Sunday, June 08, 2008

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

For all the Little Women fans among us, this 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning dual biography will likely be of interest to you. Although Louisa May is the better known member of the Alcott family, her father, Bronson was an eminent philosopher, teacher and friend of fellow transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. As a family man, however, Bronson was, for the most part, a useless provider (of money or affection). As he chased after his lofty philosophical ideals and utopian pursuits (which were usually miserable failures), his wife, Abba and older daughters, Anna and Louisa were left to be the breadwinners of the family, taking jobs as governesses, teachers, writers, or whatever they could find. And more than once, the family had to be rescued from destitution by their Concord neighbors/friends Emerson and Thoreau- who sometimes even provided them with a place to live. This biography depicts the complicated and often troubled relationship between Bronson, ever the idealist and Louisa, always the pragmatist. Although they differed in fundamental ways, the two shared the same birthday, found literary success around the same time and died within two days of each other.

I initially decided to read this biography because I wanted to know more about the American Transcendental movement. Transcendentalism is one of those broad brush terms that gets tossed around in literary circles and one that I never fully understood. As one would expect of a Pulitzer Prize winning book, Matteson has done a superb job of capturing the essence of this 19th c. movement by reflecting it through the lens of the Alcott family story. The narrative pulls you into the life and times of this unique American family and makes you feel as if you have actually known them in life. In Matteson's closing paragraph he writes: "To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them." I believe he has done a masterful job.


Becky said...

I think I'll definitely be picking this one up!

mrmatt said...

I have just read your very kind review of my book, and I am so very pleased that you found it worthy of your time and attention. Thank you!

-- John Matteson