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Louisa May Alcott profiled on 'American Masters'

Three-time Obie winner Elizabeth Marvel as Louisa May

Three-time Obie winner Elizabeth Marvel as Louisa May Alcott in American Masters' biography of the author of Little Women. Credit: Nancy Porter Productions, Inc.

This "American Masters" program profiles the author of "Little Women," who was dismissive of her juvenile fiction career. "I don't enjoy writing moral pap for the young," Alcott once snapped. "I do it because it pays well."

Money was a driving force in the life of Alcott - the J.K. Rowling of her day - but so was idealism. She was the daughter of Bronson Alcott (Daniel Gerroll), pal of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a starry-eyed transcendentalist who uprooted the family for a utopian retreat that would push them to near financial and emotional ruin.

Alcott (1832-88) was also a passionate "freethinker" - an abolitionist, proto-feminist and intellectual - who suffered from depression and a desperate longing for fame and fortune. She would have both. After working as a nurse in a Civil War hospital, she published her letters, and a career was launched. Forests were leveled for this compulsive writer's books - written under her own name and, perhaps most often, using a pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Virtually her entire reputation rests on just one.


The woman behind "Little Women" is made flesh and blood by an accomplished stage actress with a genuine grasp of character. But what a character Marvel's Alcott is. Somewhat dyspeptic and sharply ironic, she doesn't appear to like people much - kids especially. She was all work, work, work, and very little play, play, play. What's missing in this portrait, however, is mostly literary perspective and context. Was she a good writer? Beats me. She was certainly a prolific one and seemed to approach the writing craft like it was piecework. (It was.) What did Mark Twain - pretty much the standard against which all American lit production has been judged for the past 125 years - think of her? Or, she of him? And why was "Little Women" such a huge hit then or now?


Unless you're an annoying nit-picker - like me - you'll find Alcott's story here briskly, smartly told, and accessorized by some beautiful and arresting visuals.


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