There may be no American author more strongly identified with her creation than Louisa May Alcott is with Jo March. And with good reason: as Harriet Reisen explains in Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’—soon to be adapted for the PBS “American Masters” series—the real Louisa was just as intelligent, hot-tempered, rebellious and ambitious as her fictional counterpart. But the true story of Alcott’s life is both more tragic and more triumphant than anything she cooked up for her favorite little woman.
Born in 1832, Louisa grew up surrounded by American literary giants: Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne were personal family friends. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was an intelligent and gifted teacher with ahead-of-his time theories on everything from education to diets to bathing. He was also an idealist who didn’t believe in owning property and paid scant attention to financial matters. Always chasing the next dream (or escaping the last debt), Bronson moved the family four times before Louisa was two, a pattern that would be repeated throughout her life. Though famous friends often lent a hand, Louisa and her three sisters endured grinding poverty and deprivation, including a failed experiment in utopian living. This only fueled Louisa’s ambition: “I will do something, by and by,” she vowed at 16, “. . . anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous before I die, see if I won’t!”
Reisen seamlessly weaves episodes from Alcott’s life with analyses of her fiction, nonfiction, essays and poetry, as well as revealing excerpts from letters and journals. Above all, she emphasizes Alcott’s enormous talent and prodigious output, some of which would only be uncovered years after her death. Since her more commercial work contained sensational lines like “heaven bless hashish,” Alcott felt it best to publish them under pseudonyms (her journals include several tantalizing references to stories as yet undiscovered). Never-before-published excerpts from a 1975 interview with Alcott’s niece, Lulu, lend insight into Alcott’s later years.
Meticulously researched and compelling, Reisen’s biography holds surprises for even the most devout Alcott fan. This empathetic portrait of the life of an American literary icon will be read for years to come.
A preview of the PBS Masters program, airing December 28, 2009