Google+ Bookslingers Blog: I Do Not Like Bronson Alcott: An Understatement

I Do Not Like Bronson Alcott: An Understatement

Pretty sure that if affordable time travel tourism is ever invented, my first visit will be to Concord, Massachusetts to punch Bronson Alcott in the face.

I can appreciate his abolitionist beliefs, his dedication to educational reform and his ability to surround himself with generous friends (seriously Emerson. You are too kind).

However, he was a crap dad.
Watch yourself, Bronson.
The lives of lady writers in the 19th century often feel dominated by deadbeat dads. Christina Rossetti's political exile of a father's bad health forced the women of the family into governess-hood. Elizabeth Gaskell's father sort of forgot about her. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord "Try to Find a Place Where I Haven't Put My Penis" Byron.

The prototype of bad Victorian daddies has to be Reverend Patrick Brontë. There are many delightfully apocryphal and deliciously untrue stories about much-maligned Patrick, including one where he threw the children's new shoes into the fire because they were too fancy.

Good thing he died before RuPaul's Drag Race
After finishing Heather Frederick Vogel's The Mother-Daughter Book Club, I decided to pick up Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever to delve a little deeper in the writer's life.

Boy, that was a frustrating read. For many reasons.

It was an exercise in rage to watch Bronson Alcott almost deliberately throwing away the happiness and health of his family to pursue some ridiculous agricultural fancy. But it was doubly so to have his story, his frustrations and triumphs, eclipse the story of one inspiring woman.

Susan Cheever is right on the nose when she discusses what readers want from Louisa's life. They visit Orchard House (one of their many family dwellings - although you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere in Concord or Boston where the family didn't live) and read biographies to discover what parts of Little Women are true. We want to know how much of the March family's lives can be found in the pages of Little Women. How much of Louisa was in Jo March? Was there really a Laurie? Did she live happily ever after?

For this reason, it is baffling as a reader that Cheever answers none of these questions. The focus of over half of the book is Bronson's transition from toasted educational reformer and patriarch to the bumbling dependent of his work-horse daughter. I came away from the book with an understanding of his life and the lives of the great men he surrounded himself with.

But I didn't have any sense of the woman. Cheever is informative and runs through the fact of her life with clarity but it lacks any psychological insight. There are some inborn difficulties with writing an Alcott biography as she was a woman who wrote and rewrote and edited her life. Not only fictionally but she was also fond of annual letter and journal burnings. Cheever rightly insists that this close-knit family created and clung to their own family mythology.

Two Characters In Search of Some Psychological Insight
The most insightful were the summary of other biographers' attempts to break through this carefully crafted legend. One theory mentions the possibility that Bronson Alcott sexually abused his daughters. Another that Louisa was a repressed lesbian. Instead of investigating, Cheever merely mentions and dismisses these theories in favour of more facts.

What was mystifying and deeply disappointing was that Cheever never turners her investigative eye on the family's relationships with each other. At the heart of Little Women and what keeps readers coming back year after year, is the warmth and love between the sisters and their mother. In A Personal Biography, there was no sense of the character or lives of the sisters or of the deep relationship the parents had with their children. Anna, Elizabeth and May are merely side characters and more mouths for Louisa to feed.

Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography does a fine job of relating the facts of her life but it does not illuminate her life. However, it was worth the read for this startling insight:

As a daughter, she never spoke a word against her father, against his irresponsibility or his bullying or his prejudice against her. As a writer, she expressed her feelings in a far more effective and literary way. She left him out of her masterpiece.