Although Louisa May Alcott is best known for her beloved novel, Little Women, Harriet Reisen’s biography “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women” reminds us how vast Alcott’s body of work is and offers a sometimes-surprising portrait of the author. Who knew that Alcott wrote semi-erotic stories to pay the bills or that she was at one time a successful stage actress?
Raised by Bronson, an intellectual father who ultimately failed to provide for his family and Abigail May, a woman who ignored her distinguished roots to marry for love, Louisa May Alcott grew to become the strong provider the family needed. In The Woman Behind Little Women, Harriet Reisen reveals erratic Bohemian roots that seem an unlikely conduit to success for Louisa. At one point, the family lived in the schoolhouse where Bronson taught. On other occasions, they were housed at the generosity of good friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Abigail’s brother, Sam, who was in charge of the May family finances. The Alcotts also created and lived in a cooperative community they called Fruitlands for a time which Louisa later chronicled in her book, Transcendental Wild Oats. At Fruitlands, there was little structure other than a myriad of daily chores and personal care-giving undertaken by Abigail. She eventually became tired of this, as well as her husband’s close relationship with another leader of the community, Mr. Lane, and announced she was leaving – with the children. At that point, Bronson gave in and the family ended up in Concord.
Alcott had a complicated but loving relationship with her father. Considered a mainstay of the Transcendentalist Movement, Bronson Alcott immersed himself in study with literary greats such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. In Concord, Louisa enjoyed spending time these authors herself and “owed the publication of her first book, Flower Fables, to the Emersons’ personally locating a backer.” She was particularly fond of Emerson and Thoreau, later basing a character on a combination of the two. Inspired by some of the best writers and thinkers of the mid-1800’s, Louisa published serial stories that drew great audiences and for which she commanded an attractive price. After Little Women was published (originally in two parts), her fans demanded more and she went on to write Jo’s Boys, Little Men, An Old-Fashioned Girl, Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom and many others. Having been identified as the basis for the character Jo in Little Women, fans saw the author as the nurturing mother and wife Jo grew into. But Reisen portrays a more masculine Louisa May Alcott, not a romantic whose fantasies included a fairy tale marriage as part of their happy ending. Originally titled Success, Alcott’s book, Work, was her true autobiography which took several years and great pains to complete. Alcott considered it her most important work although it failed to achieve the acclaim she’d hoped it would.
With a confessed affinity for her subject, Reisen attempts to show readers how early influences made Alcott such a successful writer at a time when few of those were women. In this, Reisen achieves great success. Her account of Alcott’s formative years is culled from a variety of Alcott’s own journals, letters and published works. Later works, historical records and recollections of friends, family and scholars help complete the picture and the result is a well-written history. Readers will be entertained by Reisen’s depiction of Louisa May Alcott as stage actress, feminist, pseudo-matriarch, provider and, of course, surprisingly successful author. But lesser known facts about Alcott’s relationship with a younger man and her undiagnosed illness set Reisen’s biography apart from earlier works on Alcott. Citing the 2007 conclusions of Dr. Ian Greaves, a professor of environmental health at the University of Minnesota and Dr. Norbert Hirschhorn, a former University of Minnesota pediatrician, Reisen suggests that Alcott suffered from lupus which ultimately caused her kidneys to shut down and, consequently, her death at the age of 55. Until then, it was assumed that Alcott’s chronically painful medical condition was caused by mercury poisoning.
Harriet Reisen, a former fellow in screenwriting at the American Film Institute, initially had the idea of making a film biography of one of her favorite childhood authors, Louisa May Alcott. While Reisen did write the script for the PBS documentary of the same name, the ultimate result of her idea became a book, the highly readable balance of detail, fact and anecdote – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.