Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book Review: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
by Harriet Reisen
A John Macrae Book, Henry Holt and Company
362 pgs.

Aside from her being born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia (Louisa has such the spirit of a Philly girl!) and that her family was connected with influential leaders of the Transcendentalist movement and Unitarian religion, I admit that I didn't know much about Louisa May Alcott beyond her most well-known books. And even with that, Little Women is the only book of Alcott's that I've read.  (My grandparents bought it for me for Christmas when I was 11. I still have the gift tag with my Mom-Mom's handwriting in the front cover and it still makes me cry because I miss her, even though she's been gone six years.)

Well, now that I've finished Harriet Reisen's incredible biography of Louisa, I want to read all of her work, immediately. One of the "take-aways" from this biography is that Louisa poured so much of her life (as well as that of her family and acquaintances) into her writing.  I knew that was true with Little Women, but I didn't realize that was true with her other novels, plays, and short stories.  I also never realized how diverse of a writer she was; in addition to her stories for children (and creating a "brand" - the actual term used in the biography - for herself as such), Louisa also wrote "thrillers," poetry, fairy tales, pulp fiction, and more. 

For Louisa, reading and writing was one of the constants (along with acting in her original plays) during an unstable and uncertain childhood.  The Alcott family moved frequently (by the time she was in her mid-20s, Louisa would have lived in thirty different homes!) and they were often deeply in debt and in poor financial straits. Louisa and her three sisters often went hungry when they weren't dining on meals of bread and water, along with the occasional apple.  (Later in life, when she realized success as a writer, she philanthropically supported causes that helped orphaned and hungry children, along with women's suffrage and temperance.)

Bronson Alcott, Louisa's father who she shared her birthday with, was a unconventional teacher, philosopher and thinker who considered neighbors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson among his best friends (and indeed they were ... Emerson often helped the family financially).  However, Bronson often prioritized his "work" as an intellectual thinker over providing food for his growing family, believing that "Providence would provide."  (Reading Reisen's biography made me feel somewhat annoyed at Mr. Alcott, as on more than one occasion he seemed oblivious to the fact that his wife and daughters were starving while he was having Conversations about ideas with other thinkers.) 

As perturbed as I was with Mr. Alcott, I was absolutely intrigued with Louisa's mother Abby. Clearly, she is the inspiration for Marmee in Little Women, for this woman comes across as a saint. It was Abby who went to her wealthy brother to appeal for money or took in sewing or even a foster child.  She was resourceful, devoted to her children, strong and resilient, and did everything she could to keep her family fed and clothed.  (It's easy to say that she should have left Bronson, but in the mid-19th century, that wasn't exactly often done.) 

In these pages, biographer Harriet Reisen brings Louisa to life in a way that her readers may have never known. Almost every paragraph has at least one quote (and usually several) from Louisa via one of her letters, journal entries or other writings, so much so that at times this biography feels more autobiographical. It reads like a memoir or even a novel in terms of its pacing, and that only adds to the strength of the book.  (I happened to listen to chapter 9 and part of 10 on audio and felt that something was lost in the audio version, which is narrated by Reisen.  I think it might have something to do with the frequent inclusion in the text of Louisa's quotes, thus making it difficult to distinguish between Louisa's words and Reisen's. As much as I enjoy audiobooks, this one is definitely better in print.)

As to be expected, Reisen provides her reader with much reference, analysis, and summary of Louisa's vast writing.  Again, I had no idea that her body of work was so large and also so diverse, and as mentioned, I want to read all of it now.  (And I want to do so with Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women beside me as a reference point. I borrowed this copy from the library, but this is definitely a book I would like to own.) 

It didn't happen overnight, but by the time she was in her mid-30s, Louisa's writing became the catalyst (the "providence" that would provide) for the Alcott family finally being able to get out of debt permanently (it would take the family an entire decade to pay off the medical bills from daughter Lizzie's illness and eventual death) and Little Women was written as somewhat of a contingency on the publication of one of her father's writings.  Little Women's success was immediate and enormous, bring Louisa the wealth and fame she'd long craved, as well as a financial a stable means of supporting her family. (She subsidized sister May's artistic pursuits in Europe, during which she was friends with the same cast of characters - Degas, especially - that I recently read about in Claude and Camille!  I just love when my reading overlaps like that.)

The Little Women phenomenon also ushered in a downside.  There was intense demand for more of Louisa's writing (which affected her health and exacerbated what may be believed to have been manic-depressive tendencies), and pressure from being constantly recognized (and the need to occasionally go incognito). It's easy to see the beginnings of our celebrity-obsessed culture in the public's clamoring for more, more, more of Louisa and her books.

I've always been interested in Louisa May Alcott, but this book has earned her a spot on my favorite author list.  In addition to being an admirer of her work, it is easy to fall in love with Louisa as a person, complex as she was.  She has many qualities that I identify with and see in myself, and I think that's such a big part of her charm and why she is beloved by so many. There is a part of Louisa, of Jo March, in all of us.   

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women is a truly remarkable book and a must-read for anyone who loves Little Women (or literature in general). A tribute to one of America's most beloved authors, this book doesn't disappoint and is indeed a treasure and a triumph.  (This review is based on the hardcover edition.  The paperback edition comes out today!)

What Others Thought:

A Work in Progress

At Home with Books
(Alyce mentions a similar thought as I had with this biography, which is that I wished it had photos. I agree.  Harriet Reisen replied to this on Alyce's blog by mentioning that there are photos at www.louisamayalcott.net.  Apparently the publisher nixed the idea of including photos in the biography. (Can't say that I understand or agree with that thinking, but whatever ... at least they are there on the website.)

Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover

Margot from Joyfully Retired is hosting the All Things Alcott Challenge - which you can still join (I just did!) since it goes until December 31, 2010.  I'm a little late in signing up but this is a pretty low-key challenge.  Even if you just read this biography, you've met the Challenge!  (And after my raving about how wonderful the book is and the others saying the same thing, you know you want to.)

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Amy said...

Wow. I've also only read Little Women but you have me wanting to read this book, and more by her!

Margot said...

I'm so glad you liked this book. Actually it sounds like you more than liked it. It is a book that also made me so enthusiastic about Louisa May Alcott. It took me back to those days early in my life when I spent a lot o time reading Little Women and all her other books. It's been fun going back again. I'm also glad you joined (and fulfilled) the challenge.

Florinda said...

I have been waiting for this to come out in paperback for MONTHS - my copy is supposedly being delivered today :-). I read several LMA biographies when I was young, but it's been a long time, and I'm really looking forward to reading this one. So glad you liked it!

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

But, Florinda, you were the winner of the giveaway of this one on Margot's blog!

Erin said...

I love when a biography increases my interest in a person and their work instead of sates it! I've only ever read Little Women, but now I want to read the biography!

Anonymous said...

Hey Melissa
Wonderful review - and I absolutely agree - this is a great biography. Like you, one of the things I found most interesting was the diversity of her work - I sort of had the impression that she was a very prim and proper Missy from Little Women - but actually she's a real force of nature!

Anne Bennett said...

I'm coming over from the Saturday Review thingy at Semicolon...first time visitor to you rblog. This review makes me want to do two things...reread Little Women and read this biography. Nicely done.

Cindy Swanson said...

Little Women was the first "chapter book" I read as a child, and I've loved Louisa May Alcott ever since. I've read a few biographies of her, but it's been many years. Looks like it may be time for me to take a fresh look!

I enjoyed your review. Hope you'll check my review out at http://cindysbookclub.blogspot.com