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January 11, 2010

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

I was confused every time I came across the name “Louisa” in Harriet Reisen’s biography Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Woman. Louisa? Who was this “Louisa”? For I was reading about Jo, wild, topsey-turvey, irrepressible Jo March, of course. Jo, whose identity was claimed by Alcott unabashedly, because her fiction was an amalgam of her own experiences and dreams of better things. That Louisa May Alcott had to tone reality down a bit to make Jo’s story believable, however, means that her biography is bound to be devourable. And in the most capable hands of Harriet Reisen (who writes like a novelist), the book most certainly is.

Admittedly, as Alcott’s biographer, Reisen did have certain advantages. Louisa May Alcott left quite a paper trail, of journals and scribblings, and an enormous volume of work produced over a very prodigious career. She annotated her own journals over time. Her parents, siblings and many associates all kept journals throughout their lives. She was associated with characters such as Thoreou and Emerson who themselves are objects of great interest. And Reisen is following in the footsteps of other Alcott biographers whose literary sleuthing resulted in the uncovering of Alcott’s pulp fiction and thrillers that were published under the pseudonym of A.M. Barnard.

Reisen’s other advantage was that Louisa May Alcott was absolutely fascinating. The daughter of famed Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott (who Reisen contends made his greatest fame on the back of his novelist daughter’s reputation), a peer of Thoreau and Emerson, Louisa grew up in a family guided by his eccentric whims. These whims make a storied tale, though their result was that the Alcotts were frequently destitute, desperate, much in debt, so that the four daughters had to work for a living from a very young age, constrasting them much from their mother’s socially prominent Boston family.

Work, which became the name of one of Alcott’s autobiographical novels, is one of the most interesting themes of her life. Seeking independence from and support for her family, she work as an invalid’s companion, as a teacher, a governess, as a seamstress– “Needlework offered one great advantage over teaching: ‘Sewing won’t make my fortune, but I can plan my stories while I work, and then scribble ’em down on Sundays.'” She served a nurse in the American Civil War, which was the subject of her book Hospital Sketches. And yes, she wrote, exhaustingly– children’s stories, fairy tales, thrillers and lurid tales, novels and sketches, and short stories– earning enough to support herself, which Reisen notes was as rare for a writer then as it is today.

Of course, Louisa was not exactly Jo. Reisen reports of fans that flocked to her house and were disappointed “(sometimes to the point of tears) to find an old curmudgeon instead of spunky Jo”. Alcott was subject to extreme moods, periods of ill health, and the positive outlook so prized by the Marches was more easily aspired to than attained. Her own childhood experiences had been mined of their most extreme hardship before appearing in Little Women, she’d given Jo a different type of father, the March family’s was a much more just kind of world.

But Jo she was, nonetheless, just as her older sister Anna signed fan letters as “Meg”– noting that she lacked Meg’s good looks, but Louisa had decided that “someone had to the beauty”. Louisa may have even referred to herself as “Jo” in her journals, or else her first biographer had made the error whilst transcribing the journals, which is emblematic of how the fact and fiction began to further blur.

Which means that Reisen had some literary sleuthing of her own to perform, and she did turn up long-lost transcripts of interviews Alcott’s neice Lulu (who was one of the last living people to have known the author). Having such an enormous number of resources at her disposal must certainly have been an advantage, but to pick and choose and then join them so seamlessly would have been no mean feat, and Reisen proves herself up to the task. To have brought Alcott to life, in such vivid Jo-ishness is a remarkable achievement, a credit to the subject, and the whole book is absolute marvelous and inspiring to read.

2 thoughts on “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen”

  1. Kristin says:

    I can not wait to read this! I actually only read the first paragraph of your post, because I want the book to be totally fresh for me. Also, I started to read Fludd on your recommendation and am enjoying it very much. Thanks!

  2. Kerry says:

    It was a wonderful book– I found it a bit slow to start, but was absorbed for most of it, absolutely gripped. Fludd was kind of the opposite, however, but I hope you continue to like it!

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