Opium! Lurid pulp fiction! Rags to riches and a schoolgirl crush on Thoreau! According to a new film, Louisa May Alcott's life was a lot more interesting — and a lot more depressing — than Little Women.
The movie, which is based on the book Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind "Little Women" by screenwriter Harriet Reisen, documents Alcott's rise from poverty in the slums of Boston to literary fame. Reisen relies heavily on letters between the writer and her family, most notably her father, to sketch out the life of the celebrity-writer. Very little has been embellished, and nearly all the dialog was lifted from either Alcott's own writing, or that of her biographer. Most reviews of the film, which premieres on PBS tonight, are favorable, but they all seem almost surprised that Alcott's life is actually interesting.
However, Alcott's life makes for good viewing partially due to the fact that it was incredibly difficult, and often depressing. She was raised with in an environment seeped in intellectualism and grew up hobnobbing with transcendentalists and activists, but her father's progressive politics soon plunged the Alcotts into a life of poverty. Bronson Alcott was an abolitionist and champion of education, but these two ideals ended up bringing about the financial downfall of his family. After Bronson admitted a black girl into his school, parents withdrew their children, forcing him to close the institution. For years, the Alcotts tried to live out Bronson's dream of living off the land - including a stint in a Utopian community that ate a diet of mostly raw vegetables, grown above ground. This left Louisa May with a deep desire for wealth. At the age of 11, she wrote: "I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day."
She created her happy family in Little Women, but not until she had already spent years writing crime fiction under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. These stories were scandalous and smutty (at least, for the times), but they weren't linked to Alcott until the 1970s. Her reputation as a writer was made with the publication of Little Women, which turned her into an instant celebrity, a sort of modern day J.K. Rowling, according to the L.A. Times. But she was not necessarily thrilled with her success:
"Little Women" was actually an assignment, which soon led to an astonishingly prolific and successful career in children's literature. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, Alcott chafed under the popularity of her characters and tales, but she was as pragmatic as she was fanciful. Soon she was a brand — just the sight of her on a stage would cause audiences to applaud.
She continued to write children's stories for money, but she referred to them with great disdain as "moral pap for the young" (although she did once argue that "lively simple books are very much needed for girls," a sentiment we fear is still all too true).
Given her father's politics and her personal history, it's not surprising that many have categorized Alcott as a "pre-feminist." She never married, and once famously said: "I'd rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe." And as Reisen explained, in an interview with NPR, Alcott learned from the mistakes of her mother: "She saw her mother really dependent on this improvident husband. She saw the position of most married women - who she felt were marrying as an economic solution ... and she said, 'I love luxury, but freedom and independence better.'"
'Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind "Little Women"' [L.A. Times]
Alcott: 'Not The Little Woman You Thought She Was' [NPR]
A Writer Whose Life Had As Many Ups And Downs As A Victorian Novel [New York Times]
Docudrama On 'Little Women' Author Louisa May Alcott Proves She's Anything But A Little Women [NY Daily News]
Documentary Shine Light On Dark Sie Of Louisa May Alcott [Boston Herald]