Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Eden's Outcasts - John Matteson

Goodness, I haven't posted in awhile!  I have been reading a lot though, travelling took me away and so its time to catch up.

This is the story of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, and her father, Bronson Alcott.
It was a fascinating, complex, historic relationship.  (Amos) Bronson Alcott was a member of the transcendentalism movement of the 1830's and 1840's, centered around Concord, Massachusetts. He was a friend and colleague of Emerson, Whitman, Hawthorne and Thoreau - heavy hitters!

Bronson's high ideals did not bode well for the real life care of his wife and 4 daughters, of which Louisa May was number 3.  He was an advocate of the values and beliefs exhibited in the book Pilgrim's Progress and Aids to Reflections by Samuel Coleridge and a devoted father though not a consistent provider.  For example, he kept diaries of the lives of each of his daughters from the time they were born through adolescence to develop a better understanding of childhood development.  The author notes that the children were exposed  to "an almost impossibly dissonant combination of superior intellectual opportunities and frightful worldly deprivation".  The first two thirds of this biography focuses on Bronson's life and work and his friendships with men who would become giants in literature.  Bronson eventually posted some of his own writings but they never rose to the level of his contemporaries in enduring popularity.

If you are like me, you'll keep plugging through, getting a picture of what the U.S. was like prior to and during the Civil War, some distance from the front lines.  Louisa May responded to the calamity by volunteering as a nurse in a hospital for Civil War soldiers   The experience contributed to her maturing from a sheltered childhood to the gritty reality of adult life.

She began writing quite young and published short stories.  Her writing style involved going into a "vortex" of concentrated, frenzied writing, so intense that the author speculates she may have suffered from manic episodes.  Her fictionalized story of four sisters growing up in Little Women, based heavily on herself (as Jo) and her sisters and parents, was a big success and resulted in her readers clamoring for more stories of the lives of the March family, leading to the books, Little Men and finally Jo's Boys.  The influence of her father's teachings is brought out and examined and adds a richness to my memories of Little Women.

She was seen as a champion for women's rights (she was the first woman to register to vote in Concord) and the biographer explores the reactions to her books by the young women of her day.  He states that "altruism lies at the root of Alcott's feminism".  His discussion is well thought out and weaves the stories of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy into his evidence.  He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for the story.

Louisa May Alcott never married or had children of her own and died only a few days after her father.

Published: 2007  Read: October 2012  Genre: Biography

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