Review: Louisa May Alcott – a Personal Biography – by Susan Cheever

If you know me, you know I love, love, love the Alcotts and I know a lot about Louisa May and her family. I was excited to read Cheever’s new biography on Louisa and found it at the library. I had truly enjoyed Cheever’s “American Bloomsbury” and respect her as an author. I was completely unprepared for what I found in this book. While events were portrayed as I know them, Cheever’s take on the Alcotts was fairly dismal. Bronson is painted as a self-absorbed, selfish, useless man, Abba May (Marmee) as a harpy, Anna as the goody two shoes eldest, Lizzie as somewhat angry, daft, and shadowy, and May as a selfish and self-centered conniving sibling. Louisa herself is portrayed as fairly tortured, unhappy, overworked, and misunderstood.

Now – I’m not saying that the Alcotts had their moments. Yes, Marmee could be quite opinionated (according to journals from that time) and Bronson was very absorbed in his thoughts and writings (again documented). But Ms. Cheever certainly paints this glass as half empty – not half full. The Alcotts seem like a miserable lot; and — most disturbing to me — she suggests (on p. 28) based on one line in a journal where Bronson states that families don’t like him “caressing” the students, that Alcott might have been a sexual predator, abusing his students and daughters alike. (I nearly fell over when I read that).

Additionally, this is rightly called a “personal biography” and is filled with Cheever’s personal anecdotes and thoughts. I would have preferred a little less of that and a little more Alcott.

If you don’t know a thing about the Alcotts, I actually don’t recommend this book. There are other biographies out there (Stern, Matteson, Reisen, etc.). If you do know something about the family then please do read this and get in touch with me and let me know if you are as disappointed in this selection as I am.

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