Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen, read by the author
I must admit, Louisa May Alcott was a writer I grew up reading–in my Florida library there is still a copy of her work Little Men, after all–but she is not someone I knew a lot about. Like a great many biographies of famous and tragically unhappy writers , I found a lot to identify with in this book. Quite frankly, I found that fact depressing. I can’t really blame the author for hitting such a personal nerve, not least one that is fairly exposed and reasonably frequently hit by my reading, but I feel it must be noted. Louisa May Alcott was a writer who longed for freedom and yet was a slave of duty to her family, someone who was prickly but immensely talented, someone who had a great deal of drive but simultaneously struggled with health problems ended up having an early death. Not only this, but her writing, like mine, straddled the boundary between family friendly and immensely dark, as she had her greatest success writing for a juvenile audience yet also wrote about some extremely dark material under a false name to preserve her reputation as a lady. It would be hard for a spinster nineteenth century novelist to be as Nathanish as Louisa May Alcott is; it’s rather alarming, in fact.
The structure of this book is relatively conventional in that it follows a chronological order of the life of Miss Alcott, but that life was a lot more odd than I could have imagined. Born in straightened circumstances as the second daughter of four (just like the March sisters) to an unconventional father (Bronson Alcott) who was one of the leading lights of the Transcendentalist movement and also someone who struggled mightily with mental illness and was a total failure at providing for his family despite his self-education and drive at rising from obscure rural poverty and a stormy and dramatic mother (Abigail May Alcott) who came from the Bostonian elite, this book spends a great deal of its time talking about Louisa’s difficult childhood and young adulthood when she was immensely poor. The book spends considerably less time talking about her successful career as a novelist, her time as a nurse in the Civil War, and the rest of her life dogged by health problems and difficulties dealing with the demands of being a celebrity. The book has an unusual structure given that so much of Alcott’s work was due to her own experiences as a poor girl from a rich family with a rich imagination and a strong desire to earn the love of her family through their economic dependency on her writing. The plan worked, but the ending is an unhappy one with Alcott and her father dying within two days of each other and the surviving relatives feuding over the money left behind.
How is one to rate both this book and the life it portrays. The author, who did some excellent sleuthing in finding unpublished manuscripts that contained an interview with the last living person to have known the Alcotts still living, does a great job here. If I am uncomfortable with this book, it is not the failure of the author but rather the complexities of the life of the subject, whose ceaseless and often joyless toil led her to imagine happiness in reincarnation and who viewed her earthly burden as some sort of karmic debt that she had to carry so that she would not have to blame her parents, who deserve a great share of the blame for Louisa’s unhappiness. Parents should not raise children who feel it is their responsibility to provide for a whole extended family at risk to their own happiness and well-being. Any family that demands such sacrifices as the price of parental love has screwed up mightily, and that is definitely true of this family. I listened to this book immensely sad for its subject, and not at all pleased to have found out more about her life. Biographies, even very good ones, are often overrated, because in finding out more about what drove authors to write as they did, we often find little but suffering and difficulty.
 See, for example: