Louisa May Alcott is a hero to many readers, as the author of the beloved Little Women, a writer who chased her dream until it became a reality, and a woman who found her place in the world and stayed independent and single at a time when that was especially unfashionable. Alcott’s latest biographer, Susan Cheever, can particularly identify with two aspects of Alcott’s life: as a writer, and as the daughter of a famous, enigmatic man. Cheever’s father was celebrated self-loathing writer John Cheever; Alcott’s was eccentric reformer Bronson Alcott. So Cheever sprinkles her own thoughts about being an independent woman, writer, and daughter to a much-speculated-about public figure throughout her biography Louisa May Alcott, making the book a “personal biography.”
It’s a major task, crafting an opinionated biography of a literary icon who lived during interesting times and knew many famous people. (Cheever is obligated to discuss transcendentalist writers, utopian ideals, and Civil War history along the way.) Often, she presents various biographers’ opinions on a certain aspect of Alcott’s life, then offers her own take. Occasionally, she muses over biography in general, wondering, for instance, how useful it is to transpose historical figures into the modern world. Sometimes these questions are purely rhetorical, which feels like a bit of a cop-out.
Cheever’s takes on the psychology of writing are insightful, especially to writers who may find comfort in the fact that even one of the country’s most celebrated literary heroines had issues with writers’ block and not wanting to kill her own babies. (She released her novel Moods twice, once after a significant re-work). Sometimes, though, her writing is repetitive, with clunky transitions like “Battlefields and hospitals go together,” or “If God is a storyteller… 1865 suggest[s] that He turned His computer over to Shakespeare for a while and went out to take a coffee break.” She highlights her lack of flow with distinctly modern vernacular, as when Bronson Alcott alighted on London with his “charm set to stun,” or Alcott’s original draft of a manuscript was “way too long.”
While Cheever certainly portrays Alcott as a hero (and she comes across as a hard-working, independent, admirable person in many ways), she never sounds enviable. Her pre-fame life was one of constant movement, misery, poverty, work, and war, and after Little Women, she went back to work and suffered constant health problems. Alcott remains a little cold and aloof throughout Cheever’s biography. While she wasn’t necessarily a snuggly figure, Cheever might have done better to emphasize the impact Alcott’s work made on her. Still, Cheever’s ode to Alcott is an enjoyable, fast, educational read, and while Cheever’s personal stamp on the biography isn’t always a success, it’s enlightening in a low-key way.