Warning: If you are of the boy persuasion, you may want to do something more fun, say getting a start on your 2009 tax returns, instead of reading this. Unless, like my friend Doug, you are evolved. (Doug tells me that he cried, when, as a young lad, he read "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott.)
Every December, as the holidays approached, when I was a child, I'd think of Santa. Until I read "Little Women." Since then, I've thought about Jo March, the protagonist of the Louisa May Alcott classic, not only at Christmas, but on many other days as well. If you're of the girl persuasion, and if you're either enlightened or insane enough to be a writer, this won't surprise you. If you have the X chromosome and are unconventional, or even if you're a Y who's off the beaten path, you, too, once you've read "Little Women," will develop a life-long obsession with (more like a permanent crush on) Jo March.
Jo, a fictional character who was 15 during the Civil War, was determined to write, run, live and love as she pleased–no matter what barriers were placed before her. Once you're under the spell of Jo March, you quickly believe that you are Jo March.
I know that I became a writer because of Jo March (both Alcott's depiction of the character and Katherine Hepburn's portrayal of Jo in the 1933 film adaptation of "Little Women"). But, I didn't know until I read the press material for "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women"--a new biography by Harriet Reisen, that Jo March inspired the careers of women as diverse as Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, J.K. Rowling and Sandra Day O'Connor. Sandra Day O'Connor and Gertrude Stein being on the same page? Who knew?
The PBS series "American Masters" will premiere a film biography (with the same title as the Reisen book) on December 28. Nancy Porter is the producer/director and Reisen is the producer/writer of the film. An audio book version of the Reisen book is being released this month. The Reisen book is the companion bio to the "American Masters" film.
"I know nothing about Lloyd and his loves," Addison de Witt the delightfully venomous theater critic says in "All About Eve," "I leave that to Louisa May Alcott."
We don't learn definitively if Alcott had any love affairs in the new book or film bio. (Nineteenth century writers had such a distressing tendency not to just let everything hang out.) But, we discover many of the "loves" of Louisa May Alcott.
Alcott disliked writing stories for children, which she called "literary pap for the young." She got her kicks from writing pulp fiction–filled with murderers, transvestites and revolutionaries.
She loved to act, and won acclaim for her skillful performances.
Alcott enjoyed taking opiates and smoking hashish. She felt "no pain" and "like an angel" when she smoked hash. (It was legal to take opiates and smoke hashish in Alcott's day.)
She had a huge crush as a teenager on Emerson, and an even bigger crush, on Thoreau.
Alcott, longing to "see a war," became a nurse during the Civil War.
A Polish nationalist, ten years younger than Alcott, was the real Laurie. Alcott met him, while she was traveling in Europe (as a companion to a whiny rich woman). Breaking away from the annoying "invalid," Alcott met up with "Laddie" in Paris. They spent two weeks alone there. (For a woman and a man to spend time alone together in the 19th century was almost unheard of.)
Though Alcott denigrated her children's books, it's not surprising to learn that she was an ardent abolitionist and feminist. Her work from "Little Women" to "Jo's Boys" to "Eight Cousins" and "Rose in Bloom" is replete with actresses, female artists and doctors, happy single women, references to the Civil War and prison reform.
I didn't realize, when I read "Louisa May Alcott: The Women Behind Little Women," (and saw the "American Master's film of the same name), what a wretched childhood Alcott had. (I bet this will be true for many readers and viewer of the book and movie.) Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a misguided idealist, who seems to have been either incapable or undesiring of never doing a stitch of work. Though he loved to hold "conversations" about Transcendentalism, Bronson rarely dirtied his hands with such earthy matters as providing food or lodging for his family. Louisa, from her teenage years onward, became through her writing, the breadwinner for her family.
Alcott, like most writers, wrote because she had to write. Plotting stories in her head, she'd go off into a "vortex," for weeks at a time and write all day and night. She also, more than many of us writers, wrote for money. As a young girl, Alcott worked as a servant. By the end of her life, she made so much money that she could hire ten servants for herself and her family.
Not only was J.K. Rowling inspired by Alcott; Alcott was the J.K. Rowling of her day. Alcott became so famous that fans swarmed to her door. Audiences implored her to do nothing more than stand on a stage, and turn around, so that they could see her.
Jo March fans, and curmudgeons everywhere, won't be disappointed to learn that Alcott loathed these "mushy" fans and swatted them away with a feather duster.
Despite Alcott's contention that it was "pap for the young," I've always felt it was a mistake to think of "Little Women" as only being a book for children. There is enough humor, pathos, romance, and I'll go ahead and look like a sentimental idiot for saying this, spunk and morality in the book to stick to the DNA of many adults. Even snarky adults like me.
"Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" reveals the very adult consciousness behind the great book.
"Christmas won't be Christmas," Jo March says at the beginning of "Little Women."
Give yourself a present this holiday season. Read the Reisen bio and watch the PBS film "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women."
VIEW THE PBS TRAILER