Louisa May Alcott—With Clips from the Documentary— Tuesday, March 13

Harriet Reisen (left), and Nancy Porter, makers of a PBS documentary of Alcott's life

Louisa May Alcott spent her childhood in Boston and in Concord, Massachusetts, where her days were enlightened by visits to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s library and excursions into nature with Henry David Thoreau. When she was 35, she wrote the beloved Little Women in her childhood home, basing the novel on her family during the Civil War. Author Harriet Reisen’s diverse credits include historical documentaries for PBS and HBO, co-producing National Public Radio (NPR), and teaching film history and criticism at Stanford University. Publishers Weekly called her biography of Alcott (Picador, 2010) “heart-rending.”

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Q: The Alcotts were mid-19th century vegetarians; the father, Bronson, opened the equivalent of one store-front school after another, teaching the children through “conversations,” as he called them; Louisa went for morning runs; and the family joined a series of communes. Were the Alcotts antebellum hippies?

Insofar as any term of social classification is transferable from one era to another, I’d say yes, you could say the Alcotts were “hippies.” The word conveys the flavor of their nonconformity and its relation to the “straight” world, to borrow a second term from the 1960s. To use a third, the Alcotts were part of the “counterculture.” Like their counterparts in the 1960s, they were interested in eastern spirituality, homeopathy and “alternative lifestyles” (a fourth term). They were also committed to social equality for people of both genders and all races, making sacrifices and taking risks far greater to achieve those goals than the mocking connotation of the word “hippies” implies.

Q: The patience of Bronson’s wife, Abigail was saintly.

Actually, like her daughter Louisa, Abigail had no patience and was given to wild mood swings and fits of temper.

Q: Even though her husband preferred to let his family remain impoverished rather than work like other men, she supported him.

Abigail supported her husband’s ideals, in part as a defense of her choice to marry and stay him. In later life Bronson lamented the suffering he had caused her out of his inability to earn a living.  He was not a lazy man, but he was stupendously impractical, uncompromising in his principles, and too far ahead of his time to hold an ordinary job.  His career as an educator— and he was a brilliant one— was ruined because he admitted a young black girl to his school twenty-five years before the abolition of slavery. He wouldn’t accede to parents’ demands that he throw her out, and lost his other pupils when he refused.

Q: But Louisa seems to have had her father’s number: that is, she was not beguiled by him posing as a sort of St. Francis of Concord, Massachusetts. Is that accurate?

Not really. Louisa didn’t see Bronson as a poseur, and shared Emerson and Thoreau’s high estimation of his intellect. She subscribed to some of his ideas, especially about education, and expressed them in her books. Her father’s deep interest, respect, and love for his children led her to see him as helpless, not lazy or uncaring. She was not, however, in the least beguiled by the windy speculation that he published in The Dial, the Concord-based Transcendentalist magazine.

Q: Being poor and noble held no charm for Louisa. She wrote like a demon, some of it what we would call pulp for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. And she became rich. Looking at the family dynamics, why or how did Louisa end up supporting the entire family, to the detriment of her health?

Louisa May Alcott

In childhood, seeing her family without food, clothing, and shelter of course terrified Louisa. And Louisa admittedly quested after riches and fame.  But I think that underlying those more apparent motives was a desire for power, and for Louisa Alcott, the family was the seat of power.

As a mere toddler Louisa mounted a violent, strategically clever, and successful campaign against her older sister for supremacy among the sisters, and was the acknowledged leader thenceforth. When she became rich she had charge of her parents and family arrangements as well. To rescue her family from poverty, Louisa worked from a young age at every job short of prostitution that was available to women, even appearing as an actress, and considering marriage to a man of means.

Low pay, poor conditions, and possibly malnutrition in childhood contributed to the breakdown of her formidable constitution. It didn’t help that when her younger sister died, she became housekeeper as well as breadwinner; when her brother-in-law died she stepped in as a father. She took her mother’s place as her father’s caretaker, and her sister’s place as mother to her niece. No wonder she said that her destiny had been to fill “empty niches.”

Q: Louisa’s loves were platonic, it seems. She admired and felt affection for Emerson and Thoreau; she had an affair of the heart with a much younger European man; and some have speculated that she loved a Civil War soldier she nursed who died. But most of her intimate correspondence is to women. She’s described by some who knew her as “more like a man” than women, in terms of her assertiveness and demeanor. Here’s the inevitable question: could Louisa have been gay, or at least asexual?

I found no evidence that she was gay, nothing in her correspondence to women that is more intimate in any sexual sense than in letters to men, and I don’t think such a passionate woman was asexual. In her pulp fiction she writes convincingly of sexual passion and romantic love between the sexes – also of drug use, crime, espionage, interracial marriage, revolution, power struggles within marriages, and a whole lot of other things one wouldn’t expect from her young adult novels.

Then there are the two weeks she spent in Paris, alone and unchaperoned, with that handsome young Polish musician.

Alcott did say once that she fell in love only with pretty young girls. And long after I wrote the book I noticed one letter to a female friend that made me wonder. Louisa burned a lot of correspondence which might have answered the question of her sexuality, although nineteenth-century correspondence would be unlikely to be conclusive.  I’d love to have some of the lost letters to see if she expresses anger towards her father. And  I wish someone would investigate the gay issue, which keeps coming up without being substantiated.

Q: What accounts for the appeal of Little Women for girls, a book that Alcott thought was rather ordinary when she wrote it? 

Little Women, first edition in 1868

Part of the appeal of Little Women is that it’s about sisters, their differing interests and personalities, and girls’ relationships in general. Most girls find the ins and outs of social relationships more compelling than anything else, and Alcott takes girls’ relationships seriously, which was rare in young adult literature until recently.

Alcott also treasures the passions of the adolescent girl, and champions them, while social forces in general tamp them down, subduing girls as preparation for submissive wifehood. This is less true today, of course, and girls have more choices in reading and in life. But Alcott’s voice is also witty, humane, and full of feeling, and she connects to her reader as few writers do. I often meet girls who read Little Women every year, and mothers who make an event out of passing the book down to their daughters. Few nineteenth-century authors are read for pleasure anymore, yet an undiscovered Alcott novel made the New York Times bestseller list for four weeks, as recently as 1995.

Q: Alcott is like A.A. Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh), or Mary Travers (Mary Poppins): authors who wrote for adults, but became most famous for their juvenilia. Did Alcott feel chagrined that what made her rich was the series that resulted from Little Women?

Yes. Alcott wanted the approval of Emerson and the literary establishment of Boston above all, and never got it. She spoke of writing “moral pap for the young” because “it pays well,” and said her preference was “for the lurid style.” When Henry James called her “the Trollope of the nursery” she did not take it as a compliment. Like Trollope she wrote quickly, without revising, and expressed the hope that she might write one great book, not realizing that in Little Women she had done it.

Q: There’s a memorable moment (among many) in your book, when Bronson Alcott goes to Washington to visit Louisa, who’s a nurse at a Civil War hospital. Bronson strolls over to Congress to have a look-see, and ends up sitting a few seats away from Lincoln. But he doesn’t find that remarkable. Likewise, Louisa passes Hawthorne going for a walk during her morning runs. What accounts for how so many intellectuals and artists knew or encountered each other in mid-19th century America, when mass communication was unknown?

Maybe it’s because mass communication was unknown. People had to meet each other to get the immediate back-and-forth we can find on the Internet with strangers we have the most fleeting interest in (and the interchange reflects that).

Like you, I was struck by Bronson Alcott’s casual brush with Lincoln, and how he passed up a chance to speak with him because not only the President had pressing business but also because he did (Louisa’s life-threatening typhoid pneumonia).

Frederick Douglass

One reason I was attracted to Louisa’s story was that she seemed to know everyone who was anyone in her day, and well. You could go through nineteenth century America with her.  Elizabeth Peabody boarded with the Alcotts when Louisa was a child, and John Brown’s daughter lived with them after Brown was executed. Margaret Fuller was Louisa’s father’s teaching assistant. So was Dorothea Dix, the reformer of prisons and mental institutions. William Lloyd Garrison was an Alcott family intimate from the days when he, Abigail, Bronson and a few others founded the Massachusetts Antislavery Societ.  Louisa knew Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. They, as well as Emerson and Thoreau, figure as characters in her novels.

Artists and intellectuals actively sought each other out and gossiped like crazy in those days. Emerson drew Alcott to Concord with free housing and hospitality, but called him a “tedious Archangel” and joked that Alcott and Hawthorne together might make one real man. Louisa reported seeing Julia Ward Howe at a party, wearing a green dress that made her look “like a wilted lettuce.” Carlyle found Bronson Alcott vapid; reported to Emerson that he was “bent on saving the world with a return to acorns,” and opined that his thinking was “imbecility which cannot be discussed in this busy world.”

Q: You came across items about Louisa May Alcott during your research that had been undiscovered by previous biographers and scholars. What did you find, and how you feel uncovering such treasures?

As I’m sure you know, there’s nothing like coming across a piece of information that turns some unrelated facts into a story. For example, Louisa had a cousin, also named Louisa (Willis), she was clearly enormously fond of. But she dropped out of Alcott’s papers entirely, What happened to her, I wondered.  Louisa Willis had died young, I learned at a genealogical site on the internet, In childbirth I suspected, because of her young age and childlessness. Then, late one night many months later, I searched the internet again for cousin Louisa, and found a vivid account of her suicide and prior long history of mental illness, in an obituary in the antislavery paper the Liberator. This allowed me to identify the Louisa Willis story as the probable basis of the suicide chapter in Work. I also realized that Alcott’s Letters from the Mountains was not a contemporaneous series of missives, but a reworking of letters from a vacation with the Willises, put together after the cousin’s death. Louisa abandoned the series in mid-publication, and I could reasonably speculate that the light-hearted tone of the tale was too difficult to sustain.

Another late-night foray onto the Internet, with the guidance of a genealogist friend, led me to the probable identity of the well-fixed suitor whose proposal Louisa dismissed in a note of one line with the closing “In haste, L.M. Alcott.”

Q: Finally, you write brilliantly: never a false note; all the prose under control, page after page; and the pacing and voice is uniform throughout. How did you develop your powers as a writer?

I had long wanted to write a biography of Louisa May Alcott, and when I produced and wrote a documentary about her for PBS American Masters, I was offered a book contract by Henry Holt and Co.

I’d learned from my experience in media to keep a tight timetable, and so I vowed to hold the book to under 300 pages, and as a screenwriter I naturally have in mind the principles of dramatic storytelling. To guide the editing, I ruthlessly cut anything that did not further my primary goal, to present a living, breathing human being against the rich backdrop of her times. Bronson Alcott threatened to run away with Louisa’s story, especially in her early years, and he is fascinating, but I kept his story within the context of Louisa’s life. Then there was the challenge of Louisa’s enormous literary output – more than 200 works. Rather than set myself up as a literary critic or an academic, or summarize plots, I decided to confine my discussion of Alcott’s work to its relevance to her life and what it revealed about the workings of her imagination. I took her at her word when at the end of her life she said she lived in her mind, and found amusement there. (After all, for an artist, what takes place there is as real as external events.)

Writing and re-writing, I challenged all my material: did it support Louisa’s story (and was it essential)? Was Louisa placed actively within the events of her times? Did the characters and incidents have emotional resonance and dramatic shape or were they only interesting? Any passage that didn’t pass those tests was cut, no matter how much I loved and labored over it.

I suspect that these strict parameters give the book the sense of control you felt.

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Harriet Reisen will present her biography of Louisa May Alcott, together with clips from her documentary film, on Tuesday, March 13 at 7:30 pm in Dodd Auditorium on the campus of the University of Mary Washington. All Chappell Great Lives lectures are free and open to the public. To receive regular updates about the series, add your e-mail as a subscriber on the home page.