By Elaine Showalter
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; C02
Louisa May Alcott
A Personal Biography
Simon & Schuster, 298 pages, $26
Louisa May Alcott has long been the favorite children's writer of literary women from Gertrude Stein to Nora Ephron. And almost every Alcott fan chooses Jo March, from "Little Women," as her favorite character. Jo is the rebel, the artist, the independent woman who considers whether or not to marry (Alcott herself did not).
Novelist and memoirist Susan Cheever also identifies with Jo, and with Alcott as her creator. In her preface to this new biography, Cheever describes reading "Little Women" for the first time when she was 12 and being "electrified. . . . It was as if this woman from long ago was living inside my head." She persuaded her father, novelist John Cheever, to take her to the Alcott museum Orchard House in Concord, Mass., where she was "thrilled to be in the presence of the real thing." Even then, she recalls, she was drawn to Jo March: "As a naughty, rebellious girl in the throes of puberty, I needed help, and it seemed to come from the pages of Little Women. What did it mean to be a woman anyway?"
Cheever calls her book a "personal biography" of Louisa May Alcott, and brings her own family background to the Alcott story. Accordingly, while many Alcott biographers emphasize the influence of Louisa May's mother, Abbya, the idealized Marmee of "Little Women," Cheever follows John Matteson's prize-winning "Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Father" (2007) in emphasizing Louisa's father, Bronson, the improvident, eccentric and maddening Transcendentalist philosopher.
As a progressive teacher and theorist of education, Bronson taught his own daughters as well as his pupils at Temple School, but he battled with the tomboyish and feisty Louisa, who fought him on every disciplinary test and was often spanked and punished for her resistance. Although she adored him, she grew up to be critical of his self-indulgence, oracular tones and inability to earn a living.
Certainly, Bronson's ill-fated decision to take his young family to live in an agricultural utopian commune, at Fruitlands Farm in Massachusetts, was a turning point in Louisa's life. She was 10 when they arrived at the isolated farmhouse in June 1843 and 11 when they left in January 1844, and she never forgot the weird assortment of vegetarians, socialists, fanatics, celibates and nudists who joined them in their failed experiment, or the disasters of near-starvation, sickness and paternal breakdown that she later satirized in "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873). After Fruitlands, Louisa lost her childhood faith in her father's radical theories and became the honorary son, with responsibility for supporting her family.
She had started publishing lurid, anonymous sensation stories by age 30, but when the Civil War began, she enlisted as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown. Cheever forcefully describes these significant six weeks in Alcott's life, when she tended wounded and dying men from the battle of Fredericksburg and, until she came down with typhoid and had to go home, saw up close the tragedy, bloodshed and administrative chaos of a war her father and other New England abolitionists romanticized from a distance. During this period, Alcott developed her "wry, direct" narrative voice and the Dickensian power that led to her finest writing, but she paid the price of lifelong illness, probably from mercury poisoning.
When she was asked by the publisher Thomas Niles, and urged by her father, to write a book for girls, Alcott resisted; she did not want to abandon her aspirations to serious adult fiction. But "Little Women," despite her misgivings, was what Cheever calls an accidental masterpiece, a great book in which Alcott "seemed to shift from being an artist pushing toward meaning to being an artist able to relax and discover meaning." When she stopped trying to impress Emerson and the sages of Concord and wrote about what she knew, Alcott released her genuine creative powers.
Cheever writes insightfully about Alcott's evolution as a writer and her struggles as a dutiful literary daughter. But, as she admits, there are many excellent biographies of Alcott to choose from, including Harriet Reisen's 2009 study, "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women." Cheever is a lively and likable writer, but she doesn't add anything new to what we already know about Alcott's life. Perhaps if she had followed her promise of a "personal biography" and said more about her own struggles to become a writer in the wake of a brilliant, difficult father, "Louisa May Alcott" might have been a compelling, as well as a charming, book.
Showalter is professor emeritus of English at Princeton University and the editor of the volume on Louisa May Alcott for the Library of America.