Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

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In a fresh, modern take on the remarkable Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Reisen's vivid biography explores the author's life in the context of her works, many of which are to some extent autobiographical. Although Alcott secretly wrote pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and served as a Civil War nurse, her novels went on to sell more copies than those of Herman Melville and Henry James. Stories and details culled from Alcott's journals, together with revealing letters to family, friends, and ...

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Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

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In a fresh, modern take on the remarkable Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Reisen's vivid biography explores the author's life in the context of her works, many of which are to some extent autobiographical. Although Alcott secretly wrote pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and served as a Civil War nurse, her novels went on to sell more copies than those of Herman Melville and Henry James. Stories and details culled from Alcott's journals, together with revealing letters to family, friends, and publishers, plus recollections of her famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author's classic rags-to-riches tale. In Louisa May Alcott, the extraordinary woman behind the beloved American classic Little Women is revealed as never before.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
If Beth, Meg, Amy, and Jo are forever fixed in your memory, you’ll be fascinated by this well-researched and well-written biography of the author of Little Women. But Reisen is only an adequate reader of her own work. She has a lovely low-pitched voice, but a narrow vocal range and little ability to provide dramatic energy or diversity to her narrative and characters. This diminishes the listener’s emotional connection to members of the Alcott family and the famous transcendentalists and feminists who peopled Louisa’s very turbulent life. A Holt hardcover (Reviews, July 20). (Nov.)
Library Journal
Public television writer and producer Reisen's biography is the result of a deeply held, lifelong affection for Louisa May Alcott; it's a substantial by-product of the research undertaken to write and produce a documentary film biography of the same title to air December 2009 as part of the PBS "American Masters" series. Reisen's writing is lively and appealing. She analyzes Alcott's best-known works—Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys—as well as Pauline's Passion and Punishment, Behind a Mask, and Perilous Play, the pulp fiction Alcott wrote anonymously or as A.M. Barnard. Drawing extensively from Alcott's journals and letters as well as those of her family members, Reisen portrays Alcott's life with precision and sympathy yet does not hide her flaws. This compelling biography allows readers to know Alcott and appreciate her as "her own best character." VERDICT Highly recommended for Alcott fans as well as readers interested in American women writers and women's studies. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/09.]—Kathryn R. Bartelt, Univ. of Evansville Libs., IN
Kirkus Reviews
A deliciously palatable biography of the iconic writer whose life was "as full of plot and character as any [she] invented."Inspired by research from her documentary of Alcott (1832-1888) for the PBS series American Masters, Reisen delivers an in-depth portrait of the spirited, sentimental, imaginative, realistic woman whose childhood vow was to "be rich, famous, and happy." Reisen draws extensively from Alcott's prodigious output of literary works, travel sketches, articles, journals and letters, as well as the recollections of her contemporaries. Born to bohemian intellectuals, the young Alcott grew into a moody, passionate girl much like her famous character, Jo March. Her parents kept the company of transcendental luminaries like Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and Hawthorne, but experienced material poverty. The utopian nightmare of her father's experiment in communal living, her youngest sister's death and her older sister's engagement became defining events in Alcott's life, leaving her determined to shoulder family financial and household burdens. Under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, Alcott churned out pulp-fiction thrillers, generating income and sating her thirst for adventure. She followed the phenomenal success of Little Women in 1868 with six other popular children's novels, but was tormented by a culture of celebrity and ill health until her death. Reisen deftly weaves the story of Alcott's life into the rich social, cultural and historical fabric of mid-19th-century New England. The author's insightful examination reveals Alcott as a compulsive writer who peppered her stories with external details and internal currents of her life; an ardent abolitionist who served as a Civil Wararmy nurse; a self-espoused spinster who cherished her independence but harbored a schoolgirl romantic attachment to Thoreau and a midlife crush on a young Polish pianist; a thoroughly modern feminist who wrote about the power struggle between the sexes and championed women's suffrage; and a middle-aged woman who relied on opiates to cope with her failing health. An absorbing portrait of the protean author whose "life was no children's book."Agent: Jennifer Joel/ICM
From the Publisher
"This magnificent new biography...will become not only a best-seller but also a classic." —The Washington Times
The Wall Street Journal's Best 10 Books of the Year

At last, Louisa May Alcott has the biography that admirers of Little Women might have hoped for.
The Washington Times

A magnificent new biography . . . a classic.
USA Today

Fans will adore Harriet Reisen's sympathetic biography. . . .With charming verve, she details Alcott's remarkable if difficult life.
Chicago Tribune

Superb . . . punctuates the myths of the Alcott family, rendering Louisa May with nuance.

A biography as vibrant as its subject.
author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire and Henry Robert Richardson

Reisen's lifelong fascination with Little Women and the woman who wrote it has produced an absorbing narrative, in many ways the best ever, of Alcott's own life. . . . The utterly compelling force of Alcott's personality has never been better described. I found the book compulsively readable; I couldn't put it down.
Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Eden's Out John Matteson

Brilliantly researched. . . . Her biography will occupy an essential place on any Alcott bookshelf.
producer and star of Little Women (1994) Winona Ryder

A beautifully written, significant, and fascinating work. Harriet Reisen does with this biography what Alcott did with her writing--gives us a memorable and inspiring gift full of humanity, heart, and soul.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden's Outcasts& John Matteson

Brilliantly researched. . . . Her biography will occupy an essential place on any Alcott bookshelf.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594496168
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/27/2009
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Harriet Reisen has written dramatic and historical scripts for PBS and HBO, including a recent PBS documentary on Louisa May Alcott. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and son.

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Read an Excerpt

FROM CHAPTER ELEVEN: I’ve Often Longed to See a War

By 1862, as she approached her thirtieth birthday Louisa was restless, and hungry for adventure before it was too late. “Decided to go to Washington as a nurse if I could find a place,” she wrote in her journal for November. “I love nursing and must let out my pent-up energy in some new way.”

Thirty was the minimum age for being an army nurse. Dorothea Dix, the superintendent of the Union army nursing corps, had also stipulated that volunteers be “plain looking” and married. But under the pressure of casualties from the Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1862, Dix had to revise her rules to take any respectable woman willing to risk her life in the hellhole of an army hospital.

Louisa’s orders came on December 11; she was to leave for Washington the next morning, to report to the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown. Abby, Anna, May, and their next-door neighbor Sophia Hawthorne frantically helped Louisa pack in time for the afternoon train to Boston; Louisa took her journal, Dickens to read to the convalescing soldiers, paper for transcribing their letters and writing her own, and enough sandwiches, gingerbread, and apples to eat all the way to the capital. She choked on a last cup of tea that had been stirred with salt instead of sugar in the excitement, and suddenly it was time to go. “We had all been full of courage till the last moment came; then we all broke down. I realized that I had taken my life in my hand, and might never see them all again. I said, ‘Shall I stay, Mother?’ as I hugged her close. ‘No, go! And the Lord be with you.’ ” Abby waved her wet handkerchief from the door. “So I set forth in the December twilight, with May and Julian Hawthorne as escort, feeling as if I was the son of the house going to war.” After another tearful leave-taking from Anna and John Pratt at the Boston station, she started on her long journey “full of hope and sorrow, courage and plans.”

In New London, Connecticut, she transferred to the City of Boston, the steamship that would ferry her south to New Jersey, and spent most of the night in a perfect storm of displaced anxiety. “The boat is new, but if it ever intends to blow up, spring a leak, catch fire, or be run into, it will do the deed tonight,” she wrote home, “because I’m here to fulfill my destiny.” She woke in time to watch the sun come up over Long Island Sound, with “mist wreaths furling off, and a pale pink sky above us,” and to catch the train to Washington. By seven in the morning it had passed through Philadelphia, her native city, an “old place, full of Dutch women,” and on to Baltimore, a “big, dirty, shippy, shiftless sort of place.” As they passed the site where the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment had been fired on by a Confederate mob in April of 1861, she felt as if she “should enjoy throwing a stone at somebody, hard.” Her car came uncoupled and then got hit from behind by its unshackled mate, sending passengers, hats, and water jars flying like circus clowns. Louisa was satisfied, “for no journey in America would be complete without [an accident].”

As the train slowed in its approach to the capital, the novice traveler glimpsed a strange, long-imagined world. “We often passed colored people, looking as if they had come out of a picture book, or off the stage . . . not at all the sort of people I’d been accustomed to see at the North.” Encampments along the route “made the fields and lanes gay with blue coats and the glitter of buttons. Military washes flapped and fluttered in the open air . . . and everywhere the boys threw up their arms and cut capers as we passed.” Arriving at nightfall, Louisa was cast into the chaos of the wartime city. A stranger corralled a carriage and jumped in with her, pointing out the unfinished dome of the Capitol and the brilliantly lit White House, where “carriages were rolling in and out of the great gate.” Louisa could just make out the East Room and wished she could peek in. Journey’s end was a formidable building with guards at the door “and a very trying quantity of men lounging about. My heart beat rather faster than usual, and it struck me that I was very far from home.”

The Union Hotel had been hastily converted to a hospital. It was badly lit, crowded, and poorly ventilated. The windows were nailed shut, and smashed panes had been draped with curtains to keep out the cold. Many of the rooms still bore their former designations, “some not so inappropriate,” Louisa thought, “for [her] ward was in truth a ball-room, if gunshot wounds could christen it.” She had barely mastered the route to her upstairs room when she was put in charge of a ward of forty soldiers sick with rheumatism or fever, and wondered when her real war duty would begin. Three days later it did: she was awakened “in the grey dawn” by a loud knock and a cry of “They’ve come, they’ve come! Hurry up ladies—you’re wanted.” For a minute she thought the rebels were coming, but in fact the first wounded were coming from Fredericksburg, where a bloody battle was raging. In five days, thirteen thousand Union soldiers had been killed, captured,

“Having a taste for ‘ghastliness,’ I had rather longed for the wounded to arrive, but when I peeped into the dusky street lined with what I had innocently called market carts, now unloading their sad freight at our door . . . my ardor experienced a sudden chill, and I indulged in a most unpatriotic wish that I was safe at home again.” Forty carts discharged their injured cargo bound for eighty beds in the once-elegant ballroom. Some were carried in on stretchers, others staggered in on crutches, and the few who could stay on their feet helped the many who couldn’t. “All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed until duly ticketed, and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled.” From behind a stack of folded linens, Louisa stared transfixed at a group of men gathered around the stove, “ragged, gaunt and pale, mud to the knees, with bloody bandages untouched since put on days before; many bundled up in blankets, coats being lost or useless; and all wearing that disheartened look which proclaimed defeat.” She could not move from fear until the matron, Hannah Ropes, thrust a washbasin, a sponge, and a block of brown soap into her hands and told her to begin washing patients as fast as she could. “If she had requested me to shave them all, or dance a hornpipe on the stove funnel, I should have been less staggered; but to scrub some dozen lords of creation at a moment’s notice, was really—really—.”

She did it anyway. For an unmarried woman of thirty, who may have never seen a naked man except perhaps her father, or boys at a swimming hole, or the Fruitlands nudist Samuel Bower by moonlight, it was a turning point. She had not only to see the men’s bodies, but to touch them intimately and with assurance. She clutched her block of brown soap “manfully” and made a “dab at the first dirty specimen” she saw, an “old withered Irishman” so delighted to have a well-meaning woman sponge him clean that he blessed her on the spot, which made her laugh. The worst was not over, but the fear of it was. For the next twelve hours she moved from bed to bed, washing putrid gaping wounds, mopping foreheads, bringing water to those who could drink and food to those who could eat, and stifling tears at the sight of young boys with stumps for legs or holes blown through their peach-fuzzed cheeks as she tried to ease their misery. Her gentle touch was usually the only, and the best, offering she could make to them. After she spoon-fed a New Hampshire man, she accepted a pair of earrings intended for the wife of his dead mate because, he said, she looked so much like the man’s new widow. A soldier shot in the stomach asked for a glass of water; she returned with it minutes later to find him dead.

The next day she assisted at amputations, where “the merciful magic of ether” was judged unnecessary, and “the poor souls had to bear their pains as best they might.” After the sawing, the hacking, and the trimming, she learned how to dress wounds from a surgeon who “seemed to regard a dilapidated body very much as [she] should have regarded a damaged garment . . . cutting, sawing, patching and piecing with the enthusiasm of an accomplished surgical seamstress.”

It was a harrowing initiation, but it made of her an instant veteran, confident and useful. Like her father’s friend, the poet Walt Whitman, who also served as a nurse, she understood that the battlefield was not necessarily where the essence of the war was to be found. “The expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked for . . . in the hospitals, among the wounded,” Whitman had written. In moments of calm on the ward, Louisa sat with her American personalities as they struggled to write letters home, letters that began with vivid descriptions of battle and ended with “a somewhat sudden plunge from patriotism to provender, desiring ‘Marm,’ ‘Mary Ann,’ or ‘Aunt Peters’ to send along some pies, pickles, sweet stuff, and apples, to ‘yourn in haste.’

She wrote a poem with the rhythm of a march and called it “Beds.”

Beds to the front of them, Beds to the right of them,

Beds to the left of them, Nobody blundered.

Beamed at by hungry souls, Screamed at with brimming bowls,

Steamed at by army rolls, Buttered and sundered.

With coffee not cannon plied, Each must be satisfied,

Whether they lived or died; All the men wondered.

“I never began the year in a stranger place than this,” Louisa wrote on the first day of 1863, “five hundred miles from home, alone among strangers, doing painful duties all day long, & leading a life of constant excitement in this great house surrounded by 3 or 4 hundred men in all stages of suffering, disease & death. Though often homesick, heart sick & worn out, I like it.” The night before she had celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation by leaping from her bed at midnight and racing to the window to add her own cheer to the hollering and singing in the streets of the embattled nation’s capital. She waved her handkerchief to a crowd of black men gathered below, and returned to bed to savor the bursts of firecrackers and choruses of “Glory, Hallelujah” that sounded all night.

A few weeks into the routine, she paused to outline a typical day. She was up by six, dressed quickly by gaslight, and then hurried to her ward to fling open the windows to air out the room. It made the men “grumble & shiver,” but Louisa (trained under a fierce fresh-air enthusiast) knew it was the only cure for air “bad enough to breed a pestilence.” She gave the fire a poke and went off to a quick breakfast with her colleagues. She found the women silly, the men self-important. At midday, she helped the wounded soldiers down big portions of soup, meat, potatoes, and bread, marveling that their appetites exceeded the supply of food, no matter how much was available. Newspapers, conversation, and doctors’ final rounds followed supper at five, the gaslight was dimmed at nine, and the day nurses’ shift was done.

Dr. John Winslow, a surgeon slow at his work though kind to the men, began to take an interest in Louisa and turned up at her room bearing books in lieu of flowers. She declined to visit his room but accepted his invitations to go walking. They went together to the Capitol to hear a dull sermon by William Henry Channing, then had a duller dinner at a German restaurant. “Quotes Browning copiously, is given to confidences in the twilight, & altogether is amiably amusing, & exceedingly young” was Louisa’s assessment of Dr. Winslow. Perhaps to avoid him, she volunteered for the night shift, which also freed her to take long runs in the mornings. From the top of a steep hill on her route, Louisa watched army wagons trundle off to replenish the troops, and saw the bursts of smoke from cannon fire.

Louisa liked being part of what she called the “night side” of life, to be up “owling” when “sleep & death have the house to themselves.” The hospital matron, Mrs. Ropes, admired Louisa and gave her the responsibility of assigning the patients in her three-room ward to the appropriate quarters, according to their condition: the “duty room” held the newly wounded; the “pleasure room” was for recovering soldiers, whom Louisa entertained with games, gossip, and probably the Dickens’ Sairy Gamp imitation that had been her sister Lizzie’s sickbed delight. The “pathetic room” of hopeless cases was a place to bring “teapots, lullabies, consolation, and, sometimes, a shroud.”

The sleeping men often broke the night silence of the ward talking, crying, making all kinds of noise. The gruff and reticent soldier by day became mild and chatty in sleep at night; the stiff facades of control devolved into groans and frank cries of pain; a drummer boy sang sweetly. Sometimes Louisa looked out the window at the moonlit church spire across the way, at the passersby on the street, at a boat gliding down the Potomac River. All that river water could not wash out the bloodstains on the land, she thought, but what had been washed away was Louisa’s naïveté about the excitement and glory of fighting a righteous battle.

One night she found herself alone at the bedside of a New Jersey man reliving the recent horrors of battle. He cheered on or cried out to fallen comrades, ducked incoming shots, and grabbed Louisa’s arm roughly, to pull her away from imaginary bursting shells. The man’s ravings were pitiful to hear and impossible to restrain. In the meantime, a fever-racked one-legged soldier propelled himself through the ward like a ghost, telling Louisa that he was dancing home, crashing into beds, and threatening harm to himself and everybody else. With no orderly there, Louisa was helpless to contain two sadly unhinged men, and the situation deteriorated even more when sobbing broke out from the twelve-year-old drummer boy in the corner bed. The boy’s loud lament was for the death of the wounded soldier who had carried him to safety.

Nursing tempered Louisa, matured her, replaced her book knowledge of behavior under duress with real-life experience. For all their liberality, her parents’ notions of human character were just that—notions. They were idealists (especially her father but also her mother) who didn’t see people for who they were so much as for how far they fell short of what they should be. Louisa wanted to know life in all its true variety, and she was getting the chance.

John Suhre was a Virginia blacksmith, a big strong man of thirty, her own age, with a small but indisputably fatal wound in his back that he could not see and had to lie on in order to breathe. He sat propped up in a bed that had been extended to accommodate his outsize frame, looking around with serenity, never making a request or a complaint. When he slept—and Louisa spent several nights watching him sleep—a tender smile played around his mouth, like a woman’s, she thought.

When he was awake, Louisa was a little afraid of the man. Unsure how to respond to his manly strength and dignity, she hung back, thinking she wasn’t needed or wanted. From her admiring description in Hospital Sketches, the book Louisa created from her letters home, it is obvious that she loved John Suhre, but whether with a worshipper’s awe, a woman’s desire, or a mother’s devotion is hard to discern. “A most attractive face he had,” she says, “thoughtful and often beautifully mild while watching the afflictions of others, as if entirely forgetful of his own.” She describes his eyes as “child’s eyes . . . with a clear, straightforward glance.” He “seemed to cling to life, as if it were rich in duties and delights, and he had learned the secret of content.”

She asked the doctor which man in her ward suffered the most, and was shocked to hear him name John. Because he was so strong, the doctor predicted a long and painful death. “There’s not the slightest hope for him; and you’d better tell him so before long,” he instructed. “Women have a way of doing such things comfortably, so I leave it to you.” Charged with this awesome responsibility, Louisa stayed close by as the doctor carelessly dressed the terrible wound. For the first time she saw tears slipping down John’s cheeks, his silent endurance of pain, and his terrible loneliness: “Straightway my fear vanished, my heart opened wide and took him in, as, gathering the bent head in my arms, as freely as if he had been a little child, I said, ‘Let me help you bear it, John.’ Never, on any human countenance, have I seen so swift and beautiful a look of gratitude, surprise and comfort, as that which answered me more eloquently than the whispered—‘Thank you, ma’am, this is right good! This is what I wanted!’ ”

The next time his wounds were dressed, Louisa held John, and he squeezed her hand to relieve his pain. When the ordeal was done, she eased him back against the pillows, cleansed his face, smoothed his brown hair, and spent a full hour by his bedside. When she stood to arrange his tray and his sheets, she felt his hand graze her skirt. Another day she put a sprig of heath and heliotrope on his pillow. Finally he said, “This is my first battle; do they think it’s going to be my last?” “I’m afraid they do, John.” It was the hardest question I had ever been called upon to answer; doubly hard with those clear eyes fixed on mine, forcing a truthful answer by their own truth. . . . To the end [he] held my hand close, so close that when he was asleep at last, I could not draw it away. Dan [the orderly] helped me, warning me as he did so that it was unsafe for dead and living flesh to lie so long together; . . . my hand was strangely cold and stiff, and four white marks remained across its back, even when warmth and color had returned elsewhere.

She helped prepare John’s body for burial, removing the wedding ring his widowed mother had given him to wear in battle and cutting a few locks of his hair to enclose when she sent the ring home to Virginia. A last letter from his family arrived at the hospital an hour before John’s death, but was not brought until an hour after it. Louisa placed the unread letter in the blacksmith’s calloused hand to bury with him as a signifier of loved ones at his bedside. Farewells were essential to a good nineteenth-century death.

Louisa had always considered herself immune to illness. When she developed a bad cough, she continued her daily runs in the dead of winter, despite colleagues warning her that she risked pneumonia. After three weeks of nonstop rounds, bad food, fetid air, and constant exposure to infection, Louisa’s fierce physical defenses gave way to typhoid pneumonia. A staff doctor found her on a staircase, too dizzy to stand, coughing uncontrollably, her forehead so hot she was trying to cool it on the iron banister. When the doctor ordered her to bed, she didn’t argue. “Sharp pain in the side, cough, fever & dizziness. A pleasant prospect for a lonely soul five hundred miles from home,” she commented before she succumbed, expecting neglect. But nurses ascended to her room to lavish Louisa with the same tenderness they showed their patients. Male attendants she knew from long nights on the ward kept her woodbox full, and a succession of doctors dosed her with calomel, the mercury compound that was used to treat just about everything; she revised her opinion of them sharply upward. Louisa understood their concern. The matron, Mrs. Ropes, had also been diagnosed with typhoid pneumonia and was not expected to survive.

Amid bouts of feverish delusion and constant pain, Louisa tried to “keep merry” by sewing for the soldiers and writing letters home, but felt worse every day. “Hours began to get confused; people looked odd; queer faces haunted the room, and the nights were one long fight with weariness and pain.” Though at times she was incoherent, even in sleep she never lost sight of the peril she was in. “Dream awfully, & awake unrefreshed, think of home & wonder if I am to die here as Mrs. Ropes…is likely to do.” Before collapsing, Mrs. Ropes wondered the same of Louisa . She sent the Alcotts an urgent telegram asking that someone come immediately to take Louisa home. She had served for six weeks.

Bronson left Concord that same day on the noon train to Boston and traveled straight through to Washington to arrive on January 16. Louisa, determined to serve out her three-month stint, had rejected every suggestion that she go home. Her father’s appearance made real her grave condition and the impact on her family if she were to die.

The room was swarming with people making recommendations. One of them was Dorothea Dix, who wanted Louisa taken to her own quarters for personal care. Louisa wanted to stay where she was. Bronson doubted that his daughter could regain either “strength or spirits” in Washington, but her doctors felt she was not strong enough to travel. Restless and anxious, but forbidden to stay at his daughter’s bedside, Bronson made the rounds of Louisa’s patients and was disabused of any romantic ideas about the struggle. “Horrid war,” he wrote in his journal, “and one sees its horrors in hospitals if anywhere.” On the nineteenth, he visited the Senate, and finding a seat near President Lincoln, studied his face at close range and found him “comelier than the papers and portraits have shown him,” and his manner impressive. “I wished to have had an interview, but am too anxious about Louisa, and without time to seek it or he to give.”

On the twentieth of January, Mrs. Ropes died. The next day Louisa agreed to let her father take her home.

Excerpted from Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen. Copyright © 2009 by Harriet Reisen. Published in 2009 by Henry Holt. All rights reserved.

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First Chapter

Louisa May Alcott

The Woman Behind Little Women
By Harriet Reisen


Copyright © 2010 Harriet Reisen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312658878

She has “a fine foundation for health and energy of character,” Bronson Alcott wrote to his father-in-law within hours of the birth of his second daughter on November 29, 1832. “[She] is a very fine healthful child, much more so than Anna was at birth.” He had wished for a boy, but he was linked to Louisa by a coincidence rarer than a common gender: “She was born at half-past 12 this morning on my birthday (33).”
Although they shared a birthday, Louisa May Alcott and her father were born under different stars. From the first, Louisa displayed her mother’s moody, passionate temperament. She was an autumn hurricane arriving twenty months after Anna, a veritable March lamb, a paragon of a baby with her father’s calm temperament. Louisa’s version of her vexed beginnings matched her sense that life had been one long battle from the start. “On a dismal November day I found myself, & began my long fight,” she wrote on her twenty-third birthday. Her first fight would be for supremacy over her sister. Her mother would be her best ally.Abigail May Alcott’s family was a distinguished one, especially on her mother’s side. Dorothy Sewall May was the daughter of Samuel Sewall, the deacon of Old South Church, from whose steps Samuel Adams had signaled the start of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The Sewalls were related to the Quincys and the Adamses; Abigail’s aunt Dorothy Quincy’s second marriage was to John Hancock. Born in 1800, Abigail (called Abby or Abba) was the youngest of the May family’s eight surviving children.
Colonel Joseph May, Abigail’s father and Louisa’s grandfather, came from a humbler line. (The title “colonel” was a memento not of wartime service but of his rank in a teenage cadet corps during the Revolution.) The son of a modestly successful lumber dealer, Joseph May met Dorothy Sewall when he was a thirteen-year-old apprentice in her uncle’s store. Enterprising and ambitious, by age thirty Colonel May was a rich and gregarious man known for his honesty, his love of learning, his charitable works, and his support of liberal causes. He was one of the best informed men of his day, according to a family biographer. Outside the family he was distinguished by his snuff habit and for wearing outmoded black silk stockings and knee buckles. All Boston knew of Colonel May’s vanity about his shapely legs, which he claimed were the models for George Washington’s in the full-length Gilbert Stuart portrait.
The Colonel’s easy course through life hit a snag in 1799, the year before Abigail was born, when he was involved in a disastrous investment. To clear his debts and his name, thirty-eight-year-old Joseph May gave up everything he owned, selling even the gold rings on his fingers. He vowed never again to pursue wealth, took a part-time salaried job in a shipping insurance office, and sold his grand mansion on Atkinson (now Congress) Street. He moved his family to a modest place on Federal Court. May’s was by all accounts a happy household, alive with music and intellectual engagement.
Abby was very attached to her father, although she later felt she could never live up to his high expectations. She was a much loved and indulged child, yet near the end of her life, she began her brief memoir on a deeply mournful note: “I was the youngest of twelve children, born sickly, nursed by a sickly mother.” The roots of Abigail’s lifelong melancholy and sense of having been shortchanged may lie in a childhood dominated by her mother’s declining health, the ghosts of siblings she never knew, and the subsequent deaths of other siblings she had known and loved.
Abby idealized her mother as Louisa would in turn idealize Abby as “Marmee” in Little Women. “She adored her husband and children,” Abby wrote of Dorothy. “She loved the whole human family.” Dorothy May had twelve pregnancies in sixteen years, several times burying an infant and giving its name to a successor: two Charleses, two Louisas, and three Samuels. When Abby was only a year old, her six-year-old brother Edward—“a fair-haired boy, with blue eyes, bright, playful, affectionate” in his younger brother Sam’s recollection—impaled himself on a post while playing in the backyard and bled to death in his mother’s arms. Two of Abby’s married sisters preceded her mother to the grave; only Abby, Charles, and Sam would live to see their own children grow up.
In her earliest years Abby was allowed to tag along after her older brother Sam to school in Boston’s High Street; later she was given private lessons. Both Sam and her older sister Louisa took an active interest in Abby’s intellectual development. From Harvard Sam corresponded with Abby about his readings in philosophy, while at home Louisa urged Abby to concentrate on her studies.
Abby shared her father’s love of music and reading, and favored him in appearance—the same thick eyebrows above deep-set brown eyes, the same sloping nose, fine upper lip, and vivid complexion. But where her father was steady and careful, Abby was mercurial and rash. By her own account, Abby “was a good child—but willful.”
When her parents suggested she marry one of her May cousins, Sam Frothingham, she resisted the idea; she wanted a love match. Her brother and ally Sam proposed to their parents that Abby spend a year studying with a Reverend Allyn in Duxbury, about thirty-five miles south of Boston. The courses in moral philosophy, natural theology, science, history, and Latin left Abby with a fleeting sense of possibility that she and her sister Louisa might together open a school. “I may yet earn my bread by the knowledge this year has afforded me. I am not willing to be thought incapable of anything,” she wrote, as honest a self-assessment as she would ever make. Aware of his sister’s inclination to despondency, Sam wrote to her of the importance of “a cheerful habit of mind. Cheerfulness is a kind of oil to the springs, and wheels of life. . . . Without it they may move, but they will move [badly and] all our duties will be performed with pain.”
It was advice she was constitutionally unable to follow. Her Duxbury sojourn did not make her happier, and, living under threat of an unwanted marriage, Abby could scarcely believe in any of her schemes for an independent life. Then, in August 1819, Sam Frothingham died unexpectedly. Abby insisted she be excused from any obligation to pay or receive calls. “If I incur the epithet pedantic or unsocial or misanthropic, I must bear it patiently,” she wrote, but patience was not a virtue she possessed. Louisa Alcott would not have it either.
Abby’s dream of starting a school with her sister ended with Louisa May’s marriage in 1823. She turned to her brother Sam, now a Unitarian minister embarking upon a distinguished career as a radical reformer as eloquent and fierce as he was sweet-tempered. Abby became a regular visitor at his home in the town of Brooklyn in eastern Connecticut, cheering on Sam’s efforts to reform education, and taking to his wife, Lucretia (“Lu”), as a sister.
Abby’s mother, Dorothy Sewall May, died in 1825; less than a year later Colonel Joseph May remarried. His new wife was just fourteen years older than his only remaining unmarried daughter. As a spinster of twenty-five, Abby could have hoped and expected to take on the role of lady of the house to her widowed father. Instead, disaffected with her father for remarrying and displaced by her stepmother, she paid a visit of indefinite length to her brother and congenial sister-in-law. On a hot afternoon in July of 1827, she was alone at the parsonage when a towering blue-eyed young man appeared at the door looking for Sam. Abby was almost twenty-seven and ripe for a serious attachment. After five minutes alone with Bronson Alcott, she was sure she had found it.
Of the small band of radical thinkers who defined the Transcendentalist movement of the early nineteenth century, Bronson Alcott was possibly the most original, certainly the most improbable. He was born Amos Bronson Alcox in the last year of the eighteenth century, into an isolated clan of farmers long settled in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. Their only news came in small weekly doses of the Connecticut Courant, read by the few literate to the many illiterate members of the family, among the latter Joseph Alcox, Bronson’s father. Bronson’s mother, Anna Bronson Alcox, though a genuine rustic who smoked a corncob pipe, could read, and taught her eager son to write the alphabet in the sand she used to sweep clean the kitchen floor of the home they called Spindle Hill. She praised his gift for drawing too. Bronson was the first of Anna Alcox’s eight children (of ten) to live past infancy; mother and son adored each other.
Bronson’s years of rudimentary country education, interrupted for spring planting and the fall harvest, ended when he was thirteen. He and his cousin William Alcox, also avid for knowledge, embarked upon an ambitious plan of private study. Their self-improvement program extended to their surname: their common paternal grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran, was Captain John Alcock, not Alcox. The pun-inviting family name was spelled several different ways, and none conjured the image of a cultivated gentleman. Young Bronson and William came up with the more refined “Alcott.” William took up a middle name, “Andrus,” and Bronson further improved his handle by reducing the plain “Amos” to its initial A. They assembled their own library of stray books hoarded by relatives, now and then scraping together enough money to purchase a volume. They acquired the poems of Pope, a volume of Milton, a copy of Robinson Crusoe, and more Bibles than they could use. They began a correspondence for their mutual edification, with marked success. Bronson succeeded in honing his intellect to the point where his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson opined that he could have talked with Plato. Dr. William Andrus Alcott wrote two of America’s earliest modern-style marriage manuals: The Physiology of Marriage and The Moral Philosophy of Marriage.
“Eli’s Education” is Louisa’s romanticized account of her father’s struggle to better himself with learning. She pictures him reading quietly “under the trees or by the fire” every chance he got, studying “as he went with the cows to and from the pasture, [sitting up] late in his little room, ciphering on an old slate, or puzzling his young brain over some question which no one could answer for him.”
The farm boy sought in erudition a route to illumination, finding it first in a cousin’s edition of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s 1678 allegory is a solemn picaresque whose everyman hero, Christian, makes a journey riddled with obstacles, burdens, and sacrifices (he leaves his wife and children), to go from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Christian’s journey served as the template of Bronson’s own, however many subsequent philosophies he piled upon it. He used Pilgrim’s Progress to instruct his children, and Louisa in turn picked up the leitmotifs of burdens and pilgrim journeys in Little Women and Work, another largely autobiographical novel.
At fifteen, encouraged by his mother, Bronson won admission to Cheshire Academy, six miles from Spindle Hill and a near-certain path to Yale. He was homesick and uncomfortable among the better-dressed boys and left after a few weeks. For the next two years he worked for the Seth Thomas clock company in one of the factories that had sprung up in Connecticut’s rocky fields. Although schoolteachers were paid less than factory workers, at seventeen Bronson took and passed the exam for his teaching certificate. When he was not given the post he hoped for, he became a Yankee peddler, first within his native Connecticut and later throughout the South.
Bronson, now a pilgrim-peddler, followed a path of learning. The Quakers of Albemarle Sound, North Carolina, instilled in him a belief in a direct personal relationship with God, a conviction of man’s great intellectual and moral possibilities, and a material asceticism to coexist with his native appetite for beauty. In the South, Bronson’s rough Yankee manners softened and grew more elegant when plantation owners admitted him to their elegant homes and fine libraries; when they didn’t, he observed slavery intimately during nights sharing the crowded quarters of the field workers.
In five years as a peddler, Bronson’s debts exceeded his profits. On his final trip, he walked the five hundred miles home to Connecticut, six hundred dollars in debt to his father.
At last Bronson landed a teaching job at the Cheshire public school. Eagerly he set out to overturn education as he had known it. He transformed the spartan schoolroom along Athenian lines, dignifying his students as he added backs to the uncomfortable benches, improved the lighting and heating, and provided individual slates for writing, paying for it all himself. He banished the rote learning and memorization that suffocated curiosity, and avoided corporal punishment in favor of more respectful forms of social organization, including an honor system. He elicited his pupils’ opinions, guiding their discussions along Socratic lines, posing questions rather than imparting facts.
Bronson’s radical teaching practices were admired in the small circle of freethinking educators in New England, among them Abby’s brother Sam May. In the spring of 1827, May wrote to Alcott, asking about his methods and philosophy. An invitation to visit May soon followed.
Bronson, not quite twenty-eight to the lovestruck Abby’s not quite twenty-seven, projected a patrician grace and confidence completely at odds with his country upbringing. Her opposite in coloring, temperament, background, and education, Bronson was also the first eligible man Abby recognized as her intellectual and spiritual equal. Her pent-up thoughts on education, social reform, women’s nature, and moral growth came spilling forth in a torrent. “I found . . . an intelligent, philosophic modest man . . . whose reserved deportment authorized my showing many attentions,” she would explain. Abby found his “views on education . . . very attractive,” although he was “not an educated man himself.” Indeed, Samuel May “soon saw the indications of a mutual attraction.” He, too, was dazzled by the young educator. “I have never been so taken by any man. He seemed like a born sage and a saint.” Bronson returned to Cheshire, and Abby proceeded to throw herself at his feet by mail. Excerpts from their journals and letters to others form twin soliloquies. Bronson: “An interesting woman [I] had often portrayed in imagination. In her [I] . . . saw its reality.” Abby: “I have been conquered by moral power, I serve moral excellence, I love moral rectitude.” Bronson: “All was openness, simplicity itself. Everything seemed to favor an acquaintance of a sentimental kind.” Abby: “I have something to live for.”The Yankee parents of Cheshire saw Bronson’s teaching methods as lax and indulgent. By the time he met Abby, he had lost their children to a traditional school. After his next school went the same way, he took the advice of Sam May to join forces in Boston with Scottish-born William Russell, founder of the American Journal of Education. Russell expounded on the educational theories of Johann Pestalozzi, a Swiss follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that children were born with the seeds of understanding. A benign facilitator could cultivate and bring them to fruition. Here was a philosophical steed for Bronson Alcott, whose stable of intriguing new ideas would be stocked with a new favorite every year or two.
On his way to Boston to meet up with Russell, Bronson stopped to visit the May household again. Abby thought Bronson’s manner formal and distant after ten months of flirtatious correspondence; perhaps Bronson, aware that he was in no financial position to propose, was afraid to encourage the forward Miss May. His reserve, wrote Abby, prompted her resolution to “avoid him as much as possible.” Ten days later, however, she was on a carriage to Boston.When Bronson Alcott first set foot in Boston in April 1828, the city was in a financial and intellectual boom. Armed with introductions from Sam May and his growing reputation in progressive education circles, he quickly landed a job as headmaster of a school for children on Salem Street in the North End. He boarded with William Russell at Mrs. Newall’s on Franklin Street and mixed with the reform-minded crowd.
He met twenty-four-year-old Elizabeth Peabody, a brilliant protégée of Dr. William Ellery Channing, the influential Unitarian preacher. At a second job running the Chauncy Place Sunday School he heard young Ralph Waldo Emerson preach, and judged his sermon “a very respectable effort.” By autumn, within five months of his arrival in Boston, Bronson Alcott had his own elementary school—sixteen scions of Boston’s best families aged three to seven, paying seven dollars a quarter—for an annual wage equal to a third of his debt to his father.
In June Abigail May, eager for employment and hoping to melt Bronson’s chilly demeanor by proximity, applied for a job as Mr. Alcott’s teaching assistant and renewed their acquaintance. Realizing that her feelings for him were also renewed, and evidently his for her, she had second thoughts about her application; her boldness might cause tongues to wag. Sam cautioned his sister to withdraw. But Abby’s overture got Bronson thinking about marrying the well-born Miss May. “We are unwilling she should engage in this school,” Bronson noted in his journal, using the editorial we of the day, “. . . she should assist in the more desirable situation that we propose.”
Abby accepted without consulting her brother or father, in keeping with her prickly independence and singular rules. “[Father] must approve what I have done, “ she asserted. “He must receive [Mr. Alcott] as a son, [and] make him acquainted with my relations and friends. . . . They must cultivate his acquaintance for my sake; they will love him for his own.”
His betrothed’s “take no prisoners” state of mind was not lost on Bronson. “I cannot look with complacency on . . . that spirit of individualism which sometimes assumes the form of pride,” he wrote her.
“I will modify it, if not eradicate it,” she replied—and complained in her diary that Bronson had “delicately sketched what the object of his affection should be rather than what she is.” It was a portent of decades of struggle to come.
Contrary to Abby’s expectation, her family welcomed Bronson. “Mr. Alcott’s visits afford us pleasure as we get more acquainted with him,” Colonel May wrote his daughter, “but he is a man who must be drawn out.”
Abby confided her hopes for the marriage in a letter to Sam. “I have something to love,” she told him. “I have felt a loneliness in this world that was making a misanthrope of me in spite of everything I could do to overcome it.”


Excerpted from Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen Copyright © 2010 by Harriet Reisen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What was your first experience with Little Women? How old were you? Who introduced you to the story? Which of the sisters did you relate to the most? What scenes do you remember most vividly today?

2. Louisa May Alcott describes the realization of her artistic ambitions as "a long-held dream." Reisen borrows the phrase to describe her own passion for literary biography. Do you believe that Louisa completely fulfilled her long-held dream, or is her work unfinished? Does Reisen fulfill her dream? Can a biography of someone as complex and influential as Louisa ever be finished?

3. In what ways is Louisa a quintessential American figure?

4. In what ways was Louisa far ahead of her time?

5. What traits did Louisa adopt or inherit from her mother? How do those traits contribute to her survival and success? See her mother's letter to her on page 118. How does her advice become central to Louisa's lifelong "creed" on page 332:"Work is such a beautiful & helpful thing & independence so delightful"?

6. Reisen portrays the relationship between Louisa and Bronson as the most complicated of her life, beginning with their shared birthdays and ending with their near-simultaneous deaths. See Bronson's birthday letters to the child Louisa (52, 79) - how does Reisen characterize Bronson? Does Louisa's desire to remain unattached stem from her view of her parents' marriage? Do Reisen's speculations about Bronson's likely mental illness affect your impression of him? Do your feelings about him change throughout the book?

7. Under the pen name and alter ego A. M. Barnard, Louisa wrote work that is a far cry from the sweet, domestic stories for which she was popularly known. Is it possible to write well about subjects or places one has never experienced, as when Louisa writes about prostitutes, murder, and sexual relationships? Did she in fact have dark knowledge to draw upon as inspiration?

8. Thoreau and Emerson were ever-present forces in Louisa's life. How might she have fared without their help and influence? What are some of the roles they played for her and Bronson?

9. In what ways do the Marches live a rosier life than the Alcotts? Did Louisa create the Little Women version of her family in order to explore and work out negative feelings about her childhood? Do you think the book would have been as commercially successful if it were more closely autobiographical?

10. Louisa worked on Moods at different times throughout her career, but seems never to have been happy with it (234). Why did she return to it again at the age of 50 rather than starting a new project? Why did she feel the need to write a great "adult" novel, after achieving such honor and success with Little Women?

11. Louisa's poems reveal much about her various emotional and mental states throughout her life. Yet, her response to the publication of the heartfelt "Thoreau's Flute" (226) was that she was a "mercenary creature" who enjoyed the 10 dollars it brought. Does Louisa seem to take refuge in art perhaps as the only place where she can reveal her vulnerabilities?

12. Would Louisa have been happier had she chosen to be more "selfish" after her success, choosing relaxation and pleasure like May? Why does Louisa believe that May's near-perfect happiness after her marriage was too good to last? Was May's untimely death a symbolic blow for Louisa as well in terms of her view of life?

13. Louisa moved countless times in her life, hardly staying in the same place for longer than a year. Why was it so difficult for her to settle in any location? What were the effects of her vagabond lifestyle?

14. Money was Louisa's greatest motivation for her relentless pace of writing, but fame was an inevitable consequence. Was she ever able to truly enjoy the fruits of her labors? Why did she either dismiss or hide from her fans - with the exception of the Lukens sisters (322)? Why did she wish all her letters to be burned after her death? And why do you think she was so especially careful not to disclose the nature of her relationship with Laddie?

15. Louisa seems to take solace in work and a sense of sacrifice for her family. Was she justified in thinking of herself as a martyr for her family, beginning with Reisen's oft-mentioned incident with the plumcakes? Does Louisa take up this role independently, or is it forced upon her? Why does it especially bother her not to receive presents for Christmas or birthdays? Consider the tragedy that she died utterly alone on her sickbed.

16. How does this biography affect your previous impressions of Louisa? Of mid-19th century America? Of your own attitudes toward familial responsibility and independence?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2012


    Scholarly but interesting. I liked learning more about the real Louise May Alcott and following her life before and after Little Women.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2013

    Hey gurl

    Wats up

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2013

    Little Women was one of my favorite books growing up, but I knew

    Little Women was one of my favorite books growing up, but I knew very little about its author, other than what she chose to reveal through Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March. This is the true story of the Alcott family, starting with her parents' radical views and resulting gentile poverty, the mental illness that likely plagued her family, and her eventual success as the author of Little Women. Well worth the read if you're a Little Women fan.

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    Posted March 20, 2011

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