Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Womenby Harriet Reisen
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
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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Louisa May Alcott
The Woman Behind Little Women
By Harriet Reisen
PicadorCopyright © 2009 Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter
All rights reserved.
Fit for the Scuffle of Things
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 short-changed 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.
Excerpted from Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen. Copyright © 2009 Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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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.
Harriet Reisen’s interest in Louisa May Alcott dates to her marathon reading of Alcott’s eight children’s novels during a rainy spell one childhood summer. Over the past twenty years, what began as an idea for a film biography of Alcott developed into a passion for the subject herself. A former fellow in screenwriting at the American Film Institute, Reisen has written dramatic and historical documentary scripts for PBS and HBO, and radio commentary for Morning Edition and Marketplace. She lives in Massachusetts.
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Scholarly but interesting. I liked learning more about the real Louise May Alcott and following her life before and after Little Women.
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.