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Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father Paperback – November 17, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

They were both born on November 29 (he in 1799 and she in 1832), but willful, passionate Louisa May Alcott couldn't have been more different from her serene, unworldly father, Bronson, whom fellow transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau revered for his wide-ranging philosophical pursuits and occasionally ridiculed for his lack of common sense. Bronson's failed educational and utopian ventures placed a great burden on his wife, Abba, while elder daughters Louisa and Anna worked as teachers and paid companions to support the family. Yet Louisa honored her father's steadfast principles, avers Matteson, a professor of English at John Jay College, who views both father and daughter with a sympathy that doesn't quite conceal the book's slightly specious premise. Bronson was far closer to Anna and younger sister Lizzie; Louisa's fiery nature sometimes dismayed him. She only gained his full approval when mistreatment with a mercury-based medicine during the Civil War made her a near-invalid for the rest of her life. This is really a biography of the whole Alcott family, though it narrows to a dual portrait after the wild success of Little Women in 1868 gave Louisa the independence she longed for and Bronson enjoyed more modest acclaim for his book Tablets and lecture tours out West. 26 illus. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Bronson Alcott filled hundreds of pages with minute observations of his infant daughters, believing that fatherhood was the ideal laboratory for testing his beliefs in the natural genius of children and a holistic mode of education. Yet he was baffled by the willfulness of his second-born, Louisa May. And so begins the dramatic father-daughter relationship on which first-time biographer Matteson so adeptly builds a riveting double portrait of two exceptional Americans and abolitionists: one a man of quixotic dreams and abject failures; the other a resourceful, self-sacrificing, and revolutionary woman writer. Making penetrating use of primary sources, Matteson gracefully interprets an astounding family drama of compassion and creativity, folly and courage, deprivation and mental instability. Sharing a birthday and dying within two days of each other, Bronson and Louisa were the driving forces of the Alcott household as he impressed and dismayed their friends Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau by taking innovative ideas to ruinous extremes, and she became the destitute family's wage-earner and author of one of the world's most beloved novels. Matteson's lucid, commanding biography casts new light on an unusual father-daughter bond and a new land at war with itself. Seaman, Donna --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (November 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393333590
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393333596
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #400,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am a native of San Mateo, California, who came to the East for college and, for the most part, stayed. I have a history degree from Princeton, a law degree from Harvard, and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia. In between Harvard and Columbia, I worked as a litigator in San Francisco and Raleigh, North Carolina, but never really knew who I was until I put my law books in storage and decided to devote my life (or a fair amount of it) to reading good books and talking and writing about them. It's worked out pretty well. I'm now a distinguished professor of English at John Jay College in the City University of New York, teaching in the college's Honors Program. I wrote my first book, Eden's Outcasts, with inspirations supplied by my daughter, Rebecca, who resembles Louisa May Alcott in fascinating ways. Eden's Outcasts surprised all of us by winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. I was just as delighted with the response to my second book, The Lives of Margaret Fuller. I'm sincerely hoping that readers will take pleasure in my annotated edition of Little Women, just published this November.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

141 of 143 people found the following review helpful By Corinne H. Smith VINE VOICE on August 29, 2007
Format: Hardcover
She wrote LITTLE WOMEN and became the household breadwinner. He held philosophic conversations after several failed attempts at running his own private school. Both nearly starved at Fruitlands, their utopian experiment. But if that's all you know about Louisa and Bronson Alcott, you are sadly ill-informed. You need to read EDEN'S OUTCASTS; and the sooner, the better.

In spite of its title -- which gives misleading higher billing to Louisa -- this book is indeed a dual biography that documents a complex father-daughter and writer-writer relationship. Chronologically, the treatment has to first study Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), from his beginnings on a farm in Wolcott, Connecticut, and a rural education that, unlike other Transcendentalist men, did not include a college degree. Working first as a peddler, he later landed what seemed to be the perfect job for such a thoughtful, self-taught young man: school teacher. Soon enough he was married to Abba May (1800-1877) and had a household of little women -- daughters Anna Bronson (1831-1893), Louisa May (1832-1888), Elizabeth Peabody/Sewell (1835-1858), and Abigail May (1840-1879). Matteson follows Bronson's myriad attempts to find suitable jobs as well as every subsequent relocation the family made, covering a good portion of the Northeast and New England. He turns to Louisa as she moves to the family forefront, and also when she serves time as a nurse in a Union Army hospital. Because each member of the family kept a journal, much of their daily lives and thoughts are available to us -- at least, those events and feelings that they took the time to document. Diaries were not kept private in those days.
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48 of 49 people found the following review helpful By A reader on January 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author manages to do justice to both his subjects, Louisa May Alcott and her father. He also creates an excellent picture of the time and explains the transcendtalist movement. Besides L.M. Alcott and B. Alcott one learns a lot about Emerson, Thoreau, Elizabeth Peabody and other luminaries of the time. The book is fact driven, there are often long quotations from original material and it is very well written. A most enlightening book, bringing its subjects and their surroundings to life. I originally bought this book becasue of my interst in L.M. Alcott but by the end I found her father at least as interesting.
I read this book like a thriller, finishing it in three days.
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on February 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Thank you to John Matteson for reading every scrap the Alcotts left behind and digesting it into this wonderful dual biography.

I was a young reader of Little Women (maybe 10 times) and the rest of the series. Later as an adult, I never quite put together the pieces the family. Now I know how the Alcotts fit in with Emerson and Thoreau, the role of Fruitlands in the life of the Alcotts and how it was the Amy came to marry Laurie.

The above paragraph could sound flip without the understanding of how Louisa's fiction was a byproduct of both her father's idealism and his inability to support his family. Louisa would be his standard bearer, but she would at all costs, support the family.

Bronson's philosophy of education was ahead of his time. While it can be debated whether his career ending publications served the cause, it is clear, it did not serve the family well. Followed by a second public humiliation in the touted but failed Fruitlands experiment, you can imagine the grief of a former idealist with a young family to feed.

How many father's careers have been rescued by their children... and in the 19th century... any by their daughters? In the case of the Alcotts, it is more than a career redeemed, it is also values and virtues.

Matteson gives a wonderfully readable dual biography. He sticks with his thesis. It's good that he resisted the temptation to delve into the other interesting personalities of the time. Just like when I first read Little Women, I didn't want this book to end.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Emily Kurtz on March 4, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book taught me a lot about Transcendentalism and all the myriad connections among authors whom I might otherwise not have considered as part of a community. The narrative flows smoothly between Bronson Alcott and his more famous daughter, Louisa. Both help to illuminate the other. In the end one gets a very thorough portrait of a distinct time in New England history. I especially learned a lot about Louisa's role as a nurse in the Civil War and now intend to read her "Hospital Sketches."

I can and do recommend this book.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A. Lutz on December 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is an engaging work of nonfiction. Matteson delivers a well written, fact driven, story about the interwoven lives of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott. Wonderfully rendered, it's never boring. Definitely worth a read if you're interested in 19th century women, writers, or history in general.
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27 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Barbara And Byron Skinner on October 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A well writen biography of one of the 19th. Centuries least famous literary families...The Alcotts father Bronson, mother Abba and daughters Elizabeth "Lizzy", Lousia May, Anna and May...This is a book without training wheels Professor Matterson leaves it to the reader to be familuar with Transdentialism, Godwinism, American Putitainism the lives of Hawthorne, Thoreau (Brothers), Enerson, the Lake District Poets, Wordsworth, Carisle etc. he doesn't take the time to inform the reader how they fit in to the Alcotts story...The heart of the book deals with the relationships bewteen Bronson Alcott and disgruntled Puritain turn Emerson transdentalist (Americas first hippie)and his cast of daughters who were as individual and different from each other as they could be...Louisa May the number two daughter is the focus of that relationship but her three sidters play strong supporting roles...If 19th. Century American Literature is of interest to you and you have done the prerequsites this will be an enjoyable read that will advance your knowledge of a most interesting if disfunctional family that played an inportant role in both literature and philosophy.
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