Interview: Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen on Louisa May Alcott

Posted on August 6, 2015 at 3:34 pm

No writer has influenced me more than Louisa May Alcott, and it runs in the family. My mother’s name is Josephine, like Alcott’s most famous (and most autobiographical) character, and she was inspired by Little Women to insist on being called “Jo” — and to become a writer. And her grandchildren call her “Marmie,” inspired by “Marmee,” the mother of the little women. I loved the PBS show American Masters: Louisa May Alcott – The Woman Behind Little Women and am delighted that is is now available on DVD through PBS.

Copyright PBS 2015
Copyright PBS 2015

I enjoyed talking to the women who made the documentary about Alcott, Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen, who also wrote a book, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.

Porter lives in Lexington, not far from Concord, where the Alcott family lived along with their contemporaries and friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. She said, “We decided to try to make a film about her because there hadn’t been a film about her at all, number one and number two there had not been a biography about her in 30 years. So we felt that this was a good time to do it and so we started a very long process of applying for grants and fund-raising which began with the National Endowment of the Humanities, which gave us a large grant and then the American Masters series and a few others gave us the rest of our money.” It took five years to raise the money. But they were determined to tell her story, which will come as a surprise to those who think of Little Women as non-fiction. “She was no little woman and her life was no children’s book. In fact she was almost 6 feet tall it seems. She was very, very tall and so were all the others which is not how I think of them but they are.”

In Little Women, Jo, the headstrong, independent second daughter who grows up to be a writer, at first tries very dramatic, adventurous, even gothic stories to make money but then, guided by the man she will later marry (unlike Alcott, who never married), Jo writes from her heart, and it is her autobiographical novel about her family, written for children, that brings her true satisfaction as well as success. But the documentary makes it clear that it was the other way around. Reisen acknowledged that Alcott herself created the myth that she was Jo. But in reality she got more pleasure from her more bloodthirsty tales, many of which are collected in Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Porter said, “I think she thought she was writing “moral pap for the young” and she was bound to support her family because she certainly had came from rags to riches. She had many, many jobs and lived in 30 houses and she had this idealist father and her siblings and needed to keep this whole machine going.”

Reisen described her contribution to “a series called the No-Name Series, after the success of Little Women. It was a series of anonymous books by famous authors, anonymously. She wrote one called A Modern Mephistopheles and it’s quite heavy duty. The devil character gives the heroine opium in it and she had a wonderful trip on this drug. So I think she loved writing all the thrillers just to take her to those places.” That story won a prize, and no one believed she had written it.

Reisen and Porter knew that they would have to create re-enactments of some of the elements of Alcott’s story.  “First of all, there was almost no images,” said Porter.  “So to spin a story about her using archival material was virtually impossible. The other way to do it was to do a more stylized approach, skirts on stairs and shots of the woods, but we really felt like what we needed to do was introduce Louisa to our audience and to make her a living breathing person.”  “And modern,” added Reisen.  “Somebody who if she had dinner with you, you might not realize she was from the 19th century. Her voice was contemporary.  But we were concerned about re-enactments. So every word that the actors speak comes from primary sources. And then we had the scholars and interviewees and for that we had no narration. We wanted them to tell the story feeling that they were primary sources, too.”

Geraldine Brooks, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her novel based on the character of the father from Little Women and the real-life Bronson Alcott who inspired him, appears in the documentary as well. Reisen said, “I think the thing that really struck me about her was a comment she made that everybody says Louisa couldn’t deal with her father, which is why he is gone for much of the book, but she understood as a novelist why that was the only choice.”

Porter and Reisen talked about what made Alcott’s work so successful when it was first published and why it endured. “She is funny and I think girls identify with one of the characters, usually Jo but sometimes Amy or Beth. And all these girls have faults, serious faults and flaws and they work with them and they seem really imperfect but beautifully drawn female characters and they do silly things sometimes but none of them are silly,” Reisen said. “It’s told very well with a great female character and there aren’t that many written at that time,” added Porter. “It’s a classic coming of age story, too.”

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