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Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little…

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

by Harriet Reisen

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  lindap69 | Apr 5, 2013 |
As is true for so many others, Louisa May Alcott and her alter-ego, Jo March, are icons of my childhood.

I already knew quite a bit about Louisa May Alcott but I still found this an informative biography.

Louisa seemed to resemble her counterpart, Jo March, even more than I'd expected. I was also surprised by how many details from the Alcott's real lives found their way into Little Women. Not surprisingly, it seems as if she wrote her life, but as she wished it to be.

I found some of the details from Louisa's mid-life or so a bit surprising. For instance, her romance with the real Laurie.

I find it terribly sad that this woman who as a girl could go into raptures over nature, or who was always the one to lead any kind of fun, who gave so much pleasure to others, and who worked so hard for everyone around her was never able to find her own happiness. She never really was able to enjoy her own success. ( )
1 vote bookwoman247 | Aug 25, 2011 |
I guess the book deserves a review from me, or at least a discussion, since I gave it a pretty low rating of two stars.

One of the problems I had with the biography is that it suffers from a lack of proportion. The book is 300 pages long, so it's not very long, as biographies go, yet on page 80 LMA is only eleven years old. Now there may be good reason for so much emphasis on Louisa's young life--probably so, in fact, since LMA's entire life was so wrapped up in her family of origin. However, the reader does hope at this point that Reisen will move along the story a bit faster.

Question: Why, in all the biogs of Alcott, does the father, Bronson Alcott, get a total pass? (and in Reisen's book, the treatment is the same). He's always presented as some sort of genius, and I'm quite sure he may well have been, but it also seems as if the man had serious mental problems, as he seems completely incapable of taking on adult responsibilities. He probably would have been much better off being the unmarried "crazy uncle," taken care of by the entire extended family.

Reisen does a good job with Louisa's mother, Abby March, who comes across as a most interesting, if not conflicted, character. Reisen tells us that when Abby couldn't take her husband's craziness anymore, she would periodically leave home, taking one or two of her children with her for an extended visit with family in Boston. The wonder is that she ever returned.

The child Louisa, in Reisen's hands, is an extraordinarily intelligent, head-strong girl in need of different parenting than what she was getting at home.

To be honest, I'm not sure that there's much new here in Reisen's biog of Alcott. The only new speculation that comes out of this book is about the reasons for Louisa's chronic poor health. Other biographers have speculated that her symptoms were caused by mercury poisoning from the calomel given to her when she had typhoid pneumonia during the Civil War. That conclusion is rather convincingly disputed in Reisen's book. But is there anything else that's really new? It's clear that Reisen has relied heavily on LMA's journals for her research for the book. In fact, if the journals are read alongside this biography, then often the same thing is read twice, often word for word. Although not particularly surprising, since biographers always use the sources they have, I would say that Madeline B. Stern, an Alcott scholar, used the same material in her biography of Alcott, and in my opinion she did it better.

Having said that, I would add that one of the things I learned from the Reisen biog is that Alcott's journals and letters evidently were redacted after Alcott's death by her sister, Anna Pratt ("Meg of Little Women) and a woman named Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney, a writer, social activist, and family friend. Anna gave Louisa's papers to Cheney, who used them to publish two books about LMA, books which perpetuated the "genteel spinster Aunt Jo" image that Louisa had created about herself. Says Reisen, "[Cheney] and Anna Pratt excised from the various journals and letters whatever they thought detrimental. Worst of all, Cheney did not return many of the papers she consulted, leaving contemporary scholars only Cheney's own selective transcriptions as sources." Reisen gives her readers this information on the last page of the book. I wish instead she had written this into an introduction.

If you plan to read only one biography about Louisa May Alcott, I recommend the one by Madeline Stern, first published in 1950 and reissued by Random House in 1996. ( )
3 vote labwriter | May 3, 2011 |
Reisen's biography is an extremely readable exploration of Louisa May Alcott's life, starting with her parents' childhoods and ending with her death (which, incidentally, was only two days after the death of her father). While the author is closely focused on the life of Alcott, her family was at the center of many important aspects of 19th century America (abolition, Transcendentalism, women's suffrage) that the reader can't help but get a healthy dose of American (and Bostonian) history.

[full review here: http://spacebeer.blogspot.com/2010/07/louisa-may-alcott-woman-behind-little.html ] ( )
1 vote kristykay22 | Jul 29, 2010 |
Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen

"Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" is a fascinating biography into the life of the author of the classic "Little Women," and also an in-depth look at her family. Reisen provides an extremely complete picture of Louisa's unusual childhood, and how it influenced her later publications.

The beginning of the book focuses on her father, Bronson Alcott, an unusual man for his time; he was one of the early Transcendentalists, and counted Emerson and Thoreau among his friends. Bronson focused on philosophy, experimental teaching, and lecturing rather than supporting his family; the Alcotts moved over twenty times while Louisa was a child. Often a wild, unruly child, Louisa had a rocky relationship with her father, but was a mini clone of her mother. It was Abby Alcott, Louisa's mother, who encouraged her to write as a way to express her feelings.

Well aware of her family's financial troubles as a child, Louisa's goal as an adult was to fully support her family, while trying to have a measure of independence for herself. Her start in writing came after publishing a book of children's stories, and indeed, her most successful novels would be written for youngsters. But Reisen explains to readers that Louisa wrote thrillers under pseudonyms, and they were rather popular - and likely her preferred format. Louisa would strive all of her adult life to write one great novel that she could be proud of, and never thought "Little Women" was that book, even though it was her biggest cashcow. And with Louisa's drive to earn earn earn, money was often the deciding factor in what she wrote.

Louisa is a tragic figure: she spent her entire life being pushed one way or another, feeling obligated to help family and friends at the expense of her own personal life. She literally wore herself out and died at the relatively young age of 55. She took care of her sisters, mother, father, and friends; and even when she was fully supported by her writing, she never really got to enjoy the fruit of her labor.

Reisen paints an interesting and educational picture of Louisa's life. While remembered mainly for "Little Women," Louisa was so much more than just a children's author. She was a feminist, an abolitionist, a poet, a Civil War nurse, philanthropist, and so on. I learned so much while reading this book, and not just about Louisa, but also about the Transcendentalists and the Civil War era. And while it could be easy to fall into hero worship, Reisen is careful to point out the flaws in Louisa's character, penning a realistic image.

The biography starts out a little slow, but if you give it a chance for a few chapters, I think you'll be pulled into a wonderful tale. Reisen makes use of abundant source material, including many quotes from Louisa's journals and poetry, but weaves them seamlessly into the narrative. I learned a lot, and had an enjoyable time doing so.

4/5. ( )
1 vote 5aweek | Apr 25, 2010 |
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To Nancy Porter, treasured friend and colleague
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She has "a fine foundation for health and energy of character," Bronson Alcott wrote to his father-in-law within hours of the birth of his second daughter on November 29, 1832.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805082999, Hardcover)

A vivid, energetic account of the life of Louisa May Alcott, whose work has delighted millions of readers

Louisa May Alcott portrays a writer as worthy of interest in her own right as her most famous character, Jo March, and addresses all aspects of Alcott’s life: the effect of her father’s self-indulgent utopian schemes; her family’s chronic economic difficulties and frequent uprootings; her experience as a nurse in the Civil War; the loss of her health and frequent recourse to opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and symptomatic pain. Stories and details culled from Alcott’s journals; her equally rich letters to family, friends, publishers, and admiring readers; and the correspondence, journals, and recollections of her family, friends, and famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author’s classic rags-to-riches tale.

Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James in the dust. This biography explores Alcott’s life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. A fresh, modern take on this remarkable and prolific writer, who secretly authored pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and completed heroic service as a Civil War nurse, Louisa May Alcott is in the end also the story of how the all-time beloved American classic Little Women came to be. This revelatory portrait will present the popular author as she was and as she has never been seen before.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:10 -0400)

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An account of the life of Louisa May Alcott explores her life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical.

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