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Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography Hardcover – November 2, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Little Women was the idea of Alcott's publisher, who bullied her into writing it. Louisa may, Cheever speculates, have taken revenge on Bronson Alcott--a friend of the great Transcendentalists, but an irresponsible and browbeating father--by leaving him out of her semiautobiographical masterpiece. A revolutionary educator whose uncompromising high-mindedness made him a financial failure, Bronson was critical of and often punished the rebellious Louisa. But his close friendships with men like Emerson and Thoreau blessed Louisa with a unique circle of mentors, whom Cheever depicted in American Bloomsbury. Alcott gradually lost everyone dear to her: her beloved sister Lizzie died at 22, and her sister Anna's marriage felt like a betrayal. Struggling so hard for wealth and fame that when it came she was too ill and weary to enjoy it, Louisa never married and died two days after Bronson. Cheever laces this provocative biography with musings on the genesis of genius, and her identification with Jo March when she was a rebellious girl in the throes of puberty. While some may find Cheever's digressions and self-referencing grating, most will savor this work--surely a future book club staple--as keen, refreshing, and authoritative. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Nov.) (c)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
At a time when author biographies swell with sociopolitical overviews and literary analyses, Cheever has opted to tell a straightforward, concise story. She may add nothing new to readers’ knowledge of Alcott’s life and legacy, but the critics gave her points for enthusiasm and insight. However, there were some serious concerns about Cheever’s persistent digressions, peculiar theories, and questionable conclusions. And while the Washington Post would have liked to hear more about Cheever’s relationship with her own wayward father, John Cheever, others complained that she inserted herself into the narrative too much already. “The best thing about Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography,” muses the St. Petersburg Times, “is that it revives discussion of Alcott and sends people back to Little Women.”
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Where do I start with what's wrong or off-base here? Cheever weirdly seems to criticize Northerners for being anti-slavery before the Civil War: she classes them as "self-righteous" more than once, and reviewers of American Bloomsbury also noticed this jarring attitude.
She can toss off lovely phrases but her prose is often peculiar, as when says that church choirs in Rome at Christmas "bellow" into the streets. And she has a taste for Hallmark card smarminess: "Death is a mystery, but life is filled with light and clarity." Really? Always? For everyone?
Cheever seems oddly, almost obsessively concerned with trivialities in this book. Guess what: Alcott dropped a pie box in Boston which tipped "end over end." She had hyacinths blooming in a window. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. joked about her being tall. None of that relates in any way to her life as writer. But it's all tossed in as if it matters as much as her work on Little Women.
More troubling, the book is filled with dubious assertions like "good writing is almost always subversive" and the Transcendentalists in Concord "essentially created American literature as we know it." Subversive how? And sorry: the first two American authors to be international best sellers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, got there before Emerson et al. and had a huge influence on writers like Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. Cheever loves mentioning Hawthorne as often as possible, but he was peripheral to the Concord "genius cluster" and mocked the Transcendentalists in The Blithedale Romance.
There are even bigger problems.
Cheever doesn't seem to have enough faith in the importance of her subject, because she tries to have Alcott ride the coat tails of a more famous author. Henry James wrote harsh reviews of Alcott's books, but Cheever keeps calling Alcott and Henry James "friends." Based on what? She never quotes a single letter and never mentions a single meeting between them. I've read many James biographies (including Edel's 5-volume classic) and Alcott, ten years older than James, rarely gets a mention except as the subject of James' generally scathing review of her novel Moods. Alcott's published Journals just report "a fine letter" from James, apparently in response to her book Hospital Sketches; their fathers were acquainted and Henry James attended at least one of her father's lectures. That doesn't make him and Alcott "friends."
Louisa May Alcott and two of Henry James's brothers were pupils at the same school in Concord for a short time and she made one of them an afghan when he was later wounded during the Civil War. That brother, Wilky, sounds like he might have been her friend. So perhaps Cheever had her James brothers confused? It's not impossible. If you read the negative reviews here and the negative reviews of American Bloomsbury, she has a very weak command of facts in both books.
Despite admitting that Moods is "trite, labored, melodrama," Cheever believes it was the "beginning of the deep influence [Alcott's] writing had on [James's] writing." Note the word "beginning." That's a huge and unsubstantiated claim. Cheever hasn't done her research. Isabel Archer is widely believed to be modeled after James's cousin Minnie Temple, and even on Margaret Fuller. But Cheever has to assert that Alcott's "precocious little girls" are models for Isabel Archer, and Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians, and Daisy Miller--as if nobody but Alcott in the mid-19th century was writing about young women. That's not enough, however: she also thinks an episode in Switzerland from Alcott's life might have inspired "Daisy Miller," yet that incident has nothing whatsoever in common with the story except the town of Vevey. Later she says a friend in Rome, Alice Bartlett, who later became a friend of Henry James "told James the story on which he based Daisy Miller." That's vague enough to sound as if it confirms Cheever's speculations, but the truth is very different: Bartlett's story concerned gossip about an innocent American girl in Rome and had no connection to Alcott.
From her perspective, you could probably ignore decades of scholarship in many languages that point to Hawthorne, George Eliot, de Maupassant, Zola, and Turgenev--Alcott reigns supreme as a literary influence in James's career if you knew nothing else about him. She ends her badly researched tome with the claim that James took on the "theme of Little Women and its heroine and wrote about them in novel after novel." Really? Doesn't she know that one of his greatest contributions to world literature is The International Theme--or is she planning a book to show that Alcott's responsible for that, too? And if she does keep bringing up James, she could at least get the title of one of his most acclaimed novels right: it's The Portrait of a Lady, not Portrait of a Lady. Sloppiness at all levels makes this short book extremely frustrating (but at least it's short).
Cheever needed more rigorous editing, copy editing, and fact-checking, but with a pedigree like hers she'll likely never get it for any book, no matter how tendentious her claims.
I turned from this book to Harriet Reisen's biography of Alcott, which was critically acclaimed and seems much more substantial--and better written, too. It's not filled with explanations about what biography is and what writing is--as if she's musing aloud, or instructing a class of high school students, or trying to make a contracted word count....
I'm disappointed because I enjoyed her memoir about her father when it came out, but this is the last book of hers I'll read.
Louisa May Alcott is my favorite writer and I was really excited about reading this biography but it has been a real disappointment. If you are looking for a Louisa May Alcott biography, I would suggest you pass this one up in favor of something better written.