March 10, 2013 at 9:18 pm (Reviews) (A Whisper in the Dark, American History, An Old Fashioned Girl, bill bryson, Bill Cosby, biography, books, Bronson Alcott, Civil War, debt, Dickens, Eden's Outcasts, education, fame, family relationships, feminism, Fruitlands, Goethe, history, homeschooling, jo march, John Matteson, Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, Love and Self-Love, mental illness, pulitzer prize winner, race relations, Ralph Waldo Emerson, reviews, social commentary, Thereau, transcendentalism)
Title: Eden’s Outcasts
Author: John Matteson
Genre: Biography/ History
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Length: 497 pages
I knew I wanted to read this book the first time I saw it at Jill’s Books in The Woodlands a few years ago. I have loved Louisa May Alcott all my life and in the last few years I’ve really started to enjoy the art of the biography. My best friend bought it for me on the spot because she is one of those beautiful people who doesn’t think people should be denied their bookish desires. It wasn’t until March (a novelization of the younger years of Marmee and Mr. March) was chosen for the HPB Humble Book Club that I actually committed to sitting down with it in an attempt to understand Brooks’ portrayal of the patriarch.
*Notes about A Family in Debt*
So my review of the biography begins with Bronson Alcott’s astonishing ability to over zealously botch everything he touches. This trait of Bronson is made overwhelmingly clear around page 181. By this time in the biography, his utopian commune Fruitlands has failed, he has lost all his manuscripts, the house the family is living in was purchased with his wife’s inheritance, and he has completely disappointed me. At this point in his life Bronson refused to be employed and takes up an architectural endeavor on Emerson’s land, a building that would be nicknamed “Tumbledown Hall” and “The Ruin.” For a man portrayed as one so taken with education, he tackled projects with a whole lot of zeal and not nearly enough research. When he did research, others’ ideas were usually disregarded in order to implement his own innovative plans. To me, most his plans pretty much always sucked.
On the other hand, Louisa, his daughter, was exceptionally prudent. She had an intense crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson when she was young, which I find adorable, but never shared the love letters she wrote to him. Instead, when the crush was over, she burned them, but continued to look up to Emerson as a teacher. Emerson would be a part of Louisa May Alcott’s life from her birth until his death.
Bronson may have failed in many things during the first half of his life, but his efforts as a father are later a solid testament to home schooling. Matteson shares on page 182 that
“During her teen years, Louisa received essentially no formal schooling outside the home. However, reading Dickens with her family, poring over Goethe in Emerson’s library, and scrambling through the woods with Thoreau comprised a unique education in themselves.”
Bronson Alcott, I believe, had some serious issues. Matteson has the grace to allow you to come to this conclusion on your own before he shares the fact that mental illness did indeed run in the family and that it is likely that both Bronson and Louisa May were manic depressive or bipolar, but that there is no way to know for sure.
Bronson’s worldview was both passionate and skewed. He established his house at Hillside (a few years before the well-known Orchard House) as an underground railroad station and fought viciously for equal political rights for African Americans. Then in contradiction to his own actions stated that blond hair, blue eyed people were closer to God and that black men should not be allowed to reproduce. How these beliefs reside in one human being baffles me. It reminds me of an observation Bill Bryson made in his book The Lost Continent, where when traveling the United States he identifies a curious contradiction in American culture and race relations. In the north, Yankees are known for their belief in equality and pretend to make no distinction between black and white in personal treatment and political issues, yet they live very segregated lives and rarely share the same neighborhood. However, in the deep south, there is a general assumption of hatred between the two groups, but they live side by side as neighbors.
Why such dichotomy? I find it all rather ridiculous. In Bronson’s case, he refused to use products made by slaves and destroyed his career on the principle that even black students had a place in his school. Kudos! But then he thinks something so crass as an idea that black men should be denied their God given right to have children. Absurd!
I find Bronson entirely too duplicitous. He insisted on a family commune but almost left his family to a more philosophic way of life. He was passionate about fatherhood, but made it very difficult for his children to feel worthy of his praise. He desired a Utopia, but in every action tore what could have been to the ground. His ease in living off hand outs from the labor of his friends while simultaneously declining anything done honestly through the labor of animals is confusing. It is no wonder to me that the father figure in Little Women is both absent and idolized. The fact that Bronson went to such great lengths to have a perfect transcendental family and then refused to accept work when it was offered because he had as “yet no clear call to any work beyond [him]self,” is irritating. The Alcotts were flooded with debt and Bronson had the means to fix it, but was too busy living in his head.
The greatest contradiction of all is that in the second half of his life he would rectify my horrible opinion of him…
*Notes about An Authoress*
The thing I love most about biographies is the same thing I love about “bookish” books – they provide lists, a more diverse reading experience. While reading Eden’s Outcasts, the biographer periodically offered reviews and insightful critiques to Alcott’s little known works. So while reading her biography, I was also led to read specific stories out of A Whisper in the Dark, like Love and Self-Love. It also led me to desire to seek out a piece called Hospital Sketches.
Matteson continues to offer literary criticism on many of Alcott’s publications and goes into a lengthy discussion of An Old Fashioned Girl. It is during this portion of the biography that Bronson has redeemed himself as a father in my eyes. At this point he was quietly living at Orchard House in between traveling and making his money. His ideals were far less irritating later in life than when he had a poor young family to support, because at this point Louisa’s fame had made the entire Alcott family debt free. This success and income is also what finally made Bronson a more supportive father who spent many of Louisa’s later years doting on her and praising her success.
This age old story of the parent-child relationship reminds me of a Bill Cosby sketch where he laments his parents as grandparents.
“I’ve never seen such a turn around in all my life [...] That’s not the same woman I grew up with; you’re looking at an old person who’s trying to get into heaven now.” (watch the whole sketch here)
In the story An Old Fashioned Girl, Alcott actually praises her father by inferring that,
“Shaw’s offspring would need less reforming if he had given them more of his time and less of an allowance.”
Matteson continues to say,
“Louisa goes to far as to suggest that a well-provided childhood is a hindrance to happiness and achievement.”
This is a much different sentiment than that during the aftermath of Bronson’s failed Fruitlands. Mostly proud father, but partly opportunist, Bronson wrote, “I am introduced as the father of Little Women, and I am riding in the chariot of glory wherever I go.” Bronson may have begun to be capable of providing for his wife and family, but only because Louisa made it possible with her fame.
As Matteson picks apart Alcott’s life and novels, he states:
“As is more than once the case with Alcott, the fiction teasingly invites speculation that the surviving facts can neither confirm nor dispel.” – pg. 382
Of her own fame, Alcott said: “I asked for bread and got a stone, – in the shape of a pedestal.”
*What it all Means to Me…*
All in all Matteson’s biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father is the most well-written and thorough biography I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I hung on every word.
All the detailed family relationships, the well thought out literary critiques, and little factoids like the fact that Louisa was the first Concord woman to register to vote, made the whole book a joy to read.
Above all, I am pleased that Matteson has finally put into words a truth that has been part of my own beliefs since childhood when I first read most of Alcott’s work. Without reading Matteson’s biography I may have never come to understand a piece of myself and where aspects of my own worldview were initially formed. It seems that my ideas regarding feminism may be largely attributed to what Louisa imparted to me through her novels, as our views are nearly identical.
Louisa’s ideas call for
“each person, male and female to cultivate his or her talents without regard to sex, so that each may optimally serve the community.”
Matteson also says that
“Louisa remained true to the ideals of her mentor Emerson, who, as William James observed, believed that ‘no position is insignificant, if the life that fills it out be only genuine.’ Louisa was hostile to any limitation on women’s opportunities. Nevertheless, she would have been mystified by any feminist credo that implicitly valued traditionally masculine pursuits above the conventionally feminine.” – pg. 419
Whether you want to be a doctor or stay home and bake pies, male or female – just do it well.
I could not agree more.