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

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#1
eden.JPG

Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson published by Norton (2007).

This book won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and it is easy to see why. The joint biography provides an engaging biography of the author of Little Women and of the father who sometimes nurtured her, sometimes forgot her, but who was always a force in her life. It is also a biography of a family, all of the “Little Women” of the Alcott clan are lovingly painted in words by John Matteson. So too are the leading lights of New England Transcendentalism and the other men and women involved in the creation of American letters.

With Emerson offering little Louisa May the free use of his library, with Hawthorn a neighbor and Thoreau a guide to the study of nature, and with house guests like Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott’s literary turn was not surprising. That she executed a book that has outsold any work by those fathers of American literature, is. Matteson provides insights into how she became both a master of the philosophy of the Transcendentalists and how she crafted believable stories out of their esoterica.

But this is not just her story. It is also the biography of her father Bronson.

Before I read Eden’s Outcasts I knew Bronson as an ineffectual dreamer. A man who sometimes neglected his wife and four daughters as he chased Transcendentalist rainbows. Women I know tell me that they have dated men like Bronson and thank God that they did not have children with them. Louisa’s mother did not dodge that bullet.

Note: This review will appear in several installments.
 

(Membership has it privileges! To remove this ad: Register NOW!)

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#2
Part 2:

Bronson was not a product of Harvard like most of his friends in Concord, America’s literary capital in the mid-19th Century. Instead, he grew up poor on a farm west of Hartford, Connecticut. He never received a college education and his poverty forced him to leave home at a young age to play the role of Yankee Trader in the South.

After he gained his parents some financial comfort, he became a school master in Cheshire Connecticutt where, Matteson writes:

he pursued the hypothesis that children would be best served if their schoolmaster tried to make them happy and comfortable and encouraged them to reason independently. He decorated the dreary classrooms with flowers and pine boughs. He got rid of long tables with hard benches and replaced them with individual desks that he built with his own hands. He somehow scrounged the money to purchase a school library of over a hundred volumes at his own expense. He made up games for the children and sometimes joined in himself.48 His classrooms became places of music and art. Rejecting the usages that had “rendered the school room…a place of suffering, confinement, and hatred,” Alcott made little use of corporal punishment. He governed his students not by threats but by conversation, appealing to their feelings and sense of justice. He established a classroom court, in which, under his supervision, the children reviewed each other’s violations of the school’s disciplinary code. The educational experience became both highly orderly and extremely inviting.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#3
Part 3:

Bronson’s radical educational methods were met with a swift reaction when a local minister began preaching against Alcott’s corruption of the minds of the young. This experience build a reputation for him among progressive educators that would help him get other school positions and leave him feeling like a misunderstood visionary.

Around this time, Bronson was introduced to Abba May by one of his admirers. Abba was immortalized in Little Women as the model for "Marmee," the mother of the four girls. While this is a “joint biography,” Abba is not slighted by Matteson. She is given her due and emerges as a force behind the genius of her famous daughter as well as a woman in her own right.

Abba was an intelligent young woman when she met Bronson. In her mid-20s, a disfiguring injury may have limited her marriage prospects and she welcomed Bronson as a suitor even though he came from a social class below her own. She was a steadying force in the relationship, and while she could never quite corral Bronson, it is difficult to see how Bronson could have accomplished much without her.
 

matthew mckeon

Colonel
Retired Moderator
Joined
Oct 3, 2005
Messages
13,491
#4
Part 2:

Bronson was not a product of Harvard like most of his friends in Concord, America’s literary capital in the mid-19th Century. Instead, he grew up poor on a farm west of Hartford, Connecticut. He never received a college education and his poverty forced him to leave home at a young age to play the role of Yankee Trader in the South.

After he gained his parents some financial comfort, he became a school master in Cheshire Connecticutt where, Matteson writes:

he pursued the hypothesis that children would be best served if their schoolmaster tried to make them happy and comfortable and encouraged them to reason independently. He decorated the dreary classrooms with flowers and pine boughs. He got rid of long tables with hard benches and replaced them with individual desks that he built with his own hands. He somehow scrounged the money to purchase a school library of over a hundred volumes at his own expense. He made up games for the children and sometimes joined in himself.48 His classrooms became places of music and art. Rejecting the usages that had “rendered the school room…a place of suffering, confinement, and hatred,” Alcott made little use of corporal punishment. He governed his students not by threats but by conversation, appealing to their feelings and sense of justice. He established a classroom court, in which, under his supervision, the children reviewed each other’s violations of the school’s disciplinary code. The educational experience became both highly orderly and extremely inviting.
Almost everything he did here, the desks, the classroom decoration, school library, no corporal punishment, are standard practice today. The idea of a peer court is harder to do. The fact is, you need someone like B. Alcott to make it work, and they don't grow on trees.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#5
Part 4:

The young Bronson Alcott was a hard-working stiver hoping to improve the lot of himself and his poor parents. He was also a thinker who strove to improve his mind. When he moved to Boston as a young man, he sought out the great thinkers of that city. A major influence was Rev. William Ellery Channing, who was revolutionizing the Unitarian Church in the 1820s and 1830s.

Channing rejected the doctrine that man was born depraved and alienated from God. The God of Channing was good and kind, and encouraged humans to a better life. God was a teacher who brought men and women to a better understanding of themselves.

If Channing taught Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, then 32 years old, befriended him in 1828. The two men would stay friends until death parted them.
 
Last edited:

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#6
Part 5:

As the young Bronson Alcott establishes himself in the intellectual life of Boston, Matteson does an admirable job of describing the family life that he and Abba create as spouses and parents. Each of their four girls, who will all be represented in Little Women, are also biographied in this book. Matteson deserves his Pulitzer for ably combining six lives in one book without a sense of biographical clutter.

Abba named her second child Louisa May, after a departed sister of her own. Baby Louisa was born on Bronson’s 33rd birthday and she would have a connection to him beyond that ordinarily enjoyed by fathers and daughters that would last until the week of their deaths. Bronson would give her much love, some appalling neglect, and provide her with a character for her fiction.

Louisa would do more to popularize Bronson’s ideas than he himself could ever manage, and at the same time offer biting published critiques of his otherworldliness.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#7
Part 6:

In describing Louisa's childhood, Matteson makes sure to include incidents in her life that found their way into her books. For example, during a skating expedition to Frog Pond in Boston, Louisa fell through the ice and had to be rescued by a boy, a story that is high drama in Little Women. What did not make into the book was that Louisa's rescuer was an African American. Louisa, a lifelong abolitionist, wrote that she became “a friend to the colored race then and there.” Her mother recalled that Louisa became “an abolitionist at the age of three.”

Those who have already read Little Women will be rewarded with the recognition of the true stories behind the fictional tales and the true-to-life personalities Alcott drew on for her characters. There was a maternal older sister and an artistic younger one. And Beth's death, unfortunately was a story based on a real tragedy. Matteson hits all the right points without being heavy handed in the ways Alcott's art imitated her life.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#8
Part 7:

As Matteson describes Louisa's progress through childhood, he also writes of the repeated collapses of Bronson's projects. An experimental school based on sound pedagological principles is destroyed when an innocent student discussion of nature and childbirth is misconstrued by a local minister as a debauched descent into sexual depravity. No actual discussion of anything we would recognize as sexual took place, but dirty minds were only too willing to read dirty motives into Bronson's conversation with his young scholars.

Things got so bad for Bronson after this "scandal" that word spread that a mob would attack a seminar he offered for teachers on educational theory. Louisa must have been effected by all the negative attention given to her father. She began to run away from home into the "bad" parts of town, those places where the Irish lived. Although Matteson reports that she sometimes had nothing to eat except whet the impoverished immigrant children shared with her, she did not thereby lose her family's prejudices against the Irish race.

In latter life, Louisa would call for wives to put out "No Irish Need Apply" signs against Irish domestics. Even worse, the youngest sister in Little Women, when a teacher takes away her valued collection of limes, is doubly vexed that the cast-offs wound up in the hands of Irish boys and girls, who Louisa refers to as her sworn enemies. Unfortunately, Louisa would not recall the generosity of the poor when she was in a position to be generous herself.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#9
Part 8:

Bronson Alcott continued with his educational efforts in spite of the resistances he met from conservatives. In 1839, when a black family sought to enroll their daughter in his school, Alcott accepted her in. Most other schools were rigorously segregated. The white parents demanded that the black girl be expelled. “I decline,” responded Alcott. All but two of the white children were pulled out of the school. Matteson writes that with those words; “It was over. By standing up for the humanity of Susan Robinson, Alcott had at last committed professional suicide.” He would not earn a living teaching children again until after the Civil War.

His professional last stand led him to question the organization of life in Boston. Everything in the city seemed to be at odds with what it claimed to be. Abolitionist Boston had driven him out of his profession because he refused to discriminate against a little black girl. Intellectual Boston seemed to be driven by concern about money and status. Bronson packed up his family and moved to bucolic Concord.

Concord, which Louisa May considered a dull little town, was emerging as the center of American literary life. Matteson describes the importance of its small literary circle:

Take away Concord from the United States, and the United States seemed a relatively unlettered country. But take away a handful of persons from Concord, and Concord was no different from any other Massachusetts town.

Alcott could now visit his friends Emerson and Thoreau, two of the brightest lights in Concord letters.

Louisa’s sister Ann attended a school run by Thoreau. Louisa herself, and other children in the area went with Thoreau on nature hikes along the Concord River. Emerson extended an open invitation to Louisa to use his library.

At the end of his first year in Concord, word came from England that the model school he had run to a disastrous end had attracted enough support across the Atlantic to lead to the founding of an Alcott school there. When Alcott went to Britain to visit the school, he found a small but devoted group of followers who saw him as a visionary. When some of them decided to come back to the United States with him, it was not help restart his school, it was to found a Utopian community in Massachusetts.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#10
Part 9:

The new Utopia was to exclude all exploitation:

Thus, all commodities that came from the labor of slaves were to be strictly excluded. In addition, the community would do away with money. On the principles that slaughtering animals was a form of murder and that consuming their milk, eggs, and labor was a species of theft, the Alcottian paradise was to shun the use of animal products and would rely as little as possible on animals for work.

It was also to exclude the affections of the family. All the members were brothers and sisters, so the special relationships within a traditional family were to be eschewed. Abba was to have no special claim on her husband’s attention, even though she had stood by him through his principled disasters and the births of their four daughters.

The commune Alcott helped found was called Fruitlands, although the habitants ate precious little fruit. Bronson worked hard, and Abba worked even harder, to make the dream a success, but other members were not so sustaining. One male member liked to display his member, reveling in public nudity. We don’t know how this effected the four Alcott girls who were victims of this exhibitionism.

The commune fell apart quickly, and within a few months nearly all its members had left its starving precincts.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#11
Part 10:

Matteson provides an illuminating example of the otherworldly cluelessness of the Transcendentalist around Bronson:

Near the banks of Walden Pond, Alcott’s friend Thoreau had a conversation with an Irish laborer named John Field. It was an exchange of views that might easily have taken place at Fruitlands between Alcott and a neighboring farmer. Thoreau tried to impress Field with the beauty of a simple life and frugal diet. Thoreau explained to Field “that I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them…but as he began with tea, and
coffee, and butter, and milk, and beef, he had to work hard to pay for them.” To Thoreau’s surprise, Field was not persuaded. It seemed to him that the very point of coming to America was to live in a place where “you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day.” Thoreau made another sally, asserting that “the only true America was that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these.” Thoreau made no progress with Field, however, and their discussion ended with some unkindly mutterings about congenital Irish poverty.22 Yet as the Fruitlands experiment had already shown, Field’s was the majority opinion; one lived in America in order to get things, not to test one’s character by doing without them.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#12
Part 11:

One of the refugees from Fruitlands was Isaac Hecker, of "Hecker Flour" fame. He left because he thought Alcott was more concerned with literary matters than with producing food for survival. Hecker, who went on to become a Catholic priest, later referred to the Transcendentalist Trinity of Alcott, Thoreau, and Emerson as "three consecrated cranks."

After the failure of Fruitlands, Bronson became bed-bound with depression. His family feared that he would die from his heartbreak. Bronson was emotionally and financially ruined. He would take years to recover from his Utopia gone to he11.

Bronson gradually restored himself in Concord. eventually he was able to provide his long-suffering wife with a stable home. This home the two of them opened to runaway slaves as their house became a stop on the Underground Railroad. Louisa remembered the African Americans her parents sheltered in the 1840s and 1850s. She helped teach one refugee to read and write.

In spite of his sympathy for escaped slaves, Bronson was prone to accept the racist thought of his day which viewed the Anglo-Saxon, blue eyed and blond-haired, as the crown of creation.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#13
Part 12:

I found Matteson's discussion of Bronson Alcott's seemingly self-contradictory thinking on race particularly telling:

"Alcott despised slavery and, as has been seen, refused to use any product that slave labor had produced. He willingly bade farewell to the only career he ever loved because he would not dismiss a black child from his school. He risked prison by sheltering fugitive slaves in his house. As will be shown later, he exposed himself to being shot in a failed effort to win the release of another fugitive. Unlike some abolitionists who advocated the end of slavery but nothing more, Alcott advocated full political rights for freed slaves. At a time when the idea was far from popular, he supported the induction of black troops into the Union army. He was a sincere admirer of both John Brown and Frederick Douglass. How, then, could Alcott espouse a theory of race that consigned human beings, even his own family and friends, to categories of higher and lower? How could a man dedicated to the ideals of political equality and abolition find it so difficult to abolish his own enslavement to hierarchical thinking? Of all the contradictions that inhabited the mind of Bronson Alcott, not one is more baffling or disappointing than this..."
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#14
Part 13:

In 1848, Bronson began a career as a public speaker. He did not give lectures, which was common in that era, he instead offered "conversations." These conversations were held with small audiences on a pre-determined topic. Alcott would interact with those in the room, engaging in dialogues with the audience. This is a format that we are all used to seeing on television, but at the time many people did not know what to make of it.

Alcott saw his conversations not as informal debates, but as ways he and his audiences could share moments of sympathy. Alcott wrote that he hoped that “touching those fine chords in every heart...will inspire them to respond to one’s own experience.”

Louisa began working on her writing in the 1850s. Unlike her father, she was keenly aware of the precariousness of the family's finances. As an eighteen year old, Louisa began keeping detailed accounts of her earnings and expenditures. She went to work as a teacher and she began to see writing as a way of earning extra money. Where her father was otherworldly and her mother exceedingly charitable to the poor, Louisa had her eyes on the family balance sheet. She and her sisters had been the unintended victims of the Bronson's idealism.
 
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Messages
7,779
Location
Denver, CO
#15
Almost everything he did here, the desks, the classroom decoration, school library, no corporal punishment, are standard practice today. The idea of a peer court is harder to do. The fact is, you need someone like B. Alcott to make it work, and they don't grow on trees.
That's interesting because Grant made a point of noting that in pre-war days, corporal punishment, and the absence of age classes, were standard practice. The New England model seems to have spread. Primary schools with as much age structure as possible, seems to have been a successful model.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#16
Part 14:

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Alcotts became actively involved in resistance to slavery. Bronson joined a vigilance committee to protect blacks being hunted in Boston by slave catchers. Bronson believed that now that the whole country was a hunting ground for slavers, Northers could no longer sit idly by. He wrote:

“The question ‘What has the North to do with slavery?’ is visibly answered…. Such disgrace to the country, to the State,…to humanity…cannot be long borne with, nor silently.”

Louisa May was immensely effected by the case of the runaway Sims. When the court in Boston returned him to slavery, the poor man was tortured in Georgia as punishment for leaving his masters. Sims was only a little older than she was and Matteson believes that she followed his trial with great empathy.

The 1854 trial of the escaped slave Anthony Burns nearly got Bronson killed. Bronson and his friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson met to plot the escape of Burns. A group of five hundred abolitionists including Alcott made uncoordinated effort to storm the courthouse where Burns was being held. James Batchelder, an Irish defender of the courthouse, was killed by the attackers, but Burns was not freed.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#17
Part 15:

Bronson Alcott became increasingly involved in the protection of fugitive slaves. His home became a stop on the underground railroad, and for the first time he became involved in electoral politics. At the same time, Louisa May was building up a still-small reputation as a professional writer. Apart from writing for periodicals, she published a small book called Flower Fables. Whatever its artistic merits, the process of having the book published, and feeling cheated by its publisher, taught her valuable lessons about her chosen trade.

Bronson was admirably supportive of Louisa. He wrote, at this early stage in her career, “I hope to be a Spectator of her triumphs fairly soon.” He could drift in and out of his parental responsibilities, but he did not try to confine his talented daughter to the domestic realm.

A grown-up Louisa could turn a cold eye on the failings of her father. She admired Bronson's intelligence and his struggle to be guided by morality, but she had also gone to bed hungry when he could not bestir himself to earn a living. In writing of her desire to be paid as a writer, she wrote that she wanted to “prove that though an Alcott I can support myself.” In her later writing, her father is an important figure, but one who never quite commands the page. Readers of Little Women know that the March girls' father, obviously patterned on Bronson, is a good man who is largely absent.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#18
Part 16:

In the late 1850s, Bronson's often sullied reputation began to revive. He was received in reform circles and a visit to New York included a trip to Horace Greeley's farm and an audience with Walt Whitman. Matteson recounts how Alcott described Whitman to his traveling companion Thoreau:

Whitman had received Bronson while reclining on a couch, pillowing his head on a bended arm. He immediately impressed Alcott as an extraordinary person. No sooner had Alcott told his journal that Whitman was not easily described, than he launched into a vivid description: Whitman was “broad-shouldered, rouge-fleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr.” Bronson marveled at the poet’s brute power, genius, and audacity and noted Whitman’s calico jacket, coarse overalls, and cowhide boots with an admiration approaching envy. Whitman’s voice, too, was enchanting—deep, sharp, sometimes tender, and almost melting in its intonation. He was, Bronson thought, an Adamic figure, claiming never to have sinned and “quite innocent of repentance and man’s fall.” Alcott could not wait for Thoreau to meet this singular man.

During her growing up, the Alcott family had moved with Louisa an average of every two years. Finally, in the late 1850s, Bronson settled on a home back in Concord along the old Battle Road of the Revolution. Bronson called it by the romantic name of "Orchard House." The not entirely entranced Louisa referred to it as "Apple Slump."
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,170
Location
Long Island, NY
#19
Part 17:

The death of Beth, the most angelic of the March girls, is the central tragedy in Little Women. The death of Louisa's sister Lizzie was the model for that story. While the pathetic scenes of art and real life had similarities, the real life girl suffered terribly. The real-life girl at the time of death had lost her hair and her youth and looked like a much older woman.

Louisa felt depressed and at times self-destructive after the death. She found solace in time spent with the noted minister Theodore Parker and in work. Parker observed that Louisa May Alcott had "true grit."

As her own life was suffused with grief, so too was the nation. John Brown's raid brought war ever closer. Louisa received John Brown's widow into her father's home. For her the martyred abolitionist was "St. John the Just."

The Alcott's new home was next to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne seemed to like to spend time with Bronson Alcott, but he must have regarded him as an obsessive character. He warned a guest of Alcott's about the vegetarian's belief that food was the root of all evil, “You may begin at Plato or the day’s news, and he will come around to pears. He is now convinced…that pears exercise a more direct and ennobling influence on us than any other vegetable or fruit.”

With the coming of the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott finally began to contemplate leaving home. She wrote in her journal, “Thirty years old. Decide to go to Washington as a nurse if I could find a place. "
 


(Membership has it privileges! To remove this ad: Register NOW!)
Top