Sunday, January 17, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women

I recently watched the American Master's program on Louisa May Alcott.  More a docurama, than a documentary Broadway actors Elizabeth Marvel and Daniel Gerroll played Louisa and Bronson respectively, recreating key moments in Alcott's life, using extracts from her journals and letters.  Afterwards, I was determined to learn more about this writer that I had only really known through Little Women. The program mentioned Harriet Reisen's new biography Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. I immediately ran to the library to take out a copy.  After reading the book, I made wonder why Alcott is not taught in high school American Literature classes.  She belongs up there with other 19th century luminaries like Hawthorne, Melville and Henry James. While other popular 19th century authors are no longer read (Gertrude Atherton, Sarah Orne Jewett), LittleWomen has become a classic of American Literature and not just of YA fiction.

Harriet Reisen's book is a vivid, energetic account of the life of Louisa May Alcott. What struck me most about this book was not just Louisa's creative process (Louisa would write feverishly for weeks and then be completely spent) but also the difficulties that the Alcott family went through before Louisa began writing for a living. Most people know that the March family is based on the Alcott's but while the March's lived in genteel poverty, the Alcott's were dirt poor. Often they had nothing to eat but an apple and a piece of bread for days on end. Bronson Alcott, while a gifted teacher, was not a very good provider.  His more liberal attitudes towards teaching children didn't go over very well and when he enrolled a young African-American girl in his school that was the end of his teaching career. The family moved constantly, by the time Louisa was in her teens they'd moved something like 30 times, from Philadelphia to Boston to Concord and back again while her father purused one self-indulgent utopian scheme after another, including moving to a ramshackle farm to live iwhat was hoped would be n an idyllic community like Brook Farm but instead turned into a shambles.

I had no idea until I read this book or saw the documentary that Louisa had been a nurse during the Civil War or that it had wrecked her health which led her to the frequent recourse of opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and what might possibly have been lupus. She also seems to have suffered from severe depressions. Reisen makes much of this fact, suggesting that Louisa might have been bi-polar. The description of the dynamic between Bronson and his long suffering wife Abigail May was particularly riveting. Abigail had come from a well-to-do family while Bronson was completely self-educated. Both were not spring chickens when they got married either, Abigail was pushing 30.  Although they shared a birthday, Louisa and her father seemed to have had a particularly charged relationship until  Louisa was an adult and essentially supporting the entire family on her earnings as a writer. Louisa was headstrong and stubborn, but from the excerpts from her letters, she wasn't above playing the martyr when it came to her family. I also found it fascinating that Louisa was a jogger, she would go for runs to clear her head in the mornings.

Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Emerson in the dust. By the time she died, she was living in a huge house in Boston with 10 servants. I also had no idea how prolific Louisa May Alcott was as a writer, that she secretly authored thrillers that she loved to write much more than her juvenile fiction. It was interesting to see that Louisa started writing for young adults basically to make money, because juvenile fiction was a cash cow at the time. Louisa much preferred the few novels that she wrote for adults although they weren't as well reviewed. The poverty that she experienced as a child had a profound effect on her, Louisa was determined that the rest of her life was going to be different.

The book is a vivid portrayal of Boston in the 19th century. When I studied American literature in high school, we read Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but we never really delved into Transcendentalism, or the Utopian communities that were popular in the early part of the 19th century, including The Shakers. Boston in the early part of the 19th century was really the heart of literary life in America at that time, the publishing industry was centered there not in New York. Reisen depicts Alcott's love of acting (at one point she dithered between wanting to be a writer or an actress) and amateur theatricals.

One of the ironies of Alcott's life was that she chose to be a spinister because she wanted to be free, yet she was never really free in her life. Not only were her parents dependent upon her, but at times she also supported her older sister Anna and her family as well as her younger sister May. Even her first trip to Europe was as a companion to a wealthy young woman and her brother. Some of the most poignant parts of the biography are the two weeks that Louisa was able to spend in Paris with a much younger Polish man who she partly based Laurie on. Whether or not it was an actual love affair is open to interpretation, but it's nice to think that even if it was platonic that she had that brief moment in time.

If there is a weakness in this book, it's the lack of photographs. Reisen quite often will describe photographs or paintings that were made of Louisa which I longed to refer to while reading the book. She also spends way too much time speculating on whether or not Bronson Alcott was mentally ill or not. If anything both parents seemed to have suffered from severe depression at times, which is understandable given their poverty. The person I felt sorriest for in a way was Louisa's mother Abby who had hitched her wagon to a man who was ineffectual at best, who never seemed to lift a finger when his children were starving while she begged for funds from more well-heeled relatives. At one point, Louisa's mother was working in Boston as an early social worker. Abby seemed doomed to be disappointed by life. Reisen has great sympathy for all the Alcott's but she's not afraid to show the reader their flaws. Some readers might not like her summary dismissal of Lizzie Alcott, who Lousia so movingly portrayed as Beth in Little Women. This is definitely a warts and all portrait.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested Louisa May Alcott, or who is interested in what it was like to be a woman in early Victorian America. After reading this book, I felt as if Louisa was someone that I could be friends with. I definitely plan on seeking out her thrillers. If it's available on Netflix, I would also recommend watching the PBS American Master's program as a companion piece to the biography.

More information about the book and the film:

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