Real life inspired beloved 'Little Women'

We forget most of our Christmas presents before the gift wrap is recycled, but I have one from a holiday almost 50 years ago that was probably the most significant I ever received.

It's a book, of course: "Little Women," by Louisa May Alcott.

I was hardly the only little girl to fall headlong into the world Alcott created in her best-known novel. First published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, it was an immediate best-seller and has never been out of print in the 140 years since.

It's been translated into more than 50 languages and inspired at least half a dozen films, a Broadway musical, stage plays, TV versions, operettas, ballets, comic books and Japanese anime, not to mention mountains of dolls. Its influence is incalculable; authors who cite it range from Gertrude Stein to J.K. Rowling, whose Hermione Granger is a direct descendant of Alcott's brainy, fiercely independent Jo March.

As a child, I read my copy of "Little Women," a handsome Illustrated Junior Library edition from Grosset & Dunlap, so many times I nearly memorized it and can still recall whole passages any time I dip into it.

Yes, I still have it, its poor spine hopelessly cracked and its pages yellow and frayed. I read a zillion books as a kid, but I've kept only a handful of them, and "Little Women" is the most precious.

Why does a sentimental novel about four young sisters living in genteel poverty during the Civil War era still find an enduring place in the hearts and minds of so many readers?

Jo March, that's why. And Jo March is Louisa May Alcott.

Harriet Reisen does them both justice in her new biography, "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women." Reisen also wrote and produced an upcoming documentary of the same title for PBS' American Masters series.

"The Woman Behind Little Women" is not a full-fledged biography; Reisen skims over, for example, the dozens of lurid pulp fiction novels Alcott wrote under the pen name A.M. Barnard. She focuses on Alcott's youth - fitting, given that her childhood and family were the inspirations for "Little Women" and how her life was affected by the book's success.

Born in 1832, Louisa was the second of four daughters of Bronson Alcott and Abigail May Alcott. Bronson was a farm boy turned philosopher who rose to the pantheon of transcendentalism. That set of radical ideas was in full foment in Louisa's childhood, with thinkers like Bronson's close friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau questioning traditional beliefs about religion, the human relationship with nature, the role of women, the morality of slavery and capitalism, and more.

Bronson was an inspiring orator and educational reformer, but a nearly total failure as a breadwinner. Louisa's mother was related to many of Boston's finest families but chose to marry the penniless Bronson in large part for his ideals. Abby was a passionate abolitionist and feminist, and, fortunately for her daughters, she was also the practical parent.

Reisen's portrait of Louisa's childhood provides an interesting counterpoint to the picture the author painted in "Little Women." There, the March girls' mother, Marmee, was an absolute paragon of patience and quiet strength while her husband was serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. (Louisa shifted the time frame as well as who went to war. Already in her 30s instead of a teenager during the war, she served as a nurse in a military hospital while pacifist Bronson stayed home.)

In real life, Abby was certainly a tower of strength, but she also had a rough edge to her tongue and a strong streak of independence. Bronson was far less ideal than the absent Papa of "Little Women"; he plunged the family into debt repeatedly, had a gigantic ego and may have been involved in several romantic triangles. No wonder Louisa airbrushed him out.

She and her sisters had a most unusual upbringing for the time, living in dozens of different places around New England, some of them the utopian communes so popular with the Transcendentalists, others crummy boarding houses and borrowed rooms. Going against the dictates of the day that young ladies should wear corsets and behave sedately at all times, Louisa was a hoyden who kilted up her skirts to take long daily runs and gloried in playing the "blood and thunder" parts in plays she and her older sister, Anna, wrote.

And write she did, from childhood. It was a creative compulsion but also a way to fill the family coffers, a responsibility her mother first pressed on her before Louisa was in her teens. By the time she was in her 20s, Louisa was the chief support of the family and remained so all her life.

Although "Little Women" and many of the other books published under her name are paeans to domesticity, Alcott chafed under her family obligations and was happiest when she escaped to Boston or Europe.

Reisen describes the heady times of Alcott's success, as well as her unhappy reaction after publication of Part 1 of "Little Women," when her readers and publishers demanded that she marry off all the March girls in Part 2. She had meant for Jo to choose to be single, as she had, and when pressured to give her a husband, created Professor Bhaer out of her longtime icons, making him "learned and German like Goethe; older and wiser like Emerson; short, hirsute and clever with his hands like Thoreau; and in his moral certainty, poverty and dreamy scholarship, he was pure Bronson."

Alcott gave Jo a happily ever after life in sequels "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys," but the author herself, even after she achieved huge financial success, struggled with family tragedies and terrible health problems. She may have suffered from bipolar disorder and lupus even while maintaining her involvement in the social causes her family held dear.

Jo March made me want to be a writer and, more importantly, made me want to be a smart, independent woman. Reisen's touching, perceptive book makes clear how much courage it took for Jo's creator to accomplish those things.


"Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" is a production of PBS' American Masters series and airs at 9 p.m. Monday on ETV stations.


A profile of Joel Myerson, a University of South Carolina professor and expert on Louisa May Alcott who is featured in the American Masters program.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

By Harriet Reisen

Holt, 362 pages, $26