The Missing Subject

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BIOGRAPHY DECEMBER 21, 2010

The Missing Subject

Louisa May Alcott
by Susan Cheever
Simon & Schuster, 298 pp., $26

It is not uncommon for a literary biography to number almost one thousand pages. Hermione Lee, Leon Edel, and Frederick Karl have proven that the accumulation of small findings can illuminate the daily lives of their subjects. A common mannerism, a fondness for sweets, the use of a particular writing instrument—these are the details that have upended the tired literary stereotypes that loom large in popular consciousness. We have come to rely on the biographer’s skill and prudence in selecting these details and thereby creating a cohesive and more definitive narrative. No longer does a simple linear narrative, or a large overview of the life and the work, suffice; a literary biography is considered a success only if its subject is made viscerally real.

This type of writing requires a hardy constitution and a magical pen. Unfortunately, Susan Cheever has neither, at least in her new biography of Louisa May Alcott. Her writing lacks the artistry required to paint a life, both foreground and background. She takes no viewpoint and proves no hypothesis. Even more damningly, one cannot read Cheever’s work for the bare facts because those facts are buried under a muddled voice and unwarranted writing advice. Blinded by her love of her subject, Cheever too often tells and very rarely shows.

Despite its title and ambitions, Louisa May Alcott focuses intently on Bronson Alcott, or rather, on the impact of father on daughter—not a new idea, and not an idea that is here fully realized. Like many others, this biography begins with a history of the subject’s parents, but Cheever does not allow Bronson to step out of frame for any length of time, even during the years Alcott lived away from her parents. Instead, Cheever inflates Bronson’s figure to such a large magnitude that Alcott becomes almost a minor figure in her own life. There are almost no new or revealing anecdotes of childhood or insights into Alcott’s formative years. Instead, the author covers only well-trodden ground: Bronson’s foolishness with money and the resulting poverty of the Alcotts, the close working relationships among the Transcendentalists of Concord, Alcott’s struggles as a middle child.

Just as frustrating is Cheever’s failure to investigate certain other facets of Alcott’s life. Many significant figures are recast in bit parts in the life of Louisa May: Cheever writes as if Alcott was friendless and without intellectual companionship. Despite the well-known intimacy of the Alcott sisters, Cheever mentions Anna, Elizabeth, and Abigail only fleetingly. Indeed, Elizabeth is mentioned only once before her death, yet we are meant to understand how deeply Alcott was unseated by this loss. But those female relationships are at the heart of Little Women and the center of much Alcott admiration. Alcott’s largest reading audience is still young women, and to neglect these central relationships is to belittle their impact on her later writing.

Yet one feels almost thankful that the sisters were spared Cheever’s pen. The reader plods through mangled sentences such as “Daily teaching that Louisa took on as well as the housework was exhausting,” and “For New Englanders with their Yankee way of seeing things, Rome has always been an epiphany.” Transitions are illogical. (“The United States declared war on Mexico because our westward expansion had reached Texas. The antislavery Liberty Party held its first convention. Alcott family birthdays were always big occasions…”) Assertions are unfounded. (Cheever cites a study by two physicians indicating, based on examination of a portrait, that Alcott most likely suffered from some kind of immune disease. Cheever responds that she has “often looked at the same portrait, and I do not see what she sees.”) Primary sources are rarely given.

Most embarrassing for Cheever is her tendency to preach about the “rules” of “good writing”: “There are rules for good writing and ways of reading that foster good writing”; “All writing is an act of obsession, but fiction writing requires a higher level of intensity”; “Bad writing is often driven by resentment, and good writing is based on authority.” And her thoughts on “good biography” (“[it] scrupulously sticks to the facts.”) are both flawed and puerile. That last thought continues: “These facts are found in libraries and archives where journals and letters are kept—primary sources and in other biographies and published books—secondary sources.” Is she writing for young adults?

References to Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Emerson abound and with good reason—all three were Alcott’s neighbors, and their direct impact can be keenly felt in her writing. But Cheever also compares Alcott weirdly to Henry James, and proclaims that his “close reading of Moods [Alcott’s first, largely unsuccessful first novel] was the beginning of the deep influence her writing had on his writing.” She then states that James’s heroines are modeled after Alcott’s, and boldly declares that “Henry James took her ideas and characters and made his own brilliant career.” Really? James certainly read Alcott (he reviewed her novels), but to say that any Alcott character was the basis for any James heroine is slightly ludicrous. Where is the evidence – in James’s letters, journal entries, and novels, or in Cheever’s close reading of them?

Her analysis of James’s and Alcott’s relationship is a fine example of how Cheever’s narrow-minded vision of Alcott’s prominence blinds her. Alcott’s novels, while charming and dear, are also treacly and saccharine. She is often (and appropriately) classified as a writer of young adult fiction. And while her characters are lively and complex, the novels themselves are watered-down and softened around the edges. It is easy to be interested in Alcott, but hard to revere her.

One wonders why Cheever has attempted this fruitless endeavor. Last year’s delightful Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen did a more than satisfactory job of bringing new information to light. Both the casual and more academically minded reader can turn to that volume and encounter a sufficiently knowledgeable and clear text. Cheever compares her own young adulthood to that of Jo March, saying “As a naughty, rebellious girl in the throes of puberty, I needed help, and it seemed to come from the pages of Little Women….What did it mean to be a woman anyway…should I strike out like Jo March and have great adventures?” But for someone who then repeatedly reminds the reader that Alcott and her famous heroine were drastically different women, Cheever herself falls victim to the misinterpretation. Writing a “personal biography” should not mean writing about oneself.

Hillary Kelly is the assistant editor of The Book.

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