Catching up on Susan Cheever’s new biography on Louisa

At 257 pages, I would have thought that my read of Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography would have been quick and easy. Not so, especially since I’ve adopted the habit of taking notes as I read! This reminds me of school. 🙂 But I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about the other books I’ve read since this last reading binge began in the spring, wishing I had taken notes. I keep thinking of passages and long to know what pages those passages were on. Now I’ll know.

Taking notes while reading a book changes the experience immensely. It makes me ponder sections, paragraphs, sentences, even phrases, and I get a lot more out of the book. Being a slow reader already, this compounds the problem greatly, but it’s worth it.

That being said, I have completed a mere 83 pages – let me catch you up on my thoughts so far. Then I plan to post more regularly as I read.

First, let me say that I am really enjoying this book. I have seen reviews on it saying that it is a beginner’s biography, and that’s a legitimate thought. But because I am studying this book, I am finding a lot more than I expected to find.

I remember scanning the preface at Barnes and Nobles (I couldn’t buy the book that day) and immediately being taken in. I think I am in the frame of mind to want to read a personal biography where the author deliberately puts herself into the story. The preface pretty much states that that is her intention and I accept that. I am becoming increasingly curious about the effect Louisa has on people and truly want to know how Susan Cheever was inspired by her, and why.

Because of her tricky relationship with her own father, John Cheever (a well known author), Cheever focuses a lot on Bronson. So far in all the biographies I’ve read, I have not found a more thoughtful, and fair, assessment of Bronson. He is immensely complex, with his share of sterling qualities and fatal flaws. So far I have not walked away detesting the man, but rather I understand him better. That doesn’t mean, however, that I would have wanted him for my father!

I have pages and pages of notes, too much to go through in this blog. But the fact that I have so many notes says to me that this is a far meatier book than 257 pages would tell you. Another fine example of how you can’t judge a book by its cover. 🙂

I have just finished the Fruitlands experiment and am now into the Hillside era (my favorite era in Louisa’s life). I will share more as I plough through this book.

p.s. I can’t wait to get into Richard Francis’ book, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia and find out more about the nefarious Charles Lane. That man has fascinated me since my childhood when I first learned about him in Joan Howard’s The Story of Louisa May Alcott. I plan on reading Louisa’s version of Fruitlands simultaneously, Transcendental Wild Oats.

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14 Replies to “Catching up on Susan Cheever’s new biography on Louisa”

  1. Oh, this does sound like a book I’d love to read! I, too, often wish I had taken notes while reading; especially when I’m writing the review.

    My resistance has to do with all those years in college and the endless note taking; it feels too much like work. If I could move past that feeling, I am sure that I would be grateful for the notes when I’m finished.

  2. I can’t share your excitement about this book. I think the author poorly executed her ideas and the fact she suggests some sexual abuse makes me shake my head. If you are going to make accusations one had better back them up. I learned that in my entry level history classes in college. She doesn’t, so the author loses points with me.

    I didn’t find her examination on Mr. Alcott any different than other bios on Alcott or her father. So I wasn’t wowed.

    It’s not a bad biography, but I was expecting more of a punch. If you’ve read countless bios before on Alcott I’m not sure what this one will do for longtime Alcott fans.

    Still, I read it. Another one under the belt.

    1. You might say there’s been a rash of books on and about Louisa and her family in the last couple of years, very good ones, so any new one that comes out really has to measure up. I think I’ve read 6 other bios, ranging from a children’s book (Joan Howard’s) to scholarly (Madelon Bedell), and then there’s Madeleine Stern’s book which still stands out as the definitive bio. I guess Cheever’s book hits me just in the right place at the right time.

    2. The idea of any unsubstantiated suggestion of sexual abuse kills any interest in this book for me too.

      I’m sure I’ve read more than five hundred biographies. It is my favorite reading genre. I’ve also read a lot about WRITING biographies, the duties and the pitfalls.

      Thus for me there were immediate red flags waving when I read that Susan Cheever (famously troubled daughter of famously troubled, talented father) was writing about the Louisa/Bronson relationship. Far too easy, in inexperienced hands, to have enormous transference. And in this case, would it fit? What pertains? (John Cheever was an enormously talented and successful writer, an alcoholic, a drug addict, and bisexual. Susan is a recovering alcoholic and writer.)

      If Cheever states all this outright, I suppose it is OK — if not quite biography — but I have never been particularly interested in the Cheevers so I’m not sure what Susan Cheevers’ explorations of her own life via Louisa’s would offer me. Still, if I have the opportunity I will definitely pick up the book.

  3. And there is nothing wrong with that. However I didn’t find her twist on Alcott as engaging. It’s all about personal preference.

  4. This is an enlightening discussion. I know nothing about how to read or write a biography. I’m just set to begin Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.

  5. Here’s where I’m showing my inexperience. Biography has always been my favorite genre too but I don’t know anything about writing one. I’m also not well read. I used to read a lot as a kid but I think near sightedness that was never properly diagnosed kind of killed reading for me until now when it got bad enough that I finally figured out I needed glasses. I’m slow, but I get it eventually (one of my favorite sayings, the other being, “there’s a solution to every problem). 🙂 I used to fall asleep no matter how good the book was but I don’t seem to do that anymore.

    Therefore, I have a ton of catching up to do, and I have lots to learn. This is one of the main reason why this blog is a thrill to me because of the education I get reading all your comments.

    Please know that I am coming at reading strictly as a mode of entertainment (since learning is entertaining to me). I have no knowledge of what makes good writing. I only know that Louisa is one writer I really like, and one person that I find really interesting. You might say I’m coming at all this by the seat of my pants. 🙂

    Keep the comments coming, you guys teach me.

  6. Opps, my my second post was for Susan 🙂

    Susan,
    I had an excellent history professor that drilled into my head how to write proper papers and what to look for. He taught me to have a critical eye(but who is to say what I think is right 😉 ).

    I read and process the information. I never take what the author says as gold. Always question.. well except for the obvious facts…Alcott did write Little Women. But to throw out there that Louisa was abused and then not back it up is breaking rule 101 or maybe 102 in writing bios. No historian is going to take you seriously if you don’t back up your claim.

    I could just as easily said Alcott was gay..which I think is a better argument because of the statement about falling in love with pretty women and being single.(I’m not saying she’s gay I’m just throwing that out there as an example). With my gay argument I have two reasons to support my idea which is a lot more than what Ms. Cheever gave us in her Alcott bio about sexual abuse.

    This is by no means a horrible bio. I did give it 3 stars in my review. However, as I said before it didn’t wow me.

    BTW, love the discussion 🙂

    1. Now see, that’s just what I meant. Thanks for that.

      Just to show you how naive I am, I always thought books had no typos and all the facts were correct. I never realized new editions fixed errors! Little Women the Norton Edition taught me that.

      Glad everybody is enjoying the discussion. That’s the whole point! 🙂

    2. I’m with you here, Gina. Similar thing is “drilled into my head” with academic writing. It cost me a lot of pain in my life, but I try to follow the rule that in intro you should state what are you going to discuss in body. So, if you hinted on something – support it, and don’t cheat with introducing new facts in conclusion. 🙂

  7. I didn’t really care for Cheever’s biography either, for many of the reasons stated above. It almost felt like she was trying so hard to add something new to what’s already out there that she had to come up with anything, even if she didn’t have any substance with which to back it up. I almost gave up halfway through the book, but as Gina said, I figured it was one more under the belt, so I finished it.

    I liked Reisen’s book better, but that one also had some flaws. (Not that I could do any better, of course 😉 Many of these books are starting to blur in my mind as I’ve now read so much about LMA, and I am not good about taking notes myself.

    I have not yet read Madeleine Stern’s biography of LMA, though I have read several of her biographical sketches that served as introductions to LMA’s journals and letters by Sheahy and Myerson. I think hers will be the next one that I read. So many books, so little time…

    1. I started taking notes with Cheever’s book and really wished I had during Reisen’s. It takes FOREVER to get through the book while taking notes but at least now I will have a record of where I saw something (at least in Cheever’s book). I should do that for Stern’s book since I still consider that one to be the best. Another thing that is making me take so long to get through Cheever’s book is that I am doing background reading as I see things mentioned (for example, reading “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”).

      So many books, so little time . . . you ain’t kiddin’! I hope you read faster than I do!

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