Preface and Prologue
Like so many other girls, I fell under the spell of Louisa May Alcott when my mother presented Little Women to me as if it were the key to a magic kingdom. I was taken into Louisa’s story so completely that a book with covers and pages has no place in my memory of the experience. While I was there, by my mother’s decree, normal life was suspended. Jelly omelets were delivered to my room on bed trays, and sleep was optional. At such a time, school was out of the question. Jo March was coming to take up residence in my heart, a companion for life, to endow me with a little something of Louisa Alcott’s own wise, funny, sentimental, and sharply realistic outlook.
Coming to the end of Little Women left me feeling as Louisa did when she emerged from a vortex (one of her all-absorbing periods of writing): cranky, bereft, and lamenting that never again would I read Little Women not knowing how it came out. The next long rainy weekend my grandmother, tipped off by my mother, showed up for a visit bearing the remaining seven of Alcott’s juvenile novels. I polished off one of them before the sun came out and Grandma went home; the rest by the end of the month. I had gobbled Alcott all up without coming close to satisfying my appetite for her work.
Later, my mother made me aware of Louisa Alcott, the woman behind Little Women. Mom felt deep sympathy for Louisa’s losses, which resembled her own. Her fury on Louisa’s behalf toward Bronson Alcott (Louisa’s father, whose resemblance to her father she never recognized) was as pure and freely expressed as any tirade she directed at a teacher she felt had done me wrong. So it was my mother’s attachment to Louisa’s story that kindled my own interest, and soon after I moved to the Boston area in my twenties I took myself to the Alcotts’ modest doorstep in Concord.
Orchard House is chockablock with things the Alcotts made and ate from and wore and painted and used so much that I imagine their smell must still cling to them. Downstairs in Bronson’s study are his books, his hat, his satchel, and the ingenious little mantel clock to be ignored when neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson came by to philosophize, and to take from its stand and put in his pocket when he went off on lecture tours. In the entry are palimpsests of May’s frieze of silhouettes of the famous friends and neighbors who visited. Lizzie’s picture hangs by her melodeon in the dining room where Abby’s green- and-white Coalport china set is displayed. Upstairs a trunk contains costumes the sisters made for their theatricals, including the russet boots that Louisa so prized she wrote a role requiring them for every production. But it was in her small bedroom, from the tiny semicircular writing surface where she wrote Little Women in ten weeks, that Louisa May Alcott emerged to make herself real and claim me. Over the next decade I read what ever I could find of Alcott’s scores of short stories, poems, and works of nonfiction such as Hospital Sketches, her account of her experience as an army nurse in the Civil War. Her rediscovered thrillers were coming out every year or two, at the rate of a popular living novelist, and three biographies- Ednah Cheney’s, Madeleine Stern’s, and Martha Saxton’s- told a story as full of plot and character as any the author invented, although none of them gave me the woman I glimpsed in her writing.
Louisa’s journals and letters were published at about the same time as the thrillers. In them I finally heard Louisa Alcott’s voice— not Jo March’s voice, or the authorial voice of Louisa May Alcott, but the voice of the woman who had lived and breathed and was as real to me as my friend Nancy Porter. Nancy, an Emmy Award–winning documentary film-maker for PBS, shared my enthusiasm for Alcott and thought we should bring her story to film; no one ever had. Over the next twenty years I continued my study of Alcott’s life, work, and times while we tried to put together funding for the film. By the time the National Endowment for the Humanities (and later the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Audrey Simons and the Simons Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts) recognized the merit of our subject, I had read just about all of Louisa’s hundreds of works and could sift them for the autobiographical elements we needed to tell her story without leaving her imagination out. Susan Lacy of the PBS series American Masters agreed to co-produce and broadcast a ninety minute documentary biography, and my pleasant obsession with Louisa Alcott became a better-than-full-time job. With it came the opportunity also to fulfill my “long held dream” (a phrase of Louisa’s that came to me as easily as any words of my own) to tell her story in print.
Through writing and producing the film, I came to know the subject of this book in a way few biographers do. Nancy and I spent hours in Orchard House planning the filming, becoming as comfortable there as we would at a friend’s house. In the venerable New York apartment on East Eighty-eighth Street of Madeleine Stern and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, under the suspicious gaze of the last of the household’s dachshunds named Laddie, we filmed the nonagenarian literary sleuths (and rare book dealers) who had discovered Louisa’s pseudonym, A. M. Barnard, and with it the key to her secret literary life as a writer of pulp fiction. I become a literary sleuth myself in search of an Alcott scholar I never met— Madelon Bedell, the author of The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. In 1976 Bedell had interviewed ninety-six-year-old Lulu Nieriker Rasim, Louisa’s niece and the only person then still alive to have known her personally. Bedell’s account of the interview is in the preface to her 1980 book, but the interview itself was never published; the author died of cancer before she completed a second volume. I wondered what had happened to Bedell’s interview with Lulu, had asked various Alcott scholars about it, had even tried calling Bedells listed in telephone books. One day I picked up a used copy of The Alcotts, and out of it tumbled a carbon copy of an August 1980 letter written by Bedell herself to Michael Sterne, then the travel editor of the New York Times, proposing a story. At the bottom of the letter was a return address in Brooklyn where, more than two decades later, Madelon Bedell’s widower still lived.
Bob Bedell, it turned out, had trustingly loaned the papers to an eccentric author, who had been sitting on them for years. Nancy and I went to New York to take Bob and the author (mostly of books about nineteenth-century décor) to lunch, then went to her strangely wonderful Greenwich Village townhouse (its windows suffocated with fabrics, the walls and ceilings of each room papered in half a dozen exuberant Victorian patterns), where in the basement she kept the large battered boxes of Bedell’s files. Since she was moving soon, she agreed to let us take the papers to New England. After we left, however, she answered none of our many phone messages, e-mails, and letters. It looked as if Bedell’s work would stay in that basement— or worse, disappear in the impending move. Finally, after a good six months of anxious strategizing with the Bedell family and some blustery talk about lawyers, the papers were transferred. At present they take up half my study while en route to the Orchard House collection.
Shooting the dramatized scenes of the film was the most unusual aspect of my research. Casting actors as our subject and her family did wonders to focus them in my mind. Location filming in Orchard House, Emerson’s house, and Fruitlands brought home the material and physical reality of Alcott’s life and times. Seeing the costumes— especially the Fruitlands clothing, which had been described but never pictured— and watching them being worn, especially running at full throttle in the woods—made visible how it felt to be breathing under their weight. Eating an authentic plumcake baked by the film’s prop-master made real the pain of three-year-old Louisa when she was asked to renounce the rare promised birthday sweet.
Now that the film and the book are done— having truly gobbled Louisa May Alcott all up— I confess to feeling just about as cranky and bereft as I did as a girl when I finished reading what I believed was everything she wrote. My hope is that readers of this book will be inspired to track down the dozen or more of Louisa May Alcott’s works whose titles are known but whose whereabouts are not, to bring them forth from obscure periodicals in the backs of old local library shelves, attic trunks, even from inside the walls of old houses, as pages of Louisa’s Fruitlands diaries were, so they may be published and read as widely as their most recent predecessors have been. If they do, I may never have to run out of new work from the prodigious pen of Louisa May Alcott.
BEHIND A MASK
For many girls, Little Women is a reading experience so stirring and lasting in impact that as adults they name their baby daughters after the characters. When they judge their daughters old enough, they press the book on their little Megs, Josephines, Beths, and Amys; often it is the same copy they read with their mothers, sometimes the one their mothers read with their grandmothers, occasionally an early or original edition that represents continuity through a hundred or more years. Louisa May Alcott wrote many works in every genre— conservatively, more than two hundred, over a career that spanned almost forty years— but Little Women was far and away her most successful. The story of the March sisters, which Alcott thought lifeless and flat as she was writing it, unexpectedly touching and true when she finished, struck a deep chord with readers when it appeared in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War. The sequel, Little Men, was a bestseller before it was even published. Readers anticipated Alcott’s juvenile novels with a fervor not seen again until the Harry Potter series of J. K. Rowling.
One hundred forty years after the publication of Little Women, none of Louisa May Alcott’s eight novels for what is now called the “young adult” audience has ever been out of print. Women around the world cite Little Women as the most treasured book of their childhoods—“magically
the book told my story,” as a writer for the Philippine Inquirer recently put it. Translated into more than fifty languages, Little Women crosses every cultural and religious border. It has been adapted for stage, television, opera, ballet, Hollywood, Bollywood, and Japanese anime. Its characters have been drafted for new versions set in California’s Beverly Hills, Salvador Allende’s Chile, and New York’s Upper West Side.
Little Women is a charming, intimate coming-of-age story about family love, loss, and struggle set in a picturesque rendering of mid-nineteenth-century New England life. What sets it apart is the young woman at its center. Her name is Jo March, but her character is Louisa Alcott. Jo March is a dazzling and original invention: bold, outspoken, brave, daring, loyal, cranky, principled, and real. She is a dreamer and a scribbler, happiest at her woodsy hideout by an old cartwheel or holed up in the attic, absorbed in reading or writing, filling page after page with stories or plays. She loves to invent wild escapades, to stage and star in flamboyant dramas. She loves to run. She wishes she were a boy, for all the right reasons: to speak her mind, go where she pleases, learn what she wants to know— in other words, to be free.
At the same time, Jo is devoted to the fictional March family, which was closely modeled on the Alcott family: a wise and good mother, an idealistic father, and four sisters whose personalities are a sampler of female adolescence. But while Jo March marries and is content within the family circle, Louisa Alcott chose an independent path. Descriptions of Louisa by her contemporaries matched Alcott’s first description of Jo March in Little Women: “Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful.” Frederick Llewellyn Willis wrote that his cousin Louisa Alcott was “full of spirit and life; impulsive and moody, and at times irritable and nervous. She could run like a gazelle. She was the most beautiful girl runner I ever saw. She could leap a fence or climb a tree as well as any boy and dearly loved a good romp.”
Another Louisa May Alcott lurked behind the spirited hoyden who wrote the March family books (Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys), five other juvenile novels, and countless stories for children. The real Louisa Alcott was infinitely more interested in the darker side of human
nature and experience than in telling polite stories to nice children. She was a protean personality, a turbulent force, a passionate fighter attracted to danger and violence. The voice of the other Louisa is heard in writings that were unknown or unpublished for almost ninety years after her death. In pulp fiction written anonymously, or under the name “A. M. Barnard,” she is villain,
victim, and heroine, sometimes all of them at once.
An actress of professional caliber, Louisa played many roles in life and used them in her work. Much of her fiction is not fictional at all: Louisa Alcott held the jobs heroine Christie Devon holds in the gritty novel Work; loved the two men, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who inspired the characters Sylvia Yule loves in Moods; served in the Civil War as a nurse, as Tribulation Periwinkle does in Hospital Sketches; and displays her infinite variety in a lifetime of poetry, journals, and letters. She was her own best character.
In everything Louisa Alcott wrote she made use of the outward details and the hidden emotional currents of her life, and her life was no children’s book. She knew not only family affection but also dangerous family disaffection; not just domestic toil but grueling manual labor; she knew gnawing hunger and the bloody aftermath of war. She was familiar with scenes of wealth and fashion from visits to privileged relatives, knew the famed sights of Europe from traveling as paid companion to a wealthy woman, and had vast vicarious experience from a lifetime of reading novels.
She wrote almost everything at high speed and for money. Works as different as Little Women and “Perilous Play” (a tale about the dangers and blessings of hashish) were written in the same year and brought to life from the same experiences. They are both filled with classical allusions and quotations from Shakespeare, both peppered with metaphysics and moral scrutiny. They provide tantalizing glimpses not of the New England spinster of popular conception, but of the real Louisa Alcott, a person we might recognize, someone so modern that she could pass at
a dinner party as a woman born 150 years after her actual birth in 1832.
A Concord contemporary, Clara Gowing, described Louisa as “a strange combination of kindness, shyness, and daring; a creature loving and spiteful, full of energy and perseverance, full of fun, with a keen sense of the ludicrous, apt speech and ready wit; a subject of moods, than whom no one could be jollier and more entertaining when geniality was in ascendancy, but if the opposite, let her best friend beware.”
Jo March resembles her creator most in the fertility of her imagination. Like Jo, the young Louisa May Alcott burned with genius, spinning tales of murder and treachery one minute, fairy tales and sentimental poetry the next. She told herself a dozen stories at a time, working out their plots in her head, sometimes for years. Spinning out her fantasies on paper, Louisa was transported, and liberated. Her imagination freed her to escape the confines of ordinary life to be flirtatious, scheming, materialistic, violent, rich, worldly, or a different gender. In her struggle to fulfill her childhood vow to be “rich, famous, and happy before I die,” her imagination was her greatest comfort, and her refuge even in her last days, when she wrote in her journal, “Lived in my mind where I can generally find amusement. . . . A happy world to go into when the real one is too dull or hard.”