- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2011

By Susan Cheever
Simon & Schuster, $26 298 pages, illustrated

Ever since the mid-20th century, when Madeleine Stern discovered that Louisa May Alcott had pseudonymously written a

series of melodramatic thrillers to support the Alcott family in the years before she hit pay dirt with “Little Women,” writers have looked for something new to say about this most famous 19th-century American female author.

Susan Cheever spent, she says, 10 years writing about Louisa May Alcott, which presumably includes the time used to write her previous book about Alcott and the rest of the Concord literary group, “American Bloomsbury” (2006).

It is doubtless that she accumulated quite a bit of material from that research for her current biography, but, as so often happens, another writer, Harriet Reisen, beat her to it in 2009 with “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.” Which, one presumes, left Ms. Cheever to salvage what she could by subtitling her book “A Personal Biography” and including lots of references to visiting all those dwellings in and around Boston and Concord occupied by the peripatetic Alcotts - no mean feat.

Not to mention including a good number of romantic generalizations such as, “To me the story of Louisa May Alcott is the story of how a woman finds her place in the world. How can women choose between love and work, or should they gamble that they can have both?”

And this comment on today’s girls visiting one of the Alcotts’ residences: “The young women who come to Orchard House, dressed in low riders and halter tops in the summer, sweaters and puffy parkas in the winter, are looking for a way to honor their awkward tomboy Louisa May Alcott and Jo March selves and to succeed as women at the same time. How can they be girls without being the simpering, obedient sexually dressed image of what we still call femininity?”

The rival book by Ms. Reisen is tough to compete with because it’s far more comprehensive than Ms. Cheever‘s; for example, it provides substantial information on the eventual fate of Alcott’s namesake niece “Lulu,” whom she inherited when her sister May died in Europe.

But that is not to say that readers, particularly younger ones, will not enjoy Ms. Cheever’s attractive, and much shorter, book. Ms. Cheever focuses on the fraught Alcott family relationships, particularly between the parents, experimental educator/inspirational lecturer Bronson and long-suffering Abba - almost more than on Louisa herself - while rendering the background history as Civil War lite. Most memorable are the grinding poverty to which Bronson Alcott’s utopian, not to say harebrained, enthusiasms reduced his family and Louisa’s practical response - all those blood-and-thunder novels, written under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard.

Ms. Cheever’s overall approach is much the same as that in her “American Bloomsbury”: impressionistic rather than chronological. (In fact, she twice gets the order and relative ages of the Alcott girls wrong, labeling Lizzie, rather than May, the youngest. A chronological table akin to the one she provided in her earlier book would have helped in this one.)

Nonetheless, the reader comes away from Ms. Cheever’s book with a good appreciation for Louisa May Alcott’s remarkable triumph over adversity and some understanding of her complex relationship with her autocratic father (“the Hoper”), whom she admired despite his almost unbelievable willingness to impose hardship on his family in the service of humanity.

Louisa learned early on that sharing the same birth date as her father would mean “that her biggest gift on her own birthday was to celebrate her father’s birthday.” At age 3, she was required to pass out cakes (a rare treat, as the Alcotts’ vegetarian diet was strictly subsistence, not to say starvation) to the guests.

The author writes, “As the last child approached, Louisa saw that there was only one cake left. Should she give it to Lucia, a guest, or keep it? It was her own birthday! But with a reminder from her mother that ‘it is always better to give away than to keep the nice things,’ Louisa, famous in her family for her aggression, her tantrums, and her temper, quietly handed over the ‘dear plummy cake’ and got a kiss from her mother instead.”

Ms. Cheever comments, “The test of conscience - had the wrong number of cakes been engineered by Bronson Alcott? - was one of many small tests conducted on Louisa and her sisters by their father in his scientific approach to the human soul.”

As for the disastrous 1843-44 Fruitlands experiment in communal living, Ms. Cheever succinctly summarizes many previous authors’ interpretations, including Louisa’s own fictionalization, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” written 30 years after the events, and comments:

“In theory, Bronson Alcott and his family were embarked on the dream of a harmonious community. In practice, they were living in a Yankee version of a banana republic ruled by a petty despot [Englishman Charles Lane] who decreed that plates were a silly luxury, so the family meal of apples and bread was eaten off napkins.

“Lane also commanded that no one should eat cheese or milk or sugar, and that the family must continue to feed a poor neighbor family even when their own stomachs were growling. Abba Alcott was treated like a servant, responsible for arranging laundry and housekeeping. Then in the evenings, she was expected to listen to Mr. Lane lecturing on the barbarism of the family unit and the predatory nature of women and the evil intoxication of maternal love.”

What Ms. Cheever’s book proves most of all is that the human spirit can triumph over almost anything, and that future writers will continue to turn to Louisa May Alcott for inspiration.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.

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