Monday, March 18, 2013
For someone who spent the better part of my life avoiding reading Little Women and hence Louisa May Alcott, I seem to have been doing an awful lot of reading about LMA since I finally read LW a year or so ago.
The latest in my reads about LMA is Marmee and Louisa, by Eve LaPlante, a descendant of the Alcotts. I really enjoyed the book and felt that LaPlante did a superb job in defending her premise that the relationship between LMA and her mother, Abigail May Alcott, was the most important in her life and was fundamental to her success as a writer. But then, I was a sympathetic reader from the outset.
Even while I was reading Eden's Outcasts, by John Matteson, which is about LMA and her father, A. Bronson Alcott, I felt that LMA and her mother were closer in affection and temperament than she and her father. Of course, there is no love lost between me and Bronson Alcott, whom I consider one of the most selfish, egotistical, and hypocritical personages of the nineteenth century. Anyone who compares himself favorably with Jesus and then lets his family starve and beg their relations for rent money doesn't deserve many accolades for his ability to talk...nonstop...about himself.
Marmee and Louisa is by no means a definitive biography, but that's okay. I like the laser focus on the mother-daughter relationship, how they interacted, depended on each other, and supported each other.
I also thought LaPlante did a good job of putting their lives into historical context, and I learned a lot of social history about the nineteenth century. For example, she quotes Nancy Theriot (author of Mothers and Daughters in Nineteenth Century America: The Biosocial Construction of Feminism): "the late nineteenth-century generation...was 'the least married group of women in United States history, with a record 13 percent remaining single," making the point that LMA was not uncommon in remaining single. It did cross my mind, however, that many of the men these women might have married were killed in the Civil War, but lack of eligible men doesn't undercut the idea that women who worked for the emancipation of slaves might chafe at remaining in bondage themselves.
Whilst reading about LMA and her mother and how this relationship affected her success as a writer, I also thought about that other towering American author for girls, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Both LMA and LIW came from a family of girls, both were the second daughters of four girls, with still-born brothers; both grew up in poverty, and went to work to support their families at an early age. Both wrote fictionalized accounts of their youth, smoothing rough edges and reinventing and reshaping events too painful to even acknowledge decades after they happened. I can't help but wonder about the impact LMA had on LIW, whether she knew it or not.
I do love reading about authors--what drives them, inspires them, influences them, and shines through them.
Thursday, March 01, 2012
Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, by John Matteson, was every bit as good as I hoped and expected. Coming into the book, I knew enough about A. Bronson Alcott to know that I thought he was a selfish crackpot who endangered his family's health and well-being to pursue his experiments in communal living. However, I had no idea what an innocent, well-meaning selfish crackpot he was until I read this book. Like his daughter, Louisa, I ended up forgiving him because his heart was so clearly in the right place, even if his ideas and capabilities fell fall short of the mark.
The most fascinating fact about Louisa and Bronson that I learned from the book was how coincidental their lives and achievements were. Not only were they born on the same day of the same month, November 29, but their greatest literary milestones were passed in the same year (Little Women for LMA and Tablets for her father), and they died within two days of each other. While LMA's literary success and fame far outstripped her father's, their arcs were remarkably parallel.
I found the book a delight to read--well-written, well-annotated and researched, and just the right amount of quotation from letters, journals (both father and daughter were lifelong diarists), and other primary sources. While I enjoyed reading about Bronson's quixotic youth and early struggles to find his place in Transcendental society, I most enjoyed reading about LMA's growth and development as a writer.
Having finally read Little Women last year, I can honestly say that reading this bio of LMA and her father, who was such a strong force in her life, has greatly enriched LW for me. Just today when I was listening to an audio recording of P.D. James' book, Talking About Detective Fiction, she says that "most fiction is autobiographical and some autobiography partly fiction." With the possible exception of the Little House series, I can't think of a better example of what James is saying than LMA and Little Women, which is an unabashed fictionalized account of her life.
Other notable highlights of Eden's Outcasts include a fascinating look at the years leading up to the Civil War and the abolition movement (John Brown's widow and daughters visited the Alcotts after his death) and the part the whole family played in this monumental struggle, not to mention LMA's relationships to the Concord greats, Emerson and Thoreau (who were mentors and teachers) and Hawthorne, who was a somewhat cranky and reclusive neighbor. I am now eager to get to Concord to visit Orchard House, Hillside Chapel, and Sleepy Hollow cemetary.
Having recently finished The Pilgrim's Progress, which was such a primary influence in Bronson's life, and hence his daughter's, I feel like I've completed a mini-course on LMA. Reading Pilgrim's Progess helped me see how Bronson could justify his single-minded passion of pursuing his Eden, just as Christian in Pilgrim's Progress throws off his family responsibilities in order to journey to the Celestial City, leaving his wife and children to journey on their own, just as Bronson's wife and daughters do. I can't say I ever come to admire Bronson Alcott, but I certainly admire his daughter and what she was able to acheive.
I'm not sure I'm such a fan of LMA's writing that I want to tackle her other works, but I found Eden's Outcasts to be an essential companion book to Little Women, which I read because of its popularity over the past 144 years (as in, "what's all the fuss?"), and reading both have enabled me to appreciate and understand the contribution of Little Women to American literature.