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The Two Sides of Louisa May Alcott

Elizabeth Marvel

A new documentary, to air next week on PBS’s "American Masters," paints the creator of Little Women and its feminist heroine Jo as a complex personality, caught up in the needs of a difficult family.

Jo March, the heroine of Little Women, has inspired more female rebellion than dozens of treatises by feminist thinkers put together. The moment a young reader decides she's a Jo—rather than a Meg, Beth or Amy—her fate is sealed. According to a new documentary, Gloria Steinem, Gertrude Stein and Simone de Beauvoir are among the giantesses who patterned their lives after Jo's.

Jo chafes at the bonds of femininity from an early age, preferring to run and tumble rather than sew or be ladylike. "It's bad enough to be a girl, any-way, when I like boys’ games, and work, and manners," Jo says, very much echoing the thoughts of author Louisa May Alcott, in whose image she was created.

If Jo is a feminist heroine, speculating about Alcott is an American pastime. Critics grumble about Little Women's supposedly dubious literary merit and complain that Louisa May Alcott speed-wrote her fiction—both sentimental children's tales and lurid thrillers penned under pseudonyms—for the money. But the exploration of Alcott's life and literary creation has never stopped. In 2005, a new Library of America edition of the complete March family novels edited by Elaine Showalter inspired new essays and contemplation of Little Women.

Novelist Geraldine Brooks won a Pulitzer in 2006 for March, which imagines a story for Jo's father Mr. March, absent in the first half of Alcott's book due to service as a chaplain in the Union army. While Jo and her sisters get into "scrapes" and grow up, Brooks's March encounters the horrors of war and the limits of his own once-set convictions. Two years later in 2008, the Pulitzer for biography went to John Matteson's Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Father, which explores the entire Alcott family with Louisa and her transcendentalist father Bronson (who Geraldine Brooks' Mr. March is patterned after) as its strongest forces. Writers, intellectuals and feminists are fascinated by the two sides of Louisa Alcott: the politically radical, voluntarily single writer, and the moralizing spinster who loved describing childhood and lived with her family, including her father, until she died.

Now a paired film and biography of Louisa May Alcott spotlight her less known persona: moody, insurrectionary, often sharply sarcastic. The film, "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" directed by Nancy Porter and written by Harriet Reisen—who also penned the recently released biography of the same name—premieres on PBS's "American Masters" on December 28th.

Against a backdrop of beautiful shots of Concord and Boston, the film mixes traditional documentary interviews and "interviews" with professional actors in period dress playing Alcott, her family and friends. Each actor speaks lines lifted directly from actual letters and journals, and the words are so compelling that the somewhat hokey format is soon forgotten. We follow Louisa's story from her childhood, when she was tutored by Thoreau and Emerson in Concord's woods and drawing rooms, to her girlhood at her father's failed Utopian society, Fruitlands. Reisen and Porter highlight the tension between Bronson Alcott's philosophies and the continuing needs of his family. The Alcott patriarch was a forward-thinking but difficult man, who opened his daughter's mind and formed her strong social conscience, but who subjected his family to abject poverty because he believed most paid work compromised him, whether through supporting slavery or hurting animals. For many years, the girls were forced to work menial jobs, an experience Louisa never forgot.

Later in her life, we watch Louisa get ill from nursing in a Civil War hospital ward and escape a paid companion job to spend two unchaperoned weeks in Paris with a younger man—"Laddie"—who may or may not have been a love interest. She returned to America to realize the financial power of her pen, delivering an endless stream of fantastical and sordid stories until someone gave her the genius idea to write a tale for children, a tale based on her childhood with her three sisters. Little Women turned her into a wealthy celebrity, the J.K. Rowling of her time. She nonetheless retained the burden of care for her whole family.

If there's a thesis to the new book and film, it's that Alcott's inner life may have been more like her pulp fiction than like her children's tales, full of repression, smoldering anger and pain, much of it caused by the demands of her exacting, idealistic father and her desire to provide peace for her long-suffering mother, Abigail Alcott (the inspiration for the saintly "Marmee" of Little Women).

Reisen and Porter, like many others, view Jo's fate as an expression of Alcott's proto-feminist philosophy about the strictures of marriage, perhaps inspired by her parents' difficult union. Jo's rejection of her best friend Laurie's proposal remains one of the most debated moments in literature. "You'd hate my scribbling, and I couldn't get on without it... I'm happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in a hurry to give it up for any mortal man," Jo says as he sheds tears over her indifference. The scene is affecting because Alcott gave the two characters chemistry and delight in each others' company, but also because having a heroine choose independence over such an appealing lover remained unthinkable—even Jane Eyre got married, after all. Instead, Alcott gleefully perplexed readers by pairing Laurie off with Jo's more conventional younger sister Amy and almost as an afterthought gave Jo in matrimony to the older, stout, foreign Professor Bhaer, hardly a paragon of a romantic lover.

Each new revelation or spin on Alcott's life and work is utterly fascinating. But whether, like Reisen, you believe that Alcott's anger was paramount in her personality, or as Ruth Graham recently wrote in Double X, you think Alcott's sense of morality and duty superseded the fiery passion Reisen champions, it's impossible to pin Alcott down or untangle her many sides. Did she give Jo liberty as a statement against marriage, or was it also a moment of self-denial, an inability to give romantic love to a character based on herself, a woman who'd sacrificed her own happiness for her family's? The answer will elude us, and keep us returning to Alcott's life and work for a long time to come.

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