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.


6 Replies to “Book Review: Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever”

  1. Interesting review.

    I agree with your points that the sisters were hardly mentioned when we know they were a tight knit family. And I do think Abba played a larger part in Louisa’s life than anyone gives her credit for. In fact I daresay she was more influential on Louisa’s life than her father.

    I would also agree that while Bronson didn’t understand Louisa (during those early years) that doesnt mean he didn’t appreciate her later in life and perhaps he became more comfortable with the woman she became. I do think there was a bond there. Strained? Perhaps at times. But what father daughter relationship isn’t? Mine certainly was growing up.

  2. Thanks for this great book review. I’m learning more and more about this fascinating author, who seemed ahead of her time in so many ways. Jan

  3. Great review. I have to admit I’d rather not read a bio that’s so presumtuous as to suggest the Alcotts didn’t love Louisa? I love your point about Bronson’s final words to Louisa.

    A friend has inspired me to give Bronson another chance. I’m going to read a biography on him, as well as his Orphic sayings. He was one of the Concord thinkers, and I want to see the good in him. His ideas about education impress me…

    1. Which bio are you going to read? I’ve heard that Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson is supposed to be excellent, even though it’s about both Louisa and Bronson.

      Just a teeny bit left to read on GWTW – SO sad it’s ending . . . 😦

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