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Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women (John MacRae Books) Hardcover – October 27, 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 81 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

SignatureReviewed by Brenda WineappleHailed 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. (Nov.)Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf),which will be published by Anchor in paper.
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“Every now and then, there appears a writer who has tracked a subject for so long through space and time that the resulting product ranks it superior to any of the facile interpretations or extended magazine articles that currently pass for biography. Such is the case with Harriet Reisen . . . . Ms. Reisen is a master storyteller. Chapters are never formulaic. With compassion and insight, she propels readers on to the next adventure, sacrifice, tragedy and triumph.”—Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, The Washington Times


“As Harriet Reisen's enchanting biography reminds us, Alcott patterned the March family on her own and Jo on herself . . . . [Her life] is richly examined in Ms. Reisen's full and vivid portrait.”—Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal


“There may be better American novels, but Little Women surely ranks among the most cherished. . . . Fans will adore Harriet Reisen’s sympathetic biography Louisa May Alcott. With charming verve, she details Alcott’s remarkable if difficult life.”—USA Today


“A lively, engrossing portrait of Louisa May Alcott's life that will appeal to the legions of women who grew up worshipping the book . . . . [Alcott’s] spirit shines through in Reisen’s retelling.”—Meghan Barr, Associated Press


 “Reisen’s lifelong fascination with Little Women and the woman who wrote it has produced an absorbing narrative, in many ways the best ever, of Alcott’s own life. . . . The utterly compelling force of Alcott’s personality has never been better described. I found the book compulsively readable; I couldn’t put it down.” —Robert Richardson, author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire and Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind


“Brilliantly researched. . . . Her biography will occupy an essential place on any Alcott bookshelf.” —John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father


“A beautifully written, significant, and fascinating work. Harriet Reisen does with this biography what Alcott did with her writing—gives us a memorable and inspiring gift full of humanity, heart, and soul.”—Winona Ryder, producer and star of Little Women (1994)


“[Reisen’s] story equals—and maybe bests—her beloved book about the lively March sisters.”—Lisa Shea, Elle Magazine


“This juicy bio is a page-turner.”—Good Housekeeping


“Drawing heavily on family letters and journals, Reisen’s intimate biography . . . is a moving and sympathetic look at the Alcotts and their extraordinary cultural mileu.”—Julia M. Klein, Obit Magazine


“Harriet Reisen puts 20 years of study into a highly readable story. She casts a revealing new light upon an ambitious woman who was very much like her literary alter ego.”—Joyce Saenz Harris, The Dallas Morning News

“Comprehensive and eminently readable. . . . At once sweeping and personal. . . Reisen’s devotion both to scholarship and Alcott herself makes the book truly an interesting and engaging read.”—Victoria Shouldis, Concord Monitor


Product Details

  • Series: John MacRae Books
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (October 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805082999
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805082999
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #767,894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Q: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's most famous work, has had a worldwide influence over generations of women since its first publication 140 years ago. What impact has Alcott and her writing had on your life?

A: Like millions of girls, I saw myself as Jo March, Louisa Alcott's literary alter ego and the heroine of Little Women. Jo was passionate and brave, and like me had a tendency to get lost in thought. My mother had presented me with Little Women, ceremoniously, as if bestowing the key to a magic kingdom. The wise and funny authorial voice of Louisa May Alcott spoke like another mother to me, giving permission to be flawed, license to dream, and encouragement to do good.

Soon after I moved to Boston in the 1970s I visited Orchard House in Concord, the Alcott family home for twenty years. In Louisa's bedroom, between two windows, was the semi-circular writing table Bronson Alcott had built her. From this surface, with space for no more than a piece of paper and an inkwell, Louisa had brought forth Little Women in just ten weeks. As I stood there, Louisa's spirit seemed to rise up and claim me. Her benevolent ghost has driven me through the decades, challenging me to attempt her story twice, in a documentary and in this book. I've never wanted to analyze my fascination with this woman. It's just there, and continues.

Q: You and your friend, Emmy Award-winning producer Nancy Porter, joined forces to create a documentary on Louisa May Alcott which will premiere on PBS American Masters on December 28, 2009. What was your role in developing this documentary? Is it true that the idea for the biography grew out of your plans for the documentary?

A: For years I had a pipe dream about writing a short, accessible biography of Louisa May Alcott, but I wasn't a trained scholar or an established author. I didn't think I could write a book, let alone have the opportunity.

My friend Nancy Porter had tremendous experience making historical documentary portraits for PBS--of the Wright Brothers, Houdini, Amelia Earhart, to name just a few. Nancy and I worked as independent co-producers, trying to get our Alcott film made. Nancy would be the director, and I the writer. It took some twenty years, off and on, to do it.

I decided to write the film script completely from primary sources. Louisa and all the other characters would speak only words they had written or were reported by contemporaries to have said. My choice and arrangement of scenes and dialogue, our production choices, interviews with scholars and experts, and Nancy's direction and editing were our only means to interpret Louisa's character and her life. We had no narrator to get between the viewer and the material.

What the film gained in authenticity was worth the embargo on my own knowledge and opinion. The book came as a gift--with room to let Louisa's story roam, and freedom to tell it in my own words and fill it with characters without having to consider what their costumes and meals would cost.

Harriet Reisen, a former fellow in screenwriting at the American Film Institute, has written dramatic and historical documentary scripts for PBS and HBO, including the forthcoming PBS documentary of Louisa May Alcott. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Tony Kahn, and son Andrew Kahn. This is her first book.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Louisa May Alcott has always been a favorite author of mine. I have read a few biographies(years ago with the exception of Little Women Abroad, Alcott in Her Own Time) about her life and have read all of her books. So when this new biography came up I was interested but I wondered if anything knew could be written about the author that everyone seems to forget.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. As others have said it is an easy read, not weighed down with academic writing that makes one want to fall asleep. Yet it is obvious that the author has done her research.

The book starts out with a history of Abigail and Bronson's family history, how they meet and their early marriage. This sets the stage for the childhood that Louisa and her sisters will experience. The interesting thing about this book is that it describes Bronson's life but I found out more about Mrs. Alcott than I ever knew. Everyone neglects her and always focuses on Bronson which is a crime since she was the one who worked the hardest. For instance I was unaware that she had been left for long periods of time with the children while Bronson went off trying to make money. Nor did I know that she had so many miscarriages and nearly died as a result. Another thing that was interesting to me is that Louisa seemed more like her mother yet most biographers continue to say that Louisa was like her father.

The Real Louisa May Alcott is brought out in this book. The author does not sugarcoat things, she does not try to make Louisa into some Victorian model of womanhood(if that was even possible). What the author tries to do is explain who Louisa was faults and all. Those faults do not make Louisa bad, just human, like the rest of us.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This was a timely read for me. I visited Orchard House, the Alcott family home, a few years ago, and found the place surreal. It was easy to picture the family living there. I stood next to Louisa's writing table and learned that she had to become ambidextrous because she was sorely misusing the one hand. I admired her sister, May's room where the walls were filled with her drawings. After the tour, I purchased a small print of an owl that had been painted by May Alcott. I also bought a print of Orchard House. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and the two prints are in the room that I call my library. Finally, in a box of old books, that were recently given to me, I found a book containing five thrillers that had been written by the amazing Louisa May Alcott.

Well, along came THE WOMAN BEHIND LITTLE WOMEN by Harriet Reisen, and I was ready. The book is fascinating. I sincerely applaud the author for her excellent research. Although, this book has a lot of very detailed information, it held my interest.

Louisa's father, Bronson Alcott was an intellectual who became involved with the transcendental movement. He was a teacher, and had many different schools over the years, but they usually failed as his methods seemed too unorthodox to most people. His marriage to Abigail May produced 4 daughters. The family were constantly moving and Bronson often left his wife and children for months at a time fulfilling his intellectual pursuits. Mrs. Alcott, was left alone to care for her family. During the years, she experience five miscarriages. Of course, her health suffered, and she almost died during one miscarriage. Bronson was rarely there when she needed him most.

Louisa May Alcott, was the second of the daughters and we're told that she was a difficult and stubborn child.
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Format: Hardcover
This biography of Louisa May Alcott was a well-written, enjoyable read. Harriet Reisen gave a chronological account of the Alcott's lives while relating how the national events of the time effected them and how they influenced history (through their Transcendental movement, abolition movement, etc.). She also worked in many quotes taken from letters and the personal journals kept by each member of the family.

The first 87 pages were mainly about Louisa's parents (Abby and Bronson) and their friends. If you're interested in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and other famous Transcendentalists, you'll probably enjoy this section more than I did. I was continually exasperated with her parents and, while I saw the value of showing the influences Louisa grew up with and how they affected her writing, I didn't like her parents and wanted to get on to focusing on Louisa.

From page 88 to 302, Harriet Reisen focused on Louisa and, to a lesser degree, her sisters. This section was lively and very fun to read though Louisa didn't have a very easy life. I liked how Harriet Reisen let us see Louisa's faults as well as her strong points and how she tied Louisa's experiences to her books: Louisa would often take real life events and work them into fictional accounts.

The rest of the book was references and notes about the quotes and information. There were no pictures. I would have at least enjoyed a picture of Louisa.

There was no bad language. Overall, I'd recommend this enjoyable biography to anyone who loves Louisa May Alcott's novels and wants to know more about her.

I received this book as a review copy from the publisher.

Reviewed by Debbie from Different Time, Different Place
(differenttimedifferentplace. blogspot. com)
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