Sunday, November 1, 2009

By Harriet Reisen
Holt, $26, 384 pages

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, a writer of documentary scripts. For 20 years, she studied Louisa May Alcott’s life and work as she and Emmy-award winning producer Nancy Porter put together their film (airing on PBS’ “American Masters” on Dec. 28). Primary sources included studying Alcott’s journals (kept since age 8), letters and books; rescuing lost papers; interviewing scholars. Relentlessly, Ms. Reisen pursued Alcott’s physical trail. She visited New England locations. She examined Louisa’s writing desk, china and clothes at Orchard House in Concord, Mass., which the biographer said did much to bring to life the material and physical reality of Alcott’s life and times (furthering the case, I would add, of the need to preserve writers’ house museums). The result of this passionate pursuit is their documentary (already reaping top awards) and this magnificent new biography that I predict will become not only a best-seller but also a classic.

Many of us know Louisa May Alcott through “Little Women.” Since its publication in 1868, it has never been out of print. Translated into 50 languages, it has sold millions of copies, been adapted for stage, movie, television, opera and ballet. With a sure and steady hand, analytical but never heavy, Ms. Reisen weaves the context of Alcott’s life with her work, giving us an absorbing portrait of a defiant trailblazer whose intelligence burns on every page. Athletic and funny, fearless and cheerful, Louisa May Alcott was the family’s center.

She was the second of four daughters. Her father, Bronson (whose idealism matched his incompetence at earning money), was a key figure in New England’s Transcendentalist community. He taught his children how to have a social conscience. They shared his views on abolition, racial equality, intermarriage, vegetarianism, homoeopathic medicine and nature. Louisa’s mother, Abby, of Boston blueblood, was an early supporter of women’s suffrage. The family lived in poverty but their intellectual life was rich. Important mentors to Louisa included Mrs. John Brown, widow of the hanged leader of the raid on Harpers Ferry, Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson shared books from Bronson’s library; Henry David Thoreau taught Louisa botany.

“That the Alcotts were not like other people was a great part of their fascination for their neighbors and central to their image of themselves,” writes Ms. Reisen. As part of the Underground Railroad, the Alcotts hid fugitive slaves and taught them how to read. When Louisa was 10, her father tried communal living on a tract of land called “Fruitlands” (prompting one wag to call its members “fruitcakes”). When the experiment left the family destitute and the marriage in shambles, Louisa — very much like Jo March in “Little Women” — resolved to parlay her writing talent to become the family breadwinner.

Money became “the end and aim” of her existence. Wearing hand-me-downs from relatives (Louisa was cousin to half of Boston’s wealthiest circle), she labored as laundress, seamstress, as lady’s companion, accompanying a rich invalid to Europe, a cretin uninterested in anything of cultural interest. “Fussing over cushions and carrying shawls” was hardly Louisa’s idea of fun, and when her 12-month stint was over she spent two romantic weeks exploring Europe on her own, meeting the prototype of the character “Laurie.”

Returning home to family and its pile of unpaid bills, Louisa toiled 14 hours a day with needlework, mainly cooking up stories “knocking at the saucepan lid to get out” in order to keep creditors at bay. Her secret literary life as the author of pulp fiction (written under a pseudonym), and how two modern literary sleuths uncovered Alcott’s identity, is truly fascinating. When an Atlantic magazine editor told Louisa she had no talent and should simply stick to teaching, she took his $40 and started a school of her own. It failed. (Later, flush with success, she repaid his loan, readers will yell.)

In 1863, at age 30, Louisa moved 500 miles from home to Washington to work as a nurse during the Civil War. In letters home, Louisa described caring for hundreds of soldiers, all in various stages of suffering, disease and death. The result was “Hospital Sketches,” published to acclaim. But typhoid pneumonia almost killed Louisa.

“Like making patchwork as Abby taught her in childhood,” writes Ms. Reisen, “Louisa went through her scrap bag of feelings, observations, and experiences, then selected and reorganized them to make stories.” Written in the space of weeks, “Little Women” sold in two parts, in 1868, then 1869. What she called “moral pap for the young” became an immediate best-seller, as did its sequels. At age 35, Louisa May Alcott achieved her childhood ambition: She earned the equivalent of today’s millions; her fame was such that at one point, it approached that of Mark Twain.

Generously, in spite of ill health (leading her to rely on opiates), Louisa continued to lovingly provide for her family, giving her sister the means in which to study art in Paris. With celebrity came the curious. For persistent callers, Louisa disguised herself as a maid, shaking a feather duster in the faces of her visitors, announcing Miss Alcott was not at home — before slamming the door.

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. How Louisa died, the fate of her artistic sister, what became of niece “Lulu,” or what happened to that vast fortune Louisa worked so very, very hard to earn — that happy sense of discovery is your reward in reading this masterful work by this talented new biographer.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” now out on Blackstone Audio Books.

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