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Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography

by Susan Cheever

Simon & Schuster | 257 pages | $26.00

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

susan cheever

I’ve wanted to talk with Louisa May Alcott since I was 10 years old. Susan Cheever presumably shares this fixation. When she read Little Women, “it was as if this woman from long ago was living inside my head,” Cheever writes in the introduction to her new biography.

This is how much I looked to Alcott, and it might at least in part explain why writers continue to examine her much-examined life. Halfway through Little Women I decided I, too, would be a writer, just like Jo March. I ripped the pages out of an old book with a nice hardcover—sometimes one must make a sacrifice in the name of budding art—then folded in 50 sheets of paper which I stitched into the binding. Then I began handwriting a novel of my own about, well, four sisters with wise parents, poor but happy, and a lively boy next door. It was set in the 1960s instead of the 1860s, so how could anyone accuse me of plagiarism? That is a moot point anyway, because somewhere between Chapters 1 and 2, I got discouraged and stopped, for one main reason: I knew nothing about wise, pious, doctrinal parents and daughters who never even entertained the notion of rebelling against those parents.

I can’t be a novelist, I thought, because my family is too weird (in 2011 parlance, dysfunctional.)

Years after I learned there was no Santa Claus, I found out that the March family was equally imaginary. The real-life Alcott family left copious journals and letters, not to mention essays and fiction by Louisa and her high-minded and highly dysfunctional father, Bronson Alcott, all irrefutable evidence that this was a family that often went hungry thanks to Bronson’s thwarted ideals and refusal to compromise, and a father who called the spirited young Louisa, “a fiend.”  All of which has been catnip to countless writers who perhaps had their own “ah ha” moment when they found out that the Alcotts were a troubled, unconventional household, without even a stable home and hearth. (They moved constantly, in search of a pipedream.) There are at least 15 biographies of Louisa May Alcott on Amazon alone, and that’s counting only the ones written for adults. I suspect that Cheever, like many biographers before her who wrote pretty much the same story presented here—complete with oft-published old photographs—wrote this book out of a burning desire to talk with Alcott and ask her, “What was it really like to be you?”

Occasionally a writer comes along and turns Alcott into a fictionalized character, which seems a sensible way to cast your own interpretation when every possible revelation seems to have already been mined. Most apropos for our times, Kit Bakke summoned Alcott by e-mail correspondence with Miss Alcott's E-mail: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds (2006). And as prolific as Alcott was, I do believe that if she were around today she’d be composing lengthy text messages and blasting out daily tweets and blogs. So I decided, lack of originality notwithstanding, to “friend” Alcott via modern technology and ask her to be the one to review this latest missive on her life:

Okay, there you are, and may I call you Ms. Alcott? When Susan Cheever summoned you, did the two of you connect in a meeting-of-the-minds kind of way?

Dear me, it is hard to get used to such vulgarisms as “okay,” but I have grown fond of “Ms.” Quite so, Ms. Cheever and I are kindred spirits in many ways. As writers, we both have our days when something sublime seizes our pen—or keyboard, as the case may be—but we also have those days when we can’t get over the idea that a disciplinarian is looking over our shoulder, and our writing comes out stilted. She says my body of work was uneven, which I concede is a fair critique. I have developed a thick skin over the last 150 years, so please know I am not practicing tit-for-tat when I say the dear Ms. Cheever’s writing is uneven in this very book. Just when I think she’s truly captured some of the most painful periods of my life and my art, she lapses into generalities on feminism, on history, but especially into banal pronouncements on literature that would seem to belong in a manual titled, “Writing Immortal Prose for Dummies.”

Of course, we both had famous and famously troubled fathers. I believe she saw a great deal of her own father in mine. I chuckled in spite of myself at her assessment that “Bronson Alcott was an aristocrat of nothing but the schoolroom.” John Cheever, as she depicts him in her illuminating 1984 memoir, Home Before Dark, was obsessed with outward appearances, and truly, my father was too, in his own way.  John Cheever was far more successful, and his drinking would never have been tolerated in my father’s temperance-vegan household. But both of our fathers came from dire poverty that probably instilled them with a rage that was the foundation for all they did. We both witnessed our parents loving and hating each other, and dare I say we both knew there were interlopers in their marriage.

Ms. Cheever is certain her father had bisexual affairs, and that could explain some of her curiosity about whether there was a carnal nature to my father’s relationship with Mr. Charles Lane, a well-to-do Englishman who came to our home to start a utopian community. Ms. Cheever has a wealth of previous books that scrutinized that period of our lives, but she brought back the terror that governed my world at the time. I was only 10. I watched my mother keep house like a servant under what Ms. Cheever calls “a petty despot”, and then in the evenings Mr. Lane would lecture on the barbarism of the family unit, the predatory nature of women and the evil intoxications of maternal love. For a few pages Ms. Cheever ran with her instincts and called my home at the time, quite rightly, an asylum. I would have derived much guilty pleasure if she’d let her imagination carry her along; I truly do not know if my father bedded down with Mr. Lane, but they did bundle together, and she could have chanced her own view. But Ms. Cheever reported on all of this in an utterly responsible, yet utterly rehashed manner, including an unnecessary nod to the idea that biography is not fully objective because of course the facts chosen can manipulate the narrative.

I’ll tell you one of my wicked and vain little fantasies; I wish that someday some writer would give my life the Greek tragedy treatment, like Homer taking on the siege of Troy and going for whatever works as spectacle. I am simply weary of reading books about me that contain footnotes.

It’s hard to read Ms. Cheever’s book and not hate your father —all the more so because it seemed as if the words didn’t exist in your era, or at least in your home, for a child to acknowledge bad parenting.

Perhaps it will reassure you to hear of the couch sessions my ghost has held with Dr. Freud’s ghost. Yet is this condition you call Victorian era repression not one of the main reasons I continue to fascinate you?

You inhabitants of the 21st century devour those horrid reality shows because they are a kind of theatre that dramatizes your worst fears: being the pariah on a desert island, singing and dancing your no-talent heart out before a panel of sarcastic judges. What are the horrors of my upbringing if not an historical reality show for you? A father as absolute authority, and you must bow and scrape and never for an instant disobey the Fifth Commandment—does that not send your adrenaline racing? What was even scarier in my home, and this is something Ms. Cheever understands fully, was that there was no dividing line between children and parents.

She writes of how while I was procrastinating over writing Little Women in 1868, I wrote in my journal that my aging mother sat at rest in her sunny room “and that is better than any amount of fame to me.” I was a 36-year-old spinster by then, but I don’t need to explain guilt-tripping to you. Certainly I imagined Mama and Papa could peer in to my innermost thoughts, and in fact they did. As Ms. Cheever said, in another one of the good parts of her book, “Privacy in the Alcott family was equated with secrecy and furtiveness. Although all the Alcott daughters kept journals in which they were urged to confide their innermost thoughts, for instance, their parents routinely read the journals and commented on them in the margins.”

Ms. Cheever, though she wasn’t the first to come up with this theory, says you dealt with your feelings about your father by placing the patriarch in Little Women off-stage. But did you have to make the March family so ideal?

The dear Ms. Cheever talked with my ghost at great length about all of that, how I wrote about a family beset by    genteel poverty but never starving, when in reality we were what I christened in some much earlier stories, “the pathetic family.” But the writing of Little Woman was a duty I took on at my publisher’s urging, and my goal was commercial success. A novel of a pathetic family would not have sold well back then.

On the other hand, you grew up with Ralph Waldo Emerson as your father’s patron, you took walks with him and knew Henry David Thoreau. You had no lack of learned minds around to nourish your talent.

I myself cannot help but wonder if Ms. Cheever, as the product of a famous father herself, took my rich inner life somewhat for granted. Also, of course, this is ground she has already trod, in her book American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work (2006). This, too, was a book that sifted through what has already been written, but is it sinful of me to relish my inclusion in what she calls a “genius cluster,” and with my name the first in the title, albeit through a mere accident of alphabetical arrangement? In that book, Ms. Cheever dwells less on the debates on Transcendentalism, and more on the bickering and the love affairs of the mind. But it was there, at the feet of my father’s peers, that I learned the verbal and subliminal lessons that permeated my books—and according to critics through the ages, the knowledge I handled best was that which could be translated into guidance for an everyday New England girlhood, not the lurid and exotic prose that I so relished at the time.

Ms. Cheever’s new biography is also about your art.

Yes, and never more to the point than when she writes of how Little Women seized upon the prevailing literary winds of its time. The feminist perspective of late has been that I wrote a tale of moral pap for young girls to please my parents and just happened to also create characters who speak to the ages.  But as I mentioned, there was also what you now call the market. Ms. Cheever goes into a bit of history that for once belongs here, about how after the Civil War the United States began to recognize children as a species with their own special needs and desires, not just miniature adults. A great many books for little boys emerged, and it made excellent business sense to create books for little girls too, though I felt I was a writer destined for loftier pursuits.

However, I don’t know what possessed Ms. Cheever to write this as an evaluation of my inadvertent masterpiece: “There are two kinds of masterpieces: those that use great leaps of the imagination to bring extraordinary scenes and adventures onto the page, and those that reveal the ordinary.” You can do either and still produce something utterly forgettable. I tried to whisper to her, but she was in one of her inhibited moods, that if you want to define what makes a masterpiece, think about a perfect balance of universal truths, magical rhythms, raw and generous emotions, and a work that is right for its time. Oh, to be sure, it could instead be right for a future time if the world isn’t ready for your genius, but I’ll leave that to my father’s ghost to work out in his couch sessions.

I do appreciate my latest biographer’s sorting out of my bad and good writing. She doesn’t like the novel that was my favorite at the time, Moods, which she dismisses thusly: “it’s hard not to hear the clanking of metaphysical machinery going on in the background.” And in dissecting an early essay that in retrospect, I too, realize was too much about revenge against a hideous employer, Ms. Cheever presents a rather nice, though not all-encompassing appraisal: “Bad writing is often driven by resentment, and good writing is based on authority.”

If I were living in your time, I could have turned that particular essay into The Devil Wears Prada. And think of the memoir I might have written about my dysfunctional family, even without the substance abuse or incest that are so de riguer today, as if childhood trauma has been reduced to only its most blatant signifiers. On the other hand, I like to think that if I were there in the flesh, I would shrug off my victimhood and instead write about plucky young women who get by in spite of evil in their midst, and are quick to spurn the attentions of some hedge fund manager who wants a trophy wife.

I guess that’s why Susan Cheever and so many of us still keep calling you out there in the beyond.

Yes my dear, look to me for lessons in how to make sure your finest instincts survive.

Jan Alexander is editor-at-large for the Neworld Review and author of the novel Getting to Lamma.

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