A Conversation with Harriet Reisen

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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.

Q: In the biography, you cite Alcott’s journals, and her letters to family, friends, publishers, and adoring fans. How did you go about finding these letters and journals?

A: Most of the Alcott journals and letters are in Houghton Library at Harvard, and available in print. (Of all her writings, they are my favorites.) I also had the estimable advantage of access to our panel of film advisors, the most eminent Alcott scholars and the nicest, most unpretentious bunch of academics you can imagine.

The end of the book has some revelations from a source newly rescued from oblivion. They appear in a 1976 interview with ninety-six-year-old Lulu Nieriker Rasim, Louisa’s niece, and the only person then still alive to have known her. Madelon Bedell, who travelled to Switzerland to meet Lulu, mentions the interview in the preface to her wonderful 1980 book The Alcotts: Biography of a Family, but Bedell died of cancer before she could use it in a second volume.

For years I wondered what had happened to the Lulu interview, had asked Alcott scholars about it, had even tried calling Bedells listed in telephone books. One day I picked up a used copy of Bedell’s book, and out of it tumbled a carbon copy of an August 1980 letter written by the author herself. At the bottom was an address in Brooklyn where, more than two decades later, Madelon Bedell’s widower still lived. His late wife’s papers were elsewhere, out of reach and in danger of disappearing; a campaign to recapture them succeeded a year later.

Q: Why did you decide to shape the biography around the various works of Louisa May Alcott? Is it true that much of her writing was to some extent autobiographical, particularly Little Women?

A: Louisa was constantly on the lookout for characters and situations, and mined her own journals–many since lost–for material to rework. I thought that her work could stand in for parts of her life that were not documented any other way. In the book I always tell the reader if an account comes from Louisa’s fictionalized version.

Q: Many people may be surprised to learn that Louisa Alcott grew up in grueling poverty and took many jobs to help her family survive. What were some of these jobs and what were the circumstances that led her to take on such responsibility as a young woman?

A: Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, was a pioneering educator – he invented recess! – but after he was accused of teaching about sex, and admitted a black girl student (twenty-five years before the abolition of slavery), parents took all his other students out. He never taught children again, and some new socialist principles he’d picked up didn’t allow him to take wages. The family got by on credit, loans and gifts from relatives, and the generosity of friends. People left food baskets on the doorstep, and donated worn hand-me-down clothing. Emerson tucked $20 bills under candlesticks, paid their rent, and put up half the money for the two houses they owned in Concord at different times.

Louisa’s first work, at thirteen, was as a self-employed dressmaker to dolls. She showcased her wares in a window of their Concord house. The summer she was sixteen, the Emersons asked Louisa to lead a play group in their barn, mostly for the benefit of their daughter Ellen. Louisa held the children spellbound with fables about flowers like the ones Thoreau told her on his nature walks. Flower Fables, published when she was twenty-one, became her first book. She dedicated it to Ellen Emerson and was paid thirty dollars. The summer she was seventeen Louisa worked as a laundress, the lowest rung on the totem pole of female labor, at her wealthy great-uncle’s country home. Louisa’s most frequent work was as a governess, as a teacher (which she disliked), and as a seamstress. Perhaps her worst job was as household servant to a pretentious clergyman who sexually harassed the nineteen year-old and paid her four dollars for seven weeks work.

Q: Louisa May Alcott never married. Some believe she was a lesbian, others point out her preference for much older or much younger men. What are your thoughts on her sexuality and why do you believe she never married?

A: Louisa saw so many unhappy marriages she said she was “afraid to try it.” She knew from her mother’s example that to look to a man for financial security was risky, and thought that to sacrifice independence for matrimony was akin to death in life. She said she was “born with a boy’s spirit and a boy’s wrath,” and her charm apparently had an androgynous quality, but surviving evidence, including her writing, didn’t indicate to me that she was a lesbian. Others read the evidence differently.

Louisa’s need to dominate relationships seems more pertinent to her choice to remain single – and it was a choice – than her sexual orientation, whatever it was. Most of her thrillers feature no-holds-barred power struggles between the sexes where imprisonment, drugging, seduction, stealing, murder, lying, fraud, and betrayal are thrilling routes to power. The heroine can be a scheming imposter, the villain of the piece, but Louisa will have you rooting for her to win. Her sense of injustice towards women is that keen.

Q: Little Women has been translated into over 50 languages, has been adapted into film, theatre, anime, among others, and in 140 years has not ever been out of print. Why do you think people are so fascinated by this story?

A: I’m not sure I can explain it better than to say that for many readers (certainly not all; some of my best friends are immune to its charms) it feels like a communication straight from the writer’s heart to the reader’s. On a less mystical level, it’s a rarity, a female bildungsroman—coming of age story. (Louisa’s beloved Jane Eyre is another.) Like the male version, it comes with the element of a quest, but with lots of romance, clothes, relationships, and the ambiguity of womanhood, where maturity is not independence but a delicately-balanced interdependence. Little Women nourishes moral clear-sightedness and courage for the quest in its readers. As one Korean reader said, “you don’t grow up to walk two steps behind your husband when you’ve met Jo March.”

Q: Is it true that Louisa May Alcott did not enjoy writing books for children despite her success at doing so? What kind of stories did she love to write?

A: Louisa’s preference was “for the lurid style.” Her dismissal of her most popular work as “moral pap for the young” is in part a defensive assertion that she ranked herself as no genius or artistic great, but as a salesperson of stories who wrote “anything to suit the customers.”

Q: Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were fixtures in Louisa’s daily life. What was her relationship to them and how, if at all, did they influence her career as a writer?

A: No homeschooler has ever had such guidance as Louisa did in Emerson, her mentor in literature, and Thoreau, her experiential teacher of natural science. She developed crushes on them both; she wrote Emerson love letters (“but was wise enough to burn them”). Louisa saw Thoreau as a man of action and a seer into the mysteries of nature. In her novel Moods, she is married to the admirable Emersonian Geoffrey Moor, but in love with his best friend, the Thoreau-like Adam Warwick. After Thoreau died and was forgotten, Louisa helped establish his literary place by making him the favorite writer of a character in Rose in Bloom.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from this biography?

A: I hope Louisa Alcott will feel real to them, as a person who lived and breathed, worked and sacrificed for what she believed, had tremendous integrity, and was the most delightful company one could wish for. I’d like people to recognize Alcott’s greatness, and to regard her as an American hero.