[8 March 2011]
Writing reviews of author biographies presents questions nested inside of each other like Russian matryoshka dolls. Would someone be interested in this biography if they have not read the author’s books? Or, does the biography stand on its own two feet, deftly exploring a life so intriguing that literary reference points are non-essential? And, does it matter? Is a biography less worthy if it is only of interest to those familiar with the author’s canon?
I don’t know the answers, but I can say this: If you read Little Women as a child, then Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women will bring back happy memories of why you wanted to be Jo or May or Beth or Amy March, or maybe parts of all four, while taking your assumptions about the life of a female children’s book author in the mid-1800s and throwing them straight out the window.
Biographer Harriet Reisen writes that “[Alcott] was her own best character”. Most readers will know that Alcott poured herself into Jo—the boundlessly creative, restive, mischievous tomboy who involves her sisters and the neighborhood children in all manner of high-jinx. However, Alcott wrote more than just children’s books, and Reisen reveals how Louisa can also be found in Kate from An Old-Fashioned Girl, grappling with the thrilling highs and exhausting lows of newfound fame; Gladys from A Modern Metamorphosis, using marijuana as a means of escape; and Christie in Work, standing on a bridge, distraught and seriously considering the jump.
Louisa May Alcott lived during a fascinating time in US history, and she was in the thick of it, serving as a nurse during the Civil War, advocating for Abolition, learning to appreciate nature from Henry David Thoreau, and admiring Ralph Waldo Emerson. She also had the counter-culture experience of being an “Alcott”, which meant growing up under the strict moral code of her father, Bronson. Bronson kept the family on a vegetarian diet, prescribed cold showers, and once moved them to a commune where they survived on bread, apples and water. His socialist principles would not allow him to own property, and he asked only for “contributions” as payment for his work, not a salary. He did not concede an inch to the Zeitgeist, or his family’s comfort. Abby, Louisa’s mother, resorts time and time again to begging her relatives for money to keep the family afloat and takes on numerous odd-jobs, including a post as one of the country’s first social workers.
No doubt due to this upbringing, Louisa is preoccupied with money for most of her life. She spends years spinning story after story at a feverish pace, not for the erudition of society, but to pay the bills and support her family. At various points, both Abby and then Louisa wear themselves down—often to the point of illness—bearing the burdens of Bronson’s admittedly noble ambitions.
Funny and engaging, the Alcott that Reisen brings to life would have been an enjoyable person to spend time with…at least when she was in one of her good moods. She seems to have had three temperaments—good, bad, and vortex, the all-consuming “entranced state” she entered when writing. Alcott would sometimes collapse after these intense bouts of creativity and be incapacitated for months. Reisen has an obvious affection and admiration for Alcott, but her portrayal is not rose-colored; she delves into her moods, even positing that Alcott might have been manic-depressive. (Louisa, too, recognized her emotional swings, commenting decades later on a diary entry she wrote as a child: “Moods began early”.) Reisen also does not shy away from exposing Louisa’s martyr complex, which often leads her to portray everyone as out to get her, fairly or not. For example, on her 36th birthday, Louisa rather childishly bemoans the fact that she has received too few gifts.
For the obsessive “LMA” aficionado, there is some freshly-discovered material in this book: the 1975 notes by Alcott biographer Madelon Bedell of her interview with Lulu, Louisa’s niece, then aged 95. Reisen tracked down these notes after discovering a letter from Bendell in a used copy of her biography; it luckily contained an address where Bendell’s widower still lived. Lulu’s reminiscences do not offer any ground-breaking details, but confirm the characters of two of the Alcott sisters: Louisa was “strong, and I think her voice rang out” and Anna, the older sister, was “like a dove” and “serene”.
Reisen has studied the Alcotts for more than two decades, and it shows. Louisa May Alcott is certainly researched thoroughly enough to satisfy Little Women fans. If you want more, though, there is more. Reisen also is the producer and writer of a well-received 2009 American Masters documentary with the same name as the biography. Depending on your own mood, the book or the film will either encourage you to re-read Alcott’s classic, get swept up in one of her adult thrillers, or unearth her lesser-known satires and poems. Whether you’ve read any of Alcott’s works or not, this biography will make you admire the sheer will, creative force, and contagious energy of one of America’s great female literary figures.