How are you doing on the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge? I’ve been pecking away at the Little Women re-read along with a re-read of Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine Stern. I’ve been keeping a casual reading journal for the latter and I’ll share some from that.
Still the best biography
Louisa May Alcott A Biography still stands for me as the definitive biography on Louisa. It was originally published in 1950 and updated in 1996.
Stern doesn’t waste a line – each one is pregnant with information! Yet, as dense as this book is, it doesn’t read as dry or scholarly, but more like a novel, and from the point of view of Louisa.
Reading from different perspectives
The first time I read this book I felt like I got into Louisa’s head and heart, living her life with her. I felt very sad when the book was done because the visit was too. But it was immensely satisfying.
This time I see it a new way. Stern’s thrust for the biography is Louisa the writer. Every single event in her life revolves around how she can write about it. As an apprentice writer, I find this book to be an amazing teaching tool .
Here’s some examples of how Stern interpreted events as fodder for writing:
Stern describes the family’s life at Hillside as the culmination of so many of the things that fed Louisa’s happier writing. Little Women, which was based on part on that life, is a shining example.
Hillside had given Louisa a foundation of stability to lean on for comfort during the leaner times, and fodder to draw upon for future stories.
Reading leads to doubt
Stern describes a crisis of confidence on young Louisa’s part as she read more and more of Emerson’s books from his library. She saw her limitations and stopped writing in her journal. Abba steps in to encourage her with a note in her journal:
“I’m sure your life has many fine passages well worth revealing and to me they are always precious … Do write a little each day, dear, but if a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won.”
Turning the common into the extraordinary
Stern maps out Louisa’s influences, from Thoreau for Flower Fables to the Music Hall and divas Madame Sontag and Jenny Lind for The Rival Prima Donnas, written for The Saturday Evening Gazette. She writes, “surely no experience was too unimportant to serve as grist for the author’s mill …”
In her twenties, Louisa was leading a fairly uneventful life of hard work, mostly doing things she didn’t want to do. Such a grind could snuff out the inner life but not so with Louisa. Sterns writes of Louisa’s life fueling her ambition all the more: she meant to earn her living as a writer and therefore never missed an opportunity to develop life into a story.
It shows that you can lead a common life and still pull out the uncommon insights that turn these things into the extraordinary. You just need to have the eyes to see. Louisa excelled at that skill.
That’s my update for now. Are you participating in the challenge and if so, what are you reading?
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