Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Happy 179th Birthday, Louisa May Alcott! (And Bronson, Too)

Louisa May Alcott 129 years ago, when she was 50.

"November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year," said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.
"That's the reason I was born in it," observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.
Little Women (1868)

November 29 is Louisa May Alcott's birthday.  She'd be 179, a far cry from her days as a little woman.  Coincidentally, she was born on her philosopher father's 33rd birthday, so Bronson Alcott, who seems so typically Sagittarius, gets his own cake with an infernal 212 candles.  Better make it apple or carrot cake -- or maybe just an apple or a carrot.  Bronson was a hardcore vegan way before it was in vogue.

I really didn't expect to be saluting Louisa May on the anniversary of her birth. Earlier this year I was ticked off at her when I read that she worked really hard to get my beloved Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn banned in Massachusetts.  Yes, it's true, Huck has got those problem chapters towards the end that make readers want to dig Mr. Clemens up and rap him on the head with Aunt Sally's thimble, but book-banning!?  Yikes.  That was a hard pill to swallow (I snarled through most of my rereading of Little Men), but Louisa May and I are okay now.  I'm just going to pretend that it was one of the horrible side effects of the mercury poisoning.

I'm all warm and sunny about Alcott again because I have just finished Eden's Outcasts:  The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson.  This 2007 dual biography nabbed a Pulitzer the following year and rightfully so.  Matteson is everything a reader wants in a biographer.  He's done his research (sometimes painfully, as in reading through everything Bronson Alcott wrote -- he should have gotten an award just for that), he doesn't feel that he has to shoehorn all of that research into the book, he's a wonderful blend of intelligence and warmth (He really responds to his subjects and their writings.  I had to smile at how relieved he seems as he shows evidence that Bronson, like all of us, gets better as he gets older), and he's a wonderful storyteller.  Matteson can write.  There's nothing of the visual glue pudding that research-based writing so often resembles.  Would it be wrong of me to whine and cajole and order people to their bookstores or computers to get this book immediately?

I'm now reading An Old-Fashioned Girl, Louisa May Alcott's 1870 follow-up to her smash hit Little Women.  I shied away from it for years (as I did most of Alcott's other fiction; if Jo wasn't in it, I couldn't be bothered), but since John Matteson liked it, I'm reading it on his say-so, and am about halfway through.  Dude was right.  I'm enjoying it.  Polly Milton, a small-town girl goes to visit her best friend's family.  Mr. and Mrs. Shaw and their three children are well-off but a little too caught up in their own individual lives.  Compared to her own family, Polly finds them a little dysfunctional and finds ways to brighten their lives during the six weeks she's there. After she leaves, the story jumps ahead six years.  Polly comes back to Boston to make her own way as a music teacher and her life intersects with the Shaw family again.  There are some preachy parts (Alcott could have fit with ease into a pulpit, if women had been allowed back then) but overall, she tells a pretty good tale.

My Alcott shelf is still pretty full.  I've got Moods, a novel that Louisa May Alcott always felt dissatisfied with -- According to my new crush John Matteson, she revised it at least twice.  I also have her 1873 novel Work (I remember reading an excerpt in my undergraduate Women's Literature class); Pauline's Passion and Punishment (not sure when it was written, but it must be some of her A.M. Barnard stuff, judging by the title) and another biography, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.  I'm scared that I won't like the Reisen biography because I loved Eden's Outcasts so damn much.  Ooops.  Maybe I should refrain from using swear words in Alcott's birthday post.


Anonymous said...

He was vegan? Really? Soemhow they skipped that little fact in the Orchard House tour.

Stephen Page said...

good post.

Susan said...

My. How can you make biographies sound so interesting that I have added this one to my Amazon list?

I also LOVE the fact that once again our booktwin natures strike, since I also had a problem reading anything else by Alcott that didn't have Jo in it. I did eventually read Little Men.....because it had Jo! lol

I own a copy of March by Geraldine Brooks, so I will be interested to read it and compare to the biography. See? You did it.

JaneGS said...

A commenter on my post about Eden's Outcasts mentioned that you liked the book also.

I laughed out loud at your remark that Matteson should've gotten an award just from reading Bronson's work. I personally couldn't do it.

Eden's Outcasts was marvelous for all the reasons you cite.

I'm shocked and appalled that LMA tried to get Huck Finn banned--Matteson never mentioned that, did he?

Great review--I'll be visiting you blog again. Looks like we have some tastes in common :)