PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson

Diane Leach

A fervent believer in man’s perfectibility, Bronson Alcott spent his life trying to convince others that human greatness was possible.

Eden's Outcasts:

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Subtitle: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father
Author: John Matteson
Price: $17.95
Length: 512
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780393333596
US publication date: 2008-11

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.