Louisa May Alcott

lmaI’ve posted here before that the book I’ve re-read most in my life is probably Little Women. I started reading it when I was about ten or eleven, and I’ve read it over and over since then, understanding it differently as I grew older. If you told me I’d read it more than a hundred times, I might believe you; I expect to read it many more times before I’m done.

I’ve always understood that Little Women has a lot of autobiographical content in it. But until I read this biography, Louisa May Alcott, by Harriet Reisen, I didn’t know what sort of a patchwork it was: bits of Alcott’s childhood and adulthood, some pieces taken directly from her life and her journals, other pieces romanticized or given a glow, other pieces completely invented. And of course, some parts of her life left out entirely. How could it be otherwise?

Louisa Alcott was born in 1832, the daughter of Bronson and Abigail Alcott. Bronson Alcott was a minor member of the Transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau. Those gentlemen certainly had their occasional issues with structures of authority (see “Civil Disobedience” for a good example), but Bronson Alcott went much further, declaring that work for wages was beneath him, that eating meat was murder (not a widespread 19th century opinion), and that he and his family should only bathe in cold water. He tried to earn money by giving speeches, or “Conversations,” about his principles, but they were surprisingly unpopular, and his family was always grindingly poor. Abby, Louisa’s mother, took in sewing and occasionally taught school, which were the only genteel ways for a woman to earn money; it kept the family fed, but little else. In Little Women, Louisa Alcott gives the March family a servant, but her own family always did their own basic chores. While she praised the dignity of honest work, she longed to be “rich and happy before I die.”

Of course, as soon as Louisa was old enough, she took to her pen to support her family — something she could excel at, and something she loved doing (as opposed to being in a schoolroom or scrubbing floors.) She wrote to suit her audience — from fairy tales to Christmas stories to lurid pulp fiction about the fate of young girls who accept hashish-laced candies from strangers. (Pro tip: not good.) She wrote novels looking at marriage in new ways; she furiously supported temperance and abolition. And in the middle of all of this, she went to nurse Civil War soldiers and dispatch sketches from the hospital, so everyone would know the experience of “our boys.”

This time at the front destroyed Louisa’s health. She contracted typhoid pneumonia, and was given calomel for it, which contains high doses of mercury. She didn’t recover from the pneumonia for months, and her health was never the same again. There’s a theory that this grave illness — and its “cure” – triggered an autoimmune response, and that for the rest of her life she suffered from lupus. There’s no real way to diagnose such a disease at this distance in time, but doctors from Johns Hopkins have made a pretty good stab at it in their paper “Louisa May Alcott: Her Mysterious Illness.”

Reisen’s biography does a lovely job of showing Louisa’s relationships, especially with her immediate family. Her mother Abby was as tempestuous and hot-headed as Louisa herself, and we see the faint echo of Marmee’s confession that when Jo was small, she herself had a temper; Lizzie’s quiet, early death mirrors Beth’s; older sister Anna is the gentle dove, and May is the artist who has her path smoothed by her sweet temperament. Laurie, it turns out, was based on a young Polish man named Ladislas Wisniewski whom she met on her travels. It seems clear their connection was brief, good-natured, and romantic — a sort of fling with no major expectations on either side, with Ladislas’s youth and energy being one of his main attractions. (Go, Louisa!) The one character whose personality does not appear to be at all the way it appears in the novel is Bronson Alcott’s. Louisa’s father was probably mentally ill, suffering from chronic depression and perhaps from hallucinations and delusions. He was often hypercritical of Louisa and the rest of his family, and certainly rarely did any work to support them. He had young female devotees as he got older, and spent his time in “conversations” with them, which at least kept him busy. Not exactly the wise, gentle March father who is portrayed in the pages of Little Women. That at least is a lovely little piece of wishful thinking.

Louisa’s great satisfaction as she got older was to provide for those she loved by her writing: to make her mother comfortable in her old age, to care for her niece when her sister May died in childbirth. Her novels were tremendously popular during her life — she was mobbed by fans, a bit the way Dickens was, though she didn’t capitalize on that the way he did — and she was able, indeed, to be “rich and happy before she died.” That was in 1888, at the age of 55. She died only two days after her father did.

I enjoyed this biography a great deal as an introduction to Louisa May Alcott’s life, but I would by no means say it was perfect or exhaustive. Reisen has that biographer’s trick of saying things like “no doubt wits at the time made thus and such a joke” or “no doubt Abby thought thus and so” without a shred of evidence that it happened. She doesn’t pay much attention to social history, either; she glosses over what Trancendentalism is, and what it must have been like to live in Concord at that time; she doesn’t talk a lot about the abolitionist movement; she barely touches on the woman’s suffrage movement. Some of that context would have put Louisa May Alcott’s life into perspective, instead of the isolation it currently stands in. But even so, it was very interesting to read about the life of such a vivid, strong, intelligent person, the author of some of my favorite books.

Do you like Louisa May Alcott? Have you read any of her pulp fiction? What’s your favorite of hers?

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20 Responses to Louisa May Alcott

  1. marcia lengnick says:

    I have not read Louisa May Alcott since I was a girl (I’m now 76) but your review of her biography inspires me to suggest a reading of LITTLE WOMEN for my Book Club..Literate Ladies.

    • Jenny says:

      I think she holds up wonderfully — I’ve read her as a girl, an adolescent, a young woman, and an adult, and I’ve loved her at all ages. There’s very little there to gloss over or excuse, in my view.

  2. Little Women was my favorite book growing up, too, though I haven’t read it nearly as many times as you have! I’ve read quite a bit of her pulp fiction. My favorite is A Long Fatal Love Chase, but I’ll admit you have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. If you’re looking for more reading that features Transcendentalists, I’d recommend Emerson’s Wife, by Amy Belding Brown. I loved it and found it to be a great blending of biography and fiction. For pure biography: Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. It provides that greater context I think you’re looking for.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for these great recommendations! I especially think the Cheever sounds good. I think I’ll put that right on my list, and A Long Fatal Love Chase probably belongs on my kickass women’s summer book group read.

  3. I’m sentimentally fond of Jack and Jill and Eight Cousins, myself, but Little Women’s the book I return to most often. It always seems sad to me that she altered her father’s character so much — I didn’t know that there was speculation he was possibly suffering from hallucinations. What makes the historians think that/not be sure that it was the case?

    • Jenny says:

      Well, Reisen talks about his journals and letters a bit, and he talks about demons quite a lot, along with very vivid dreaming about such things. The delusions are just delusions of grandeur sorts of things, but the hallucinations are speculations about his good-and-evil sorts of ramblings made flesh. Poor man, if it was true, but he really made his family’s life a misery as well. Ugh, his poor wife.

  4. Lisa says:

    My mother gave me a box set of Louisa May Alcott’s novels when I was 7 or 8, and I have read and re-read them ever since – not quite as obsessively as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, but close. My favorite is An Old-Fashioned Girl, but I love them all. (Except Under the Lilacs, which I only recently read for the first time – not a favorite.) I’ve read A Long Fatal Love Chase, which I enjoyed, but none of her other gothics so far. I’ve also read an edition of her letters & journals, which was interesting, I’d like to read a biography, but probably not this one.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, this one was a nice intro, but I think if you were looking for a “real” biography, I’d look for something different. (My mom gave me this one.) I adore An Old-Fashioned Girl and also Jack and Jill!

  5. I inherited my mother’s copy of Little Women and for years it didn’t occur to me to find out if she wrote anything else. I think her profile is maybe a little lower in the UK than it is in the USA. I’ve read A Long and Fatal Love Chase and Behind The Mask from her pulp/gothic titles and I’m open to reading more,

  6. Hi. At one point about twenty-five or so years ago, I ran across Alcott’s “pot-boilers” (as Henry James used to refer to pulp fiction) and was astounded to find the author of “Little Women” writing such things. I can’t remember them really apart from each other, but they are really rather remarkably different from the book she is known best for, and I found them a bit haunted and weird. I’m glad to know that she made a sizeable amount of money from them, and sorry about her mercury poisoning.

    • Jenny says:

      I was also happy to find that she was one of the artists who was popular during her lifetime — it’s such a tossup, isn’t it? She was so unwell, especially toward the end of her life, that I was glad she could be as well taken care of as money could make it.

  7. I think An Old Fashioned Girl is currently my favourite, but I have lots more to read (yah!) so I’m open-minded! That biography tick of “no doubt…” would annoy the hell out of me. There’s always room for doubt — that’s the ultimate fascination about trying to get someone else’s life down on paper.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Vicki, I am the same way, I hate that tic, I notice it every time. I always think, “Well, were you there?” But the bio wasn’t bad overall as an introduction. I’d look for something different if you wanted a real exploration. And I love An Old-Fashioned Girl as well!

  8. Jeanne says:

    After I’d read Little Women I found Little Men at the library, and then Eight Cousins. After a while, feeling that they weren’t as good as the first one, I quit searching for any more.

    • Jenny says:

      I’d recommend An Old-Fashioned Girl, and perhaps Jack and Jill. They are none of them quite as good as Little Women, but they have their own merits. I am personally not very fond of Little Men, and though I like Eight Cousins especially for the “Rose dresses sensibly” bits, it’s quite a sad book at heart.

  9. Did you see my bit about the Muncie Public Library database, where Alcott is the 7th most popular writer during the 1890s, roughly. And with a couple dozen popular books, too, not just Little Women and its sequels. Quite something.

    • Jenny says:

      The game of Authors goes back to… 1861, is that right? And Louisa May Alcott is the only woman in it, and always has been. It’s an interesting selection of authors, if you look at it, for a popular kid’s game. Hard to predict who will be popular in their lifetime and who not, and then who’ll be popular a hundred years later; I always like those posts you do.

  10. JaneGS says:

    The more I learn about Louisa May Alcott, the more she fascinates me. I read Eden’s Outcasts a couple of years ago, and found it enthralling. I agree that Bronson Alcott suffered from mental illness–he was an aggravating, egotistical, harmful father and husband, and I think worked LMA’s poor mother to death. I find it admirable in LMA that she makes Mr. March as admirable, albeit remote, as she does.

    I only read LW for the first time just after I read Eden’s Outcasts, but read her Civil War Hospital Sketches, which I found uneven, but overall good and some excellent. I have Eight Cousins on my TBR shelf for later this year.

    This sounds like a pretty good bio, though you point out where it is weak. I find so much to admire in LMA and how she faced life and shouldered responsibilities and made something of her life, even after her health was severely compromised.

    I loved visiting Orchard House a year or so ago, though I felt the tour guide really sanitized a lot of the Alcott family history and made the Alcotts sound more like the Marchs than was really the case. After all, Bronson almost starved his family to death during the ill-fated Fruitlands experience!

    • Jenny says:

      I would be very interested to visit Orchard House! I think LMA played up the similarities between the Alcotts and the Marches herself, and so did her older sister — it was easy to do so, as you can imagine. I would enjoy reading those hospital sketches. And yes, it was a pretty good biography, though I really would have liked more social context.

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