three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
user_rating: 
0

A Personal Biography

A-Louisa May AlcottAcclaimed author Susan Cheever has penned twelve previous books, including five novels, four memoirs, and a biography of Alcoholics Anonymous cofounder Bill Wilson. With Louisa May Alcott, Cheever continues the literary journey she began in American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work ( 2.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2007), an exploration of the lives and liaisons of the illustrious residents of mid-19th century Concord, Massachusetts.

The Topic: Starting with her own treasured discovery of Little Women, Cheever delves deeply into the unconventional and often grueling life of its rebellious and temperamental author, Louisa May Alcott. Mentored by public intellectuals and tutored in social activism, Louisa was most profoundly affected by the complex relationships she developed with her family and friends--particularly with her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, a transcendentalist philosopher whose experiments with progressive education and communal living bankrupted and nearly starved the Alcott family. Consequently, Louisa resisted the conventions of her day, eschewed marriage, and supported her family through odd jobs and pseudonymous hack writing until Little Women, written reluctantly at the behest of her publisher, brought financial security to the Alcott home.
Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781416569916

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Cheever breaks no new ground, but she tells an insightful, relatable story. ... Cheever doesn't just take available resources about Alcott's life and rehash them. She re-examines them, imagines what it was like to be Alcott, and then brings her brightly and brilliantly to life." Carol Memmott

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Cheever's ruminations on writing, authorship, literature, and biography] are sometimes illuminating, as when Cheever considers biography's fraught balance between fact and interpretation with regard to different accounts of the Alcotts' disastrous sojourn at the utopian community Fruitlands. But they can also be distracting and self-indulgent, with litanies of unanswered questions and gratuitous references to Cheever's own literary father." Rebecca Steinitz

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There is nothing new in Cheever's biography--after all, Alcott is a much-studied author and biographical subject--but the narrative is reprised with passion and insight, and with the experience of a writer who grew up as the daughter of a famous American writer, John Cheever. ... Yet this same affinity for Alcott and for the writer's life leads Cheever to distrust her own biographical impulses." Carl Rollyson

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"The historical record suggests that Little Women exists because of 19th-century American culture, not in spite of it. ... Cheever's representation of Alcott typifies the logic in which biographers credit accomplishments to the individual while blaming setbacks on the society: heads, I win; tails, you lose." Leah Price

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Cheever is a lively and likable writer, but she doesn't add anything new to what we already know about Alcott's life. Perhaps if she had followed her promise of a ‘personal biography' and said more about her own struggles to become a writer in the wake of a brilliant, difficult father, Louisa May Alcott might have been a compelling, as well as a charming, book." Elaine Showalter

St Petersburg Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Angie Drobnic Holan

Wall Street Journal 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Cheever too often wanders away from Alcott's life to make trivial comments about the nature of her chosen form (‘Every biography has a story imposed on the facts by the biographer'), the trials of contemporary girlhood and the nature of literary genius (‘Success often breeds ambition'). ... If this is a ‘personal biography,' it's hard not to long for an impersonal one." Ruth Graham

Critical Summary

At a time when author biographies swell with sociopolitical overviews and literary analyses, Cheever has opted to tell a straightforward, concise story. She may add nothing new to readers' knowledge of Alcott's life and legacy, but the critics gave her points for enthusiasm and insight. However, there were some serious concerns about Cheever's persistent digressions, peculiar theories, and questionable conclusions. And while the Washington Post would have liked to hear more about Cheever's relationship with her own wayward father, John Cheever, others complained that she inserted herself into the narrative too much already. "The best thing about Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography," muses the St. Petersburg Times, "is that it revives discussion of Alcott and sends people back to Little Women."

Cited by the Critics

Eden's Outcasts The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father | John Matteson: Award Star Pulitzer Prize. Though 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, his difficult but loving relationship with Louisa, and their struggles to attain literary and pecuniary success. ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2007)