American Masters’ film biography of Louisa May Alcott is a fascinating glimpse at a remarkable woman and the times she lived in as well as the people who surrounded her. Told in styles that range from documentary narration, drama and animation, the story takes the viewer from Louisa’s early life until her death in her mid-50s. The show is called “The Woman Behind ‘Little Women,’” and it airs tomorrow, Monday, December 28 at 9 p.m. on PBS. To be sure of the time, check your local public broadcasting station listings.
Louisa’s family of four girls faced many hardships as they moved from Boston to Concord, Massachusetts and back again during Louisa’s childhood. Her father, Bronson, was a visionary ahead of his times as a schoolteacher who was unsuccessful when he pushed unpopular ideas, such as equality of the races. Not only did he abhor slavery, but he also believed blacks to be the equal of whites, and he enrolled blacks in his school. The Alcott home in Concord was even a stop on the Underground Railroad of slaves passing through on their way to freedom.
Because of his unpopular views, Bronson Alcott had difficulty supporting his family, so his wife took on many tasks to earn money that would house, clothe and feed her family. As soon as Louisa was old enough to take on jobs, she also earned money to support the family.
As she worked at tedious jobs, Louisa composed stories in her head, and when she wrote them down and submitted them, she began to supplement her income with the money she got for her tales. She knew she wasn’t writing great literature, but she was practical about needing the money that came from her writing. Most of her stories then were published under a pseudonym, a fact that wasn’t discovered for more than 60 years after her death.
Louisa became best known for Little Women, a fictionalized story whose characters are based on her own family. Although considered a children’s author, much of her writing included pulp fiction thrillers that told stories of murder, revolution and drug addiction.
Louisa’s story is also fascinating because of the literary lions she grew up around: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The American Masters biography is also filled with well respected screen actors: three-time Obie winner Elizabeth Marvel plays Louisa May Alcott and Tony winner and Oscar nominee Jane Alexander plays her first biographer, Ednah Dow Cheney. When the characters speak, their dialogue is taken from historical journals and other writings.
I got a review copy of this program, and I watched it with my 18-year-old daughter. We sat spellbound throughout the show, and then we talked about what we learned over dinner with the rest of the family. I highly recommend it not just for those interested in knowing more about this fascinating author, but also as a companion for mother-daughter book clubs reading Heather Vogel Frederick’s novels in The Mother-Daughter Book Club series. These books take place in Concord, Massachusetts. In the first books of the series, The Mother-Daughter Book Club, the girls and their moms read Little Women throughout the year they meet, and they learn lots of information about Louisa May Alcott and her times.
Outtakes from the show and an interview with director Nancy Porter and writer Harriet Reisen can be found at pbs.org/americanmasters. You can also check www.alcottfilm.com for more information.