Susan Cheever discusses her biography on Louisa May Alcott

Here is a video I found of Susan Cheever discussing her book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography:

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

One year old today! Celebrating with a special gift for you!

I recently watched again the PBS film Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women  and thoroughly enjoyed it.  To see Louisa portrayed on the small screen is just as thrilling as ever. This reminded me of how I started my blog 1 year ago today after reading the book. What a wonderful year it has been with all of you, my readers.

Writing this blog has opened up a whole new world of reading and writing, and has given me, the first time, a way to indulge in my passion for history and biography. My vision is expanded and  my mind sharpened by the exercise. And I’ve rediscovered my childhood love of writing.

I have loved reading, writing and learning about Louisa,  members of her family, and the Concord Transcendentalists. The more I read, the more I want to know!

I would never have guessed that in the span of a year I would meet and/talk to/correspond with authors and scholars like Daniel Shealy, Harriet Reisen, Amy Belding Brown, Gabrielle Donnelly, Susan Cheever, Kelly O’Connor McNees, Richard Francis and Jeannine Atkins. Meeting Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, and Nancy Porter, director of the aforementioned film, was a tremendous pleasure too.

And I’ve found wonderful blogs such as A Room of One’s Own, Silver Threads, Joyfully Retired and many  more, introducing me to the Classics. I will never forget the thrill of reading Gone With the Wind. :-).

I never would have dreamed that I would have had the opportunity to attend the ALA workshop for the Louisa May Alcott initiative  and meet so many other Alcott enthusiasts and scholars. And I will never forget the day I held in my hands letters written by my favorite author. Being able to touch her handwritten words is frankly, beyond words.

This blog has certainly opened up my life. Thank you so much to all of you who have read, commented and supported this blog. My learning deepens, my joy grows fuller and my reading binge continues. Thank you!!

168 posts, 14,337 views, 615 comments . . . Happy 1st Birthday, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion! May there be many more to come.

A birthday gift – for you!

And as I celebrate this day, I would like to give away a gift to one of you – this beautiful notecard from Orchard House featuring a painting by May Alcott Nieriker of a screech owl baby, painted over the fireplace in Louisa’s room (I learned on my last trip that there used to be a big tree outside Louisa’s window that house a family of owls – May painted one of them).

Simply comment on this post and I will pick a winner at random. Contest ends Monday at noon.

Long live Louisa May Alcott!

Listen to Susan Cheever talk about her biography on Louisa May Alcott and other Concord Writers

Here’s a podcast where you can listen to Susan Cheever talk about her latest book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography, plus another podcast on her fascinating study on the Concord authors. American Bloomsbury. Read about and listen to the podcasts here.

What did I think about her books?

Read my review of Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography

Read my view of American Bloomsbury

Both books have a spot on my personal library shelf.

Book Review: American Bloomsbury

I know I said I would not finish American Bloomsbury but I really do enjoy Susan Cheever’s writing style despite the problems her books pose. This is the second non-fiction book I’ve read by Cheever and it’s frustrating that her work is so uneven. She is either utterly brilliant or totally inane. Despite several factual errors (that apparently have been corrected in a newly revised version) and a very disjointed story, I am still really glad I read this book.

First, the problems . . .

Let’s begin with the problems (for there were less problems than strengths in my opinion). The storyline jumped all over the place and Cheever spent way too much time focusing on issues that were titillating (sometimes based on assumptions rather than hard facts) but ultimately not that important. As an example, she spent so much time on Margaret Fuller’s “romances” with Hawthorne and Emerson (neither of which were consummated) that I kept asking myself, “What was Fuller’s real contribution to this literary renaissance? Was it only fantasized sex?”

. . . then the Brilliance

But then Cheever would turn to Henry David Thoreau (an obvious favorite of hers) and get brilliant. She obviously appreciates the outdoors (as I do) and I found her descriptions of nature so lovely. I love Thoreau and I loved him more after reading this book. Her writing became passionate and authentic – at one point while working out at the gym and reading the section on Thoreau, I became breathless, and it wasn’t because of the workout! :-)

She writes the following about his efforts to get Walden published:

“Because it took so long to get Walden published, Thoreau had time to rewrite two years of his journals into one of the most magnificent books in English. Two years of notes became one year; digressions were reworked. There was something heroic and obsessive about the way Thoreau went about making his manuscript of Walden perfect. He seemed to know how important it was . . .” (page 131, American Bloomsbury)

Cheever goes on to describe what made Walden a masterpiece (and Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter too):

“What creates a masterpiece? In the case of The Scarlet Letter and Walden, both arguably the finest works of two men whom we now regard as great writers, the impetus seems to have come from a sharp despair. Both men felt, as they began to write, that they had nothing more to lose. Hawthorne had lost his job, his mother, his hometown; Thoreau had lost his brother and the prospect of anyplace to live besides a homemade hut on borrowed land. There is a fearlessness about both these books, an honesty about the human heart, with its petty angers and dreadful fears, that neither writer found again.”  (Ibid)

I downloaded The Scarlet Letter for my Nook after reading this section; I’ll be listening to my audio book of Walden again as well. If a book such as American Bloomsbury can inspired me to read the authors that it writes about, that book has done its job.

Other Transcendentalist Authors

Her treatment of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne was helpful in my understand of what made them tick. Her exploration of Emerson was cool and analytical, showing him to more complicated than I had imagined and she helped me understand him better. I had known that Hawthorne was a very solitary character but had no idea how complex he was (he sounded like a very difficult person to deal with). I had heard that his marriage to Sophia had been a good one but it was hard to tell from Cheever’s descriptions and the constant intrusion of Margaret Fuller. Marriages like life, ebb and flow, and it sounded like the flow began in the later years of their marriage.

Cheever is at her best writing about death – the accounts of Fuller and her family drowning in a shipwreck, Emerson slowly fading away due to Alzheimer’s (or dementia), Thoreau’s passing, and Alcott’s time as a Civil War nurse were very moving.

Analysis of Little Women

I also thought she nailed it in her analysis of Little Women (at least nailed it as to why I loved that book). Describing her personal connection to the story Cheever writes:

“Jo March offered me a different kind of image, a new definition of what it meant to be a girl. Instead of a graceful young lady who always minded her manners and knew that her future lay in loving the right man, she was an outspoken, clumsy girl who turned down the right man even though he loved her.

Reading Little Women again, now, I can see how profoundly the book influenced me – as a woman, but even more than that as a writer. Without intending to, Louisa May Alcott invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women, and to tell stories that are usually heard in kitchens or bedrooms. She made literature out of the kind of conversations women have while doing the dishes together or taking care of their children. It was in Little Women that I learned that domestic details can be the subject of art, that small things in a woman’s life – cooking, the trimming of a dress or hat, quiet talk – can be just as important a subject as a great whale or a scarlet letter. Little Women gave my generation of women permission to write about our daily lives; in many ways, even though it’s a novel, in tone and voice it is the precursor of the modern memoir – the book that gives voice to people who have traditionally kept quiet. In fact, the foundation of the American memoir can be found in Alcott’s masterpiece and in that of her friend Henry David Thoreau. Alcott’s greatest work was so powerful because it was about ordinary things – I think that’s why it felt ordinary even as she wrote it. She transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature. Without even meaning to, Alcott exalted the everyday in women’s lives and gave it greatness.” (Ibid, pages 191-192)

Amen.

A quick understanding of Transcendentalism

I appreciated Cheever’s summary of the effects of Transcendentalism (though I didn’t totally agree with it):

“The intellectual revolution had taken longer, but, paid for by Emerson, and amused by [Bronson] Alcott, it had come as certainly as the glorious days of 1776. It was a revolution that gently toppled God off his throne and replaced him with nature, with the glory of the physical world, and with the best things in the human heart. It freed men and women from the slavery of Calvinism. It blossomed in Thoreau’s ideas and in his beautiful portrait of nature and in Hawthorne’s brilliantly etched portraits of society, and finally with a Louisa May Alcott novel that memorialized the whole fabulous time.” (Ibid, page 164)

(I didn’t agree that the intent of Transcendentalism was to “topple God from his throne and replace him with nature” but rather, to use the natural world to find and connect to  God. )

American Bloomsbury gave me what I wanted – an overview. It was messy, it jumped all over the place, but in the end, I did get what I wanted. After all, life is almost never neat and clean.

Again, I finish a book, and part with a friend.

Book Review: Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever

Susan Cheever has offered the latest in a flurry of books about Louisa May Alcott; hers is titled Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography. In a little over 250 pages, she sketches out the life of the popular author of Little Women. Cheever’s book is an easy read, with a writing style that is very accessible. The preface immediately captured me as she shared her personal connection with Alcott (thus the subtitle, “A Personal Biography”). I only wish that the book had lived up to the preface (and the epilogue as well) for I actually didn’t find all that much that was “personal” about it.

As a disclaimer, I have to say that I read this book in a way that most would probably not as I am very involved in reading about Louisa May Alcott for this blog: I took notes as I read. That plus reading several primary sources mentioned in Cheever’s bibliography made this a 3 month-long  journey. Like I said, a little unusual!

My feelings about this book are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, I very much enjoyed the back drop of history that Cheever presented throughout the book and did not find it a distraction as has been mentioned in other reviews. As an example, her comments about the Civil War helped put into context Louisa’s experience as a Civil War nurse. I also liked the material she presented on the state of 19th century medicine, Christian Science and Mary Baker Eddy in the final chapter as Louisa desperately searched for relief from the many symptoms of her illness. I find it helpful to have the back story.

Yet, even though a lot had been made about the parallels between Louisa and Bronson, and Cheever and her famous writer father, John Cheever, I didn’t recall seeing much of that in the story (at least it didn’t make much of an impression and I had actually hoped for more). I did think she presented a compelling and realistic portrait of Bronson whom I think has got to be one of the most difficult of historical characters. Certainly he evokes strong, and very ambivalent, emotions!

The most inspired part of the book for me was the chapter on Little Women and her brilliant insight into the creation of the book. So much has been said about how Alcott didn’t want to write the book, but Cheever put forth a wonderful argument about the genius of it being an ‘accident.’ She set up the example of Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson (whom she is related to) and their accidental discovery of sound through wire as a result of the spilling of battery acid. She maintains that Bell, because of his work with the deaf and other related knowledge, was able to discern the sound coming through the wire as a breakthrough because of that knowledge. It was an accident that was backed up by much preparation. Cheever then writes:

“If great works and great inventions happen by accident, careful research can also often show that the accident has been prepared for for years. It was Bell’s understanding of sound, partly developed in his years of work with the deaf, that made  him understand the pings he heard through the wire. Man’s accidents are God’s purposes, as Sophia Peabody might remind us. From the perspective of 1868, the writing of Little Women looked like an accident. Because of the accidental coming together of Alcott’s need for a publisher, her concern for her parents, Thomas Nile’s jealousy of other publishers’ successes with children’s books, Bronson Alcott’s unpublished manuscript, and a dozen other things, in May of 1868, Louisa May Alcott, after much stalling finally sat down and started writing Little Women.
Yet the accidents that caused the writing of Little Women, seen in hindsight, look more like destiny . . .”

(For more on Little Women as an accident, read my previous post on Little Women The Grand Accident.)

As inspiring as that chapter was, there were big problems throughout this book beginning with an almost total lack of inclusion of her three sisters in the narrative who played such a enormous role in her life. It’s inconceivable to me how Cheever could have written so little about them. May got the most ink – a few pages. Anna received practically nothing which, when considering how inseparable she and Louisa were in their youth, is puzzling.

I also felt her theory, that Louisa was not especially loved by her parents, was not tenable. While I haven’t done Cheever’s level of research, I have read several biographies on Louisa May Alcott and I just couldn’t reach her conclusion. To me, Abba (who also was not mentioned all that much in the book) was shown to be a tremendous support to Louisa, writing encouraging notes in her journal, empathizing with her moods and anger and so forth. Louisa was obviously devoted to her mother, having sacrificed so much for her care. The immortal tribute she gave to her “Marmee” in Little Women supports that devotion.

While it’s certainly true that Louisa’s relationship with her father was troubled and difficult (mainly because of his lack of acceptance of her as she was), yet how could one say he didn’t love her if his last words to her when asked what he was thinking was, “Up there: you come too!”?  The last line of his poem written for Louisa reads, “I press thee to my heart as Duty’s faithful child.”

There were obvious errors in the book too, such as mentioning that Lizzie, the 3rd sister, was the youngest. I noticed 3 or 4 times that this error was made.  It also seemed like she lifted a bit from Madeleine Stern’s excellent book, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography I read Stern’s chapter on Little Women as Cheever had mentioned it in her footnotes and was amazed how similar some of the writing was.

Madeleine Stern’s book got me into Louisa’s head and I loved that. Harriet Reisen’s book had tremendous heart and caused me to look again at Louisa’s body of work. But Susan Cheever’s book didn’t really evoke any particular emotion except for the chapter on Little Women, and the last sad chapter about Alcott’s declining health. Here I was very moved.

It was an enjoyable book, worth reading and I experienced my usual sense of sadness and emptiness at having to part with yet another friend. But Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography is not the book I’d recommend first if you want an in-depth and comprehensive look at Louisa May Alcott.  Read Madeleine Stern’s book if you want the definitive biography, and then read Reisen’s. Cheever’s book doesn’t add much that’s new to the mix.

Little Women – the grand accident

I really loved what Susan Cheever had to say in her chapter on Little Women in Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography. I had  found myself wondering why Little Women was the standout book from this prolific author, seeing that it was written under such duress, and I think Cheever really hit on it. Here’s what she says, in part (page 200):

“Great writing will always be a mystery. Why now, after everything she had been through, reluctantly tackling a novel for young girls, did Louisa May Alcott get suddenly catapulted into greatness? There are two kinds of artists — those who seek and those who find. The day she sat down to write during that may of 1868, Louisa seem to shift from being an artist pushing towards meaning to being an artist able to relax and discover meaning — the way Michelangelo purportedly said that he discovered his statues embedded in the marble he carved.”

On the next page she goes on to describe how the insights of great work and the insights of great inventions can go hand in hand, often happening ‘by accident.’ Her example is Alexander Graham Bell, discovering the telephone because of an accident spilling battery acid (page 201). He called for help to his assistant Tom Watson (Cheever’s great grandfather) and he heard Bell through the wires in the next room. She then quotes Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared  mind.”

She then goes on to write:

“If great works and great inventions happen by accident, careful research can also often show that the accident has been prepared for for years. It was Bell’s understanding of sound, partly developed in his years of work with the deaf, that made  him understand the pings he heard through the wire. Man’s accidents are God’s purposes, as Sophia Peabody might remind us. From the perspective of 1868, the writing of Little Women looked like an accident. Because of the accidental coming together of Alcott’s need for a publisher, her concern for her parents, Thomas Nile’s jealousy of other publishers’ successes with children’s books, Bronson Alcott’s unpublished manuscript, and a dozen other things, in May of 1868, Louisa May Alcott, after much stalling finally sat down and started writing Little Women.
Yet the accidents that caused the writing of Little Women, seen in hindsight, look more like destiny . . .”

This fits right in with a philosophy that has been growing stronger by the day in my life – you can’t plan greatness. Instead, you have to be awake and alert to when the wave comes along, and then you jump on board. Sometimes you will have to jump on board out of duty and obligation, and the work may seen dull and burdensome. But if you ride the wave and do the work, then the rewards will come.

I blogged about this earlier today on my spiritual blog. In the Roman Catholic missal, today’s readings focus on the time when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple and the 2 prophets, Simeon and Anna, recognized the infant as the Messiah. I focused on Anna and how her ‘accidental’ meeting of Mary, Joseph and Jesus was actually destiny, something she had prepared herself for all her life. She rode the wave and met whom she believed was the long awaited Messiah! (see post on my spiritual blog).

Hard work is always necessary and inspiration helps. But being awake and alert in the present moment – that, I think, is the missing link, the key to greatness. It was fortunate for the world that Louisa caught that wave and wrote Little Women.

“Love and Self-Love,” another early success story for Louisa May Alcott

As I continue to slowly go through Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography and read yet more background, I came upon a story of Louisa’s that related to her  incident at the Mill Dam where she nearly threw herself into the water in despair,  to end her life. That story, “Love and Self-Love” was to begin the turnaround of Louisa’s career.

Any Alcott enthusiast can tell you that one of the classic quotes regarding Louisa May Alcott was the critique from James T. Fields (pictured, right), future editor of the Atlantic Monthly, the premier publication that was a ‘must have’ for any author’s resume (James Russell Lowell was the first editor – he had panned Bronson’s “Orphic Sayings” in the Dial 20 years earlier, and now Bronson was the one to persuade him to take on Louisa’s story).* To be published in the Atlantic Monthly meant that you, as an author, had ‘arrived.’ Fields, upon examining Louisa’s story, “How I Went Out to Service” (see previous post on this short story) had stated, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott, you can’t write!” Years later, “Love and Self-Love” was to be published in that magazine.

I was interested in reading “Love and Self-Love” because of its reference to the incident at Mill Dam (in the story, the young wife of an older man tries to jump to her death off a boat in an act of self-sacrifice, so that her husband could be with the woman she presumed he truly loved). While the attempted suicide was a turning point in the story, it was not the focal point that I had expected. (The Mill Dam incident is also referenced in more detail in Work.)

I am beginning to see a pattern in Louisa’s short story work. The beginning is a little slow as the ground work is laid. It slowly builds so that by the middle, I am anxious to get to the end to find out what happened. I’m never quite sure whether or not her stories will end happily (case in point, “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”), and I am certain the road will be long and winding before getting to the end (usually because it seems to take forever for the characters to honestly express their feelings – I must admit I do find the 19th century proprieties to be very frustrating sometimes!).

In this story on a May-December marriage, I enjoyed the first person perspective of the story (the male character, Basil Ventnor, an older man) and his introspection that we, as readers, were privy to. This introspection, I felt, was the more important element of the story. Basil had been asked by a dying friend to marry her 16 year old daughter, Effie so that she would be taken care of. Through his introspection, we learn of his ‘dilemma’ – that while he loved her, he ‘loved’ himself a lot more. It is this self-love (aka self absorption) which drives the story.

In doing a little research on this story, I found that Harriet Reisen in her biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women (page 150, hardcover) suggests that “Love and Self-Love” could actually center around Louisa herself (as Effie) and Bronson (as Basil).  Like Basil, Bronson was cold and distant towards Louisa, always preferring her older sister Anna (perhaps Agnes in the story, the woman that Basil thought he really loved). Louisa was subjected to his disapproval and criticism. However, after the incident at Mill Dam, Reisen contends that Bronson’s attitude towards Louisa changed (certainly realizing that he could have lost her) and comes to appreciate her more. He is much more solicitous towards her and works in practical ways to support and advance her writing (remember that he was the one to present “Love and Self-Love” to James Russell Lowell of the Atlantic Monthly). It certainly is an interesting theory and gives the story an added dimension.

I really enjoyed “Love and Self-Love” and can see why Louisa’s career began to turn with its publication. In reading her short stories, I am also especially enjoying the diversity of her writing. There are similar elements certainly in these stories as they are so influenced by the time she lived in, but each story that I’ve read so far takes a very distinct direction. Louisa was a multi-faceted woman and it comes through loud and clear in her writing.

Here’s a great collector’s item – the original issue of the Atlantic Monthly featuring “Love and Self-Love” is for sale online from an antique book seller - there are some interesting comments about the magazine and the story.

*from page 150, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.