Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Eden's Outcasts

Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress. ~ from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The opening lines of Little Women will never again have the same meaning for me after reading John Matteson's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson Alcott. Eden's Outcasts describes the very real poverty experienced by the Alcott sisters, upon whom the four March sisters in Little Women are based. The girls often did not have enough to eat; the family was always inundated by debts. In spite of living in near destitution, the girls received a classical education. It was very odd how they would go from studying German and Latin and discussing philosophy to a meager supper of squash and apples. All of this was due to their father's desire of pursuing Utopian projects at the expense of his family's well-being.

Bronson Alcott was not a Christian; he did not accept the divinity of Christ and thought that every child was divine. He deemed it possible to create a heaven on earth by subduing human nature and by divesting oneself from the desire for material possessions. There is much of what he believed that mirrored Christian asceticism except that Christ was not the goal. It was not for the love of God that he embraced such austerity but for self-improvement. In his quest for perfection he forgot that his main duty was to feed his children and provide them with shelter and safety.

It was his wife Abba Alcott, upon whom "Mrs. March" is based, who kept the family together. Although Mrs. Alcott struggled with her temper she managed to maintain a spirit of cheer and grace in the household, working like a beast of burden so that her girls could have a decent life. The happiness amid poverty that abounds in Little Women was a reflection of the reality, and it was a reality created by their mother. However, such dire poverty made all of the girls, except for Elizabeth who died young, resolve that they would never live the way their mother had been forced to live. It gave an edge to Louisa's determination to support the family through her writings, and give her mother a comfortable old age.

I always loved "Jo" who is Louisa herself, and after reading Eden's Outcasts I love her even more. She was the wild tomboy daughter, never able to please her father, at least not until she almost died being an army nurse during the Civil War. It was only then that Bronson came to appreciate Louisa's inner strength and goodness. She was a deeply spiritual person and although she was raised outside of any denomination (their father is a "clergyman," but the March sisters never set foot in a church) she prayed, seeking the truth. Her wrestlings with her own unruly self gave her an intense insight into human nature which shines in her novels. Most of all, Louisa seemed to grasp the sacramentality of family life, of the rough-hewn personalities who shape each other under the guidance of loving parents. Although "Mr. March" was improvident he nevertheless formed his children's views of the world. Louisa and her father shared the same birthday and died a few days apart from each other. Eden's Outcasts analyzes that rather unusual relationship as well as the other influences which made Louisa one of the great American writers. For anyone who has ever been a guest of the March family, it is a "must" read.


Enbrethiliel said...


I, too, will never read one part Little Women the same way again--the part where they are wishing for their father to come home, as if it would make everything better.

elena maria vidal said...

Me, too. Very sad.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review. This is one I really want to read.