Book Review

An Alcott biography that reads like a novel

Storytelling lifts Cheever’s version

By Rebecca Steinitz
November 19, 2010

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"No one reads novels for ideas alone. We all read for storytelling,’’ writes Susan Cheever in “Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography.’’ Substituting biographies for novels, her words could easily apply to her own book. There are few viable rationales for writing a biography of a popular figure whose story has already been told dozens of times. You can have new information, like Madeleine Stern, whose 1950 biography revealed that the beloved children’s writer also wrote melodramatic potboilers. You can have a new perspective, like John Matteson, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father’’ focused on her most important relationship. Or you can simply tell the story well, as Cheever does here.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is its length. In an era when biographers seem compelled to compile cultural surveys, genealogical treatises, medical minutiae, and discussions of every conversation, book, or battle into weighty tomes, Cheever packs an entire life into fewer than 300 pages.

And quite a life it was: from Alcott’s childhood poverty in Boston and Concord and her father’s idealistic experiments with progressive schools and communes to her scramble to make a living as a teacher and hack writer and the devastating six weeks she spent as a nurse in the Civil War, where she gained immeasurable understanding of the world but lost her health; to the blockbuster success of “Little Women,’’ which she reluctantly wrote at the suggestion of a publisher who wanted a book for girls; to the last two decades of her life, when she finally had the money and fame she had always desired but suffered the loss of family members and terrible health.

Cheever identifies with the generations of girls and women who, she argues, have found in “Little Women’’ an escape from the dominant models of femininity that Alcott herself managed to escape, as a single woman writer who supported her family in an age when girls were simply expected to marry well. Tracing Alcott’s rebellious and moody nature, along with her intellectual and economic independence, is one of the book’s central threads.

Another thread is Concord. Alcott’s childhood haven and the idealized home of the March sisters of “Little Women,’’ Concord was also, according to Cheever, a provincial, self-righteous community that Alcott found increasingly claustrophobic as she grew older. Cheever’s book “American Bloomsbury’’ untangled the social, romantic, and intellectual relationships of Concord’s Transcendentalists, and here she situates Alcott within her family’s close connections to Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

Concord is also a physical presence. Cheever describes the woods where Alcott ran wild and the meadows that rippled almost to the edge of Walden Pond. She climbs the stairs to Alcott’s bedroom with a group of tourists and drives by the cottage where the Alcotts lived when they moved to Concord, later memorialized as Meg March’s honeymoon cottage. This vivid sense of place also emerges in her descriptions of 19th-century Boston and her brief but compelling account of the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Washington hospital where Alcott nursed the wounded.

The book is also studded with ruminations on writing, authorship, literature, and biography. These are sometimes illuminating, as when Cheever considers biography’s fraught balance between fact and interpretation with regard to different accounts of the Alcotts’ disastrous sojourn at the utopian community Fruitlands. But they can also be distracting and self-indulgent, with litanies of unanswered questions and gratuitous references to Cheever’s own literary father. When Cheever forgets that “no one reads . . . for ideas alone,’’ she can run into trouble; when she sticks with Alcott, her storytelling is a delight.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and writing coach who lives in Arlington.

LOUISA MAY ALCOTT: A Personal Biography By Susan Cheever

Simon & Schuster, 298 pp., $26