Eden’s Outcasts – A Review

March 10, 2013 at 9:18 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

January 2013 079Title: 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.

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How Alcott Raises Little Women

December 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Title: Little Women

Author: Louisa May Alcott

Publisher: Little, Brown

Genre: Young Adult Classics

Length: 502 pages

Buy Now!

I don’t remember learning to read, as I did it from such a young age.  I do, however, remember the first books I fell in love with and the first books I read that were difficult for my limited vocabulary.  Laura Ingalls Wilder I fell in love with first, I read the entire series several times by the end of first grade.  Little Women, however, I fell in love with and learned from in second grade.  Little Women taught me new words and phrases, culture, and how I wanted to live.

Josephine March has been one of my heroes since I was seven and first read about her chopping off all her luxurious hair.  As a young girl, I identified quite well with her “one beauty” (that amazing hair) and tomboyish ways.  I myself, was a ruddy, freckled girl, often found either playing tag football with boys at recess or perched in an oak tree reading a book, hair flowing every which way that my mother did not allow me to cut.  My first significant hair cut, I donated two feet to locks of love, and who else was on my mind? Jo March.

I re-read the book multiple times before I left elementary school, getting more and more out of it each time as my reading skills improved.  And despite cherishing it always, I set the book aside and did not read it again until my twenty-seventh year, this year, to my one year old daughter.

I opened it up a week or so before Christmas, not realizing it would spur a desire to re-read it every Christmas with my kid for the rest of her life if she likes it as much as I do.  It’s such a great Christmas book!  Upon this fresh re-read, I also discovered many other things that my brain had forgotten, but my soul must have internalized.  For instance, the girls are all distraught and Hannah, bless her soul, “came to the rescue armed with a coffee-pot.”

Like every good American, I am wholly addicted to that black magical brew, it’s in our veins and culture, look at how well Starbucks has taken off.  But my family did not keep coffee readily available, my dad won’t touch the stuff and my mom’s mother died of cancer the doctors blamed on her caffeine intake so she never kept it around growing up.  So part of me wonders if Alcott played a role in my introduction to it, as I don’t remember a time when I did not love it.  I remember sneaking cups of it from the employee break room at the bus barn where I waited with my bus driver between routes in elementary school.  In hindsight, I believe it was the reverence that writers hold for it, the way it is talked about in books, that drove me to love it so much, and it very well may have begun with Little Women.

Then, there is Theodore Laurence.  I believe every guy friend’s worth that I ever had my whole life was measured against the character of Laurie.  He is whimsical, gallant, a rascal and a gentleman.  Theodore Laurence is handsome, a friend, and all around a good time.  Every girl needs a Teddy-Dear in her adolescent life and if you can’t get one in the real world, its time for yet another read of Little Women so you can live vicariously through Jo!

Jo March taught me to love, to read, to pursue life with a fiery passion, and how to pick my friends.  It was Jo March that sparked the first desires in me to be a writer.  It was Little Women, and the romance of Jo and the Professor, that set the stage for me to fall in love with the art of Jane Austen and the Brontes.  It was the pen of Louisa May Alcott that taught me how to really enjoy books and the thrilling life they have to offer.

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