An audio interview with Harriet Reisen, author of Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women

The Wordy Birds site has a 28 minute interview with Harriet Reisen, author of Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women that I found quite interesting.

Their description reads:

In a fresh, modern take on the remarkable Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Reisen’s vivid biography explores the author’s life in the context of her works, many of which are to some extent autobiographical. Although Alcott secretly wrote pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and served as a Civil War nurse, her novels went on to sell more copies than those of Herman Melville and Henry James. Stories and details culled from Alcott’s journals, together with revealing letters to family, friends, and publishers, plus recollections of her famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author’s classic rags-to-riches tale. In Louisa May Alcott, the extraordinary woman behind the beloved American classic Little Women is revealed as never before.

You can find the audio interview here.

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My 3 days with Louisa (part 5): Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal

My last of three days with Louisa was spent in the most intimate fashion, buried in papers written by the hands of her sisters and father at the Houghton Library at Harvard Square in Cambridge.

What is Houghton like?

Unlike Harvard’s main library, the Grand Dame known as Widener, Houghton is the little sister tucked away behind the Dame. It is formal, yet cozy.

All are welcome

Registering for a pass was simple and quick; Houghton truly welcomes anyone with a sincere desire to learn. After receiving my card, I was ushered into the reading room which was filled with students and scholars lost in research.

Seeing Lizzie’s diary

At last I would get to see what I had been longing for: Elizabeth Sewall Alcott’s diary at Hillside. Except for a few short letters, this diary is the only record of length from the “shadow sister.” She began writing it at age eleven.

Difficulty getting beneath the surface

Biographers have had a hard time cracking the nut that is Lizzie. Harriet Reisen in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women writes:

“The third Alcott daughter is impossible to pin down. She appears never to have asked anything of anybody or of life itself.” (pg. 140, ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)

Commenting directly on the Hillside dairy, Madelon Bedell in The Alcotts Biography of a Family writes:

“One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling and never find it.

So it is too with the girl herself. It was all hidden behind the serene countenance, the robust rosy features and the evasive blue eyes …” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Perhaps they were looking for the wrong thing.

What I saw

I haven’t yet poured over all of Lizzie’s diary but the reading so far has told me this much:

  • Lizzie liked order in her life.
    Anna wrote in her diary, “”I think I love order and so does my sister Elizabeth.” (from Scituate July 1839, Monday the 25th, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library).
  • Her small, precise and consistently neat handwriting portrays a little girl who was self-contained and conscientious; it suggests a very even temperament (just my opinion, I’m no handwriting expert!)
  • Math was one of her favorite subjects.
    Although I’ve only read a few pages so far, she mentions several times doing “sums in Division.” She writes, “I came into studies and did a few sums in Division. I like to do them very much. It does me some good to do them.” (Hillside, Concord, June 24, 1845, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library)
    Lizzie was said to be good at playing the piano; often musicians are good mathematicians. The understanding of music theory comes a lot more easily to a mathematical mind. This is why I call my math genius husband the “official” musician in our house because of his thorough knowledge of music theory. Math baffles me, and so does music theory which is why I play music strictly by ear.
  • Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

    She loved flowers and dolls.
    Lizzie writes of picking flowers and playing with her “dollies” on numerous occasions in her diary. I disagree with Bedell that she showed no “reaction” in her writings; her reactions were subtle. It was plain to this reader anyway that Lizzie appreciated beauty and derived pleasure from picking and studying flowers (recall the Botony report she wrote for Louisa’s family newspaper, The Olive Leaf).

  • She enjoyed observing the world around her and wrote precise notes.
    For a girl who supposedly didn’t have a lot to say, Lizzie wrote detailed entries in her diary.
  • She was very happy at Hillside.
    Lizzie doesn’t have to say that she was happy – it is obvious in the day-to-day rhythm of activities that she describes. Again the even temperament is very evident.
  • She looked upon keeping a journal as a daily homework assignment rather than as a way to express herself; I wonder if she would have done it were it not required of her.
    Several times she mentions writing in her journal because her father asked it of her. Her diary ends with “I now have finished my journal and am going to give it to Mother.” She had fulfilled her obligation.

Intensely private

The open sharing of journals and diaries between family members was commonplace yet Lizzie was uncomfortable with the idea, often refusing. Bedell writes,

“She was too shy to read her earnest, noncommittal little record, even to her parents and sisters.” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Is there a possibility that the more ordinary Lizzie was intimated by the genius that surrounded her? I know how I am around my older sister whom I revere for her take-charge attitude and capableness – I become like mush and always defer. Lizzie, I get you!

A developing theory

These are certainly not earth-shattering (nor original) revelations. It does however, fuel a theory I’ve been simmering in my head: Lizzie was a normal girl of average ability surrounded by, buried by, intense genius. Biographers are looking for that same spark that flickered in Anna, bloomed in May and roared like a bonfire in Louisa. Surely since Lizzie came from the same stock, she’d have that spark of brilliance too.

Not necessarily.

In my household of four, we have three members who are somewhat eccentric and artistic, obsessing over our passions. We live in our own worlds.

The fourth member is the opposite. She has her finger on the pulse of this world and keeps us grounded in it.

Perhaps Lizzie played that role too. I look forward to finding out more as I continue to read her diary.

In the next post I want to share things I found in Anna’s diary. It makes me want to go back for a lot more in my next visit to the “Holy Grail” that is Houghton Library. :-)

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Happy Birthday Bronson and Louisa!

From Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father , pages 48-49 by John Matteson

On N0vember 29, 1832, a half hour past midnight, Abba gave birth fo a second daughter, whom Bronson described as “a very fine healthful child . . . a very find, bat, little creature . . . with a firm constitution for building up a fine character.” . . . Bronson, a man not indifferent to signs and portents, found it “a most interesting event” that Louisa May shared her father’s birthday, entering the world on the day he turned thirty-three . . . Was there to be, perhaps, a supernatural bond between that, from the first, transcended that of father and daughter?

From Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women
(Chapter 18 “More Courage and Patience”) by Harriet Reisen

Kneeling by his bedside, she [Louisa] took his hand, kissed it, and placed in it pansies she had brought, saying “It is “Weedy”(her pet name). Then after a moment of silence she asked: “What are you thinking of, dear?” He replied, looking upward, “Up there; you come too!” Then with a kiss she said, “I wish I could go” . . . [Two days later, Louisa joined him.]

Indeed, quite a bond! Happy birthday, Bronson and Louisa. Your lives made a difference to me and so many others. Thank you.

Listen to an interview with Roberta Trites regarding Louisa’s “blood and thunder” tales

Recently the Milner Library at Illinois State University hosted a series of programs as part of the ALA’s “Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women”; they were one of many libraries around the country that received grant money from the NEH and the ALA. The series is based upon the best-selling biography of the same name by Harriet Reisen, and the film by Nancy Porter and Reisen.

On October 11, scholar Roberta Trites presented “”Behind Louisa’s Mask: Discovering the Real Louisa May Alcott.” Thanks to WGLT.org, we are privy to excerpts from an interview with Trites by host Charlie Schlenker. This 4 minute and 37 second interview is well worth the listen with some tantalizing tidbits.


Here is some biographical information on Roberta Trites from the official press release of the Milner Library and Illinois State University:
Trites teaches children’s and adolescent literature and is the author of Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel. Her research interests include Louisa May Alcott’s role in various social reform movements and her literary influence on literature for youth in the United States. Trites received her Ph.D. in English at Baylor University.

A highly successful author best known for her novel Little Women, Alcott secretly wrote sensational thrillers, lived at the center of the Transcendentalist and Abolitionist movements, campaigned for women’s rights and served as a Civil War army nurse.


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One year old today! Celebrating with a special gift for you!

I recently watched again the PBS film Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women  and thoroughly enjoyed it.  To see Louisa portrayed on the small screen is just as thrilling as ever. This reminded me of how I started my blog 1 year ago today after reading the book. What a wonderful year it has been with all of you, my readers.

Writing this blog has opened up a whole new world of reading and writing, and has given me, the first time, a way to indulge in my passion for history and biography. My vision is expanded and  my mind sharpened by the exercise. And I’ve rediscovered my childhood love of writing.

I have loved reading, writing and learning about Louisa,  members of her family, and the Concord Transcendentalists. The more I read, the more I want to know!

I would never have guessed that in the span of a year I would meet and/talk to/correspond with authors and scholars like Daniel Shealy, Harriet Reisen, Amy Belding Brown, Gabrielle Donnelly, Susan Cheever, Kelly O’Connor McNees, Richard Francis and Jeannine Atkins. Meeting Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, and Nancy Porter, director of the aforementioned film, was a tremendous pleasure too.

And I’ve found wonderful blogs such as A Room of One’s Own, Silver Threads, Joyfully Retired and many  more, introducing me to the Classics. I will never forget the thrill of reading Gone With the Wind. :-).

I never would have dreamed that I would have had the opportunity to attend the ALA workshop for the Louisa May Alcott initiative  and meet so many other Alcott enthusiasts and scholars. And I will never forget the day I held in my hands letters written by my favorite author. Being able to touch her handwritten words is frankly, beyond words.

This blog has certainly opened up my life. Thank you so much to all of you who have read, commented and supported this blog. My learning deepens, my joy grows fuller and my reading binge continues. Thank you!!

168 posts, 14,337 views, 615 comments . . . Happy 1st Birthday, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion! May there be many more to come.

A birthday gift – for you!

And as I celebrate this day, I would like to give away a gift to one of you – this beautiful notecard from Orchard House featuring a painting by May Alcott Nieriker of a screech owl baby, painted over the fireplace in Louisa’s room (I learned on my last trip that there used to be a big tree outside Louisa’s window that house a family of owls – May painted one of them).

Simply comment on this post and I will pick a winner at random. Contest ends Monday at noon.

Long live Louisa May Alcott!

Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.

Tidbits of news, and beginning a trip to Fruitlands

Just heard some awesome news from Jan Turnquist at Orchard House – the long missing papers of Madelon Bedell are now safely ensconced at Orchard House.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Bedell wrote a scholarly work entitled The Alcotts Biography of a Family; it was supposed to have been in 2 volumes but sadly, Bedell passed away before the second volume was written. Since the early 1980s, the papers have not been accessible. Harriet Reisen did get to see the final interview with Lulu Nieriker, May Alcott Nieriker’s daughter (adopted by Louisa when May died shortly after childbirth) – this interview was written about in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women.

These are important papers and it’s wonderful that they have finally made their way to Orchard House. Undoubtedly it was down a long and winding road!

I may have reported this second piece of news before but it’s worth repeating: there is a book in the works on Abba Alcott and Louisa called Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother (Free Press) by Eve LaPlante (thanks to Gina for this tidbit; Harriet Reisen confirmed it too). LaPlante is apparently a distant cousin of Louisa May Alcott and is also related to Anne Hutchinson, a notable early Puritan (PBS has a wonderful series called God in America that you can watch in full – the first episode, “A New Adam,” gives information on Anne Hutchinson). The following information was released on the Reading the Past blog:

In another deal, this time for nonfiction: author of American Jezebel and cousin of Louisa May Alcott Eve LaPlante’s MARMEE & LOUISA, the true story of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, based on recently discovered Alcott family papers and Abigail May Alcott’s unpublished and unexplored letters and journals, sold to Hilary Redmon at Free Press, in a pre-empt, for publication in November 2012, by Lane Zachary and Rachel Sussman at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency (World). [via PM]

This is such a great time to be learning more about Louisa May Alcott!

Speaking of such, it would appear that now is the right time for me to read Richard Francis’ work, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. I have been putting off reading this book because I was frankly intimidated by the subject and the author who has amazing credentials. As reported in a previous post, Francis gave a presentation in Concord about his book and I was very taken by his intellect, and his dry wit. I knew, however, this book would be a dense read, requiring quite a commitment. Since I take notes while I read and I read slowly, this is a long term commitment. I am happy to report that it is well worth the time! This book is fabulous. Francis is not only witty and brilliant, but he does such a great job of making connections and translating the rather obtuse language of Ralph Waldo Emerson and especially Bronson Alcott into something I can readily understand. You can see by the picture that my book is already full of sticky tags waiting for notes to be taken.:-) Finally I am beginning to get the answers I’ve been searching for about what Transcendentalism is, who founded it (the cast of characters is amazing) and how the prevailing religion of the 19th century influenced it. Some of the ideas are incredibly preposterous and yet there’s truth stuck in there too; Francis’ wit helps to extract that truth. It’s an incredibly stimulating read. It is true that the book takes a lot of time laying out the groundwork (I understand that he doesn’t even get into the actual Fruitlands experiment in Harvard, MA until halfway through the book, but he does explain why in the preface).

I never thought I could have this much fun learning! Life is good. :-)