distinguished Lecture Series. Lectures are scheduled once per semester and are free and open to all area students, faculty, staff and community members. Featured lecturers are members of TC’s faculty, staff and Board of Trustees.
About Lauren Hehmeyer:
Lauren Hehmeyer is a professor of history and English at Texarkana College and has published in the fields of library science, education, and literature. She has received a variety of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her special research interest is the Transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts. She has both published and presented at conferences on Henry David Thoreau.
In the summer of 2018, she presented her paper on the nineteenth-century artist May Alcott Nieriker, the sister of the writer Louisa May Alcott, at an international conference in Paris, France. Hehmeyer is a popular speaker to community groups, frequently booked to discuss Thoreau’s relationship to Nature and the Alcotts as both sisters and geniuses. She also speaks to Christian groups on the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.