Thursday, April 1, 2021

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

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
by Harriet Reisen
Published October 2009 by Henry Holt and Co.
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Louisa May Alcott portrays a writer as worthy of interest in her own right as her most famous character, Jo March, and addresses all aspects of Alcott’s life: the effect of her father’s self-indulgent utopian schemes; her family’s chronic economic difficulties and frequent uprootings; her experience as a nurse in the Civil War; the loss of her health and frequent recourse to opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and symptomatic pain. Stories and details culled from Alcott’s journals; her equally rich letters to family, friends, publishers, and admiring readers; and the correspondence, journals, and recollections of her family, friends, and famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author’s classic rags-to-riches tale. 

Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James in the dust. This biography explores Alcott’s life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. A fresh, modern take on this remarkable and prolific writer, who secretly authored pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and completed heroic service as a Civil War nurse, Louisa May Alcott is in the end also the story of how the all-time beloved American classic Little Women came to be. This revelatory portrait will present the popular author as she was and as she has never been seen before.

My Thoughts:
I'm pretty sure that I've told you before that I received a copy of Alcott's Little Women when I was eight years old. It is one of my treasures and no amount of the truth behind the book will ever change that. When I read Geraldine Brooks' March, the truth about Bronson Alcott began to be clear, as it did in Kelly O'Connor McNees' The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. Still, I'm sure I was hoping that Alcott's real life hadn't been so very terrible as those ladies portrayed in their fiction. 

The truth was much worse. Bronson Alcott was a terrible selfish, single-minded man who had no real idea how to handle his headstrong second daughter and didn't seem to notice the burden he placed on his wife. Myth of Father March completely busted. What was new here was finding out that my beloved Marmee (Alcott's portrayal of her mother in Little Women) was not the saint she was made out to be, either. She followed her husband from place to place as he pursued his vision, despite the hardship to herself and her children and seems to have felt as if it were her family's and their friends' duties to support the family when times were hard (which was pretty much always). 

On the other hand, who might Louisa May Alcott have been if she had not been introduced to Ralph Also Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathanial Hawthorne, and a host of well-known abolitionists? In that regard, her father served her well in drawing the family into those circles. 

I couldn't help but wonder what Louisa might have become if writing weren't the only way she could reliably make money, money that her family desperately needed. And what might she have written if she had not felt obliged to write so much of what she wrote simply because she knew that kind of story would make money. Still, Alcott turned out a mountain of writing in her lifetime, in a lot of different genres, including poetry. Reisen certainly has me wanting to scout out more of Alcott's writing than simply the works for young people which I'm so familiar with. 

Reisin was able to obtain some interviews never before published which add a lot of new information to Lousia's adult life. It wasn't an easy life, despite eventually becoming well off, able to support her family and be very generous with others. Alcott became sick nursing soldiers during the Civil War and never completely recovered; in fact, Reisen theorizes (as did Alcott) that Louisa eventually died of mercury poisoning from the calomel given to her in the hospital to treat typhoid pneumonia. She used morphine, opium, and hashish to ease her chronic pain; never married; lost two of her younger sisters; and became of the caretake of her mother and, to some extent, her father. Top all of that off with the fact that she didn't much enjoy her popularity; Reisen even called her "curmudgeonly." 

Louisa May Alcott lived an incredibly interesting life but one that, sadly, lacked the happily-ever-afters found in her most popular books. If you're a fan of Alcott's, I definitely recommend this book, as well as the documentary of the same name. 


  1. Nice! I've been wanting a good bio on her. I'm almost done with my re-read of Little Women. I think I'll be picking this one up soon.