Thursday, June 9, 2016

Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever (2010)

I was listening to Little Women on audio, and simlulataneous was reading this biography of Louisa May Alcott, an experience that I've enjoyed immensely.  I finished the biographer just a bit before Little Women.  Amy and Laurie are falling love; Beth is dying but not yet dead; Bronson Alcott died one day, Louisa May Alcott literally the next day, and the biography mostly ended.

I really liked this book.  I have some quibbly carps, which I will end with.  But I want to start with a question Cheever asks:    "What is the connection of fictional characters to the writer and to the people in the world around the writer?"  That is a idea that comes up again and again in this book, as it should in any life of Louisa May Alcott - are the Alcotts the Marches, the Marches the Alcotts?  They are, and they aren't, and while never painstakingly (this isn't ever that kind of book), Cheever makes us aware that Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy aren't exactly Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May.  She drops her father's name (John Cheever, the American novelist) later on, and in a good way:  "My father believed—and many critics agreed with him—that literature had to be read as if it were a self-contained dream. To begin to deconstruct it into the elements of the writer’s life was to destroy its power and reduce it to gossip."  That's a noble pursuit, but gossip is also what makes a biography juicy; the juices ran pretty thin and clear here.

This is another quote, a longer one, but these quotes make up what I think is a theme of this book.  If the purpose is to expose to Louisa May Alcott and allow us to delve into her life, and maybe even into her psyche, Cheever was also at work doing this:


Good biography scrupulously sticks to the facts. These facts are found in libraries and archives where journals and letters are kept—primary sources, and in other biographies and published books—secondary sources. Yet in spite of this necessary limitation, in spite of the facts, every biography has a story imposed on the facts by the biographer: Bronson Alcott was a genius who loved his girls but couldn’t manage to make a living, or Bronson Alcott was a punitive father who traumatized his daughters. Both are true according to the facts. Little Women is a great novel, the pouring forth of yearning and talent that came together for a mature woman at the height of her creative power, or Little Women was written by a writer who had caved into intense and accumulated financial pressure. In its own way, biography is more imaginative than the novel and more intimate than memoir.

Very occasionally, in between Bronson's bipolar episodes, and Emerson's flirtations, and Hawthorne's grumpiness, Cheever is telling us a bit about the art of biography (and nonfiction in general, I suppose). I appreciated this as much or more than her personal take on Louisa May Alcott.  These are words  for readers and thinkers about biography and nonfiction to ponder.  

But she soon returns to what she's actually doing:  "Every biographer reads letters, journals, contemporary accounts, and other biographies to discover the story of their subject’s life. Then they illustrate the story they have imagined using the facts that fit. To me the story of Louisa May Alcott is the story of how a woman finds her place in the world. How can women choose between love and work, or should they gamble that they can have both?"
 
The quibbles and carps.  The writing  in this book is easily accessible, but also a little-bit lazy.  I caught a couple of errors - she identified a person in one chapter, and then did it again in the next chapter, like she hadn't done that before.  In another paragraph, she uses a phrase, and then at the end of the paragraph, almost the same phrase (I can't remember exactly where these where; I just remembering thinking that it was sloppy in a few places and that she needed a better editor).

A postscript:  the dance, once again, around a historical characters homosexuality.  Cheever polkas around that a couple of times; that annoys me greatly (Eleanor Roosevelt) but in this case, I think Cheever is correct; if Louisa May Alcott had attachments to women (the old Boston marriage) either she purposely left them out, or Alcott wasn't a lesbian.  And as Cheever really says in the end, who can ever know?


Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott by Susan Cheever
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Read this while listening to an audio version of Little Women, which made for a great experience for both books. "What is the connection of fictional characters to the writer and to the people in the world around the writer?" Cheever asks, a pertinent question for any biography of Louisa May Alcott (whatever the subtitle). Are the Alcotts the Marches, are the Marches the Alcotts? Readers for 150 years have been asking this, and Cheever's answer at least is that they are, and they aren't, and while never painstakingly (this isn't ever that kind of book), she makes us (gradually?) aware that Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy aren't exactly Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May. What I liked about this book is how Cheever went off the track every so often, to write about writing, or family, or sometimes the world and history in which Louisa May Alcott lived and worked (never quite enough of the latter for my taste though). She writes some strong thoughts about the art of biography ("Good biography scrupulously sticks to the facts. These facts are found in libraries and archives where journals and letters are kept—primary sources, and in other biographies and published books—secondary sources. Yet in spite of this necessary limitation, in spite of the facts, every biography has a story imposed on the facts by the biographer"). In the end though, Cheever is asking herself and us this: "To me the story of Louisa May Alcott is the story of how a woman finds her place in the world. How can women choose between love and work, or should they gamble that they can have both?" This idea if flushed out again and again; you can be the judge if Cheever succeeded in telling that particular story (no spoilers here). I have a few quibbly carps; some of the writing is a bit sloppy - some repetitive phrasing, a character introduced to us twice. Don't let those carps keep you from reading the book particularly if you a lover of the novel (or movie versions, I was in that camp until now!). 


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