Monday, April 14, 2008

Review: Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson

I recently finished reading Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson, a biography of Louisa May and Bronson Alcott. I have long been a huge fan of Louisa May Alcott. Like many young girls, I read and fell in love with Little Women when I was young. In fact, I was named after the character Beth in the book. I've reread Little Women countless times, and I have read most all of LMA's other fiction as well (except her earlier 'thriller' works), especially liking and rereading (practically yearly) Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom.

Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson, was part of the transcendentalist movement in New England in the early and mid 1800s. Transcendentalism was an idealist, sometimes utopian movement, springing out of disagreement with the Unitarian church, and drawing on the Romantics, and even Hindu and Buddhist thought. Transcendentalism believed strongly in the divinity of the individual, the power of the individual to transcend religion and doctrines, not needing to rely on empirical observations, science, etc., but able to in one's mind discover the correct and just path. The American transcendentalists were attracted to alternative lifestyles, forming communes, living in isolation, creating schools for their new thinking, etc. Transcendentalist thought was also linked with abolition, women's rights movements, and civil disobedience. Bronson Alcott was close friends with some more famous transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Davide Thoreau, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, and Sophia Peabody, wife of the (not-Transcendentalist) Nathanael Hawthorne. (side note: I am related to Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody!)

Bronson was never as successful as many of his colleagues, but ultimately made a career of talking about the beliefs of his colleagues in conversations he would host. His beliefs had a huge impact on daughter Louisa. She existed in reaction to him - much more pragmatic than he, wanting most of all to know how to pay the bills, feed the family, protect their health, since Bronson, chasing after one radical idea after another, was often unemployed. Louisa wrote in her journal, for example, that her father's 'conversations' seemed "a waste of time when there is so much real work crying to be done. Why discuss the Unknowable till our poor are fed and the wicked saved?" (392) Still, LMA's writings show the huge influence of transcendentalism in her life, even if she herself didn't subscribe to that set of beliefs.

I find the combination of progressive social beliefs (particularly around women's rights and slavery) with what we would today perhaps consider conservative morality (abstinence of many kinds, for example) very intriguing, and as an adult I can see how much reading LMA's books so often as a child shaped my own beliefs. (Another aside: Bronson raised his whole family as strict vegetarians. Louisa didn't stick to this so much as an adult though, I don't think.)

I really enjoyed this book for the added insight it gives to the fiction I've so loved. Matteson sometimes seems (to me) to assume too much or draw conclusions that are far-fetched from journals and writings that are vague from both Bronson and Louisa, but overall, he shows how their relationship shaped both of them in their work and accomplishments. I highly recommend this for any Louisa May Alcott fan!
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