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

Pat Young

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#21
Part 18:

Louisa was accepted as a nurse, and assigned to the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown. Mrs. Hannah Ropes, the hospital matron wrote of the new nurse, “We are cheered by the arrival of Miss Alcott from Concord—the prospect of a really good nurse, a gentlewoman who can do more than merely keep the patients from falling out of bed.” Matteson writes that Louisa was good novice nurse.

The day Louisa arrived in Georgetown was the same one on which the Battle of Fredericksburg began. Her test began just a few days afterwards.
 

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Part 19:

Louisa was placed in charge of a ward of forty beds in the ballroom of the hotel hospital. When the wounded came, they came in heaps. Men were brought in with each arriving train. Many died before a doctor could see them. She became attached to her patients and mourned them when they died.

On January 1, 1863, she had the good fortune to be in Washington when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced. Louisa danced in celebration of the beginning of the end of slavery.

A couple of weeks later, Louisa was felled by typhoid. Mrs. Ropes, her mentor, died from the disease. Louisa herself was weakened to the point of death.
 
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Part 20:

Louisa would be treated for her deadly illness with Calomel, a mercury chloride mineral. This would poison her for the resgt of her life and may have been the ultimate cause of her death two decades later. Its effects, writes Matteson, led to a general weakness in the once sturdy young woman.

Louisa would later write fictionalized accounts of her experiences as a nurse that were serialized in an anti-slavery magazine. When publishers saw the pieces, she was approached to publish them as Hospital Sketches, a book that remained in print for a century and a half after it was written.
 

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Part 21:

After the Civil War, Louisa had a string of successes. Her writing was sought out and well-paying. When a publisher saw the need for a book for girls, he turned to Alcott to write it. When he saw her first chapters of what would become Little Women, he did not like them much. The he let his niece read them and he completely revised his assessment. The girl was delighted with what she saw of the novel.

She wrote her new book in just two and a half months. It had not been brewing in her mind for years, it had been written to meet a publisher's need for a "girls' book." Yet the children who read it saw something that felt true and direct.

The book that was published as Little Women was only half of the book that we know now. Louisa concluded what is now the first half of the novel with the teasing paragraph:

So grouped the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama, called “LITTLE WOMEN.”

She virtually demanded that her readers write to the publisher to commission volume two.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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#25
Great thread, thank you! We do this ' thing ' where figures in history are all ' good ' or alllll ' bad '. It misses the point of most who compose these buildings blocks on which we're perched in 2018, putting them out of reach, kinda. Alcott isn't way up there any more, warts and all but she's far more approachable, seeing those.

Alcott's " Hospital Sketches " reaches into what this war meant beyond famous generals, defenses, assaults and charges. Her doomed blacksmith is one of the most revealing portraits I can put my finger on, of the price paid those few years. If anyone hasn't read it, good to give it a try.
 

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#26
Part 22:

Readers of Little Women will reach this chapter of the book on its publication already knowing that most of the characters, from the March family to the German emigre lover of Jo, are based on real people whom Matteson has already introduced us to. Many if the incidents in the book, including the skating accident, have antecedents in Louisa's real life. There is one character, though, who is not fully represented in the book. That is Bronson Alcott.

The March father is famous as a constant, but absent, presence in the book. He is loved, even revered, but his distance from his home drives the novel as a book about the relations among women and girls. In reading this joint biography, I expected Bronson's Civil War years to have been spent like Mr. March, at the front in the non-combat role of a Unitarian minister. I anticipated him being stricken with an illness and having to be brought back by the family.

Bronson Alcott was too old to serve in the war, even as a minister. He stayed home. It was his daughter Louisa who went to the theatre of war as a non-combatant nurse. It was she who was stricken with a potentially fatal illness. Bronson came to Washington to rescue her.
 

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Part 23:

Fans of Little Women will find a sophisticated analysis of the novel in Metteson's book. Even more interesting, they will read of Louisa's experience of going from being a regionally known writer to a best-selling novelist. Louisa had apparently not received the letter her publisher wrote informing her of the success of her newly released book. She had heard nothing of it. She went to the publisher's office to confront him about it, only to see wagons lined up outside with workers loading the books to be shipped far and wide.

The first printing of Little Women sold out in just days. Thousands more would be published in coming months, giving Louisa May Alcott a level first of financial stability, and later of prosperity that she had never known before.
“A little success is so inspiring," she wrote in her journal.

Her publisher insisted that she write Part II of Little Women and Louisa began that task on November 1, 1868, just two months after Part I had been published.
 

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Part 24:

Two months later, on January 1, 1869, Alcott delivered the manuscript of the second volume of Little Women to her published. Where Volume 1 was essentially a retelling of the story of her adolescence, Volume 2 was a more imaginative work in which the girls are now women. They head out into the world, encountering the obstacles men put in their way, as well as learning to love some of those men who are willing to come to marriage on terms of friendship rather than patriarchy.

Alcott was originally resistant to "marry the girls off." She was dismayed by fan mail insisting that the Little Women fall in love and marry and have babies. Her intent was to show women in the world as the agents of their own destinies. But, besides being a proto-feminist, she was also a commecial author who needed to satisfy her fans so they would purchase Volume 2. Her published too put pressure on her to include as many weddings as possible in the new volume. A friend quipped, writes Matteson, that she might as well call the book Wedding Marches.

Alcott did include weddings and babies in the new book, but she did not give into fans demands that she marry her alter-ego Jo to the handsome, rich boy Laurie. The wealthy heir is good hearted and educated, but too shallow for Jo. He is also a little bit of too obvious a choice of mate for her.

I think that there might have been an additional reason for Alcott's decision not to marry the two. In reading Volume 1, in which Laurie appears more than any other male character, I was struck with the thought that Alcott may have wanted to use his relationship with Jo to demonstrate that men and women could have friendships that did not include a sexual element. Alcott wanted women to enter fields of employment outside the home. She must have understood, as we do now, that for women to succeed, they needed to be mentored by, and work beside, men who were not their sexual partners. While Laurie's desire for Jo becomes obvious in Volume 2, their continued relationship depends on their establishment of boundaries precluding romance.

I also believe that Alcott did not want Laurie for Jo's spouse because it would have made things way too easy. What had been a novel of a girl's struggle, would turn into a book about a newly rich women's conspicuous consumption funded by her doting husband. Sort of a Housewives of Concord Massachusetts. If they married, Laurie would solve all of Jo's problems. Alcott wanted Jo to find her own solutions.
 

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Part 25:

Instead of taking Laurie for a husband or leading a single life, Jo marries the impoverished German intellectual and dissident whom she met in her city life. For Jo, and her sisters, their dreams don't come true, and that Matteson writes is the source of the success of the second volume. No one, including the reader, gets exactly what she wants. There is no happy conclusion, in fact there is no conclusion at all.

Louisa May's success seemed to herald that of her father's. He published a book at the same time and for a while both father and daughter had best sellers. Bronson managed to use his late-won fame as a springboard for initiating a Transcendentalist college of sorts, a temporary academy where New England philosophes gathers for disputation. Louisa May way was not amused. Matteson says that "She confessed that if the Concord philosophers had more philanthropy in their blood, she would have found the proceedings enjoyable. However, she decided, “speculation seems a waste of time when there is so much real work crying to be done. Why discuss the Unknowable till our poor are fed & the wicked saved?”"
 

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Part 26:

Louisa came from a family that questioned the traditional place of women in society. In 1873 her mother Abba had said that “I am seventy-three, but I mean to go to the polls before I die, even if my daughters have to carry me.” Louisa May Alcott got the chance denied to her mother in 1880 when she became the first woman in Concord history to be able to register to vote for the members of the school board.
 

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Part 27:

In 1886 Bronson finally reached the end of his long life. Matteson describes Louisa visiting his sickbed:

She brought flowers, and her father smelled them gratefully. Smiling up from his pillow, Bronson looked sweet and feeble. As Louisa knelt at his bedside, the dying philosopher made an eerie request. Noticing his benign countenance, Louisa said, “Father, here is your Louy. What are you thinking of as you lie here so happily?” He took her hand in his and, with a gesture toward the ceiling, replied, “I am going up. Come with me.” Instead of being aghast at the suggestion, Louisa replied gently, “I wish I could.”

Three days later Bronson died, but Louisa May never learned of his passing. She had fallen into a coma. Less than two after his death, on the day of his burial, she passed away.

 

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Conclusion:

When I first heard of Eden's Outcasts, I bought it with some concern. Other "joint biographies" I had read seemed forced. I was never sure what the two people being profiled really shared in common. There is no such problem here. The much more famous Alcott, Louisa May, was formed by, and in reaction to, her principled, idiosyncratic, annoying, negligent, and thoughtful father. She was his daughter, but also his critic.

The other problem with joint biography is that one character is almost always more famous, and overshadows the lesser known. Here, while Louisa gets center stage during the section devoted to the publication of Little Women, for most of the rest of the book, the two characters get equal treatment.

I could see why this book won the Pulitzer. It is very well written and deeply researched. I think most fans of Little Women, people interested in the history of Transcendentalism, and those who want to learn more about the role of women on the home front and as nurses during the Civil War would really enjoy this book.

I did have one disappointment. In my own research I came across an article by Louisa May urging housewives to refuse to hire Irish women as domestic servants. Louisa makes her case for "No Irish Need Apply" in the most bigoted way possible. I don't know if Matteson was aware of this article, or if he chose to ignore it. In any event, it is striking that an advocate for women's rights and against racial prejudice would take a stand against a group of working women based on their ethnicity.

With that caveat in mind, I recommend this book. It brings to life the struggles and thinking of the years before, during, and after the Civil War as they existed in Boston and Concord. The people the Alcott's knew, from Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson to illiterate local farmers and escaped slaves are more than just supporting players in Matteson's drama. They are nicely drawn figures themselves.

This is a fun and fluid read, with enough intellectual challenge to give your brain a workout.
 
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