Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Review: "Eden's Outcasts"

Growing up, I was an avid reader. Besides the shameful Sweet Valley High series, the Nancy Drew Files, and the strange spate of teen horror books that were popular in the late 1980s/early 1990s (think R.L. Stine and the like), I also loved Little Women. Until I was nine, I didn't have a sister, nor did I have a particularly involved mom or a handsome boy next door, so Little Women seemed like a great alternative (the genteel poverty and the Civil War didn't seem quite so menacing when I was younger).

Last fall, I picked up John Matteson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, which serves as a dual-biography of Alcott and her father, Bronson Alcott. Initially, I was very skeptical; despite his ties to education (Alcott had several failed schools, including one that was eventually disbanded because he allowed a black child to attend), I didn't have a serious interest in learning more about Bronson. I even considered skipping the Bronson chapters and going straight to the ones that were about Louisa. However, I managed to resist this initial urge, and I'm very grateful that I did.

Louisa May Alcott's life has undeniable ties to Bronson's, and in order to truly understand her dreams, her fears, and her career, you must also look at Bronson. Bronson, a figure in the United States' transcendentalist movement, possessed lofty ideals and goals but had a difficult time living up to his true potential. His ambitions and strengths were many, but his limitations and weaknesses, including mental instability and an utter inability to support a family, irrevocably shaped Louisa's outlook on life as well as her career, since she did much of her writing, including Little Women, to help support her family and pay back her parents' crushing debt.

Furthermore, the book also shows us the complicated relationship between Bronson and Louisa. Louisa longed for her father's approval, while Bronson wished that Louisa possessed the more retiring and obedient dispositions found in eldest daughter Anna (who became the model for "Meg") and third daughter Elizabeth (who shared her name with her Little Women counterpart). He had a similar view of his wife, Abba, with whom Louisa was very close. Consequently, Louisa's personal and professional lives both involved her desire to conquer her temper and win her father's appreciation.

Besides giving us a complete portrait of Louisa and Bronson, the other strength of Eden's Outcasts is the careful attention to detail Matteson puts into his research. In addition to the excerpts from Louisa's writing, the book also includes quotes and sections from the the letters, diaries, and writings by the Alcott family and their friends and contemporaries. By letting us read the words of Louisa, Bronson, and others, it made the past seem more immediate and helped support Matteson's claims regarding the Alcotts.

If you are interested in the lives of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott or if you just want a sense of the transcendental ideas that were percolating in the United State during the mid-1800s, Eden's Outcasts may be the perfect book for you. It isn't a quick read, but it is an engrossing and thoughtful one, and people who are only familiar with Little Women will find a greater appreciation for the author's talents as well as a better understanding of how and why she tried to conquer her demons through her work.


Rose DeShaw said...

Matteson's thougtful dissection of the lives and natures of Louisa & Bronson is apparent in your excellent review. The 'mental instability' is placed in context. I am growing tired of the attempts lately to remakre the American Transcendentalists (with Bronson at the heart of it) over into the Bloomsbury model with scandals being thrust into complex lives and psychological explanations forced on them with thin and misread textual backup. Good to see a real understanding in your review here. Rose DeShaw