Alcott in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn From Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates, Edited by Daniel Shealy, University of Iowa, 272 pp., $24.95 paperback, $54.95 hardcover
Louisa May Alcott is best known for writing classic children's stories, but there was more to the New England author and activist than met the eye. ''Alcott in Her Own Time" is a collection of letters and essays written by people who knew her before, during, and after the success of ''Little Women," offering a detailed look at her life, her family, and what it was like to live in 19th-century Massachusetts.
Each essay in the collection -- edited by Daniel Shealy, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who has published nine books on Alcott -- begins with a paragraph or so explaining the essayist's relationship to Alcott. Some of the recollections recount stories from Alcott's childhood, stories attributed to the character Jo Marsh in ''Little Women," but several illustrate events in Alcott's life that did not make it into her books, including the death of her sister May and her adoption of May's daughter, Lulu; Alcott's unorthodox education; and her experience at Fruitlands, a short-lived, Utopian community founded by her father, Bronson Alcott, in 1843.
Other essays, such as ''When Louisa Alcott Was a Girl," by Ralph Waldo Emerson's youngest child, Edward, and ''Beth Alcott's Playmate," by neighbor Lydia Hosmer Wood, offer an intimate look at the Alcott family as a whole. Still others share snippets of private letters and old conversations. The glimpses into the inner workings of the Alcott household are the most satisfying; a timeline and a center section filled with pictures and portraits of Alcott and members of her family are a treat for any scholar or fan of her work.
Devotees of Alcott's children's books may not know that Alcott did not live full time at Orchard House in Concord -- in fact, she lived in five different places in that town, as well as in Harvard and in Walpole, N.H., and spent winters at various addresses in Boston's Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods.
''Concord was large enough for Thoreau," writes Frank Preston Sterns, an old friend of the family, ''but not for Louisa Alcott." Another little-known fact: Alcott preferred penning sensational ''blood-and-thunder" tales dealing with lust, evil, and deception, such as ''A Modern Mephistopheles," to wholesome children's stories including ''An Old-Fashioned Girl," noting in her journal that she had grown ''tired of providing moral pap for the young."
The recollections written by neighbor Julian Hawthorne, son of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, are one of the things that make this book a treasure. ''She was a big, lovable, tender-hearted, generous girl, with black hair, thick and long, and flashing, humorous black eyes," he writes of Louisa. ''The Alcott girls were society in themselves, and Concord would have been crippled without them." He remembers Alcott's return from the hospital in Georgetown where she volunteered during the Civil War and gives a firsthand account of her condition: Faded by typhoid fever, she was ''a white, tragic mask of what she had been, but with a glimmer of a smile in the depths of her sunken eyes."
One of the best and most revealing essays in this book is ''Recollections of My Childhood," written by Alcott in 1888 and first published two months after her death. She writes about her reaction to a riot in Boston in 1835, when a mob broke up a meeting of the Female Anti-Slavery Society and dragged William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the antislavery newspaper The Liberator, through the streets on a rope. It shines a light on Alcott's true nature. ''During the Garrison riot in Boston, the portrait of [British abolitionist] George Thompson was hidden under a bed in our house for safe-keeping, and I am told that I used to go and comfort 'the good man who helped poor slaves' in his captivity," she writes. ''However that may be, the conversion was genuine, and my greatest pride is in the fact that I have lived to know the brave men and women who did so much for the cause, and that I had a very small share in the war which put an end to a great wrong."