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LOUISA MAY ALCOTT by Harriet Reisen


The Woman Behind Little Women

by Harriet Reisen

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8299-9
Publisher: John Macrae/Henry Holt

A deliciously palatable biography of the iconic writer whose life was “as full of plot and character as any [she] invented.”

Inspired by research from her documentary of Alcott (1832–1888) for the PBS series American Masters, Reisen delivers an in-depth portrait of the spirited, sentimental, imaginative, realistic woman whose childhood vow was to “be rich, famous, and happy.” Reisen draws extensively from Alcott’s prodigious output of literary works, travel sketches, articles, journals and letters, as well as the recollections of her contemporaries. Born to bohemian intellectuals, the young Alcott grew into a moody, passionate girl much like her famous character, Jo March. Her parents kept the company of transcendental luminaries like Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and Hawthorne, but experienced material poverty. The utopian nightmare of her father’s experiment in communal living, her youngest sister’s death and her older sister’s engagement became defining events in Alcott’s life, leaving her determined to shoulder family financial and household burdens. Under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, Alcott churned out pulp-fiction thrillers, generating income and sating her thirst for adventure. She followed the phenomenal success of Little Women in 1868 with six other popular children’s novels, but was tormented by a culture of celebrity and ill health until her death. Reisen deftly weaves the story of Alcott’s life into the rich social, cultural and historical fabric of mid-19th-century New England. The author’s insightful examination reveals Alcott as a compulsive writer who peppered her stories with external details and internal currents of her life; an ardent abolitionist who served as a Civil War army nurse; a self-espoused spinster who cherished her independence but harbored a schoolgirl romantic attachment to Thoreau and a midlife crush on a young Polish pianist; a thoroughly modern feminist who wrote about the power struggle between the sexes and championed women’s suffrage; and a middle-aged woman who relied on opiates to cope with her failing health.

An absorbing portrait of the protean author whose “life was no children’s book.”