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Hailed as the first complete biography of Louisa May Alcott despite the fine previous work of Madeline Stern and Martha Saxton, Harriet Reisen's "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" does valiantly portray the beloved author as a stalwart woman whose life, as Reisen succinctly puts it, was no children's book. The daughter of impecunious transcendentalist Bronson Alcott and long-suffering Abigail May, as a girl Louisa Alcott watched her father preach esoteric uplift while practicing the penury that impoverished the family.
Bronson's redeeming trait, Reisen speculates, may have been temporary insanity. The sadder case was Alcott's mother—the model for Marmee in Little Women—an intelligent woman harnessed to a man in search of the ineffable and, on occasion, young female acolytes. Louisa appointed herself the Golden Goose of these needy nurturers.
Churning out what Reisen calls the chick-lit of its day to provide her mother and sisters the material comforts she never had, Alcott also used her imagination, according to Reisen, to escape the confines of ordinary life, although for Bronson Alcott's daughter, ordinary life was not all that ordinary; Reisen calculates that the family moved at least 30 times by Alcott's 20s. The ordeals of childhood were transmuted into rich literary endowments, Reisen explains.
Alcott also wrote to earn parental approval; no longer was she a tomboy with a temper, though a careful reader can detect the anger beneath the surface of her most placid stories. Yet there's something else unexplored here: by converting a childhood of raw apples, cold-water baths and ceaseless sibling rivalry into the stories and novels that supported her family, she also kept that family forever dependent on her.
In this companion to an upcoming PBS documentary on Alcott, Reisen too often interprets Alcott's life through her work, as if Alcott did not transmute experience into art after all. Reisen thus sprinkles her book with must have beens (she must have felt banished, the book must have struck a chord) and then plays the mental illness card once more: Was Louisa Alcott, like so many artists, manic-depressive (bipolar)? Yet Reisen's rich empathy for Alcott never falters and her chronicle of Alcott's exhausting attempt, as one friend remarked, to fill vacant niches in all things, whether in her family or in the world of popular literature, is heart-rending. As Reisen notes, Alcott simply wore herself out.
Devotees of Little Women may be shocked that its self-medicating, troubled creator was not a jolly J.K. Rowling, though likely many of them know this. What they may not realize is that the redoubtable Alcott, who chose to be a free spinster and to paddle my own canoe, was decidedly strong but, alas, never free.