Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 12, 2009

Harriet Reisen on Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

Last night I went to the Odyssey Bookshop to hear Harriet Reisen talk about her new biography for adults: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. Like many of us, Harriet Reisen’s passion began as a girl reading her way through Louisa’s novels, and grew during the past twenty years of writing this biography and co-producing a film biography which will be aired Dec. 28 as part of American Masters on PBS. She talked about conversations with costume designers about making the linen outfits the family wore on the utopian farm, Fruitlands. There were visitors, many of whom wrote journals, but while Henry David Thoreau, for example, might lavish pages on a tree, there’s no written description of the tunics and bloomers. The costumers did their best with this period when the Louisa was ten and her family avoided cotton, because it was based on slave labor, and wool, since it relied upon unconsenting sheep, and leather: though practical Mrs. Alcott surely insisted on shoes once the weather got cold. As authors we can do our best with words, but costumers and illustrators have to get more specific. Here’s what illustrator Jean-Paul Tibbles did with the cover of my book (Putnam 2001).

Like Harriet Reisen, the topic of the Alcotts is one I could go on and on about. I liked that the quote from the diary Louisa wrote when she was ten – how she and her older sister Anna were called to a meeting to see if the family should stay together — which inspired my novel also kind of broke her heart. I loved hearing a few research stories: the unanswered phone calls, the plodding, the serendipity of a letter that fell out from a volume at a used book store with a phone number at the end. Harriet Reisen read two excerpts, and it’s clear she worked hard not only to elegantly and truthfully show Louisa, but put her vividly into the context of her time and place. Harriet Reisen loves a material world both for its clues and color. And she shows Louisa as a runner. Often twenty miles a day.

She cited authors who have been influenced by Louisa Alcott including Simone de Beauvoir, Cynthia Ozick, and J.K. Rowling. I might add more than half the the writers I know. I look forward to reading the biography and seeing the television documentary, with a script that is all quotes, many from Louisa’s diaries and letters, with some commentary by scholars.


  1. Oh, I’m really looking forward to the book and documentary too! So cool that you got to hear Reisen speak!

  2. Sounds like a wonderful night, Jeannine. I’ve read the Sexton and Stern biographies, but I’m looking forward to this one, too.
    Thinking of you and hoping the presentation goes well, and that life is treating you gently.

  3. I knew I’d want to read the book, but hearing her made me more interested in the documentary which should be visually kind of gorgeous.

  4. Having read those good biographies, there are probably few surprises here for you, but everyone has her own twists and emphasis, and it will give us a chance to dwell there for a bit.
    Thanks for your good wishes. The presentation did go well; it turned out my friend got a bad cold so her surgery had to be postponed… but I’m sure it won’t be next week. She is sadly still coughing.

  5. The biography and documentary sound fascinating. Thanks for pointing me toward them. And I love the cover of your book!

  6. Jeannine: thanks for telling us about this book and the upcoming American Masters. Both are news to me.
    I have never seen your BECOMING LITTLE WOMEN! I had no idea it existed. Is it still in print? I would love to see it.
    It stuns me that no matter how hard I plead and urge, my daughters will not read Little Women. HOW? Why? Who could live without this book? I read it multiple times by my mid-teens. How sad my daughters have yet to experience this most wondrous of novels!

  7. Thanks, Lorraine!
    Friday: I’m moving back through my own chapter 15. Tea’s on if you want to stop by for a mad rush through before the weekend.

  8. HI, Pamela, I know the feeling re daughters. I couldn’t convince mine to read Little Women. I did manage to get her to the Winona Ryder movie when she was small, but she was unimpressed expect by Amy on the ice. It sadly doesn’t have the same pull for this generation, though I suppose they have other things going for them.
    Many of my students at Mount Holyoke had read it and loved it though. So maybe you do just need to be a certain kind of girl!
    Unfortunately Becoming Little Women is out of print. But maybe your library has it! And I bet you’ll like Harriet Reisen’s book and documentary, too!

  9. Sounds wonderful. I wonder if someone could do a study on writers & which of the Alcott books were their favorites. Mine were always Little Men and Jo’s Boys–possibly having only sisters, I found those worlds more fascinating, mysterious?

  10. I’m here now and would love to join you for tea and writing. It’s another morning of trying to make chapter 16 happen. I hope your chapter 15 is cooperating nicely!

  11. Oh, I thought the room just got brighter! Thank you for joining me for tea and word-wrestling. I was feeling a bit post-party mood even though it wasn’t my birthday and you’re the one with all the dishes in the sink. So am happy for company on a gray day. Best wishes for chapter 16!

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