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

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

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A dual biography of Amos Bronson Alcott, philosopher and education reformer, and his daughter Louisa May, author of Little Women.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: January 2009
Publisher: W W Norton and Co
ISBN: 978-0393333596

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Louisa May Alcott and her father, Amos Bronson, shared the same birthday, she being born on 29 November 1832, his thirty-third. Throughout their lives, father and daughter remained extraordinarily close, and even almost died together. When he finally succumbed after a stroke and long-drawn out illness on 4 March 1888, she was too ill to be told and followed him two days later. Between them, they saw life as a persistent but failed quest for perfection, regarding themselves in their vain pursuit of paradise on earth as Eden's outcasts, hence the title of this dual biography.

Bronson Alcott was well known during his lifetime as a self-educated philosopher and controversial education reformer, and a friend of Thoreau and Emerson (who called him a tedious archangel.) He was by far the better-known of the two in their day, yet it was his second daughter whose name lives on today while his is virtually forgotten. In his younger days he was an idealist, more than ready to embrace the ideals of plain living and high thinking, reflecting the New England Transcendentalist movement, to a degree which sorely tested the patience of his long-suffering wife and family.

Yet his daughter adored and revered him, longing to prove herself worthy of him. As a young woman she tried teaching for a career but hated it, then became a nurse during the Civil War but fell seriously ill with typhoid and pneumonia, leaving her in poor health for the rest of her life. Driven by economic necessity to write books and articles for a living, her achievements as an author, turning out articles and stories solely for financial gain, were steady but unspectacular until the success of Little Women in 1868.

Throughout her life she remained devoted to her family. The only passionate interlude she ever enjoyed, it appears, was on a tour of Switzerland as a paid companion when she met a young Pole, Ladislas Wisniewski, whom she nicknamed 'Laddie'. They spent a fortnight together in Paris before parting, and she noted matter-of-factly that they had a happy life together. A fascination with the writing of Charles Dickens culminated in and ended with a visit to London during which she secured admission to one of his readings and was grossly disappointed by his appearance – his gaudy rings, foppish curls, false teeth and sound of his voice, that of a worn-out actor.

Father and daughter were plainly eccentrics, he more than her, but they remained devoted to the rest of the family, most of whom they both outlived. For Bronson's wife Abigail May ('Abba'), it must have been a wearisome existence at times, though she remained close to him until she died in Louisa's arms in November 1877.

Set against the turbulent years of American history when the Civil War subtly but irrevocably changed the nation's outlook on so many issues, this is quite a demanding read, yet probes deeply with sympathy and understanding into the lives and personalities of father and daughter and sheds much light on two colourful, often contradictory characters.

Our thanks to Norton for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, why not also try Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon, or for another American literary life, Poe by Peter Ackroyd.

Buy Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson at Amazon.com.


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