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Tonight I'm excited to welcome Harriet reizen to discuss her biography. Louisa May Alcott. The woman behind Little Women is rising as a former fellow at the American Film Institute. She has written documentary scripts for PBS and HBO as well as commentary for NPR's MORNING EDITION and marketplace. And like many young readers miss reizen fell in love with Louisa May Alcott's writing as a young girl she read everything by the author she could get her hands on. Unlike most readers though Ms Ryan's fascination with Al-Kut didn't subside over the years she continued to seek lesser known works by the author and to follow Al-Kut scholarship. This passion led me his rise and her filmmaker friend Nancy porter to create a documentary of Louisa male Kautz life. Some clips from which we'll get to see tonight that means reizen wrote this biography after having completed the documentary screenplay is a testament to the interest Alcott's life still generates and the continued dedication to her work among modern readers. Booklist called the biography uniquely
vital and dramatic and Vogue called it a biography as vibrant as its subjects. We all follow MS rising to talk with the question and answer session and with a book signing here at this table to my right at the front of the theater. Copies of Louisa May Alcott are available at the table at the back of the theater. As always I thank those of you who do purchase a book tonight by doing so you're supporting a local independent bookstore and this author series and making it possible for her bookstore to bring wonderful writers like Harriet risin to you so please join me in welcoming her to the podium. It's so nice to be here. I'm thrilled and also terrified. Never done anything like this before. I think as most of you know this began as a film I my friend an esteemed colleague at the Emmy Award winning filmmaker Nancy Porter among you said let's make a film. Kind of like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and only 20 years later we did.
I thought actually to introduce Lisa to you. It would make sense to just roll the opening clip of the film and you'll get an idea of all the things that she did that you didn't know about include including run. I scrambled up. To child. Fell with a crash into girlhood and continue falling out of trees. Over fences up hill and down stairs. Tumbling tell the topsyturvy girl shot up into the topsy turvy woman. For many years. People believe that Louisa Mayock was just a writer of children's books. But then people discovered
she was deeply interested in the darker sides of human character and emotions. I enjoy writing more pap for the young. I do it because it pays well. Luisa from poetry short stories and published over two dozen books. But she became famous. As the author of Little Women. But a woman has spoken across cultures and across generations. It's been translated into over 50 languages. Television movie adaptations adaptations from high cultural musical Prince. Ballets anime. Takeoffs and merchandise. After he's untied. Her sister entrusted at the Cheney family friend. To write Louise's official biography and the ways a male Cox works are a revelation of her life. It's impossible to
understand them fully without knowing her life story. Fortunately I can let her speak for herself. In her biography. Cheney made my own country and uncomplicated figure. But. As you go deeper into the other stories she wrote and the facts of her life. She was an immensely complex woman. When you think about her heroines who struggle to curb her temperament to discipline themselves you get a sense of the writer herself. I had lots of troubles. So I write jolly tales.
Stuff because I'd mark them up and then I get destroyed and I go in second hand stores so one day I bought another copy of battels book and opened it and out of it falsus letter a carbon copy of a letter by Madeleine Bedel to the travel editor of the night of the New York Times at the time Michael Stern proposing a story and at the bottom of it is his return address in Brooklyn with a phone number and 20 years later there was Madeleine Mojo's widow were still there. And we then follow the papers actually. Something out of like Henry James The aspirin papers because they were in the possession of a rather strange author who didn't want to let go or use them. However we did capture them. And so we have some interesting follow up about whatever happened to Lulu and what happened to Luisa's estate and how did the heirs feel about each other and really quite interesting stuff. So let's see some water.
But there's so much to tell about her. I hope you enjoy the book. I hope you read it. And I still find it fascinating. I'm still working on some angles that I wasn't able to prove so I don't know maybe they'll be articles or something. But let me get myself tanked up a little. I recorded the audio book last week. I'm not standing just better. All right thanks Madam Director of course. Ken tell me much better than you know these elementary things. Anyway but as you may have noticed the film script is all from primary sources so none of my words are in it. There's no narrator though all the people speak the words that those people actually spoke. And as Nancy always puts it a film is something like 17 haiku you know. And so there was a lot more to say and and you and I had a lot of interest in this and my interest had not run out and I'd always wanted to write a book.
And so I'm going to start you at age at her age 30 by 1862 at almost 30 Louisa had passed the marriageable age of most women of her time at 25. Louisa wrote in Little Women girls begin to talk about being old maids but quiet but secretly resolved they never will. At. They say nothing about it but quietly accept the fact Louisa called herself a spinster long before that cheating gossips of the privilege. But as she approached her birthday she was restless and hungry for adventure. Before it was too late. Decided to go to Washington as a nurse. She wrote in her journal for November. I loved nursing and must let out my pent up energy in some new way. 30 was the minimum age for being an Army nurse Dorothea Dix the superintendent of the Union army nursing corps had also stipulated that volunteers be plain looking and married
but under the pressure of casualties from the Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1862. Dix had to revise her rules to take any respectable woman willing to risk her life in the hellhole of an Army hospital. Louise's orders came on December 11. She was to leave for Washington the next morning to report to the Union Hotel hospital in Georgetown. Abby that's her mother and her older sister in May who is Ganey in Little Women if you know that and their next door neighbor Sophia Hawthorne Sify a Peabody at Hawthorne. They told her they knew everybody it frantically helped Luis pack in time for the afternoon train to Boston. Louisa took her journal Dickens to read to the convalescing soldiers paper for transcribing their letters and writing her own and enough sandwiches ginger bread and apples to eat all the way to the Capitol. She choked on a last cup of tea that had been stirred with salt instead of sugar. In the excitement and suddenly it was time to go. We had all been full of courage to the last
moment came. Then we all broke down. I realized that I had taken my life in my hand and might never see them all again. I said Shall I stay mother. As I hugged her close. No go and the Lord be with you. Abby waved her wet handkerchief from the door. So I set forth in the December twilight with Mae and Julian Hawthorne as Estcourt feeling as if I was the son of the House going to war after an early dinner with Anna and John and another cheerfully taking at the station in Boston she started on her long journey full of hope and sorrow courage and plants in New London Connecticut. She transferred to the city of Boston the steamship that would ferry her south to New Jersey and spent most of the night in a perfect storm of displaced anxiety. The boat is new but if it ever intends to blow up a spring a leak catch fire or be run into it will do the deed to night. She wrote home because I'm here to fulfill my destiny. She woke in time to
watch the sun come up over Long Island Sound with mysteries falling off and a pale pink sky above us and to catch the train to Washington by 7:00 in the morning. It had passed through Philadelphia her native city an old place full of Dutch women and on to Baltimore. A big dirty Shippy shiftless sort of place. As they passed the site where the six Massachusetts Regiment had been fired on by a confederate mob in April of 1861 she felt as if she should enjoy throwing a stone at somebody's heart. Her car came uncoupled and then got hit from behind by its unshackled mate sending passengers hats and water jars flying like circus clowns. Luisa was satisfied for no charity in America would be complete without an accident. As the train slowed in its approach to the capital the novice traveler glimpsed a strange long imagined world we often pass colored people looking as if they had come out of a picture book or off the stage. Not at all
the sort of people I've been accustomed to see at the north and men along the route made the fields and lanes gay with blue coats and the glitter of buttons military washes flapped and fluttered in the open air and everywhere the boys threw up their arms and cut capers as we passed. Arriving at nightfall Louisa was cast into the chaos of the wartime city. A stranger corralled the carriage and jumped in with her pointing out the unfinished Dome of the Capitol and the brilliantly lit White House where carriages were rolling in and out of the great gate. Louisa could just make out the East Room and wished she could peek in. Journey's End was a formidable building with guards at the door and a very trying quantity of men lounging about. My heart beat rather faster than usual and it struck me that I was very far from home. The Union Hotel had been hastily converted into a hospital. It was badly lit crowded and poorly ventilated. The windows were nailed shut and
smashed panes had been dragged with the curtains to keep out the cold. Many of the rooms still bore their former designation. Some not so inappropriate Louisa thought for her ward was in truth a ballroom if gunshot wounds could christen it. She had barely mastered the route to her upstairs room when she was put in charge of a ward of forty soldiers sick with rheumatism or fever and wondered when her real war duty would begin. Three days later it did. She was awake in the grey dawn with a loud knock and a cry of They've come. They've come. Hurry up ladies you're wanted for a minute she thought the rebels were coming but in fact the first first wounded were coming from Fredericksburg where a bloody battle was raging. In five days thirteen thousand union soldiers had been killed captured or wounded thirteen thousand. Having a taste for ghastliness I had rather long for the wounded to arrive but when I peeped into the dusky street lined with what I had innocently called market cards now unloading their sad freight at
our door my order experienced a sudden chill and I indulged in a most unpatriotic wish that I was safe at home again. Forty Cork's discharged their injured cargo bound for eighty beds in the once elegant ball room. Some were carried in on stretchers others staggered in on crutches and the few who could stay on their feet helped the many who couldn't. All was hurry and confusion. The hall was full of these wrecks of humanity for the most exhausted could not reach her bed until duly ticketed and registered. The walls were lined with rows of such as could sit on the floor covered with them were disabled from behind a stack of folded linens. Louisa stared transfixed at a group of men gathered around the stove ragged gaunt and pale mud to the knees with bloody bandages untouched since put on days before many bundled up in blankets coats being lost or useless and all wearing that disheartened look which proclaimed defeat. She could not move from
fear until the matron had the ropes for us to wash basin basin a sponge and a block of brown soap into her hands and told her to begin washing patients as fast as she could if she had requested me to shave them all or dance a hornpipe on the stone funnel. I should have been less staggered but to scrub some dozen lords of creation at a moment's notice it was really really she did it anyway for an unmarried woman of thirty who may never have seen him make a naked man except perhaps her father or boys at a swimming hole or the fruit lands nudists Samuel bower by moonlight. That was their crazy. Come is a nudist. It was a turning point. She had not only to see the men's bodies but to touch them intimately and with assurance. She clutched her block of brown soap manfully and made a dab at the first dirty specimen she saw an old withered Irishman so delighted to have a well-meaning woman sponge him clean that he blessed her on the spot which made her laugh. The worse was not over but
the fear of it was for the next 12 hours she moved from bed to bed watching putrid gaping moms mopping foreheads bringing water to those who could drink and food to those who could eat and stifle tears at the sight of young boys with stumps for legs or holes blown through their peach fuzz cheeks as she tried to ease their misery. Her gentle touch was usually the only and the best offering she could make to them after she spoon fed a new Hampshire man. She accepted a pair of earrings intended for the wife of his dead mate because he said she looked so much like the man's new widow. A soldier shot in the stomach asked for a glass of water. She returned with it minutes later to find him dead. The next day she assisted at amputations where the merciful magic of either ether was judged unnecessary and the poor souls had to bear their pains as best they might. After the sawing the hacking and the trimming she learned how to dress wounds from a surgeon who seemed to regard a dilapidated body very much as she would have regarded a damaged
garment cutting sawing patching and piecing with it with the enthusiasm of an accomplished surgical seamstress. It was a harrowing initiation but it made of her an instant veteran confident and useful like her father's friend. The poet Walt Whitman who also served as a nurse she understood that the battlefield was not necessarily where the essence of the war was to be found. The expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign and the battle fights. It is to be looked for in the hospitals among the wounded. Whitman had written in moments of calm on the ward. Louisa sat with her American personalities as they struggle to write War letters home letters that began with vivid descriptions of battle and ended with a somewhat sudden plunge from patriotism to Provencher desiring marm Mary-Ann Orient Peters to send along some pies pickles sweet stuff and apples to Yorn in haste. She wrote a poem
with the rhythm of a march and called it beds. Beds to the front of them beds to the right of them beds to the left of them. Nobody blundered beamed at by hungry souls screamed out with brimming Voelz steamed up by army rolls buttered and sundered with coffee not cannon and. Each must be satisfied whether they lived or died. All the men wondered. I never began the year in a strange place. And this Louisa wrote on the first day of 1863 five hundred miles from home alone among strangers doing painful duties. All day long and leading a life of constant excitement in this great house surrounded by three or four hundred men in all stages of suffering disease and death though often homesick heart sick and worn out. I like it. The night before she had celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation by leaping from her bed at midnight and racing to the window to add her own cheer to the hollering and
singing in the streets of the embattled nation's capital she waved her handkerchief to a crowd of black men gathered below and returned to bed to savor the burst of firecrackers and choruses of glory hallelujah that sounded all night. A few weeks into the routine she paused to outline a typical day she was up by six dressed quickly by gaslight and then hurried to her board to fling open the windows to air out the room. It made the men grumble and shiver but Louisa trained under a fierce fresh air enthusiasm knew it was the only cure for air bad enough to breed a pestilence. She gave the fire a poke and went off to a quick breakfast with her colleagues. She found the women silly the men self-important at midday she helped the wounded soldiers down big portions of soup meat potatoes and bread marveling that their appetites exceeded the supply of food no matter how much was available. Newspapers conversation and doctor's final rounds followed. Supper at five. The Gaslight was dimmed at nine and the day nurses shift was done.
Dr. John Winslow the surgeon slow at his work kind to the men began to take an interest in Louisa and turned up at her room bearing books in lieu of flowers. She declined to visit his room but accepted his invitations to go walking. They went together to the Capitol to hear a dull sermon by William Henry Channing then had a dollar dinner at a German restaurant quotes Browning copiously is given to confidences in the twilight. And altogether is amiably amusing and exceedingly young was Luisa's assessment of Dr. Winslow perhaps to avoid him. She volunteered for the nightshift which also freed her to take long runs in the mornings from the top of a steep hill on her route. Louisa watched army wagons trundle off to replenish the troops and saw the bursts of smoke from cannon fire. Louisa liked being called a part of what she called the night side of life to be out of the owling when sleep and death had the house to themselves. The hospital matron Mrs. ropes
admired Louisa and gave her the responsibility of assigning the patients in her three room ward to the appropriate quarters according to their condition. The duty room held the newly wounded. The pleasure room was for recovering soldiers whom Louisa entertainment games gossip and probably the dickens sorry Gamp imitation that had been her sister Lizzie sick bed delite she is really quite an entertainer. The pathetic room of hopeless cases was a place to bring tea pots lullabies consolation and sometimes a shroud the sleeping men often broke the night silence of the ward talking crying making all kinds of noise the gruff and reticent soldier by day became mild and chatty and sleep at night. The stiff facades of control devolved into groan groans and Frank cries of pain. A drummer boy sang sweetly sometimes Louisa looked out the window at the moonlit church spire across the way at the passers by on the street at a boat gliding down the Potomac down the Potomac River all that river
water could not wash out the bloodstains on the land she thought. But what had been washed away was Luisa's naive thé about the excitement and glory of fighting a righteous battle. One night she found herself alone at the bedside of a New Jersey man reliving the recent horrors of battle. He cheered on or cried out to fallen comrades ducked incoming shots and grab Luis's arm roughly to pull her away from imaginary bursting shells. The man's ravings were pitiful to hear and impossible to restrain. In the meantime a fever racked one legged soldier propelled himself through the ward like a ghost telling telling Loizzo that he was dancing home crashing into bed and threatening harm to himself and everybody else with no orderly there. Louisa was helpless to contain too sadly unhinged men and the situation deteriorated even more when sobbing broke out from the 12 year old drummer boy in the corner bed. The boy's loud lament was for the death of the wounded soldier who had carried him to safety
nursing tempered Louisa matured her replaced her book knowledge of behavior under duress was real life experience for all their liberality. Her parents notions of human character were just that. Notions. They were idealists especially her father but also her mother who didn't see people for who they were so much as for how far they fell short of what they should be. Louisa wanted to know life in all its true variety and she was getting that chance. John sorry was a Virginia blacksmith a big strong man of thirty. Her own age with a small but indisputably fatal wound in his back that he could not see and had to lie upon in order to breathe. He sat propped up in a bed that had been extended to accommodate his outsize frame looking around with Serenity never making a request or complaint. When he slept and Louisa spent several nights watching him sleep a tender smile played around his
mouth much like a woman's. She thought when he was awake. Louisa was a little afraid of the man unsure how to respond to his manly strength and dignity. She hung back thinking she wasn't needed or wanted from her admiring description in hospital sketches. The book Louisa created from her letters home. It is obvious that she loved John sorry but whether with a worshipers or a woman's desire or a mother's devotion is hard to discern a most attractive face he had she says thoughtful and often beautifully mild while watching the afflictions of others as if entirely forgetful of his own. She describes his eyes as child's eyes with a clear straightforward glance. He seemed to cling to life as if it were rich in duties and delights and he had learned the secret of content. She asked the doctor which man in her ward suffered the most and was shocked to hear him name John because he was so strong the
doctor predicted a long and painful death. There not the slightest hope for him. And you'd better tell him so. Before long he instructed women have a way of doing such things comfortably. So I leave it to you charged with this awesome responsibility. Louisa stayed close by as the doctor carelessly dressed the terrible wound for the first time she saw tears slipping down John's cheeks. His silent endurance of pain and his terrible loneliness. Straightway my fear vanished. My heart opened wide and took him in as gathering the bent head in my arms as freely as if he had been a little child. I said let me help you bear it John. Never on any human countenance have I seen so swift and beautiful. A little gratitude surprise and comfort I that which answered me more eloquently than the whispered Thank you ma'am. This is right good. This is what I wanted. The next time his wounds were dressed. Louisa held John and he squeezed her hand to relieve his pain. When the ordeal
was done she eased him back against the pillows clenched his face smoothed his brown hair and spent a full hour by his bedside when she stood to arrange his tray in his sheets. She felt his hand graze her skirt. Another day she put a spray of heath and heliotrope on his pillow. Finally he said this is my first battle. Do they think it's going to be my last. I'm afraid they do John. It was the hardest question I had ever been called upon to answer. Doubly hard with those clear eyes fixed on mine. Forcing a truthful answer by their own truth to the end he held my hand close so close that when he was asleep at last I could not draw it away. Dan the orderly held me warning me as he did so that it was unsafe for dad for Dad in living flesh to live so long together. My hand was strangely cold and stiff and for white marks remained across its
back even when warmth and color had returned. Elsewhere she helped to prepare John's body for burial. Removing the wedding ring his widowed mother had given him to wear in battle and cutting a few locks of his hair to enclose when she sent the ring home to Virginia. A last letter from his family arrived at the hospital an hour before John's death but was not brought until an hour after it Louisa placed the unread letter in the blacksmith's calloused hand to bury with him as a signifier of loved ones at his bedside. Farewells were essential to a good nineteenth century death. Louisa had always considered herself immune to illness when she developed a bad cough. She continued her daily runs in the dead of winter despite her colleagues warning her that she risked pneumonia after three weeks of non-stop round bad food fetid air and constant exposure to infection. Louise's fears physical defenses gave way to typhoid pneumonia. A staff doctor found her on a staircase too dizzy to stand coughing
uncontrollably. Her forehead so hot she was trying to cool it on the iron banister. When the doctor ordered her to bed she didn't argue. Sharp pain in the side caught fever and dizziness. A pleasant Plaut prospect for a lonely soul 500 miles from home. She commented before she succumbed expecting neglect but nurses ascended to her room to lavish Louisa with the same tenderness. They show their patients male attendants. She knew from long nights on the ward kept her woodbox full of captor woodbox full and a succession of doctors goes to her with Columella the mercury compound that was used to treat about just about everything. She revised her opinion of all of them sharply upward. Louisa understood their concern. The matron Mrs. Roque's had also been diagnosed with typhoid pneumonia and was not expected to survive amid bouts of feverish delusion and constant pain. Louisa tried to keep Mary by sewing for the
soldiers and writing letters home but felt worse every day. Hours began to get confused. People looked odd queer faces haunted the room and the nights were one long fight with weariness and pain though at times she was incoherent. Even in sleep she never lost sight of the peril she was in dream awfully and awake unrefreshed. I think of home and wonder if I am to die here as Mrs. ropes is likely to do before collapsing. Mrs. ropes wondered the same thing about her. She sent the all clutz an urgent telegram asking that someone come immediately to take Louisa home. She had served for six weeks. Bronson left Concord that same day on the noon train to Boston and travelled straight through to Washington to arrive on January 16. Louisa determined to serve out her three months stint had rejected every suggestion that she go home. Her father's appearance made real her grave condition and the impact on her family if she were to die. The room was swarming with people making
recommendations. One of them was Dorothy adicts who wanted Louise had taken to her own quarters for personal care. Louisa wanted to stay where she was. Bronson doubted that his daughter could regain either strength or spirits in Washington but her doctors felt she was not strong enough to travel restless and anxious but forbidden to stay at his daughter's bedside. Bronson made the rounds of Louise's patience and was disabused of any romantic ideas about the struggle. Horrid bore he wrote in his journal and one sees its horrors in hospitals if anywhere on the nineteenth he visited the Senate and finding a seat near President Lincoln studied his face at close range and found him come earlier than the papers and portraits have shown him and his manner impressive. I wish to have had an interview but I am too anxious about Louisa and without time to seek it or he to give on the 20th of January. Mrs. ropes died the next day Louise agreed to let her father take her home.
So. Not exactly what you expected you know spinster that she actually made herself known as she branded herself and and market herself very very effectively. I thought that before we answer questions before I answer questions that will be fun to run the clip from the film that covers this same incident. Just so you can see you know there are some things that I'm curious to know what you think. But I think they'll be interesting. The only participation in the war that was formally open to women was a brand new occupation called nursing. Six dress by gaslight run through my ward throw open windows as if life depended upon it. A
more perfect pestilence box I never saw. Now I'm often homesick heartsick and worn out. I can't. She arrived at one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. In the battle of Fredericksburg I've seen one figure of at least 10000 maybe as many killed. It was back over several days. The. Stretchers each with its legless armless. And during my war. The. Surgeons began amputations.
Doctor whose aid I was seemed to regard a dilapidated body as I would a damaged garment. Ether was not thought necessary. With all its hardships. Miss Allcock found in the hospital the varied and intense human life she had longed to know. John Sawrey. The prince her patient. Now. Dying statesman was never fuller of real dignity than this Virginia blacksmith just a couple through sir. I hope so my man. There's not the slightest hope. You'd better tell him. I'll leave it to you. She writes his last letter for him to his mother and every one of my ward weeps. That. May help you bear this record.
This is my first battle. I think it's going to be my last. Chance. She writes about him. And. One gets a sense of. Yearning. But it cannot be. He held my hand so close. I couldn't draw her away. It was unsafe for dead and living flesh to live so close together. My hand was strangely cold and stiff and for white marks remained across its back. Only weeks after being there she contracted typhoid fever
Louise and was treated with Columella which is a form of mercury. It was used for tuberculosis typhoid Melancholia depression. They threw it at everything that they could. Still my dear. We may be thankful she is away from that infected place. Fortunately I went. On Louis. She left us a brave handsome woman turned almost a wreck of her body and I. Never forget the strange fancies that haunted me. I had married a handsome Spaniard with very soft hands continually saying I still might hear threatening me on.
A. Mob in Baltimore. Breaking down the doors to get me. Being hung for which. Burnt. Stone. Maltreated. Him to join Dr. Winslow and two nurses worshipping. Ten. Millions. Of sick men who never died or got well. In. My head so close. I couldn't draw way. It was unsafe for Dad and living flesh to live so close together.
My hand was strangely cold and stiff and for white marks remained across its back. Only weeks after being there she contracted typhoid fever and was treated with Columella which is a form of mercury. It was used for tuberculosis typhoid melancholy and depression. They threw it at everything that they could. Do in my day. We may be thankful she's away from that infected place. Fortunately I went. On. To Louie. She left us a brave handsome woman turned almost wrecked body. I'll never forget the strange fancies that haunted me.
I married a handsome Spaniard with very soft hands continually saying nice to hear threatening me like. A mob in Baltimore. Breaking down the doors to me. Being hung from which. Stone. Maltreated. Him. To join Dr Winslow and two nurses. I. Am a sick man who never died or got well. Turned around. Just her personality or soul but also her writing and when
she wrote hospital sketches she said that she had found her style she'd found her voice and then that she went where glory waited and began her more successful career and actually while she was at hospital she found out she'd won a 100 dollar prize from Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper for a thriller that she had written quite literally a cliffhanger where the heroine who is really a villain many of her heroines in thrillers are the bad guys. But you root for them hanging on the cliffs with nothing to cling to but remorse. And it was published under the name of a lady a lady from Massachusetts and she wrote a very beautiful poem about thorough who had died not long before she was at the hospital too and that was published at the Atlantic Monthly and admired by Longfellow to her father Bronson all cut and said oh look at this fine poem.
They were all published anonymously and said it has to have been written by Emerson so. So Brawn's all goes at. My daughter wrote it anyway. Thank you very much. Any questions I'd be happy to answer. And if you have questions about the film Nancy can help answer them too. Well you know we thought that the form had found a lot of ways to express documentary biography but that it could use shaking up a bit and that if we found a way to tell a story we were going to use it and animation had gotten much more attainable than you know and that computer animation made it affordable and it was a way to get that particular animator Lisa craftsy did that the whole nation did. A few of them and they all expressed her inner life. And then you saw the kind of funny one at the beginning with little women and its importance the other animators a group called Vidyut which does a lot of these little
videos for advertising books gave us a way to talk about her her literary life and her her works out in the world and who she was as a popular writer. So those are the two animators were used. Well Violet is a man and a woman. Liz Do women in pink. THOMAS But there were many women who worked on that film and men and boys who did the wonderful cinematography is over there and and Brandon who did this still photographs that stand over there. Yes. Very distinguished filmmaker. And from the early feminist film she really was one of the founders of it. And the other questions in every way is the feminist. Well. As she grew up in the abolition movement and in the transcendentalists movement she also grew up in the feminist movement. Her mother was a founder of the
Massachusetts woman suffrage Association and her mother said me you know I'm going to vote before I die if my daughters have to carry me to the polls. And after she she died actually Louisa worked registering women in Concord because Massachusetts passed a law allowing women to vote in town elections. It was really the first salvo I guess of the fight for suffrage. This is about 18 79 and so Louisa voted she was the first to vote. She and a few other women from Concord dared to vote and then all the men walked out but they were they voted for the town election the school election and actually the tactic kind of backfired because it wound up limiting the idea that women weren't qualified to vote on other things and then I think that the things that affected children and the home. But she but really she worked. She said to Lucy Stone
who is the editor of the woman's Journal and she wrote letters to that paper which was the voice of New England feminism at that time. She wrote it. I'm so busy proving women's right to labor you know that I have no time to work you know in the trenches of the movement. And then she signed to yours for reform of all kinds that we somehow all caught. But her books are really a feminist platform. She inveighed against corsets for girls. She had a character argue with a boy about how women should vote. And and then also for boys too I think she actually championed the Indian the cause of the Indians and just about anything you could think of. She really is one of the commentators and one of the scholars in the film said she had this fierce fire burning inside she had all this energy
and was really quite emotional and had long depressions at times as well as kind of manic periods. But that if she hadn't been able to express it in her zeal you know for abolition and the things that she believed in she felt it would have she might have turned it in upon herself and it would have consumed her which I thought. It's true. You know a lot of people's passion is stifled when there is no outlet for it. But she had a very constructive outlet for many of her feelings like Haranguer for instance and her her tendency to violence. I mean she says I wanted to throw a rock at somebody. She really she would have picked up a gun and gone out and fought if that allowed her. And she has a very. As a young child was quite violent to her. Her ancestor was a deacon of the Old South Church in the Boston Tea Party were in or from there. You know her great aunt was married to John Hancock. I think that generation felt that they needed to complete the revolution and it hadn't been complete
because it was still slavery and women still did not have equality and that that was their political agenda was very much in those terms. And it was interesting in terms of transcendentalism really being a route out of Puritanism. You know they were they were still very idealistic in people but they found more value in nature and finding God in nature and trusting their instincts. And if it's expressed in that sort of way. But it was all is very eager and rigorous searching soul searching Oh good question. It had been thought that perhaps she had written these books movies these stories and a woman named Madeline Stern who was in our film Madeleine stern and Dr. Aliona Rustenburg in the 1940s. A journalist
writing a biography the first biography of Louisa May all cut and she was a rare book dealer also. Dr. Rosenberg was actually even more so. And one of their book dealing friends said I have a challenge for you why don't you try to find that out. Why didn't you try to see if you can substantiate that. So over and Holten library they went through some papers and Leona Rosenberg said she picked up a little sheaf of papers tied with this string and she had that what she called. And I don't know something in German very long word that meant you know getting getting the willies when you were going to make a discovery. And in it she found a letter from an editor in Boston asking this all caught. For more stories like behind a mask under the name and Barnard or any pen name you would choose. And so that led to five of the stories which they could not read because they were in the Library of Congress or the papers they ran were under the
protection of the Second World War. So they didn't actually read them till after the war. And of Madeline Stern whom I met and got to know mentions them and talk about them in her $1950 biography of Luis my uncle but they weren't published until the 70s when the whole feminist movement got interested and that's really what the whole Louisa male club reputation was really revised in light of these at some 30 thrillers which have been found so far and in the book I have 12 titles that are not linked with any stories that are out there. So I'm hoping that some reader will find one at least because there are more that are out there. Another really unusual aspect of her story is that her father chronicled her every move from the time she was born. So he kept a record of what she was doing when she was four months old and what she said when she was two years old. And you know how she
systematically kind of conquered her older sister and took her primary place in the fan in the family. So he went on and on for pages. And so as a biographer I have the advantage of getting to the subject from infancy. And usually you know I read a biography of someone from the 19th century and it kind of starts with a lot about who their ancestors were and then suddenly they're 20 years old or something. So I was able to piece together and also from her writing some a lot of which is autobiographical. And you know not I'm sure none of it is absolutely literally true but probably her journals and letters aren't either. But I filled in with some of the stories she wrote about her childhood for incidents and just relationships and how she learned to read and write I thought was very interesting how her father taught her the alphabet. And then he taught her words and then she started telling stories and finally could read it and write. So
I really enjoyed tracing that. And the fact that I could do that so any other questions. Isn't that amazing what she writes about it all the time. She says I have no time to do anything but eat when she's writing little women eat or sleep and take a daily run. And I spoke to I had access to all the main All-Clad scholars and writing the script of course Nancy and I thought running you know what a great motif right. You know here is this woman in her 19th century skirts running around and I said well gee she was running you know. Do you think she was right when she was running on Beacon Hill. What do you think she was wearing and he sort of said What are you talking about. And I said look it's right here. She says I'm running and I run. And it's funny because you realize that people pick up different things. But she says she ran and even at the very end of her life she says I took a run. I think at that point she means that she took a walk but she got out and
she walked you know on an errand. Pardon. No no I can't. Well we had these we are our customer figured out what she would have been running in. And then you saw the little girl and that looks like kind of a hop second costume. That was what they wore at fruit lands. And it's described in a hilarious satire she wrote about that commune period which Here's another thing I don't have time to even tell you about here but where there was the new just in. And a lot of really oddball people but they wouldn't wear cotton because it was the product of slave labor and they wouldn't wear wool because it was the product of cheap labor and you know if they could have afforded it they wouldn't wear so because it was a product of labor you know. So they were linen and the garments are described but there are no pictures of them. So we had really interesting
talks with the costume designer about what they might have worn and she based it on peasant clothing of the period and I said Well I think you know one in the front and the back of each one you know one piece. And she said Oh no no that would have wasted fabric. They would have had sleeves that were inset. You know I just now it was wonderful. I think from the point of view really unique for a biographer to just have to deal with the material aspects of their lives. And you know we filmed at Orchard House and at fruitlessness and in Emersons library and all locations around where she Beacon Hill where she really lived. So it got spooky sometimes. I think she was. She was running to let out her energy. I mean that was her anti-depressant thing you know. And she knew it. And she did it she had to do it. She understood that exercise was important and she twenty miles she writes that I think the 20 mile walk or she walk to Boston.
Yeah. Right. But I mean her father was a peddler as a young man. Her father was self-educated. He wasn't like Emerson and Thoreau went to Harvard. He was a farm boy. He left school at age 13. And I'm. Lost my train of thought about oh but as a peddler he walked thousands of miles around the South you know because if he lost money he lost money at everything. I mean he peddled in the south and learned from the plantation owners read in their libraries read classics in their libraries and when they didn't invite him in the house he would sleep in the slave quarters. So he's taught himself quite an education that way. But he always wound up in debt. He was constantly in debt and Louisa Louisa paid the medical bill for her sister's fatal illness ten years after her sister died she finally could pay the bill. So anyway she worked relentlessly. But I think that's about time.
Harvard Book Store
WGBH Forum Network
Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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Screenwriter Harriet Reisen discusses her new biography Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.Louisa May Alcott portrays a writer as worthy of interest in her own right as her most famous character, Jo March, and addresses all aspects of Alcotts life: the effect of her fathers self-indulgent utopian schemes; her familys chronic economic difficulties and frequent uprootings; her experience as a nurse in the Civil War; the loss of her health and frequent recourse to opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and symptomatic pain. Stories and details culled from Alcotts journals; her equally rich letters to family, friends, publishers, and admiring readers; and the correspondence, journals, and recollections of her family, friends, and famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the authors classic rags-to-riches tale.Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James in the dust. This biography explores Alcotts life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. A fresh, modern take on this remarkable and prolific writer, who secretly authored pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and completed heroic service as a Civil War nurse, Louisa May Alcott is in the end also the story of how the all-time beloved American classic Little Women came to be.
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Chicago: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women,” 2009-10-29, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 28, 2022,
MLA: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.” 2009-10-29. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 28, 2022. <>.
APA: Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from