Yesterday the Reno Newcomers Club Book Club discussed Eden’s Outcasts – The Story of Luisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. It was an interesting and thought provoking discussion. Eden’s Outcasts is a dual biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott. It was at times a slog to read especially in the first 200 pages when Mattteson was focused on Bronson Alcott. Almost everyone in the group agreed that they had to set themselves a daily allotment of pages to read and getting through the daily allotment was very difficult.
Bronson Alcott was not an easy man to read about. Matteson said that
“Allcott’s wedding day journal entry confirms a general truth about the nature of his awareness. More often than not, Bronson Alcott tended to live more in his ideas than in his skin”
As a result Bronson could not and did not provide for his family. I was disgusted by him. And yet apparently in his time he was a mesmerizing speaker with a lot of friends who stood by him. Perhaps he was like a television evangelist or a charismatic politician.
When Louisa was 10 years old her father moved the family to a run down house and piece of land that they named Fruitlands. There he and a few followers hoped to form a utopian society. Fruitlands was a dismal failure. Mattesopn says “At the heart of the transcendentalist impulse was the belief that ones own conscience was sovereign” This group of eccentric individualist “formed a bedlam of good intentions. It seemed the phrase transcendentalist community was something of an oxymoron.
If the family hadn’t finally left Fruitlands and depended on the charity of others they would have starved or frozen to death.
In spite of the difficulty of reading this book I liked the book. It was fascinating and thought provoking to read about Louisa May Alcott and what she overcame. She worked as nurse in a civil war hospital and almost died. She probably did in fact eventually die from the treatment she received for Typhoid while she was at the hospital.
Louisa was in many ways a feminist. She supported her family, She never married and she really wanted to produce adult literature. I felt very disappointed that she was too ill and died to soon to try.
In Eden’s Outcasts Matteson refers to the brilliant Alcott biographer Madeline Stern. I haven’t read her biography of Alcott but her book Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion is one of my favorites. It tells about how Stern and her friend Leona Rostenberg started their rare book business and discovered that Louisa May Alcott wrote and published racey pot boilers in addition to her famous Little Women series. Stern’s obituary in the New York Times from August of 2007 is worth reading.