Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"A Personal Biography" of Louisa May Alcott

Having the day off last Friday, and having no desire to join the stampede of "Black Friday" shoppers, I came in from a long walk and settled down on the couch with two of the cats and opened Susan Cheever's new "Personal Biography" of Louisa May Alcott. That was about 9:30 am. About 6 pm I realized I could barely see and needed to turn on a lamp. And that I was hungry. And that the cats were hungry. This was a very interesting read. Not a classic "page turner" but enough to keep me going without minding it at all. But, when I was done, I wondered why it had been so compelling and decided it was because I don't have tv and had not thought to get a few classic movies. And that I hadn't felt like a nap.

The "personal" comes in the form of Cheever's remembrances-- mostly of her own girlhood and lack of ambition to "fit in" and also of her author father, John Cheever. She puts into writing a few thoughts I've had over the years--thoughts I never really tried to put down on paper and into words. "Good writing is almost always subversive" (p. 108). Or, "Bad writing is often driven by resentment, and good writing is based on authority" (p. 109). Or, [of Alcott] "She had the advantage...of being raised by a man who knew enough not to send her to school" (p. 207). And even, reflecting on change in the years between Alcott's life and today: "Money continues to corrupt and undermine the lives of children who have too much of it, especially when...the making of money has distracted their parents from the day-to-day contact that creates real families" (p. 213). On behalf of American, regarding that last quote, "Ouch."

However, I wish I'd stopped there, for the end of the book needed editing. While, she does do a service in correcting a few historical myths--such as the New York house where Alcott did not in fact write "Little Women," she also seems to fall a bit in love with her own intellectualizing (or whatever you want to call what she is doing). In addition to a Prince Charles-ish inanity like "what IS a happy life" (emphasis added, p. 256), we are also treated to outright stupidity and demeaning sneering about Alcott's adoption of her namesake niece, Lulu:

Thus a middle-aged New England spinster, who had never lived with a man [presumption: she's a dried up old virgin afraid of men] suddenly becomes the eager mother of a tiny, helpless, ten-month old baby (p. 237).

I slammed the book shut. Cheever has just written an interesting book about an independent woman who defied stereotypes of the day, earned her own way, paid for her family's life, then turns around and slaps her full-face by demeaning her for not having had sex. Yeah, way to look beyond stereotypes, MS. Cheever. When, may I ask, did she have TIME to find a husband who would not have expected 100% of her attention? Holding Alcott up as a prototype feminist success story, then slamming her for not having a man in her life seems a little "off" to me. Then just to make sure we know she has hit her Oprah moment, Cheever, knowingly explains: "Death is a mystery, but life is filled with light and clarity" (p. 253).

Read it and enjoy it if you are a fan of Louisa May Alcott's. All snarking on the end aside, it is a nice and interesting read. I did learn a lot about Bronson Alcott and his family and various others of the famed Concord intelligensia.


Susan said...

Neat review! Prince Charles-ish - ha, that's a classic :) Yes, many of the quotes you mentioned *are* thought-provoking, and I, too, would be annoyed by the way the author chose to end the book :( I just began a biography of Beatrix Potter, another strong-before-her-time woman. It would be interesting to compare the two.

Hopewell said...

It would be interesting as they are a good comparison.

Susan Bailey said...

I've been reading this book and enjoying it, and also reading other works that she cites in the book, such as Louisa's essay, "How I Went Out to Service" and her first novel, "The Inheritance." It adds a lot of 'back story' to Cheever's book.

I blog about Louisa May Alcott, her life and works, if you care to come on over for a visit. You can find it at http://louisamayalcottismypassion.wordpress.com/. We have a lively and growing community of Alcott enthusiasts and would love to have you all too.