Louisa May Alcott

Susan Cheever

Book - 2010

Susan Cheever's comprehensive and definitive biography sheds new light on of life of Louisa May Alcott, whose work has inspired generations of women. Cheever laces this provocative biography with musings on the genesis of genius, and her identification with Jo March when she was a rebellious girl in the throes of puberty.

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BIOGRAPHY/Alcott, Louisa May
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New York : Simon & Schuster 2010.
Main Author
Susan Cheever (-)
1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed
Physical Description
xv, 298 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., ports. ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Preface: A Trip to Concord
  • 1. Trailing Clouds of Glory. 1832-1839
  • 2. Concord. Louisa in Exile. 1840-1843
  • 3. Fruitlands. Family in Crisis. 1843-1848
  • 4. Boston. "Stick to Your Teaching." 1848-1858
  • 5. Orchard House. 1858-1862
  • 6. Fredericksburg. At the Union Hospital. 1863-1865
  • 7. The Writer. 1861-1867
  • 8. Little Women. 1868-1872
  • 9. Success. 1873-1880
  • 10. Lulu. 1880-1888
  • Epilogue: 2009
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

This "personal biography" illustrates Cheever's opinion that every biography has a story imposed on the facts by the biographer, who "reads letters, journals, contemporary accounts, and other biographies to discover the [subject's] story" then illustrates the story "imagined using the facts that fit.. Cheever (Bennington College) recounts familiar facts of Alcott's life: her impoverished youth as the daughter of an impractical idealist; her relations with the sisters who inspired Little Women; her Civil War service as a nurse, which permanently damaged her health; her unanticipated success as a writer; her death at 55 after a decade of increasingly poor health. Various asides--life at the utopian Fruitlands, the writing life of John Cheever (the author's father), modern ideas about illnesses (was Alcott bipolar? did she have lupus?)--provide social and historical context. Despite years of poverty, menial work, illness, and depression, Alcott, Cheever asserts, had a "happy life" because she was not "mired in fairy-tale ideas of romantic marriages and adorable children.. She sought a "voice in the world," a life of " set[ting] her own course ... say[ing] what she pleased.. Rather than this "personal" account, academic readers will want Harriet Reisen's Louisa May Alcott: The Woman behind Little Women (CH, Aug'10, 47-6729). Summing Up: Not recommended. J. J. Benardete New School

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review

Two books examine the lives of Louisa May Alcott and her (at times) eccentric family. MANY readers of "Little Women" have fantasized about being Jo; a few about being Meg, Beth or Amy. After reading Susan Cheever's biography of Louisa May Alcott, even fewer would want to change places with the novel's author. Like her heroine, Alcott was a bookish tomboy with three sisters, a writer who churned out pseudonymous melodramas before finding fame as a domestic novelist. Unlike Jo, Alcott never married, concluding that "liberty is a better husband than love." Where Jo romps with her own children as well as a houseful of her husband's students, Alcott declared that she "never liked girls" and stayed clear of children until adopting a niece at 48. A third difference is that "Little Women" portrays a matriarchal household made up of a mother, her daughters and their cook. Adding a servant spared her characters some of the domestic work that ate up Alcott's own time. An even greater wish-fulfillment, however, lay in subtracting the man of the house. The March girls spend much of the novel waiting for their father to return from the Civil War, but in real life Alcott was the one who left Concord, Mass., in 1861 to nurse wounded soldiers. Even after the surprise success of "Little Women," Alcott remained ambivalent about what she subtitled "a girl's book." And scholars were slow to take "Little Women" seriously. Alcott's male contemporaries (at least in America) set their novels on whaling ships and battlefields. The sickbed where Beth March spends much of the novel looked dull in comparison. Only in the 1970s did feminist critics begin to see the home itself as a battlefield: once the personal was political, the contrast between Meg's hair-curling and Jo's haircutting took on a new edge. Read together, Cheever's "Louisa May Alcott" and Richard Francis' "Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia" help explain why Alcott dreamed of a fatherless family. Bronson Alcott's biography would have made an absorbing story even if his famous daughter had never been born. This self-taught farm boy left school at 13, but became a celebrity lecturer and educational reformer and married into the New England elite. Despite (or because of) his eccentricities, he persuaded Boston's finest families to send their children to his experimental school. Like many educational theorists, Branson Alcott found his own children hard to manage. And, again like many visionaries, he also found it hard to hold down a job. As a result, the family moved 29 times in as many years. In 1843 Bronson helped found Fruitlands, a utopian community 15 miles west of Boston. Members of the commune, which numbered 13 people at its height, advocated abolitionism, environmentalism, feminism and anarchism, forswearing meat, alcohol, neckcloths, haircuts, cotton (because it was grown by slaves) and leather (because it was harvested from animals). Their rejection of one more animal product, manure, helps explain why Fruitlands failed after only eight months: this new Eden remained barren in the absence of fertilizer. In "Transcendental Wild Oats," a satiric memoir Louisa based on the diary she kept at Fruitlands, one character asks "Are there any beasts of burden on the place?" and is answered, "Only one woman!" In real life, the expulsion of the lone female convert, probably for helping herself to some fish on the sly, left Louisa's mother, Abigail, to do all the women's work and much of the men's - especially since Bronson and his sidekick, Charles Lane, made a habit of disappearing on recruiting trips at the very moment farm labor was required. Abigail's more serious complaint was that Lane threatened to break up her marriage. Some historians think Lane was in love with Abigail, others with Bronson. Whatever the case, Abigail forced her family to move before the first winter was out. Was Bronson a genius misunderstood by a mercenary world or a narcissist whose financial fecklessness drove his daughter into domestic labor and literary hack work? Reasonably enough, Cheever accepts both hypotheses. Yet in describing Louisa May Alcott as "an impoverished and abused child," she plays down the advantages derived from the family's connections. "Little Women" might never have been written if not for Louisa's father: the publisher Thomas Niles offered to take Branson's "Tablets," a collection of excerpts from his diary arranged by zodiac signs, on condition that Louisa throw in a "girl's book" to sweeten the deal. IN a post-Freudian age, when memoirs habitually chronicle unhappy childhoods, an oppressed Louisa tugs at the reader's heart. And Cheever isn't the only biographer to celebrate a heroine ahead of her time, depicting a genius we have the good taste to appreciate more fully than did her contemporaries. Yet the historical record suggests that "Little Women" exists because of 19th-century American culture, not in spite of it. Alcott was able to assert the importance of girls' private lives because Boston was in a ferment over women's rights; she was able to publish that assertion because she was born into the local literary elite. Cheever's representation of Alcott typifies the logic in which biographers credit accomplishments to the individual while blaming setbacks on the society: heads, I win; tails, you lose. Richard Francis, whose previous books have dealt with the New England Transcendentalists and Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, more fully embeds Alcott in a time and place. And his group biography reconstructs an intellectual history whose actors tended to be more prolific than articulate. ("I am what I am, and it is out of my Iamity that I am phenomenized," declared one of Bronson Alcott's admirers.) In contrast, Cheever confines history to breathless lists: "In Paris, Degas was beginning to draw ballerinas, Monet was painting landscapes and Courbet was painting a woman with a parrot. Baudelaire was writing poetry, and Émile Zola essays and novels. At home Reconstruction was proceeding full-tilt." Where Francis excavates abstract ideas, Cheever's interest lies in private relationships - specifically, in father-daughter struggles. "Home Before Dark," Cheever's biography of her own father, John Cheever, haunts her account of Alcott's life. Both books describe an upper-class mother and an intellectual father moving from house to house without ever fitting in. Both blame a father for caring more about his writing than his children. Cheever even frames her choice of subject as a rebellion against her father. Remembering a family visit to the Alcotts' house, she writes: "While the tour guide was distracted by a literary question of my father's about Ralph Waldo Emerson, I secretly stroked the little desk where 'Little Women' had been born." Later, we learn that "my father wrote a plane hijacking in a story of his" and that "my father had tuberculosis as a child." The Fruitlands commune set out to replace biological kinship with alliances among like-minded idealists. That we now think of Bronson Alcott as a father first and a writer second suggests how stubbornly the family persists. Unlike Jo March, Alcott never married, concluding that 'liberty is a better husband than love.' Leah Price is a professor of English at Harvard. Her "Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books,'' will be published next year.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 12, 2010]
Review by Booklist Review

The author of American Bloomsbury (2007), a collective biography of the extraordinary clutch of creative types who lived in nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, etc.), Cheever revisits this familiar territory but this time focuses on only one of these talents, Louisa May Alcott. The author of Little Women seems to be an irresistible subject for biographers, since hers was a life filled with fascinating associations, an extraordinary family, poverty, dazzling success, declining health, and more (who says authors' lives are dull?). Unfortunately, Cheever plows no new ground here and tacitly admits so by regularly acknowledging the more original work of earlier biographers. Too, she tends to inflate Alcott's literary importance, as in the case of her purported influence on Henry James. All that said, hers is a smoothly written and sympathetic introduction to this always fascinating woman who was both a celebrated writer and an early and stalwart champion of women's rights.--Michael Cart Copyright 2020 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Little Women was the idea of Alcott's publisher, who bullied her into writing it. Louisa may, Cheever speculates, have taken revenge on Bronson Alcott-a friend of the great Transcendentalists, but an irresponsible and browbeating father-by leaving him out of her semiautobiographical masterpiece. A revolutionary educator whose uncompromising high-mindedness made him a financial failure, Bronson was critical of and often punished the rebellious Louisa. But his close friendships with men like Emerson and Thoreau blessed Louisa with a unique circle of mentors, whom Cheever depicted in American Bloomsbury. Alcott gradually lost everyone dear to her: her beloved sister Lizzie died at 22, and her sister Anna's marriage felt like a betrayal. Struggling so hard for wealth and fame that when it came she was too ill and weary to enjoy it, Louisa never married and died two days after Bronson. Cheever laces this provocative biography with musings on the genesis of genius, and her identification with Jo March when she was a rebellious girl in the throes of puberty. While some may find Cheever's digressions and self-referencing grating, most will savor this work-surely a future book club staple-as keen, refreshing, and authoritative. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

In this thorough personal biography, Cheever (American Bloomsbury) draws on primary sources along with existing Louisa May Alcott studies to put the American novelist's life into historical context, also sharing some striking revelations, hinting, e.g., that Alcott's father, Bronson, may have sexually abused his daughters. Actress/Audie Award nominee Tavia Gilbert's steady voice tells this tale of hard choices with complexity and feeling. While the work is complete and profound, its proliferation of details and digressions sometimes bogs it down. Further, Cheever devotes nearly half the book to Bronson, essentially casting her book's subject to the sidelines. Recommended for fans of existing Alcott bios as well as for those who liked Kelly O'Connor McNees's historical novel The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. [The S. & S. hc was "highly recommended" as "an important addition to Alcott scholarship," LJ 9/1/10.-Ed.]-Terry Ann Lawler, Phoenix P.L. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Contextual study of Louisa May Alcott's life (18321888) and work, from her childhoodamong such writers as Emerson, Fuller and Hawthorne,to the astounding literary career that afforded her a feminist independence of spirit even as she remained a caregiver to her family.In this new biography, Cheever (MFA Program/Bennington Coll; Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction, 2008, etc.) presents an insightful narrative of Alcott's life and how her experiences informed, but didn't dictate, her fiction. Raised in the culturally rich and progressive community of Concord, Mass., Alcott was an inquisitive and rebellious child who adored her three sisters and idolized her famous literary neighbors, particularly Emerson, who frequently played the role of benefactor to the often destitute family. Alcott's father was a hopelessly impractical academic and a domineering patriarch; she had a contentious relationship with him for most of her life and famously wrote him out of her classic, Little Women (1868). Despite these hardships,Alcottdreamed ofbecoming a writer. Amid the outbreak of the Civil War and her youngest sister's tragic death, Alcott wrote copious journal entries, poems and stories; at age 19 she published her first poem. Twelve years later, she joined the Union Army as a nurse in Washington, and the grisly, poignantexperience catapulted her into adulthood and was integral to the development of her mature prose. She published a collection of letters she wrote while on duty to great acclaim and returned to Concord a rising literary star. Within five years she would writeLittle Womenand become one of the most celebrated authors of her time, providing young girls with a novel distinguished by relatable story lines and characters, one that armed generations of readers with a sense of what is possible for women. Alcott was able to exemplify her belief that an unmarried woman could be intelligent, successful and, perhaps more importantly, happy. Throughout the narrative, Cheeverallows Alcott's complex humanity to reveal itself slowly, drawing the reader into her iconic life.Lively and astute.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.