Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why I Love Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen

Over the last week or so we have been running a contest for one lucky winner to receive a copy of Harriet Riesen's fascinating look at the lives of one of the most beloved authors, Louisa May Alcott. We are pleased to not only announced that the winner of the giveaway is

Melody from Melody and Words

but also to have a guest post from Harriet Riesen explaining why she loves Louisa May Alcott!


Like so many other girls, I fell under the spell of Louisa May Alcott when my mother presented Little Women to me as if it were the key to a magic kingdom. I was taken into Louisa’s story so completely that a book with covers and pages has no place in my memory of the experience. While I was there, by my mother’s decree, normal life was suspended. Jelly omelets were delivered to my room on bed trays, and sleep was optional. At such a time, school was out of the question. Jo March was coming to take up residence in my heart, a companion for life, to endow me with a little something of Louisa Alcott’s own wise, funny, sentimental, and sharply realistic outlook.

Coming to the end of Little Women left me feeling as Louisa did when she emerged from a vortex (one of her all-absorbing periods of writing): cranky, bereft, and lamenting that never again would I read Little Women not knowing how it came out. The next long rainy weekend my grandmother, tipped off by my mother, showed up for a visit bearing the remaining seven of Alcott’s juvenile novels. I polished off one of them before the sun came out and Grandma went home; the rest by the end of the month. I had gobbled Alcott all up without coming close to satisfying my appetite for her work.

Soon after I moved to the Boston area in my twenties I took myself to the Alcotts’ modest doorstep in Concord. Orchard House is chockablock with things the Alcotts made and ate from and wore and painted and used so much that I imagine their smell must still cling to them. It was in her small bedroom, from the tiny semicircular writing surface where she wrote Little Women in ten weeks, that Louisa May Alcott emerged to make herself real and claimed me.

Over the next decade I read whatever I could find of Alcott’s scores of short stories, poems, and works of nonfiction such as Hospital Sketches, her account of her experience as an army nurse in the Civil War, and Work, a largely autobiographical novel. Her rediscovered thrillers were coming out every year or two, at the rate of a popular living novelist. Louisa’s journals and letters were published at about the same time as the thrillers. In them I finally heard Louisa Alcott’s voice—not Jo March’s voice, or the authorial voice of Louisa May Alcott, but the voice of the woman who had lived and breathed. Over the next twenty years I continued my study of Alcott’s life, work, and times. By the time I had read just about all of Louisa’s hundreds of works I could sift them for the autobiographical elements I needed to tell her story without leaving her imagination out.

My background was in film and screenwriting. My friend, Director Nancy Porter, and I set out to raise more than a million dollars to tell Louisa’s story. When Susan Lacy of the PBS series American Masters agreed to coproduce and broadcast a ninety-minute documentary biography, my pleasant obsession with Louisa Alcott became a better-than-full-time job. With it came the opportunity to fulfill my long-held dream of telling her story in print.

Through writing and producing the film, I came to know my subject as few biographers do. Nancy and I spent hours in Orchard House planning the filming, becoming as comfortable there as we would be at a friend’s house. In the venerable New York apartment on East Seventy-eighth Street of Madeleine Stern and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, under the suspicious gaze of the last of the household’s dachshunds named Laurie, we filmed the nonagenarian literary sleuths (and rare book dealers) who had discovered Louisa’s pseudonym, A. M. Barnard, and with it the key to her secret literary life as a writer of pulp fiction. I become a literary sleuth myself in search of an Alcott scholar I never met—Madelon Bedell, the author of The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. In 1975 Bedell had interviewed ninety-six-year-old Lulu Nieriker Rasim, Louisa’s niece and the only person then still alive to have known her personally. Bedell’s account of the interview is in the preface to her 1980 book, but the interview itself was never published; the author died of cancer before she completed a second volume. I wondered what had happened to Bedell’s interview with Lulu, had asked various Alcott scholars about it, had even tried calling Bedells listed in telephone books. One day I picked up a used copy of The Alcotts, and out of it tumbled a carbon copy of an August 1980 letter written by Bedell herself to Michael Sterne, then the travel editor of the New York Times, proposing a story. At the bottom of the letter was a return address in Brooklyn where, more than two decades later, Madelon Bedell’s widower, Bob Bedell, still lived. He transferred the papers to me. They took up half my study before I entrusted them to the Orchard House collection.

Now that the film and the book are done—having truly gobbled Louisa May Alcott all up—I confess to feeling just about as cranky and bereft as I did as a girl when I finished reading what I believed was everything she wrote. My hope is that Alcott lovers everywhere will be inspired to track down the Louisa May Alcott works whose titles are known but whose whereabouts are not, to bring them forth from obscure periodicals in the backs of old local library shelves, attic trunks, even from inside the walls of old houses, as pages of Louisa’s childhood diary was, so they may be published and read as widely as their most recent predecessors have been. If they do, I may never have to run out of new work from the prodigious pen of Louisa May Alcott.

Why do I love brave, passionate, funny Louisa May Alcott? Because she has been a magical presence in my life. And because she is so surprising. Watch this video to find out a few things you probably don’t know about her.

To find out more about Harriet Reisen and her book, head over to


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