Rediscovering the late Madelon Bedell, author of The Alcotts Biography of a Family

I just ordered a bunch of new books and needed to rearrange my book shelves to get everything to fit. In the midst of the rearranging, I pulled out my copy of The Alcotts Biography of a Family and discovered a promotional photo of the author, Madelon Bedell, and an interview released by the publisher’s public relations division. Bedell has been on my mind since I found that her papers are now safe at Orchard House. Her biography of the Alcott family was a powerhouse  – a truly scholarly work published in 1980 that revealed at that time, many new and interesting facts and insights about the family. And yet this work is largely ignored by the public and is out of print (though fortunately available on the internet). Those in the ‘know’ appreciate its worth (and cite her work in theirs); I wanted to introduce you to Ms. Bedell in hopes that some of you will think about reading her book.

It’s tantalizing to think of those papers stored at Orchard House, including the only known interview with May’s daughter, Lulu Nieriker Rasim. Will someone perhaps take those papers and finish the work that Bedell was unable to do? I’d love to see it done . . .

Meanwhile, meet Madelon Bedell.

(This interview was part of a promotional package released by Clarkson N. Potter Inc./distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc.)

1.    How did you develop the idea of doing a biography of the Alcotts? And why did you choose to do a family biography instead of concentrating on only one member – Louisa May Alcott, or her father, Bronson Alcott, for instance?

My original idea was to do a series of critical essays on the image of women in the fiction of certain great women authors. I had in mind, Collette, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, and Louisa May Alcott. I decided to start with Alcott because I felt she would be the easiest to handle.

I found her life to be so fascinating that I decided to do a biography of her instead. As part of my research, I began also to study her father, Bronson Alcott. I found him so fascinating that I changed my mind again, and decided to do a dual, father-daughter biography. I worked on this project for some time, but I found it impossible to keep my spotlight focused on these two and their relationship with each other. The other Alcotts kept crowding in. Especially Abby Alcott, the mother, who would not stay in the minor role I had assigned to her, but insisted on intruding herself at nearly every point, sometimes overwhelming the action. After about two years of this kind of struggle, I gave in and decided to do the entire family.

2.    In your prologue, you state: “To find oneself in the lives of other people, long dead, why is this so entrancing an idea? It is the same for both reader and writer of biography, I am convinced: the need for self-validation . . .” If this means that biography explains ourselves to ourselves, how does the Alcott family explain the modern American family?

First of all in many specific ways. There are Bronson’s “infant diaries,” those astonishing records of his pioneering practices in child rearing, which forecast those of today. There’s the marriage of Bronson and Abby, both powerful personalities, a union of peers, in every way; unique then, still unusual today. And the all-female family with its ideals of feminism and independence for the daughters, all that is very modern.

But beyond that, the history of the Alcotts – which turns at every point, on the struggle to maintain the family unity against an inimical society – explains the ideal by which we measure our own families: the American family as a “haven in a heartless world.” Many of our strictures against the contemporary family stem from our disappointment in its failures to meet that ideal, I believe.

Moreover, the basic theme of the book – Bronson Alcott’s struggle against his family – his individualism versus their communalism – is a very modern one. The desire of each member for personal fulfillment meets up with and often must contend with the needs of the family as a whole – don’t we all face this problem, parents and children alike?

3.    The Alcott family history is supposed to be the true story behind the March family of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Exactly how close is the book to real life?

Astoundingly so. The cast of characters is the same. Just substitute Bronson and Abby Alcott and their four daughters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and Abbie May, for the Reverend and Mrs. March and their four daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. There’s hardly an incident in Little Women that doesn’t recall or explain an event in the Alcott family.

What’s more interesting, perhaps, are the points where the novel departs from the real life story. There’s a lot of sentimentalization. The Marches aren’t as poor as the Alcotts – they employ a maid, for example. Nor are they are radical in their social views. The crisis in the family life, which occurred when the Englishman, Charles Lane, tried to separate Bronson from his family, is never referred to.

But I think the most important departure from reality is the departure of the father from the book. The figure of Bronson Alcott dominated the Alcott family scene in real life. In the book, the Reverend March is a pale imitation, who isn’t even present most of the time. When Louisa wrote up the family legend, she turned the family into an all-female society headed by a matriarch, thus removing the riveting sexual tensions which permeated the real scene. In Little Women, for all its realism, you have a fantasy – an adolescent fantasy where women never have to deal with the politics and passions of sex as the Alcott women did.

4.    The Alcotts has been cited as a work of unusual scholarship, filled with new material and fresh insights on this family and the nineteenth century in general. What is this new material and how and were did you find it?

All over the place! Basically, however, it’s material on the characters of Bronson and Abby Alcott which throws a new light on their marriage. I found them both to be much larger personalities than had been supposed. Previous biographers, inspired no doubt by Little Women and its (false) relation to the genteel tradition, had cast them as sexless, passive idealists, who weren’t very interesting.

But I found Bronson to be a driven person, obsessed by sex, who sometimes wrote erotic poetry and conceived a passion in middle age for a woman half his age, Ednah Littlehale; and before that may have had a homosexual attraction toward his English follower, Charles Lane, which, incidentally, his wife was aware of. And Abby herself, her feminism, her radical social theories, her drive for power, her unusual gift for love, all that is exposed for the first time, too.

As for the material behind this – it’s all in their diaries and letters, some 200 volumes of them, stored all these years at Harvard University. You can’t just skim these, unfortunately, but must turn yourself over to them, become the person yourself as you read him or her, and live with them, as they were in their times.

But, then must discard about 90% of all that wonderful material you have discovered, push aside those note cards – keeping them only for reference – and write the story as if it had come from your own mind, fresh and new. To be able to do that is the real challenge of biography.

5.    Your book deals with the various social movements of the nineteenth century of New England – feminism, health reform, the advent of child psychology and the cult of the child, Transcendentalism, the anti-slavery movement, utopian socialism, progressive education. What among these has survived today?

You’ve just named them all. The first half of the nineteenth century was the time when American liberal ideology was formulated. All these movements and the ideas of human growth and liberation, which they represent, were born then.

Our history goes in cycles and so these ideas are apt to go underground for a while and then surge forward again. The 1960’s were almost a repeat of the 1840’s, for example. The movement against the Vietnam War was characterized by the same moral fervor as was the anti-slavery movement of the 1840’s and 1850’s. The scene at the end of The Alcotts when Bronson Alcott takes part in the storming of the state house to rescue a runaway slave might well have taken place in the 1960’s – just substitute a draft register for a slave and the action and all the tumultuous feelings surrounding it are the same.

Or take such ideas as the current interest in holistic medicine. Except in its details it might be a replay of the health reform movement of the 1800’s in which the Alcotts were active. So, too, with feminism (Abby Alcott headed up a petition for women’s suffrage) and of course utopian socialism. Bronson Alcott’s commune at Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts, was a forerunner of similar groups that exist today.

6.    This is the first volume of your biography of the Alcotts. What will the second book be, and how will you approach it?

This first book deals primarily with the marriage of Bronson and Abby Alcott, and the childhood of the four daughters. The father is the central character (although the mother is the hero), and the theme is the founding of a family – the creation of a legend.

The next volume will deal with the adult lives of the four daughters, and focus on Louisa. The first book was also a social history of the antebellum – pre-Civil War – period in New England. The next one will be a similar account of the postwar period, showing how all those reform movements we talked about in the previous question, were overcome in the baronial capitalism of the Gilded  Age: how Bronson Alcott’s spiritual transcendentalism evolved into his daughter Louisa’s quite material, albeit enlightened capitalism.

7.    Which member of the Alcott family is your favorite?

If I had one, I would never tell anyone, not even myself. A biographer is like a parent. He/she must never play favorites, or the goal – the lives to be nourished and developed – will be lost.

The Alcotts Biography of a Family in hardcover was 416 pages in length and sold for $15.95. I wonder what the price would have been today . . .

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One thought on “Rediscovering the late Madelon Bedell, author of The Alcotts Biography of a Family

  1. Gina says:

    Interesting interview. The second books sounds very good. How sad she never got to write it :(

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