She wrote LITTLE WOMEN and became the household breadwinner. He held philosophic conversations after several failed attempts at running his own private school. Both nearly starved at Fruitlands, their utopian experiment. But if that's all you know about Louisa and Bronson Alcott, you are sadly ill-informed. You need to read EDEN'S OUTCASTS; and the sooner, the better.
In spite of its title -- which gives misleading higher billing to Louisa -- this book is indeed a dual biography that documents a complex father-daughter and writer-writer relationship. Chronologically, the treatment has to first study Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), from his beginnings on a farm in Wolcott, Connecticut, and a rural education that, unlike other Transcendentalist men, did not include a college degree. Working first as a peddler, he later landed what seemed to be the perfect job for such a thoughtful, self-taught young man: school teacher. Soon enough he was married to Abba May (1800-1877) and had a household of little women -- daughters Anna Bronson (1831-1893), Louisa May (1832-1888), Elizabeth Peabody/Sewell (1835-1858), and Abigail May (1840-1879). Matteson follows Bronson's myriad attempts to find suitable jobs as well as every subsequent relocation the family made, covering a good portion of the Northeast and New England. He turns to Louisa as she moves to the family forefront, and also when she serves time as a nurse in a Union Army hospital. Because each member of the family kept a journal, much of their daily lives and thoughts are available to us -- at least, those events and feelings that they took the time to document. Diaries were not kept private in those days.
Center stage here are Bronson -- the fumbling father who wanted very much to be a teacher and philosopher but did not find sustained success in either venture at first -- and "Louy" -- the imaginative tomboy who seemed to defy convention at every turn and gradually created stories that magazine editors were willing to buy, in spite of the fact that a woman wrote them. This is real life, a seesaw featuring a father and a daughter who had very different personalities but sometimes exhibited startling similarities. The ironies are almost staggering: they were both born on November 29th. They both found literary success at the same time, and they both struggled with new-found celebrity. They died within several days of one another. And both were inexplicably influenced by the text of John Bunyan's classic, "The Pilgrim's Progress." Like father, like daughter, in many respects.
Author Matteson obviously read every scrap of writing penned by Louisa and by Bronson; and because of his diligence, we readers have front row seats to their everyday lives. He also takes the time to provide a succinct and sound critique for each of their published or otherwise finished works. His approach in presenting and interpreting the facts is as neutral as possible, while being moderately sympathetic to the foibles of both of his subjects. Readers need not follow his lead: it's difficult at times not to feel terribly sorry for Louisa, Bronson, and the whole Alcott family. The true miracle is that they met and survived their challenges as best they could. And they found enough fame for their work to still be known and appreciated.
The text is wonderfully revealing and readable. Matteson's concluding paragraph is a stand-alone masterpiece. Every biographer should take the time to reflect on his/her subject in such a fashion.
Destined to become THE biography of the Alcotts, EDEN'S OUTCASTS is worthy of sharing a shelf with Megan Marshall's THE PEABODY SISTERS. It's a must-read for fans of the Transcendentalists as well as for the ever-growing number of Louisa May Alcott aficionados.