Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
S23 Ep8

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind 'Little Women'

Premiere: 11/3/2009 | 00:13:58 | NR

Louisa May Alcott's reputation as a morally upstanding spinster, reflecting the conventional propriety of late 19th Century Concord, is firmly established. However, raised among reformers, the intellectual protege of Emerson and Hawthorne and Thoreau, Alcott was actually a free thinker, with democratic ideals and progressive values about women.

About the Episode

Alcott’s reputation as a morally upstanding New England spinster, reflecting the conventional propriety of mid-19th century Concord, Massachusetts, is firmly established.  Raised among reformers, iconoclasts and Transcendentalists, the intellectual protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Alcott was actually a free thinker, with democratic ideals and progressive values about women – a worldly careerist of sorts.  Most surprising is that Alcott led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life not discovered until the 1940s.  As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts – a far cry from her better-known works featuring fatherly mentors, courageous mothers and impish children.

Originally broadcast in 2009, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ is the first film biography about the celebrated author and reveals a remarkable woman, ahead of her time, who was much more than a writer of children’s books. Combining elements of documentary, drama and animation, the film stars three-time Obie winner Elizabeth Marvel (Homeland, House of Cards) as Alcott and Tony and two-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Jane Alexander (The Great White Hope, Warm Springs) as Alcott’s first biographer Ednah Dow Cheney. With dialogue taken exclusively from writings or firsthand reports of conversations, the film is shot on locations including Orchards House in Concord, Emerson’s house in Concord, and Fruitlands in Harvard, site of the Alcott’s utopian experiment. Interwoven with dramatic scenes are interviews with Alcott scholars Sarah Elbert, John Matteson, Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, Madeleine Stern, Dr. Leona Rostenberg, Jan Turnquist, and novelist Geraldine Brooks.

New classroom resources for educators are also available on PBS Learning Media with video segments, discussion questions, and accompanying activities examining Louisa May Alcott’s life and work.

""I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.""

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ is a co-production of Nancy Porter Productions and THIRTEEN in association with WNET. The film is directed/produced by Emmy Award winner Nancy Porter and written/produced by Harriet Reisen, author of the biography of the same title published by Henry Holt and Company. Michael Kantor is American Masters series executive producer.

About American Masters
Launched in 1986 on PBS, American Masters has earned 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 14 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of masters past and present, American Masters offers streaming video of select films, outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the podcast American Masters: Creative Spark, educational resources, digital original series and more. The series is a production of The WNET Group.

American Masters is available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. PBS station members can view many series, documentaries and specials via PBS Passport. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ website.

About The WNET Group
The WNET Group creates inspiring media content and meaningful experiences for diverse audiences nationwide. It is the community-supported home of New York’s THIRTEEN – America’s flagship PBS station – WLIW21, THIRTEEN PBSKids, WLIW World and Create; NJ PBS, New Jersey’s statewide public television network; Long Island’s only NPR station WLIW-FM; ALL ARTS, the arts and culture media provider; and newsroom NJ Spotlight News. Through these channels and streaming platforms, The WNET Group brings arts, culture, education, news, documentary, entertainment and DIY programming to more than five million viewers each month. The WNET Group’s award-winning productions include signature PBS series Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend and Amanpour and Company and trusted local news programs MetroFocus and NJ Spotlight News with Briana Vannozzi. Inspiring curiosity and nurturing dreams, The WNET Group’s award-winning Kids’ Media and Education team produces the PBS KIDS series Cyberchase, interactive Mission US history games, and resources for families, teachers and caregivers. A leading nonprofit public media producer for nearly 60 years, The WNET Group presents and distributes content that fosters lifelong learning, including multiplatform initiatives addressing poverty, jobs, economic opportunity, social justice, understanding and the environment. Through Passport, station members can stream new and archival programming anytime, anywhere. The WNET Group represents the best in public media. Join us.


Major funding for Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, with additional funding provided by Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and Audrey Simons.

Original support for this program provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, Rolf and Elizabeth Rosenthal, Michael and Helen Schaffer Foundation and Jack Rudin.

Support for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judith and Burton Resnick, Seton J. Melvin, The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, Vital Projects Fund, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen and James S. Marcus, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Koo and Patricia Yuen, Thea Petschek Iervolino Foundation, The Marc Haas Foundation and public television viewers.


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.