Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women"

Just finished Harriet Reisen's new biography, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.  This was an incredibly thorough history of a writer who has to rank among the top children's writers of all time, painstakingly researched through the journals and letters of the Alcott family and friends, as well as more public records.

I'll start off the top with my criticisms of the book.  Two issues stood out for me.  For one, there are no pictures or illustrations.  Now, I'm totally able to read a book without pictures, but when reading non-fiction I find that maps, photos, or other visual aids are worthwhile.  In this case, I think it would be appropriate to have reproductions of portraits of members of the family (as available), and perhaps some of May's paintings--maybe including the apparently rather bad illustrations she did for the first edition of Little Women.  As a non-local, I wouldn't even have minded maps showing the relationships of Louisa's various homes to one another.

My second issue with the book has to do with an odd disconnect between the author's proclaimed life-long love of Louisa's books and a few errors with regard to characters and events in the books.  Most striking, to me, was a point where she notes that "Jo March" has twins, a boy and a girl.  In fact, it is Meg who has twins, and Jo has two boys, about 2 years apart.  It wasn't clear to me if the confusion was over which real sister was referred to or which children belonged to Jo (who does, after all, raise them all in Little Men), but the error jarred.  In light of the degree of research involved in following Louisa's life, I would think that a little more care in writing of her books would be in order.

The story begins with Louisa's parents--as any meaningful study of her must.  Louisa M. Alcott was inevitably strongly shaped by her parents' personalities, but also by their beliefs.  Everyone knows, at least to some degree, about Bronson Alcott's Transcendentalism and the group of philosophers he hung about with (Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne. . . ), which influenced Louisa's thinking.

Less is typically said about the grinding poverty that Bronson's inability to hold a steady job (in part because of those beliefs) inflicted on the family.  But that poverty--and a determination to use her own strongest skills to get out of it--drove Louisa's writing nearly as much as her own desperate need to "get it out."  I thought that Reisen's insights into the connection between Louisa's writing of "thrillers" and her own difficulty with containing her spirits in the mold required of a 19th-century woman of New England made a great deal of sense, but the push to sell each and every story for the greatest possible amount came straight out of the need to pay the bills.

I had also always vaguely understood that Alcott, who never married, had never really had much in the way of a love life, or maybe even social life.  There were rumors, of course, about the "Polish boy" who was the model for Laurie Laurence, but I'd never been clear if that was true.  It was, though it's not clear exactly what their relationship was (she was cagey about that even in her journals).  Nor was he the only (much younger) man with whom she was involved.

Louisa also, again contrary to what I'd always vaguely thought I'd read somewhere, traveled extensively on the Continent at least twice, the first time following much the same itinerary as Amy March does in Little Women.  Again, this helps to make it more comprehensible that she could write of travel and love as she does.

In the end of the book, Reisen reports on some speculation about the cause of Louisa's poor health and eventual death (at 55; her father died only 2 days before her at age 88, so it was pretty clear it wasn't just genetics--nor the other killer of so many women of her era, childbirth, since she never went that route).  Louisa herself always attributed her pain, poor digestion, and array of other intermittent symptoms to the residual effects of the pneumonia she suffered while an army nurse in the Civil War and the mercury-based treatment she was given.  Reisen reports that modern medicine dismissed that cause, as mercury doesn't linger in the body, and could not have caused symptoms decades later.  Instead, they speculate that she suffered from Lupus, a disease not then known and even now lacking a cure.  I don't know if this is a sound assessment, but it does make clear that she very probably did suffer from a real illness.  The tendency to dismiss vague sets of symptoms (especially ones that come and go with the levels of stress in her life) as psychosomatic is, at least, dealt a serious blow by the doctors' work.

In some ways, this book was almost "TMI" for a fan of Alcott's works for children.  Her life was both greater and more sordid than that of "Jo March," and I was both fascinated by the reality and a little sorry for the tarnishing of an idol (yeah, I know I'm too old for that!).  It isn't the writing of thrilling tales that is hard to take (I've known about those for years, and have read my share of what she dismisses in Little Women as "trash").  It's more the exposure of Louisa as at times manipulative, even greedy.

Though I can't deny she had good reason to be both.

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