Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011.

Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Real Jo Marsh

I just finished reading Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever. I knew that Little Women was a fictionalized and romanticized story of Alcott's life, and I wanted to know more about the real woman behind Jo Marsh. I knew that her life was not as happy as the books would have us think, but I had no idea just how difficult and rich it was. Her father invented himself, including a name change, to present himself to the world as an intellectual philosopher. The great literary names of the time: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Henry James, Hawthorne, Peabody, Horace Mann were close family friends, some lending housing and financial support to the idealistic, unworldly Alcott and his starving family.

LMA wrote to survive and support her family and felt the financial pressure of having people depending on her throughout her life. Her most honest writing was contained in her memoir of her time as a nurse in a Union Hospital, where she was treated with mercury. This "cure" damaged her health, and she never recovered the robust health of her youth. Her family avoided doctors, which accounts for their generally healthy and long lives. Medical treatment of the time was as likely to kill as cure.

The book is a good overall general introduction to the real woman behind Little Women without going into so much scholarly detail that the reader becomes lost in the thicket. There are references to other, more specialized studies and biographies for the curious reader.

For me, this fit the bill admirably. It told me just what I wanted to know without being overwhelming.  Cheever's personal experience and insight into the writer's mind and the writing process brings a depth of understanding to bear on a person whose entire life revolved around the creative process and the life events that supported or thwarted this impulse.

Highly recommended.