This double biography of Bronson and Louisa Alcott necessarily skews toward Bronson’s life, a long 86 years compared to Louisa’s 56. And though Pulitzer Prize winner John Matteson does an excellent job enlivening his subjects, Bronson Alcott was an utterly exasperating man.
A brilliant and progressive thinker, Alcott was ahead of his time regarding education and women’s rights. Simultaneously he was a poor provider for wife Abigail “Abba” May and daughters Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May. His attempts at progressive education (the Temple School), Utopian living (the communal Fruitlands), and writing (The Dial) all failed with attendant public humiliation. The family was desperately poor and often starving—in fact, they would have starved were it not for the constant generosity of Bronson’s dearest friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Indeed, much of the fascination with Bronson today comes from his illustrious circle of friends: Thoreau, Emerson, Elizabeth Peabody Palmer. As a child, Louisa often went on nature walks and boat rides with Thoreau, and at 15 solemnly presented herself to Emerson, asking for access to his library.
Described by his friends as “otherworldly”, Bronson thought the body mere housing for the spirit. Matteson writes: “So long as Alcott could move within the sphere of the ethereal and evanescent, he moved with radiance and grace. As soon as he stepped into the world of things and action, he began to lose his balance.”
Yet this Transcendentalist tried: a fervent believer in man’s perfectibility, Bronson Alcott spent his life trying to convince others that human greatness was possible. His efforts turned especially toward his daughters, who were expected to observe his strict vegetarianism and keep detailed journals, which were shared by the family.
Bronson was the original helicopter parent, though his concerns extended only as far as his daughters’ souls. Of the four girls, Louisa suffered most: headstrong, with tremendous physical energy, she struggled and failed to control her impetuousness in an endless attempt to gain Bronson’s approval. It wasn’t until she penned an autobiographical “girl’s book” about four sisters named March that her father recognized her genius.
Louisa’s sisters were more sanguine. Eldest Anna was by all accounts a placid child who did as her father wished. A talented actress and writer, she pursued neither ability, instead marrying and bearing two sons. Elizabeth, the third daughter, is the original Beth March: a quiet homebody who had no ambitions outside the home. In 1856, Abba ministered to a local family sick with Scarlet Fever. Daughters Elizabeth and May accompanied her; both fell ill. May rallied, but Elizabeth did not. Like her fictional alter ego, she weakened inexorably. In March 1857, saying her needle was too heavy, she lay it down a final time, dying in Bronson’s arms.
May, like the fictional Amy, was a talented artist, though the selfish vanity Amy battles is nowhere mentioned regarding the youngest Alcott. May studied drawing, taught, and, once Louisa’s success boosted the family fortunes, went abroad, where she met and married a European. Her life was also sadly brief: after giving birth to a daughter, also named Louisa May, she died from postpartum complications.
Matteson goes into great detail about Concord, New Hampshire and the thinkers who lived there during the last half of the 1800s. Much of what Bronson and his fellow travelers extolled strikes the modern, cynical reader as almost absurdly naïve: the possibility of perfection through spiritual striving, self-denial, and physical toil, the dissolution of nuclear families in favor of Utopian living, avoidance of all animal products, the preternatural wisdom of children, the possibility of peace among men. Yet all of these things are resurgent in pockets of the Country, including the secret “milk parties” at Fruitlands, where Utopians starving for animal protein snuck into the barn at night for a little furtive imbibing of unpasteurized milk.
Bronson’s brilliance was untempered by humor; for all his lofty thinking, Matteson writes: “The only way to remain superior to his new surroundings was to judge them morally.” This makes reading about him difficult; for all his prescient thinking, Bronson was a stuffed shirt, and an irresponsible one at that. When Fruitlands failed spectacularly, leaving the Alcotts destitute, Bronson took to bed, refusing food and hoping to die.
Meanwhile, the Alcott women scrabbled to support themselves. Abba, worn from her endless domestic duties at Fruitlands, took in boarders and sewing. Louisa and Anna worked as governesses, teachers, lady’s companions, and seamstresses. Louisa also took to scribbling stories in earnest, penning sensationalist tales that paid just enough to keep the family afloat.
The Civil War impacted the Alcotts tremendously. Appalled by slavery, they grimly put pacifism aside. Louisa applied to become a nurse, accepting a position in a Washington, D.C. hospital not far from enemy lines. Working in a converted ballroom amid primitive conditions, Louisa lasted six weeks before contracting Typhoid from her charges. She was soon so ill that Bronson was called to take her home. He was shocked to find his once robust daughter near death.
It was a month before the fever broke, but Louisa May Alcott never recovered her health. Doctors had treated her with mercurous chloride, effectively poisoning her. For the rest of her life she suffered blinding headaches, leg pain, and crushing fatigue as the mercury moved through her body, slowly killing her.
In 1868, still sick and weak, Louisa May Alcott wrote the line, “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug” thus giving birth to one of the most cherished novels in print, bringing her family both lasting recognition and financial stability. Bronson, meanwhile, finally came into his own, penning Tablets, a collection of philosophical musings bound by the very earthbound process of gardening.
From 1868 until their respective deaths, in 1888, father and daughter were the objects of fame and adoration. Bronson reveled in the attention, giving discussion tours and graciously taking questions about his daughter. Louisa, true to her nature, loathed fame and did her best to hide from inquisitive visitors. She longed to be free of the March sisters and write an adult novel. Unfortunately, her health never permitted it.
Matteson takes great pains to draw connections between father and daughter: their identical birthdays, their writing, their deaths. And while the Alcotts were an extraordinarily close family, Louisa and Bronson were highly dissimilar: a man who lived in his head, a rambunctious yet practical daughter who channeled her energies into morning runs and “vortices”: intense bouts of work Matteson ascribes to potential mania.
While the comparisons can seem forced, there is no question that their deaths were uncanny. Bronson experienced a series of incapacitating strokes, leaving him partially paralyzed and intermittently lucid. By 1887, aged 54, Louisa was so ill that she was voluntarily moved to a nursing home. In March 1888, she visited her father a final time. He took her hand and said: “I am going up. Come with me.”
Louisa, who was deeply religious, replied she wished she could, and left the house shortly afterward. Louisa, having forgotten her wrap, returned to the nursing home, where she began feeling feverish, and lapsed into a coma. Less than 40 hours after her visit with him, his daughter heeded her father’s wishes and went ‘up’ with him.
Author John Matteson won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, and deservedly so. The depth and scope of his research is admirable. Yet he occasionally falls prey to applying modern-day interpretations to events that transpired over a century ago. This is most apparent in his views of the Alcott family’s mental health. Bronson’s brother, Junius, was mentally unstable and committed suicide. Bronson’s post-Fruitlands behavior is easily interpreted as a nervous breakdown, and Louisa’s “vortices” certainly echo in the modern ear as mania.
While modern readers may find these natural conclusions, it behooves to us to remember that behavioral mores, like dress codes and language, change greatly over time, and we may do a disservice to the Alcotts by asking them to conform to our standards of mental health. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise fine and often moving biography.