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

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is remembered for one book, Little Women (1868) which most people know from at least a dozen film versions, and many women know from reading, and a few of those know from a life-long passion for the entire Jo March chronicles.  In her day, Louisa May Alcott’s famous books for girls competed in the bookstores with Mark Twain’s famous books for boys.  Alcott has always been a figure standing in the shadows of her much loved autobiographical character, Jo March, and overwhelmed by the success of Little Women.  However, Louisa May was not Jo March, and few women in 19th century American had a life as interesting as hers.


I have actually never read any of Louisa May Alcott’s novels, so it’s rather odd that I should choose to read a biography about her, but I kept crossing her tracks in books about other writers in 19th century America so that a few weeks ago when I saw she was featured on the PBS show American Masters I decided to give it a look.  The documentary film directed by Nancy Porter is based on the book with the same name, Louisa May Alcott – The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.  The show was so fascinating that I got the audiobook, and after I finished listened to it, bought the hardback edition for reference.


I first encountered Louisa May Alcott biographically several years ago when I wrote a novelette for a historical fiction class, and had my character meet LMA in 1867 Boston.  The story was about a young woman who wanted to go see Charles Dickens speak at the Tremont Temple.  Researching Boston and Charles Dickens mania was fascinating.  Louisa May had seen Dickens in England, so I used facts about her to build details for my character, who was much younger, and eventually gave LMA a walk-on part in the story as thanks.  At the time I found LMA so fascinating that I bought a full biography of her, the 1977 Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxton, but never got around to reading it.  Reading the Reisen biography is great incentive to find time for it one day.

I like that I’m slowly discovering who Louisa May was, it mirrors the academic world that has slowly rediscovered her and her many forgotten works of fiction, one of which, A Long Fatal Love Chase finally found book publication over a hundred years after it was written and made the New York Times bestseller list.

Louisa May has endeared herself well enough with me, even without reading her fiction, that she’s joined a small group of authors that I return to again and again to study their biographies.  They are in order of biographical discovery:  Robert A. Heinlein, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Philip K. Dick, F. Scott Fitzgerald and now LMA.  I don’t know why, but these American writers fascinate me.

Louisa May grew up with those 19th century hippies, the Transcendentalists, and she even lived on an early commune, had a crush on Henry David Thoreau, wrote lurid pulp fiction to pay the bills for her family, worked as a nurse during the civil war, took opium for her many pains, maybe experimented with hash and other drugs, was an abolitionist, early feminist, grew up a vegetarian, loved to run for exercise, and knew a lot of famous people of her day.  She was tall and sharp tongued, and never wanted to lose her freedom to marriage, and she loved to compete against boys and men.

Harriet Reisen makes an interesting case for Alcott’s fame in her day being equal to the mania for Harry Potter books today.  I’m sure that’s a stretch, but Reisen also talks about how she’s met many women that read Little Women because their mothers read it to them, and their mothers got it from their mothers, and in some cases, she could trace these family readings back to LMA’s day.  Certainly Harry Potter has yet to inspire a dozen film versions spanning almost a century of cinema history.  And that’s not counting the various anime versions, plays or operatic version.

Even though I’ve yet to read Little Women, I have seen three film versions, and after reading the Reisen bio can easily see how Alcott adapted her reality to fiction.  I do plan to read Little Women someday, but I think I want to read around it first.  I have a copy of A Long Fatal Love Chase, and Audible.com has A Modern Mephistopheles.  Audible.com also has ten unabridged versions of Little Women, which I think beats out their number of different versions of Pride and Prejudice.  Amazon offers Behind A Mask, a collection of her pulp fiction stories.  I think I’d like to get to know LMA more before reading her famous novel so I can really see how and why she created Jo March.

Finally, I also admired Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women for its day to day view of American life in the 19th century.  I like to glean small details, like one women telling another where to find the lady’s WC, or the difference between crossing the Atlantic on a sailing ship and a steamship, or tidbits about the popular magazines of the day and what they paid for stories.  Like I’ve explained, this book is fun to read even without being a fan of Louisa May Alcott.

JWH – 10/11/10