Friday, August 02, 2013

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

Louisa May Alcott's life continues to be rewritten, as scholars discover new facts about the author many years after her death in 1888. At the Houghton Library at Harvard University in the 1950s, a researcher looking at letters found that Alcott had written pulp stories under the name A. M. Barnard. More recently, medical experts have discounted the theory that mercury given to treat pneumonia contracted during while nursing Civil War soldiers caused Alcott's poor health over the last half of her life. After reading her journals and letters and seeing a painting in which the artist put a slight butterfly pattern across her face, they think she may have had lupus erythematosus. According to Harriett Reisen in Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, scholars are also still seeking missing genre stories that Alcott wrote before her great success with novels for children.

What continued to impress me as I read through this biography of Alcott was how she was connected to many of the leading figures of the mid-19th century American literature. In early life, she knew Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. It would not be possible for most young women growing up in poverty to have met all of these people. But the Alcott brand of poverty was a strange condition born of her father's attempts to live a pure life, untainted by owning property, trying to shape a new society from an old order that resisted his ideas. He had followers, but his Utopian experiments always failed, leaving his family hungry and sometimes homeless until friends and rich relatives offered help.

Reisen's lively biography of Alcott is a companion to the documentary shown on PBS's American Masters, for which Reisen wrote the script. It is an entertaining read for anyone who has read Alcott's books or who enjoys 19th century history and biography.

Reisen, Harriet. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. Henry Holt and Company, 2009. 362p. ISBN 9780805082999.

11 compact discs. Tantor Audio. ISBN 9781400144457

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