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Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women Paperback – October 26, 2010
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About the Author
Harriet Reisen has written dramatic and historical scripts for PBS and HBO, including a recent PBS documentary on Louisa May Alcott. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and son.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
ONEFIT FOR THE
SCUFFLE OF THINGS
She has “a fine foundation for health and energy of character,” Bronson Alcott wrote to his father-in-law within hours of the birth of his second daughter on November 29, 1832. “[She] is a very fine healthful child, much more so than Anna was at birth.” He had wished for a boy, but he was linked to Louisa by a coincidence rarer than a common gender: “She was born at half-past 12 this morning on my birthday (33).”
Although they shared a birthday, Louisa May Alcott and her father were born under different stars. From the first, Louisa displayed her mother’s moody, passionate temperament. She was an autumn hurricane arriving twenty months after Anna, a veritable March lamb, a paragon of a baby with her father’s calm temperament. Louisa’s version of her vexed beginnings matched her sense that life had been one long battle from the start. “On a dismal November day I found myself, & began my long fight,” she wrote on her twenty-third birthday. Her first fight would be for supremacy over her sister. Her mother would be her best ally.Abigail May Alcott’s family was a distinguished one, especially on her mother’s side. Dorothy Sewall May was the daughter of Samuel Sewall, the deacon of Old South Church, from whose steps Samuel Adams had signaled the start of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The Sewalls were related to the Quincys and the Adamses; Abigail’s aunt Dorothy Quincy’s second marriage was to John Hancock. Born in 1800, Abigail (called Abby or Abba) was the youngest of the May family’s eight surviving children.
Colonel Joseph May, Abigail’s father and Louisa’s grandfather, came from a humbler line. (The title “colonel” was a memento not of wartime service but of his rank in a teenage cadet corps during the Revolution.) The son of a modestly successful lumber dealer, Joseph May met Dorothy Sewall when he was a thirteen-year-old apprentice in her uncle’s store. Enterprising and ambitious, by age thirty Colonel May was a rich and gregarious man known for his honesty, his love of learning, his charitable works, and his support of liberal causes. He was one of the best informed men of his day, according to a family biographer. Outside the family he was distinguished by his snuff habit and for wearing outmoded black silk stockings and knee buckles. All Boston knew of Colonel May’s vanity about his shapely legs, which he claimed were the models for George Washington’s in the full-length Gilbert Stuart portrait.
The Colonel’s easy course through life hit a snag in 1799, the year before Abigail was born, when he was involved in a disastrous investment. To clear his debts and his name, thirty-eight-year-old Joseph May gave up everything he owned, selling even the gold rings on his fingers. He vowed never again to pursue wealth, took a part-time salaried job in a shipping insurance office, and sold his grand mansion on Atkinson (now Congress) Street. He moved his family to a modest place on Federal Court. May’s was by all accounts a happy household, alive with music and intellectual engagement.
Abby was very attached to her father, although she later felt she could never live up to his high expectations. She was a much loved and indulged child, yet near the end of her life, she began her brief memoir on a deeply mournful note: “I was the youngest of twelve children, born sickly, nursed by a sickly mother.” The roots of Abigail’s lifelong melancholy and sense of having been shortchanged may lie in a childhood dominated by her mother’s declining health, the ghosts of siblings she never knew, and the subsequent deaths of other siblings she had known and loved.
Abby idealized her mother as Louisa would in turn idealize Abby as “Marmee” in Little Women. “She adored her husband and children,” Abby wrote of Dorothy. “She loved the whole human family.” Dorothy May had twelve pregnancies in sixteen years, several times burying an infant and giving its name to a successor: two Charleses, two Louisas, and three Samuels. When Abby was only a year old, her six-year-old brother Edward—“a fair-haired boy, with blue eyes, bright, playful, affectionate” in his younger brother Sam’s recollection—impaled himself on a post while playing in the backyard and bled to death in his mother’s arms. Two of Abby’s married sisters preceded her mother to the grave; only Abby, Charles, and Sam would live to see their own children grow up.
In her earliest years Abby was allowed to tag along after her older brother Sam to school in Boston’s High Street; later she was given private lessons. Both Sam and her older sister Louisa took an active interest in Abby’s intellectual development. From Harvard Sam corresponded with Abby about his readings in philosophy, while at home Louisa urged Abby to concentrate on her studies.
Abby shared her father’s love of music and reading, and favored him in appearance—the same thick eyebrows above deep-set brown eyes, the same sloping nose, fine upper lip, and vivid complexion. But where her father was steady and careful, Abby was mercurial and rash. By her own account, Abby “was a good child—but willful.”
When her parents suggested she marry one of her May cousins, Sam Frothingham, she resisted the idea; she wanted a love match. Her brother and ally Sam proposed to their parents that Abby spend a year studying with a Reverend Allyn in Duxbury, about thirty-five miles south of Boston. The courses in moral philosophy, natural theology, science, history, and Latin left Abby with a fleeting sense of possibility that she and her sister Louisa might together open a school. “I may yet earn my bread by the knowledge this year has afforded me. I am not willing to be thought incapable of anything,” she wrote, as honest a self-assessment as she would ever make. Aware of his sister’s inclination to despondency, Sam wrote to her of the importance of “a cheerful habit of mind. Cheerfulness is a kind of oil to the springs, and wheels of life.... Without it they may move, but they will move [badly and] all our duties will be performed with pain.”
It was advice she was constitutionally unable to follow. Her Duxbury sojourn did not make her happier, and, living under threat of an unwanted marriage, Abby could scarcely believe in any of her schemes for an independent life. Then, in August 1819, Sam Frothingham died unexpectedly. Abby insisted she be excused from any obligation to pay or receive calls. “If I incur the epithet pedantic or unsocial or misanthropic, I must bear it patiently,” she wrote, but patience was not a virtue she possessed. Louisa Alcott would not have it either.
Abby’s dream of starting a school with her sister ended with Louisa May’s marriage in 1823. She turned to her brother Sam, now a Unitarian minister embarking upon a distinguished career as a radical reformer as eloquent and fierce as he was sweet-tempered. Abby became a regular visitor at his home in the town of Brooklyn in eastern Connecticut, cheering on Sam’s efforts to reform education, and taking to his wife, Lucretia (“Lu”), as a sister.
Abby’s mother, Dorothy Sewall May, died in 1825; less than a year later Colonel Joseph May remarried. His new wife was just fourteen years older than his only remaining unmarried daughter. As a spinster of twenty-five, Abby could have hoped and expected to take on the role of lady of the house to her widowed father. Instead, disaffected with her father for remarrying and displaced by her stepmother, she paid a visit of indefinite length to her brother and congenial sister-in-law. On a hot afternoon in July of 1827, she was alone at the parsonage when a towering blue-eyed young man appeared at the door looking for Sam. Abby was almost twenty-seven and ripe for a serious attachment. After five minutes alone with Bronson Alcott, she was sure she had found it.
Of the small band of radical thinkers who defined the Transcendentalist movement of the early nineteenth century, Bronson Alcott was possibly the most original, certainly the most improbable. He was born Amos Bronson Alcox in the last year of the eighteenth century, into an isolated clan of farmers long settled in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. Their only news came in small weekly doses of the Connecticut Courant, read by the few literate to the many illiterate members of the family, among the latter Joseph Alcox, Bronson’s father. Bronson’s mother, Anna Bronson Alcox, though a genuine rustic who smoked a corncob pipe, could read, and taught her eager son to write the alphabet in the sand she used to sweep clean the kitchen floor of the home they called Spindle Hill. She praised his gift for drawing too. Bronson was the first of Anna Alcox’s eight children (of ten) to live past infancy; mother and son adored each other.
Bronson’s years of rudimentary country education, interrupted for spring planting and the fall harvest, ended when he was thirteen. He and his cousin William Alcox, also avid for knowledge, embarked upon an ambitious plan of private study. Their self-improvement program extended to their surname: their common paternal grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran, was Captain John Alcock, not Alcox. The pun-inviting family name was spelled several different ways, and none conjured the image of a cultivated gentleman. Young Bronson and William came up with the more refined “Alcott.” William took up a middle name, “Andrus,” and Bronson further improved his handle by reducing the plain “Amos” to its initial A. They assembled their own library of stray books hoarded by relatives, now and then scraping together enough money to purchase a volume. They acquired the poems of Pope, a volume of Milton, a copy of Robinson Crusoe, and more Bibles than they could use. They began a corr...
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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)
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Well-written biography by a genuine enthusiast. Louisa May Alcott was not the sentimentalist you might imagine from Little Women, and here's the place to find out. Read morePublished 16 days ago by AnnaLivia
My favorite childhood books were Little Women, Little Men, Jo's Boys, Eight Cousins, etc. However, I really knew nothing about my favorite author. Read morePublished 12 months ago by Robin Polito-Shuffer
In May, I read Harriet Reisen's excellent biography of Louisa May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, and have to say that of the three bios I have read of... Read morePublished 12 months ago by Jane Greensmith
After visiting Orchard House at the beginning of June, (for the fourth time!) and seeing the American Masters PBS documentary, I decided that I needed to read an biography of... Read morePublished 13 months ago by Cecily
I've loved Little Women since I was first old enough to read and understand it. I recently wanted to find more out about the author of it, and this did not disappoint. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Celegirl27
A mini history book of sorts, focused on all manner of subjects. I found that the book didn't hold my interestPublished 17 months ago by P. Farren
Great book, well written. Was recommended to me by my mother and it was a great read.Published 17 months ago by Abilee