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The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

A-Edens OutcastsThough Louisa May Alcott gets top billing in the title of this dual biography, her father, Bronson Alcott, receives a lion’s share of the book’s attention. John Matteson paints a compelling portrait of one of the most well-known and well-connected transcendentalist philosophers of the 19th century. Bronson Alcott was a close friend to such literary luminaries as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, but his naïve idealism and commitment to radical philosophies (including vegetarianism, equal education, and the utopian community of Fruitlands) plunged his family into poverty. Eden’s Outcasts chronicles Bronson’s difficult but loving relationship with the tempestuous, talented Louisa, and both father’s and daughter’s struggles to attain literary and pecuniary success.
Norton. 528 pages. $29.95. ISBN:0393059642

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The revelations that Matteson provides us with, of souls alive in a time superficially quite unlike ours, never flag in interest. … [Matteson] tells his story so clearly and attractively that no previous acquaintance with the remarkable Alcott clan and their various, equally remarkable friends is needed to relish their world as he re-creates it." Philip McFarland

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[Matteson] read not just the published works of both very productive writers but myriad unpublished papers, including Bronson’s journals—thousands of handwritten pages. This prodigious research unobtrusively informs Matteson’s lively tour of the early 19th century." Daniel Dyer

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] colorful and insightful book. … In producing such a rounded, detailed and compelling portrait of Louisa, Bronson, their family and their times, Matteson has provided us with a valuable context for appreciating that enduring masterpiece Little Women." Martin Rubin

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"None of the Alcotts had an easy life and reading about them can feel exhausting, particularly when it comes to [Bronson’s] longsuffering [wife] Abba. But particularly for those unfamiliar with the Alcott story, this is a journey of much interest." Marjorie Kehe

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Matteson pays assiduous attention to detail (over a thousand footnotes!) and offers perceptive literary critiques. Nonetheless, this book should have appeal beyond academia. Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott may be larger-than-life personas in the history of American letters, but this engaging dual biography points out how thoroughly human they were." Barbara Lloyd McMichael

Critical Summary

John Matteson, a professor of English at John Jay College in New York City, has written a prodigiously researched and eminently readable biography of the author of Little Women and her father. While Bronson Alcott is a nearly forgotten figure today, Matteson reminds us of his considerable influence and forward-thinking philosophies. The "Eden" referred to in the book’s title was Fruitlands, Bronson’s utopian commune in rural New England that ended very quickly in financial disaster. Exploring how Louisa’s penniless but principled upbringing influenced her life, her work, and her relationship with her father, Eden’s Outcasts gives the reader "the pleasures … of being taken back to a time and place of intellectual and moral grandeur" (Los Angeles Times).

Supplemental Reading

March | Geraldine Brooks (2005): Award Star Pulitzer Prize. 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2005. Brooks offers a fictional narrative about John March, who is Meg’s, Jo’s, Beth’s, and Amy’s absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Brooks scoured volumes of Bronson Alcott’s letters and journals to flesh out March’s character.