Click here to read reviewer Susan Johnson's take on Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.
Never out of print since it was first written, Little Women is a book that has informed many a girlish fantasy. It offered the possibility that a girl could grow up to be a dutiful wife and a famous writer. Its author, Louisa May Alcott, never married and throughout her life remained the obeisant daughter and sister. Her mother died in her arms. She adopted the daughter of May (her fictional sister Amy) and lived through the death of the tenderhearted, not-long-for-this-world, too-good-to-be-true Lizzie (the fictional Beth). But beyond the cozy fictional March family hearth and the determination of Jo/Louisa to be a moral, self-sacrificing family member, many questions remain.
Of course, Alcott’s famous book (and its several sequels, written in the potboiler serial style Louisa secretly loved, but without the pirates, tramps and swashbuckling, sword-carrying heroes) now seems quite dated. Ms. Reisen’s biography reminds us that in its day, however, Little Women was avant garde. For the girls of the March family even to use the word “guess” instead of “suppose” was considered slangy and outré. Not only that, but the book, written for youngsters, had the same sort of titillating appeal that the Harry Potter series might today invoke, because its girlish protagonists were seen to have dark and grown-up reflections about life, even going so far, in the opening scene, to decry “Christmas without any presents.” This downright rebellious sentiment was contrary to how children were meant to act and think, and Louisa knew it. A brilliant businesswoman who kept her own copyrights, she wrote “what she lived” and had a talent for delving into the teenage mind before the concept of
The second daughter of a dreamy, semi-famous Transcendentalist whose ideals did not extend to adequately providing for his brood of four daughters and an artistic wife, Louisa began to keep a diary as soon as her little fingers could hold a pen. Her father, Bronson, dragged the financially strapped family from commune to cottage, but his love for his children was a saving grace. His childrearing technique included much that would be considered best practice nowadays, always encouraging little Louisa to speak up and be creative. But, contrary to modern wisdom, he was not averse to pinching her to show how much it hurt when she did that to her sister, even if the “lesson” had to be repeated thrice before the toddler “learned.” All her life, Louisa subsumed her needs to the needs of others and in middle age wrote in her diary, “Never shall have my own life.”
Wracked by physical pain, which some have attributed to mercury poisoning acquired when she contracted dysentery while nursing wounded Civil War combatants, but which Reisen believes was an anti-immune disorder, perhaps lupus, the ever-adventurous Louisa smoked hashish and took opium. She was well aware that such medication was habit-forming, but she enjoyed the dreams it induced, allowing her freedom in her mind that she could but rarely experience in reality.
What we don’t know about this remarkable spinster who hobnobbed with some of the greatest intellects of her day – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Tubman, Nathaniel Hawthorne -- is as fascinating as the compendium of facts that Reisen has carefully collated. Louisa dropped a sentence here and there that call to us across the years, about being in love with more pretty girls than handsome men, and being satisfied with the simplicity of the “Buddha religion.” Abolitionist, author, nurse-soldier, martyr, feminist and free-thinker, Louisa May Alcott remains a mystery despite the many speculations about her. Reisen’s book opens further tantalizing doors, illuminating the personality of one of America’s great female writers.