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Review: Susan Cheever plumbs 'Little Women' author's family relationships in 'Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography'

On the eve of publishing Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary, "Never liked girls or knew many except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it."

That combination of independence, cynicism, literary enthusiasm and, yes, sisterhood propelled the novel to popularity that continues to this day. The book tells the story of the four young March girls — Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy — who, as it opens, aren't getting any presents for Christmas because their father is off serving as a chaplain for the Union side in the Civil War.

Jo is the independent tomboy who writes melodramas like The Witch's Curse for the sisters to perform. Meg is more conventional, navigating friendships with society girls even though too poor for the latest fashions. Beth is cripplingly shy, but her love of music drives her to befriend the well-to-do neighbors so she can practice on their piano. The youngest, Amy, is outgoing and feminine but wants to be a great artist.

Gently protecting the girls is Marmee, the calm, quiet mother who reminds them it's more important to have good character and a strong intellect than it is to catch husbands or climb the social ladder. When girls grow up to be independent women, Marmee says, they can then contribute equally to a relationship built on love. Even in 2010, Little Women carries an engaging, almost subversive message.

All of which is to say, it's no wonder that a public intellectual like Susan Cheever would explore Alcott's life in a short biography for fans and casual readers. Much of Little Women is based on Alcott's life, and, fortunately for Cheever, Alcott did more than simply write her novels in a lonely garret in Concord, Mass.

Her father was Bronson Alcott, a progressive educator with connections to the 19th century Utopian movement, and a friend of the Transcendentalist thinkers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa was brought up in an electric milieu of intellectualism and self-reliance; she wrote in her diaries that she openly idolized Emerson. Her literary talents emerged early, and as a young woman she volunteered as a nurse in a Civil War hospital, writing the well-regarded book Hospital Sketches about her experiences.

With such great source material, Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography is a fascinating read, but Cheever is, to put it mildly, an idiosyncratic biographer. Cheever is best known for her memoirs about her recovery from alcoholism and her relationship with her father, the author John Cheever, a recovered alcoholic himself. (His short story The Swimmer — a chilling meditation on alcohol abuse and the soulless suburbs — is regularly anthologized.)

In her biography of Alcott, Cheever doesn't hesitate to interject details from her own life, jarring insertions for those not familiar with her other work. She also asserts questionable theories about psychological domination of parents in the lives of adult children, and she informs us, for little apparent reason, that both Louisa and her father were born under the astrological sign of Sagittarius.

Cheever is particularly brutal in her assessment of Bronson Alcott, whom she portrays as impoverished, inept and possibly a child abuser. Alcott was an educator who believed children should be given autonomy and freedom in the classroom. But he went dangerously astray, in Cheever's telling, when he embraced utopianism.

He took his family to Fruitlands, an isolated farm run with a friend, Charles Lane. Under Lane's influence, Bronson embraced the notion of early morning, ice-cold showers for his children, and he nearly wrecked his marriage to his wife, Abba, with some sort of strange sexual request. Free love? Voluntary celibacy? A gay relationship between him and Lane? Even scholarly biographers still disagree.

As for Louisa, she died unmarried. Cheever says that it's unclear whether she ever had a great love; she told one person she'd never had a lover of any kind. We do know that Alcott remained devoted to her unusual family, financially supporting all of them with the great success of Little Women.

Cheever writes that this biography is focused on "women's choices," but it seems more fixated on Alcott's relationship with her parents, especially her father. There is little detail about Alcott's deliberations on her life's choices. Perhaps the historical record isn't there — Alcott reportedly burned much of her papers and correspondence — but it often seems she was destined to live the life she did because of her independent temperament and her unconventional, idealistic parents.

The best thing about Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography is that it revives discussion of Alcott and sends people back to Little Women. The legions of Jane Austen fans should love Little Women, with its similar themes of young girls finding their way in a society obsessed with money and status. Like Austen's, Alcott's writing is delightfully rich, and her psychological portraits of young women ring true over 100 years later.

But Little Women seems particularly appropriate for the current economic times. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are poor, but they don't think the solution is a man in possession of a good fortune. Little Women urges women to first nurture their intellect, their personal passions and their character to make true love all the sweeter.

Angie Drobnic Holan is a reporter and researcher for PolitiFact, the St. Petersburg Times national politics fact-checking website.

Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography

By Susan Cheever

Simon & Schuster,

320 pages,

$26

Review: Susan Cheever plumbs 'Little Women' author's family relationships in 'Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography' 12/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 18, 2010 3:30am]

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