Louisa May Alcott smoked hash

There’s a documentary premiering on PBS tonight at 9:00 about Louisa May Alcott. In conjunction with a new biography about the author, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women reveals just how varied and rich a life she led.

Her father was involved in the utopian and transcendalist movements and was an experimental educator, so little Louisa got quite the diverse education. Henry David Thoreau taught her botany. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne taught her literature.

It was no paradise, though. Her father found her strong-willed nature and dark hair (seriously) a vexing sign of demonic tendencies, and he was no bread-winner, so Louisa had to work hard virtually her whole life to support her family.

Louisa Alcott’s life was no children’s book: she worked as a servant, a seamstress, and a Civil War nurse before becoming a millionaire celebrity writing “moral pap for the young,” as she called it. Under pen names and anonymously, she also wrote stories with enough drugs, sex and crime to prove the author was no “little” woman. When she died, Alcott took her secret identity as a pulp fiction writer with her, and kept it for nearly a half-century.

That secret identity was A. M. Barnard. Two of her Barnard works are available for free from the Gutenberg Project: Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power, and The Abbot’s Ghost or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation, A Christmas Story.

The third, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was rejected by her publisher for being too scandalous (the central plot element is a woman who finds herself in a bigamist marriage with an abuser). In dire need of money to support her family, Alcott ruthlessly edited it in hopes of getting it in publishable condition, but the key bigamy plot point was too large to be overcome.

It remained unpublished until 1995, when a fervent Alcott collector bought the manuscript and edited it back to its original juicy condition. Stephen King reviewed it for the New York Times and he loved it.

Here’s a nifty preview of the documentary airing tonight on PBS. It takes a novel, playful approach to its subject and looks like a lot of fun.