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Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

PBS DVD; Book by Harriet Reisen

Like Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott is often relegated to the status of a writer of kid’s stuff —and for some of the same reasons. Twain’s spiny, probing satires were his life’s work, but lighter spoofs like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer made him much-needed cash. Alcott wrote everything from bodice rippers to memoirs, but dollar signs ruled her talent. She churned out Little Women, Little Men and their like in the post–Civil War era when children’s literature first boomed in America— and made some writers wealthy. These tales, which she dismissed with Dorothy Parker–like put-downs, paid her way onto Easy Street and out of the endless debts and debilities the utopian lifestyle of her famed father, Bronson Alcott, bestowed upon his loving but desperately long-suffering family. That she relished.

The nonstop but largely unknown turns of fate visited upon Louisa May, as well as her grim, single-minded determination to wrest fame and riches from the world for her family, are among the threads the latest American Masters episode weaves compellingly into new, often surprising cloth. Dramatized from the abundant books, journals, letters and archival sources surrounding the Alcotts and friends like Emerson and Thoreau, the show stays rooted in fact but flows like a Horatio Alger story. With enlightening twists: Thoreau declaiming about Walden’s flora and fauna; Emerson lending books to encourage Alcott’s enthusiastic curiosity; Alcott volunteering as a Civil War nurse and being dosed with mercury, which she blamed (probably wrongly) for her later ailments; her unrelenting feminism.

Like Twain, Alcott is a writer who everyone thinks they know. This show and the well-wrought book of the same title, both written by Reisen, will open their eyes.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here