A Conversation about Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

Over the next three months, I will be directing an on-line conversation about the newest biography of Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen. Since I know many readers are as busy as I am, we will focus our discussion on one chapter per week, beginning with the Prologue and Preface today and ending with the Epilogue sometime in December 2011. I will choose a short quotation from each chapter and start the week’s conversation with a written response to the passage. Participants can join us for their favorite chapters at any point in the conversation, or start at beginning and continue straight through the most recent posting.

- Karen English

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Creating the Alcott Brand

Chapter 14 (part two:
“As always she totaled her earnings as the year came to a close. They had reached an all-time high of $2,864; $2,154 of the total was from Little Women. Thirty-eight thousand copies had been sold.” (Reisen 279)

This part of the fourteenth chapter has the impossible job of trying to do justice in just a few pages to the whirlwind story of how Little Women was created, marketed, and received — plus show how Alcott (dosing her self with laudanum) and her publisher jumped on the success wagon by giving a hungry reading public more of the same with a serial publication of An Old-Fashioned Girl and an expanded edition of Hospital Sketches. Finally, I must grouchily admit I was relieved that there wasn’t much room left for Reisen to compare and contrast the characters and plot of Little Women to the experiences of the Alcott family.

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Hashish Revelations

Chapter 14 (part one):
“’Perilous Play,’” one of Louis Alcott’s most daring and personally revealing stories, was the last thriller she wrote. For a decade she had published as many as seven or eight ’blood and thunder’ tales a year, mostly anonymously but sometimes under a pseudonym” . . . (Reisen 258)

More is crammed into this chapter than I could take in — even with two readings. The first half is convincing psychological analysis that illustrates Alcott’s swings between “energy and exhaustion” as she sold her “children” to the popular press to keep the family financially stable. Mixed in with this psychoanalytic approach is a bit of literary publishing history on the rise of the market for children’s literature to prepare us for Alcott’s career transformation; an important sidebar discussion in footnotes encompasses the story of the rediscovery of Alcott’s thirty or more thrillers, beginning in 1842. However, I am less convinced by Reisen’s readings of “Perilous Play” (fiction) or “Happy Women” (newspaper essay) as revealing Alcott herself, unmasked as a lonely, yet fiercely independent spinster who can only experience intimacy with a man after some good hashish.

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A Real Love Affair?

Chapter 13:
“Wisniewski was not the first younger man she had called ‘Laddie,” but as the ‘best and dearest of all’ he was the ultimate. She did Laddie the even greater honor of immortalizing him in Little Women as Laurie, . . . ” (Reisen 240)

In this chapter, Reisen unwraps the enigma of Alcott and the romance of her first trip to Europe. Using LMA’s journals, letters, and fiction, Reisen provides tantalizing glimpses of the possibility of “a glorious tryst” (248). Alcott’s journal entry on Laddie heightens the mystery of something written and “later scratched out forcibly that she tore the paper” (247). Another way to interpret this evidence is to note that Alcott created versions of herself and her experience in many different genres; her journal was a place to start the written process of dramatizing the complicated being we call “self.” If we remember that Alcott’s first novel was titled Moods, I don’t think it is too far-fetched to imagine her writing different versions of herself in her journals as well as in her fiction.

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Removing Her Mask

Chapter 12:
“Louisa was baffled by the popularity of Hospital Sketches. . . .By 1879 she understood that realism and truth gave the book its power: “[Hospital Sketches] showed me my ‘style,’ & taking the hint I went where glory waited me.”) (Reisen 225-226)

Because Alcott’s financial success had depended on marketable genres like the thriller or the sentimental tale, she had to be cajoled by Moncure Conway to publish her private letters about her work as an Army nurse in the Union Hotel Hospital. As Reisen notes, people were hungry for news about the war. Uncomfortable standing before her reading public without a literary mask, Alcott creates a semi-autobiographical persona for herself in Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle. This name establishes the comic tone of first two chapters of the book which does not prepare the reader for the emotional intensity of the narrative that follows. My advice in reading Hospital Sketeches is to keep reading if you find the first part confusing. Alcott’s beloved narrative style in Little Women was forged in the furnace of this book about the dead and wounded of the Civil War.

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Concord Gossip: Affairs of the Heart or Mind?

Chapter 11:
“Concord gossip to this day holds that Lidian Emerson was deeply in love with Henry Thoreau, who lived alongside Lidian in the Emerson home for months while Emerson traveled in Europe in 1847—apparently in pursuit of Margaret Fuller, who the year before had been sent overseas as a journalist by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune” (Reisen 201).

This passage is misleading in spite of Reisen’s characterizing it as “gossip” and suggesting that we can never know what did or did not transpire. In fact, we can know better than Reisen suggests. First, Emerson’s biographer admits that Thoreau’s letters to Lidian and his journal entries about her “have led a number of people to believe that in some complicated and never quite fully acknowledged way he was in love with her” [Mind on Fire (461)]. So if I were going to gossip, I’d say that Thoreau had a platonic crush on Lidian. Second,Margaret Fuller and Emerson had had what some folks today call “an emotional affair” nearly a decade earlier; but by 1847, she was in Italy and in love with a younger man: Giovanni Ossoli. In 1847, Emerson went on a lecture tour of England, but he did not travel in continental Europe. Plus, Emerson’s more recent emotional dalliance had been with one of Fuller’s friends, Caroline Sturgis. If Emerson sent Fuller an invitation to come back to Concord, it was a gesture made as a friend and not a lover.

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Alcott’s Ophelia Complex?

Chapter 10:
“The brief account in Louisa’s letter [about thinking about throwing herself into the river] did not reveal much of her state of mind and her thoughts, but an episode in ‘Work’ gives a good idea of what they were. . . . .To cast ‘Love and Self-Love’ as a two-character play with Louisa in the role of Love and Bronson as Self-Love makes certain sense” (Reisen 184 & 187).

In this chapter, I feel that Reisen’s explanation and the long quotation from “Work” are insightful and illuminating, respectively. The biographer also bolsters her discussion with material from Alcott’s journal to explore her suicidality. However, reading “Love and Self-Love” as a fictional account of Alcott’s own father–daughter dynamic fails to note what a dreadful story it is. For instance, this “love” story is narrated by an older man whose ideas of social interaction and responsibility are as hypocritical as those held by southern slave owners. Furthermore, this narrator is as self-deceiving as any of Poe’s lunatics. When we see Effie, child-bride (reverse “Annabel Lee”) rise to power over her old, now impoverished husband, their new relationship is as creepy as it was when she haunted the house, wraith-like, or cast herself into the watery deep in deluded self-sacrifice. Read the short story yourself here.

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Lizzie’s Death and the Failings of a Nation

Chapter 9:
“Louisa arrived in Walpole to find Lizzie very ill with scarlet fever ‘caught from some poor children Mother nursed when they fell sick, living over a cellar where pigs had been kept.’ . . . . ” (Reisen 167).

Many readers cry when they read about Beth’s lengthy suffering and painful death; some want her to be more like Jo; others anguish when Jo resolves to become more Beth-like. As Reisen points out, no one understood that congestive heart failure can be the fatal consequence of untreated scarlet fever, but clearly Abby Alcott’s reforming mania put her daughters in harm’s way (physical and emotional). Furthermore, Reisen’s theories about Bronson, Abby, and Louisa suffering from serious mental illnesses have merit, but I also am drawn to consider the idea of a family as being representative of a nation. Reading “Little Women” as a national political allegory shows that in the 1850s America was failing its citizens (and non-citizens such as slaves, Native Americans, and immigrants) in some of the same ways that both the Alcott parents put their children at risk. Note: I realize my own desire to do a little corrective mothering of the Alcott girls is motivated by an unattractive, ahistorical self-righteousness.

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