Thursday, July 29, 2010

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen (2009)

As I've probably mentioned before, I've loved Louisa May Alcott ever since I read Little Women as a child and then found out that Alcott and I shared the same birthday. When I picked her as the topic for an elementary school report I also learned that she was tall and thin, had only sisters, and that she loved to read. And now that I've read this well written biography by Harriet Reisen, I've also learned that, like me, Alcott shared a birthday with one of her relatives (in her case, her father; in my case, my sister) and that she loved to read (and made quite a bit of money writing) pulpy fiction serials for popular magazines.

Okay, the similarities between myself and Louisa May Alcott pretty much end there: my dad is sometimes philosophical, but he is a good provider and way more down to earth than Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott; I only lived in three houses growing up -- Alcott moved 30 times before she was in her mid-twenties; I'm no fiction writer; and my personality tends to be pretty even keeled and not as frenetic as Louisa May Alcott's. Still, I like to think we would be good friends if she hadn't passed away back in 1888.

Reisen's biography is an extremely readable exploration of Louisa May Alcott's life, starting with her parents' childhoods and ending with her death (which, incidentally, was only two days after the death of her father). While the author is closely focused on the life of Alcott, her family was at the center of many important aspects of 19th century America (abolition, Transcendentalism, the Civil War, women's suffrage) that the reader can't help but get a healthy dose of American (and Bostonian) history.

It is well known that Alcott based her best-selling novel, Little Women on her own family, and in fact much of Alcott's fiction was drawn from her real life experiences. And while all the characters and many of the events in Little Women have their parallels in reality, Louisa May Alcott's childhood was much rougher than the book allows. Having a Transcendentalist father meant that Alcott grew up with Emerson and Thoreau as neighbors and friends, but her father's writing was never successful, and for much of his life he was not much respected outside of his circle of friends. He never made money at his philosophical and educational work, and the Alcott family struggled to make ends meet through loans from friends and family (that were never paid back), and by moving frequently to escape their debts. Bronson Alcott's philosophies of diet (nothing but bread, water and apples) and cleanliness (cold shower outdoors) didn't make life any more comfortable for his wife and four daughters. And yet, the family was very close, and Louisa May Alcott was ultimately able to support both her parents and her sisters through her writing.

Lucky for us, an intellectual family like the Alcotts placed a big emphasis on writing and Alcott kept a journal from the time of her childhood and sent out a huge number of letters to her friends and family. Because of this, Reisen is often able to tell us Alcott's story in her own voice and cut our impression of the moralistic narrator of Little Women with the biting wit and outspoken nature of the real Louisa May Alcott.

And now that I've read this biography, I want to go out and read everything by Louisa May Alcott that I can get my hands on....

No comments: