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Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography
Simon & Schuster, 2010
320 pp., $26.00
Jennifer L. Holberg
Earlier this year when I visited Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott's home in Concord, Massachusetts, I was surprised to find that a considerable gathering of people was already in line when I arrived promptly at opening time. I shouldn't have been: every year, the house hosts over 50,000 visitors. Later, when my brother and I made our pilgrimage to Concord's Sleepy Hollow cemetery to see the graves of Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and their families, it was Alcott's grave that was strewn with stones and flowers and stories, stories written in childish hand by young girls inspired by Little Women—a novel whose influence has extended through generations of readers, particularly women who strongly identify with the story of Jo, Meg, Amy, Beth, and their Marmee.
Though Alcott's work has remained popular with readers since its publication in 1868, critical interest in her life and work has undergone something of a revival in the past few years: from Geraldine Brooks' reimagining of Little Women in March (2005) to John Matteson's Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (2007)—both of which won the Pulitzer Prize; from Harriet Reisen's Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women (2009) to Richard Francis' Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia (2010).
Susan Cheever's Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, then, joins a very crowded field—made even more crowded by Cheever's own earlier group biography, American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work (2007). In her latest work, Cheever's operative words are "personal biography," suggesting not only a rather narrow focus on Alcott herself (and not a wider family portrayal beyond Alcott's father, Bronson) but also, more significantly, a biography read through Cheever's own life and history, often with her own difficult father, the writer John Cheever. ...