Louisa May Alcott and her father, A. Bronson Alcott, died within three days of each other in March, 1888. For most of their lives, it was Bronson, a self-educated philosopher and controversial education reformer, who was known to the public for both good and ill. One of the earliest Transcendentalists, he was a close friend of Emerson and Thoreau. He was also regarded by many as an impractical idealist who could not provide for his family. It was late in Louisa's life with the publication of Little Women, followed by Little Men and Jo's Boys that she far exceeded her father in renown, receiving much critical acclaim, best-selling success and substantial financial rewards.
Their father-daughter relationship was not always easy, as John Matteson vividly demonstrates in his engrossing Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. For Louisa as well as for Bronson, Matteson writes, life was a persistent but failed quest for perfection. Both had ambitions of altering the world through literature. In ways that neither anticipated and in widely varying degrees, they succeeded. Yet it was in the lives they lived, rather than in the words they wrote or spoke, that they fought hardest for redemption: both to redeem themselves from their perceived failures and to redeem the world at large from the wickedness that both father and daughter sought earnestly to reform. Matteson calls Louisa the most intensely practical of [her father's] children and says Bronson took pride in her many admirable qualities. However, he says her instinctive pursuit of pleasure was to lead Bronson for many years to view Louisa as the most selfish of his children. He was especially concerned about her strong will and temper, in which she resembled her exemplary mother, Abigail, known as Abba. In many ways this is a family biography with Abba as the central figure. A social activist and humanitarian in her own right, Abba nurtured her daughters and supported her husband through thick and much more often thin. Matteson follows the Alcotts through Bronson's two most notable but short-lived educational and social experiments: the Temple School and the utopian community of Fruitlands. The family moved often. Louisa's most enjoyable times were spent in Concord, where Emerson encouraged her to read books from his personal library and she learned about the natural world from Thoreau.
Louisa's volunteer service as a nurse during the Civil War was life-changing in several ways. She comforted a dying soldier in a hospital in Washington, D.C., and Matteson believes this moment exemplified what she came to see as the greatest good in life: the sharing of another's adversity. In much of her best fiction, emotional climaxes occur when central female characters offer to share the burdens of those they love. Alcott's heroines tend to interpret times of challenge as opportunities to transcend selfishness. It was a publisher who suggested she write a book about girls. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, she wrote. But when she did write about life within a family much like her own, she found great success. Matteson writes insightfully about both her well-known works and others virtually forgotten. His study of the Alcotts is a sensitive and very readable exploration of prominent figures in 19th-century America.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.