Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography

Overview

Apart from her bestselling Home Before Dark, a biography of her father, John Cheever, and My Name Is Bill, her penetrating portrait of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Susan Cheever's most recent and major success, American Bloomsbury, was a hugely popular nonfiction narrative of the writers and artists (including Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcott family) of Concord, Massachusetts. With more than 35,000 copies of the book sold since, Cheever has focused on the legendary and ...

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Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography

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Overview

Apart from her bestselling Home Before Dark, a biography of her father, John Cheever, and My Name Is Bill, her penetrating portrait of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Susan Cheever's most recent and major success, American Bloomsbury, was a hugely popular nonfiction narrative of the writers and artists (including Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcott family) of Concord, Massachusetts. With more than 35,000 copies of the book sold since, Cheever has focused on the legendary and much-loved Louisa May Alcott.

Every year, new young readers continue to fall in love with Alcott's work, from Little Women to her feminist papers. Based on extensive research and access to Alcott's journals and correspondence, Cheever chronicles all aspects of Alcott's life, beginning with the fateful meeting of her parents to her death, just two days after that of her dynamic and domineering father, Bronson. Cheever examines Alcott's role as a woman, a working writer, and a daughter at a time when Alcott's rejection of marriage in favor of independence—a decision to be no man's "little woman"—was seen as defying conventional wisdom.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

One wonders what the Twitter & Texting Generation makes of Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). Has Little Women become so unfamiliar that it can be recaptured anew? Susan Cheever's "personal biography" of Alcott might be a viable first step in the recovery of this determined New England feminist who was both of her time and ahead of it. For those of us who haven't yet mastered internet slang, however, this bio will probably bring back refreshing reading experiences of our youth. It will certainly rekindle our interest in an innovative American author.

Elaine Showalter
Cheever writes insightfully about Alcott's evolution as a writer and her struggles as a dutiful literary daughter.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Little Women was the idea of Alcott's publisher, who bullied her into writing it. Louisa may, Cheever speculates, have taken revenge on Bronson Alcott--a friend of the great Transcendentalists, but an irresponsible and browbeating father--by leaving him out of her semiautobiographical masterpiece. A revolutionary educator whose uncompromising high-mindedness made him a financial failure, Bronson was critical of and often punished the rebellious Louisa. But his close friendships with men like Emerson and Thoreau blessed Louisa with a unique circle of mentors, whom Cheever depicted in American Bloomsbury. Alcott gradually lost everyone dear to her: her beloved sister Lizzie died at 22, and her sister Anna's marriage felt like a betrayal. Struggling so hard for wealth and fame that when it came she was too ill and weary to enjoy it, Louisa never married and died two days after Bronson. Cheever laces this provocative biography with musings on the genesis of genius, and her identification with Jo March when she was a rebellious girl in the throes of puberty. While some may find Cheever's digressions and self-referencing grating, most will savor this work--surely a future book club staple--as keen, refreshing, and authoritative. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"Lively and astute." —-Kirkus
Library Journal
In this thorough personal biography, Cheever (American Bloomsbury) draws on primary sources along with existing Louisa May Alcott studies to put the American novelist's life into historical context, also sharing some striking revelations, hinting, e.g., that Alcott's father, Bronson, may have sexually abused his daughters. Actress/Audie Award nominee Tavia Gilbert's steady voice tells this tale of hard choices with complexity and feeling. While the work is complete and profound, its proliferation of details and digressions sometimes bogs it down. Further, Cheever devotes nearly half the book to Bronson, essentially casting her book's subject to the sidelines. Recommended for fans of existing Alcott bios as well as for those who liked Kelly O'Connor McNees's historical novel The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. [The S. & S. hc was "highly recommended" as "an important addition to Alcott scholarship," LJ 9/1/10.—Ed.]—Terry Ann Lawler, Phoenix P.L.
Library Journal
Cheever, who has previously written about Alcott and her contemporaries in American Bloomsbury, uses primary sources (Alcott destroyed many of her personal papers, but luckily journals and letters survived), along with existing Alcott studies to paint a vivid portrait of her subject, sometimes decoding certain events through the lens of modernity as well as through her own experiences as the daughter, and observer, of John Cheever (Louisa May Alcott's father was the prominent Bronson Alcott). Yet this is a strategy that she also questions—"Can we apply a twenty-first century context for a few scraps of nineteenth-century journal?" The results make for great reading. Alcott's feminism, relationships, illnesses, struggles, and ultimate success have been discussed before, yet Cheever's stirring account provides an insightful interpretation of this fascinating woman. VERDICT An engaging biography, this is an important addition to Alcott scholarship. Highly recommended for all readers interested in Alcott's life and writings.—Erica Swenson Danowitz, Delaware Cty. Community Coll., Media, PA
Kirkus Reviews

Contextual study of Louisa May Alcott's life (1832–1888) and work, from her childhoodamong such writers as Emerson, Fuller and Hawthorne,to the astounding literary career that afforded her a feminist independence of spirit even as she remained a caregiver to her family.

In this new biography, Cheever (MFA Program/Bennington Coll; Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction, 2008, etc.) presents an insightful narrative of Alcott's life and how her experiences informed, but didn't dictate, her fiction. Raised in the culturally rich and progressive community of Concord, Mass., Alcott was an inquisitive and rebellious child who adored her three sisters and idolized her famous literary neighbors, particularly Emerson, who frequently played the role of benefactor to the often destitute family. Alcott's father was a hopelessly impractical academic and a domineering patriarch; she had a contentious relationship with him for most of her life and famously wrote him out of her classic, Little Women (1868). Despite these hardships,Alcottdreamed ofbecoming a writer. Amid the outbreak of the Civil War and her youngest sister's tragic death, Alcott wrote copious journal entries, poems and stories; at age 19 she published her first poem. Twelve years later, she joined the Union Army as a nurse in Washington, and the grisly, poignantexperience catapulted her into adulthood and was integral to the development of her mature prose. She published a collection of letters she wrote while on duty to great acclaim and returned to Concord a rising literary star. Within five years she would writeLittle Womenand become one of the most celebrated authors of her time, providing young girls with a novel distinguished by relatable story lines and characters, one that armed generations of readers with a sense of what is possible for women. Alcott was able to exemplify her belief that an unmarried woman could be intelligent, successful and, perhaps more importantly, happy. Throughout the narrative, Cheeverallows Alcott's complex humanity to reveal itself slowly, drawing the reader into her iconic life.

Lively and astute.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400117901
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/2/2010
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Cheever

Susan Cheever is the bestselling author of eleven previous books, including five novels and the memoirs "Note Found in a Bottle" and "Home Before Dark." Her work has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the "Boston Globe" Winship Medal. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of the Corporation of Yaddo, and a member of the Author's Guild Council. She writes a weekly column for "Newsday" and teaches in the Bennington College M.F.A. program. She lives in New York City with her family.

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Table of Contents

Preface: A Trip to Concord

1 Trailing Clouds of Glory. 1832-1839 1

2 Concord. Louisa in Exile. 1840-1843 33

3 Fruitlands. Family in Crisis. 1843-1848 62

4 Boston. "Stick to Your Teaching." 1848-1858 89

5 Orchard House. 1858-1862 115

6 Fredericksburg. At the Union Hospital. 1863-1865 135

7 The Writer. 1861-1867 164

8 Little Women. 1868-1872 193

9 Success. 1873-1880 221

10 Lulu. 1880-1888 238

Epilogue: 2009 255

Acknowledgments 259

Notes 261

Bibliography 273

Index 279

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 16, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction -- MUCH, MUCH stranger!

    I simply have to say Susan Cheever's incredible biography on the life of Louisa May Alcott left me wondering why anybody bothers to read (or write) fiction?? Cheever's thoroughly documented account of the amazing life of the woman who became famous world wide for writing a book she had to be badgered for YEARS into finally putting on paper (LITTLE WOMEN) is, in my opinion, far, far more fascinating and absorbing than many fictional stories and novels that Alcott, herself, wrote before or after LITTLE WOMEN. Not only does this biographer present the facts of Alcott's existence, which began with her birth in 1832 and ended with her death in 1888, in a compelling, absorbing fashion, she also allows us to become reacquainted (or meet for the first time) many other famous authors, poets, essayists and philosophers of the 19th century, whose lives, for better or for worse, touched Alcott's at various points during her incredible 56 yrs. on this planet earth. Cheever, who claims it took TEN years of HER life to pull this biography together, also does a remarkable job of making certain historical events of the times come viscerally alive -- like what it must actually have FELT like to work as an untrained nurse in a makeshift Union hospital, as Alcott volunteered to do, for the men wounded in the Civil War, where Louisa, herself, nearly becomes a casualty. I'd recommend this book to every female over the age of ten. Whether or not you've ever read LITTLE WOMEN, or any other story written by Louisa May Alcott, I guarantee this story of her life will leave you feeling a little extra proud to be a member of the female gender and also to feel extraordinarily thankful that you weren't born in the 19th century!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2011

    Interesting

    I enjoyed the book very much. It's also an inside look into American history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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