- 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: 83 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,685 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women (John MacRae Books) Hardcover – October 27, 2009
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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
“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
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I began, knowing the story of LMA's life, feeling that old frustration with her father, A. Bronson Alcott. In the other bios, Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson and Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante, Bronson is really portrayed unsympathetically as someone who simply would not rise up to his familial responsibilities and work to support his family regardless of his personal aspirations to be a thinking man.
Reisen, early in the book, suggests that Bronson suffered from a mental illness that prevented him from acting differently than he did. I still found him frustrating and gritted my teeth when he scolded LMA for her shortcomings (in his eyes), but I found myself understanding him better and especially understanding better LMA's forgiveness and tenderness towards him as their lives drew to a close For that alone, I am glad I read this book.
The other thing this bio gave me that the others did not was an appreciation for her other works (i.e., other than Little Women) and a desire to read some of her potboilers. In fact, I just received a copy of Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, which is an anthology of some of the better sensationalist stories she published. I've been mulling over what to read for the Back to the Classic challenge in the category of Forgotten Classic, and I think this should fit the bill nicely.
It makes sense that this bio would inspire me to read more of LMA's works as it does set out to tell the story of how Louey. as her mother called her, became a successful and renowned and beloved author. I enjoyed reading the notes that LMA as an adult wrote in the margins of her own letters and journals and stories from her youth. We are so lucky that even though she burnt a good deal of her personal writing, she kept much for posterity to study and enjoy.
I came away from this bio with a renewed admiration for LMA--her courage, her wit, her fortitude, and her talent. She struggled with identity, but in the end, was able to accomplish what she set out for herself. Truly a remarkable person.
I've read several good bios of LMA and wasn't sure I'd learn anything new but I learned a ton of new things. LMA was a complicated person to be sure, with many medical, emotional and possibly psychological issues (I can't help thinking that her digestive troubles, while having a legitimate physical cause, were fueled by anxiety - I've seen this in my own family).
Reisen is the first LMA biographer to really turn me on to Louisa's books. I know that must sound strange, but I became passionate about Louisa, the woman, long before I desired to read her books. Reisen's description of her first success, Hospital Sketches, drove me to read that book and it was wonderful! Now I've lined up a bunch of Alcott's more adult books to read on Google Books.
I found her treatment of the often confusing Bronson Alcott (at least to me) very good. She's the first author I've found who successfully traced Bronson's transition from young narcissist/idealist to older and gentler sage/philosopher. It actually made sense for the first time. I walked away with the usual conflicted feelings about him, but also a nicer feeling too.
My only other criticism is that Reisen sometimes make assumptions about Louisa that nearly jump the shark, inserting her own opinion into the book a little too much.
It astonishes me that it look so long for people to realize how ahead of her time Louisa was. She was a feminist in the true sense of the word, before it was 'cool', and under a LOT more duress.
Madeleine Stern's bio is the best; Harriet Reisen's comes in a close second. Enjoy!