Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

She may have written homey tales of family, but Louisa May Alcott’s own life was filled with struggle.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen Henry Holt 384 pp., $26

If Louisa May Alcott’s family were alive today, they would likely try their hands at working an organic co-op in Massachusetts, keeping company with Michael Pollan, and seeking out other progressive writers of the day. But if things turned out anything like they did in real life – when father Bronson subjected his family to life at Fruitlands, an experiment in agrarian communal life in Harvard, Mass. – the four young daughters and debt-ridden parents would suffer mightly from hunger, cold, and the effects of poor nutrition.

The author of the timeless homey tale “Little Women” herself lived “an unusually varied experience,” in her own words. She was a child of a transcendentalist, an actress, a Civil War nurse, an invalid’s governess, an elite first-class traveler of Europe, and the celebrity writer of a multitude of family tales and racy pulp fiction. Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women perceptively traces each wild turn of the author’s life through diary entries, letters, and her own largely autobiographical popular fiction. (A televised version of Reisen’s book aired Dec. 28 on PBS’s “American Masters.”)

“Little Women” itself was born of the need to pay off family debts. It was the plague that, left by her father – whose dreamy utopian ambitions were only matched by his lack of financial wits – defined Alcott’s life until adulthood. Bronson Alcott prodded his daughter to turn the family’s tales into a book when a publisher was chasing after the already-popular children’s author. “I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing,” Louisa wrote. “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

Of course, they did. The American classic was an immediate hit that hasn’t yet lost its appeal to young readers. Alcott even paid one of her family’s final large debts with the book’s proceeds – a decade-old doctor’s bill for treatment for young Lizzie (“Beth” to fans) at the time of her death. “Every penny that money can pay – and now I feel as if I could die in peace,” Alcott wrote.

But she had much more time to live and would always be far from peace, despite her fortune. In 1871, for example, she took in $7,654 from just one publisher’s royalties. According to Riesen, Alcott was making over $2 million a year in today’s dollars. But despite being the family breadwinner, she was also the caretaker, long nursing her ill mother and at times her father, and taking on her late sister May’s (“Amy”) infant daughter. She became the “Alcott family writing manufacturer, nurse, maid, and bill payer,” in Riesen’s words.

Though Alcott modeled the spunky “Jo” after herself, her life was the more interesting of the two – although with far fewer happy endings besides her eventual fortune as a fiction writer. She was chronically sick after her war-nurse stint. She never married. Her family moved 30 times by her mid-20s. Her two younger sisters died before she did. She took morphine, opium, and hashish in no small quantity. She didn’t even take pleasure in the hordes of fans that trekked to her home: Reisen describes her as a “curmudgeon” who turned away excited young girls. Sometimes she pretended to be a gardener to avoid them.

For Alcott, writing was what her aching machines of fingers could churn out to pay the bills as much as it was a creative outlet. (She admitted easily bowing to popular demand to have Jo marry in her fiction, though she would have preferred to have her as a strong and independent spinster like herself. “[S]o many enthusiastic ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse, and out of perversity went & made a funny match for her,” Alcott wrote.) She “was addicted to popularity, and knew better than to flout convention too much,” Reisen says.

Riesen’s biography makes these astute analyses having examined each curve of the writer’s career. The book suffers only from such a microscopic examination that details and characters are confused in a way that they wouldn’t be in an Alcott story. But if Alcott’s most popular novels drew on biographical material to make a neat, family-friendly tale, a biography of the troubled and spirited woman herself can be anything but.

Taylor Barnes is an intern at the Monitor.

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