I had the pleasure of meeting Susan Cheever, author of the newest biography on Louisa, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography. Susan is doing a book tour mostly on the East Coast, and came to Tatnuck’s in Westborough, MA on Saturday, Nov. 13.
Speaking to Alcott enthusiasts and burgeoning writers, Susan first spoke about the book and read excerpts. She began by talking about Louisa’s childhood and expressed strong opinions regarding Louisa’s relationship with her Transcendentalist father Bronson Alcott which are reflected in the book: ” . . . Louisa May Alcott was so dominated by her father that it is hard to unravel their lives from each other . . . All through her life, Louisa’s father was prodding and bullying, commanding and occasionally rescuing, letting Louisa know what was wrong with her and telling her what to do . . . His hold on her was incalculable, She loved him and fought with him. He called her a ‘fiend.’ ” (page 5, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography).
Susan put forth the theory that Louisa’s tempestuous relationship with Bronson figured strongly in her becoming a professional writer because of her need to prove herself to him. She also felt that the famous critique from editor James T. Field (“Stick to your teaching Miss Alcott, you can’t write!”) was a watershed moment. His criticisms fired her ambition; “Perversity is more powerful than ambition,” Susan said, adding that Louisa likely thought, “I’ll show him!”
To prove the point that the biography was indeed personal to her, she drew many parallels between Louisa’s relationship with Bronson, and her complicated relationship with her own father, John Cheever, a well-known author.
Susan went on to note other standout episodes in Louisa’s life such as the writing of Moods, her service in the Civil War as a nurse and the subsequent publishing of her letters as Hospital Sketches, culminating with the most important phase – the writing and publication of Little Women. She read several excerpts from the book to illustrate each episode.
At the behest of the audience, Susan then described how she came to write Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography. It began with an introduction to a 1999 publication of Little Women which caused her to reread the book, probably for the first time with an adult perspective. She saw a greatness in the book that she had not seen before which fueled her interest. With a degree and masters in American Studies, Susan wondered why Little Women was not taught at the adult level in schools. She indulged in her interest in the Transcendentalist authors by writing American Bloomsbury but that did not satisfy her growing interest in the author of Little Women. It was then that she decided to write Louisa’s biography from her own personal point of view.
I found Susan to be witty and knowledgeable and I have to say, I found it to be such a thrill to finally meet someone in person who has been bitten as badly by the Alcott bug as I have! I was pleased to have her sign my copy and look forward to reading this book very much. When I finish, I’ll post my thoughts.