A Lack of Digital Surrogates for Louisa May Alcott

You probably don’t know what a digital surrogate is. I didn’t a few months ago. And even when I initially learned it, my professor had to explain it to me multiple times. I will do my best to give you guys a concise, coherent definition, because understanding this term is going to be very integral to understanding what I’m talking about in this blog. A digital surrogate is a digital reproduction of a material object, such as a painting or a book. The reproduction is often a photograph and serves as a substitution for the material object so that a wider group of people can view it on the internet. Basically, it’s a photo of the original thing you are talking about so you can actually discuss the details of this original publication you’re talking about, whether it be a book, a painting, or a sculpture.

I’m going to be talking about the effects of not having the digital surrogates of certain works- what we lose and what we gain. The text I’m going to be analyzing is “The Brothers” by Louisa May Alcott.

Image from “Louisa May Alcott: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know.” Heavy.com, 29 Nov. 2016, heavy.com/news/2016/11/louisa-may-alcott-google-doodle-184th-birthday-little-women-facts-photos-video/.

Alcott may be a familiar name; she wrote Little Women, a very well known story. But she also wrote many short stories. “The Brothers” is about a nurse in a wartime hospital during the Civil War who encounters two siblings- one black and one white. It’s a wonderful story, very well written obviously, and you can read it on The Atlantic magazine’s website. They have a bunch of archives from their historical issues. “The Brothers” was printed in the November 1863 issue. But when you look at the page that the story is on, it doesn’t look like what you would see in an 1863 issue. You see a website with targeted ads and a drawing of a “field hospital on the battlefield at Chancellorsville,” which, though set at a hospital in the 1860’s, had nothing to do with Alcott’s story. It gives us the setting in a way, but it presents us with a visual that we now associated with the story whether Alcott would have agreed with it or not. Which is where we get into this question of a digital surrogate in the first place. How important is it that we have more than just the words? Every single word that Louisa May Alcott wrote in her story is present, it is presented as an archive within its original publication in The Atlantic. But do we feel like we’re missing something that we might have gotten by reading the pages of that actual issue, and seeing what they looked like? I think the question of the digital surrogate is how important is the stuff around the words?

We have the digital surrogates from a copious amount of authors, but even still nowhere near as many as existed. My thought as to why “The Brothers” might not have  a photographic digital surrogate is because magazines weren’t necessarily something that people thought to preserve. But then I tried looking for a digital surrogate of Little Women. I’ve been in this class for a few months. I have found digital surrogates before. I could not find a digital surrogate of Little Women. There might be one, but I could not find it. And that makes me think, if there really isn’t a digital surrogate of Louisa May Alcott’s most well-known work, what are we missing that was in the original publication? And does what’s missing matter?

I’ve been trying to think of ways that the reproductions of a text might affect how the reader takes in that text. Everybody has seen a forward at the beginning of a book, which, if read, sometimes tells the reader how to approach the book or what this particular person thinks is important about the work or what they think are important details to pick up on. When I read these, I normally find them quite helpful because it gives me direction on how to read (especially for historical works). But when thinking about it, it can affect the perception of Alcott’s words on the page as we read them. This might not seem like a big deal; I know a lot of people who don’t even read the forwards. But just the idea that it could affect the story and our perception of it I think is something that doesn’t register with us often.

I don’t know how the lack of availability of digital surrogates might affect whether or not we remember Louisa May Alcott. But if you really think about it, it could affect how we remember her and her works.

Image from “Movie Trailers This Week: Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women,’ Emilia Clarke in ‘Last Christmas’.” The Hollywood Reporter, 18 Aug. 2019, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/movie-trailers-week-greta-gerwigs-little-women-emilia-clarke-last-christmas-1231646.

Sources Cited:

Alcott, Louisa May. “The Brothers.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 12 July 2018, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1863/11/the-brothers/306503/.

Cleary, Tom. “Louisa May Alcott: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know.” Heavy.com, Heavy., 29 Nov. 2016, heavy.com/news/2016/11/louisa-may-alcott-google-doodle-184th-birthday-little-women-facts-photos-video/.

Howard, Annie. “Movie Trailers This Week: Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women,’ Emilia Clarke in ‘Last Christmas’.” The Hollywood Reporter, 18 Aug. 2019, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/movie-trailers-week-greta-gerwigs-little-women-emilia-clarke-last-christmas-1231646.

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