Friday, September 11, 2009
Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women
68. Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen
Could any woman with a shelf full of books by and about Louisa May Alcott resist a new biography* of her? What about one who devours Little Women and other titles yearly? Who is known to have corrected a docent at Orchard House who mistakenly called Beth the youngest of the March sisters? One who thrilled to the discovery of Alcott's thrillers, and leapt on a previously unknown (to her) bit of juvenile fiction? (A pause here to give thanks to the late Madeleine B. Stern.) This one couldn't. And pleased I am that I gave way to the blandishments of Amazon Vine, because this is a marvelous addition to the aforesaid shelf.
Louisa May Alcott was the second of four daughters born to the Transcendentalist philosopher, Bronson Alcott, and his wife, Abigail May Alcott (Abby). Alcott was one of those men with grand ideas and a head in the clouds, but little practical sense. (It has been fashionable to view Bronson Alcott as a bit of a villain in relation to his family, particularly Louisa. Reisen, I think, gives a more balanced portrait of him. Her description of his ups and downs, and the family history, suggests the possibility of bipolar disorder or depressive episodes, but she quite rightly does not draw that conclusion.)
So the family's financial situation was always unstable, and, as a result, so was their living situation. They moved four times in the first year and a half of Louisa's life, and many more after that. While living in poor circumstances themselves, the Alcotts had wealthy relatives, and that contrast clearly affected Louisa. She was driven to succeed, at least in part, to provide for her parents (particularly the beloved Abby) and sisters. But where the real Alcott wealth lay was in the life of the mind, in their connections to the intellectual and literary world of the New England of their day. They had regular and intimate contact with people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and others, who would appear, sometimes only slightly disguised, in Louisa's fiction.
Reisen does not merely tell us how Louisa lived. She also does an exemplary job of showing how that life, and the people with whom she shared it, showed up in her books. And she shows, too, how Louisa's day-to-day life affected what and when she wrote. Those blood-and-thunder thrillers, written as "A.M. Barnard" and rediscovered by Stern and Leona Rostenberg, helped fill the family coffers when times were tight, but they also gave Louisa an outlet for her desire for adventure and action, something difficult for a young woman of her class and time to find in the real world. She couldn't fight a war (though she could nurse, to the detriment of her own health), she couldn't run away to sea or "go west, young man!", but she could write.
In later life, Louisa suffered greatly from a variety of medical problems. Reisen revisits, with the assistance of medical experts, the question of what caused these problems and (ultimately) her death. Louisa herself, and her doctors, attributed her troubles to mercury poisoning resulting from the use of calomel as a curative during her service as a nurse. The doctors Reisen consulted show, quite conclusively, that this is not the case, and she posits that Alcott may have been suffering from lupus. Her arguments are convincing, but, again, she rightly does not insist upon the diagnosis.
Written in connection with the PBS documentary of the same name, this book is extremely well-researched and documented**, with an extensive bibliography and notes. It is one that I would recommend to anyone who has loved Alcott's work.
*Kudos to Reisen for correcting, on her LibraryThing profile (and elsewhere, for all I know), the publisher's erroneous cover blurb describing this as "the first complete biography" of Alcott.
**Here's serendipity for you! The late Madelon Bedell, in her book The Alcotts: Biography of a Family, makes reference to an interview she conducted with the then-96-year-old Lulu Neiriker Rasim, Louisa's niece. Try as she might, Reisen couldn't find the interview or a surviving Bedell. Then, well, let Reisen tell it: "One day I picked up a used copy of The Alcotts, and out of it tumbled a carbon copy of an August 1980 letter written by Bedell herself to Michael Sterne, then the travel editor of the New York Times, proposing a story. At the bottom of the letter was a return address in Brooklyn where, more than two decades later, Madelon Bedell's widower still lived." He helped Reisen locate and recover Bedell's papers, now on their way to Orchard House.