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All right. So this evening I'm honored to introduce historian and author Susan Cheever here with us tonight to discuss Louisa May Alcott a personal biography of Louisa May Alcott Publishers Weekly writes that she releases his provocative biography with musings on the genesis of genius and calls it keen refreshing and authoritative. And from Kirkus Reviews Alcott was able to exemplify her belief that an unmarried woman could be intelligent successful and more perhaps perhaps more importantly happy. Throughout the narrative she ever allows Alcott's complex humanity to reveal to reveal itself slowly drawing the reader into her iconic life lively and astute. Susan Cheever is a bestselling author of 11 books including note found in a bottle home before dark. My name is Bill and tree tops. Her work has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Boston Globe Winship medal. She's a Guggenheim fellow enough and a member of the Authors Guild Council. In this she writes a column for Newsday and teaches in the Bennington College and the faith program. We're thrilled to have her with us as evenings when you please join me in welcoming Susan Cheever.
I didn't say thrilled to be here. What for Scholars and the rest of us is really the center of the world. Wonderful. It was after all a kind of local author in her own way. I'm going to talk a little and read from the book a little and then talk about myself a little and then answer your questions. I'm going to start by talking about the book that made Louisa May Alcott famous Little Women. It was the book that absolutely changed her life. It made her rich. It made her well known after years and years of struggle. But she didn't want to write it. It was the last thing she wanted to do. She felt it went against all of her creative
impulses. She had said to her editor I'll think about it and stalled and stalled and stalled. She didn't want to do it at all and she ended up doing it as we'll see through a series of unfortunate accidents and I think that often great things happen to us through a series of what seem to be unfortunate accidents but that's just my little theory. Louisa May Alcott was 36 years old when she wrote Little Women in 1868. She was the second of four daughters of an extraordinary family who lived in and around Boston. She was the daughter of ABBA all caught who was an aristocrat who had married Bronson Alcott very late in life. Bronson all caught was kind of a visionary and kind of a jerk. You can usually get a fight going about Bronson Alcott pretty easily. He was one of these characters he wore a cape and a big cat and he carried a cane and he had long blond hair but he had a lot of
trouble making a living. And he's been very very criticized for being unable to support his family and also for other things as we'll see but I'm I'm I've gotten a little soft on him in my. As the years have gone by Anyway she was the daughter of Bronson all caught and Bronson Alcott. I believe was an educational genius he was like a snail. He really was the first person in this country to start a progressive education and he did it because he believed and he had no education so he pulled this out of the sky. He believed that children were angels who came from heaven as Wordsworth had written trailing clouds of glory. Now most people in the 1840s believed that children were vipers who had to be forcefully civilized before they could join us. You know big people Bronson believed the opposite he believed that adults could learn from children. So of course his schools were a whole lot more fun than anybody else's schools and his schools were
filled with fascinating things alarm clocks pitchers of water his schools featured children asking questions. Children liked going to his schools and. He gave he gave Louisa one great thing which was the community in which she grew up. His friends were Emerson and Thoreau and Hawthorne and all kinds of people like that so as a girl she was taught by Thoreau she used Emerson's library right away. And she grew up in this extraordinary progressive intellectual community as the daughter of a man who was very respected in that community. Bronson was fascinated by children just fascinated. He wasn't just an educator he was a kind of student of children and he liked to do experiments on them in his school room and of course his number one lab rats were his daughters who didn't have much choice about being experimented on so I'm just going to read you a couple paragraphs about an
experiment that Bronson did when Louisa was three and Anna was five. Bronson produced an apple just before dinner time when his subjects were especially hungry and asked if little girls should take things that did not belong to them. No Anna responded. They should not. Then he asked both Anna and Louise if they would ever do such a thing as take an apple without asking for it. They both agreed that they would not. When Bronson returned to the room after dinner the Apple had been reduced to a corner next to Louise's place at the table. Bronson asked what it was. Apple admitted Louisa and I blurted out the whole story she was a great tattle tale and a story in which she and Louisa had both tried to get the apple but Louisa had gotten there first then Louisa had eaten some of it and I had grabbed it and thrown it in the grate but Louisa had fished it out brushed it off and eaten the rest. Louise as usual was the villain of the piece. Bronson always believed Anna Luisa confessed that she had eaten the apple
because I wanted it in another apple experiment Bronson left an apple on the wardrobe alone with Louise who put up a struggle as her father and mother she's three secretly listened and took notes during the course of the morning Luis's mother reported that she several times took the apple in her hands and caressed it wistfully. No no fathers may not take father's Apple not a you not a. Then she ate the apple. When confronted by her mother she explained we could not help it. You must have it. So there you have a portrait of the young Louise and that's pretty much how it was she was very disappointing. She was disobedient. Bronson was happy that she had a conscience and realized that she shouldn't have eaten the apple. But she drove them a little bit crazy and she was definitely the family rebel and there was a lot of disappointment in her in her both from her father and her mother. Now Bronson this brilliant educator and this friend of the brilliant
transcendentalists had one. He had two big problems one was he couldn't hang on to money and the other was that he couldn't write. He was one of the world's worst writers. One critic said that reading Bronson on a cot was like watching a train go by with 15 box cars and one passenger. I met a nice description of bad prose and James Russell Lowell wrote a poem about what a bad writer Bronson was which I'm going to read you. Well he talks he is great but goes out like a taper. If you shut him up closely with pen ink and paper yet his fingers itch for them from morning till night and he thinks he does wrong if he don't always write in this as in all things a lamb among men he goes to sure death when he goes to his pen. So Bronson was famous for being a bad writer and his one of his books Orphic sayings the Boston papers dubbed the gastric sayings. Everybody felt free to make fun of Bronson and his terrible writing and it is pretty pretty hard to read.
So Louisa the determined dark haired young daughter and Bronson felt that if you had dark hair you were satanic. And if you had blond hair like he did you were angelic. So that wasn't good for Louisa Louisa decided that she had to make money for the family and that she would do it by writing. And she you know very early on she was going to make money and write of course those things didn't go together then and they don't go together now. But she was pretty determined. So in 1854 when she was 21 years old and her family was living in Boston she decided to take an essay she had written a memoir essay about going out to service with this dreadful man. She Luisa did everything she could get paid for she was a seamstress she was a teacher she was a governess she was a companion. So she decided to take this essay she had written to to the great editor of of the time James T fields and she knew James T fields through her
father James he feels was Hawthorne's editor James he fields was De Quincey's editor James Steele's was the man on her right. So she takes her essay and she walks across Boston they're living on Pinckney Street. And here's what happens. She passed the Boston Common and turned into the bustling center of downtown there the spire of the Old South Church presided like a disapproving Puritan dowager over the teeming business of the New Boston. There was the bookshop next to Mrs. Abner's coffee house where fields took authors and colleagues for coffee and hot buns. There was the gorgeous palace of the music hall where Louisa had recently gone to hear Theodore Parker demand equality for women. Now Louisa headed for the second floor of the old Corner bookshop where fields had his office behind a green curtain that separated him from his young assistant Thomas Niles and the piles of manuscripts he had yet to read. She handed him the manuscript her first and last memoir essay how I went out to service. He motioned her to
sit and began to read it. She could hear the noise of Thomas Niles pen scratching and the chatter in the bookstore downstairs. Finally the great James T fields looked up at her and delivered the verdict she would remember for a long time. Stick to your teaching Miss Allcock. You can't write. So that was not a good moment yet. I think it was the moment at which Louisa May Alcott became a writer. I think that if you want to be a writer perversity is your friend. And I think that if you want to be a writer you take criticism in and you're hurt of course and devastated of course but you almost immediately turn it around and go well I'll show them. And that's clearly what happened with Louise all kind of James to feel shame Steel's was trying to be nice. He tried to help her in her teaching career he loaned her $40 to help her start a school with her sister. But she took that in in a very interesting perverse way. And of
course now there are all these psychological studies that show that we're supposed to that perversity is a much stronger urge than ambition we're supposed to have said to our children. You'll never amount to anything you'll never get into college at all and then they would have said well while so you right now everybody is saying that perversity is a good thing but I think for writers because you do get attacked a lot if you're a writer that it's especially good it's especially good if you're the kind of person who when you're told you can't write you think well that's what you think. I'll show you. So however. Louisa's career did not turn around at that point but she decided that she would show James T fields and the rest of the world by writing a big serious novel a novel that would please her friend Emerson a novel that would impress her father a novel which she called moods. Probably you haven't read it. Maybe you haven't even heard of it. And
she was very proud of it. It's a novel about a young woman who goes on a river trip with two men and one of the men is very much like the ROH he's a kind of natural guy who's got a lot of curls. The other one is older and very Emersonian you know he has the library. He's very caring but she doesn't love him. And so she marries the Emerson guy only to find that the throw guy is in love with her too. And then she doesn't know what to do and so they both die in a shipwreck. And I don't think it's such a successful novel and neither did anybody else. And one which was hard for her because she loved that novel it was of all her work in a way the novel to which she was most attached but. That just goes to show. Anyway she got one review which was particularly painful in the North American Review from a guy who said the two most striking
facts with regard to moods are the author's ignorance of human nature and her self-confidence in spite of that ignorance. Just so that wasn't good and it was worse that it was written by Henry James who she had thought of as a friend he was a young guy it's always the young people who write these bitchy reviews if you notice he was a young guy and they actually stayed friends and one of the interesting things about their relationship is how much James was influenced by Louisa May Alcott I mean this is yet another thing about Louisa May Alcott that isn't widely known and which somehow has been sort of trivialized But of course earlier in the review James wrote We are utterly weary of stories about precocious little girls which is of course exactly what he went went on to write over and over and over again. And of course Isabel Archer is very much influenced by Jo March there's even you know you can see that James was reading Louisa May Alcott and using it. But of course
you don't hear that often. I'll get to how much you don't hear it. But anyway that was also not a good experience and her writing career was not looking good. And then the their entire lives came to a halt with the beginning of the Civil War and Louisa and everyone in Concord and everyone in Cambridge took it very hard. It of course was a nightmare nobody thought it was going to happen. In fact Drew Gilpin Faust wrote as written one of the most wonderful books about the Civil War about how nobody thought it was going to happen which I recommend after you've bought my book. Buy her book. Anyway Louisa didn't know what to do she was very involved with abolition Concord had been a stop on the Underground Railroad she had seen the whole thing. And so she ended up enlisting as a Civil War nurse. And it was she was one of the first female nurses in this country it was thought that nurses had to be men because they had to
handle naked bodies etc. etc. etc. but a woman named Dorothy Dix had started had convinced the War Department to start a corps of female nurses as long as they were plain unmarried and over 30 and low ways that fit the bill. So she went down to Washington D.C. to work in the Union Hotel hospital. It had been a hotel it was just barely remodeled into a hospital. And oddly enough or amazingly enough the second day she got there was the day that in Fredericksburg Virginia. A few miles south general Ambrose Burnside ordered 14 suicidal attacks of the Union army against the entrenched Confederate army. And you know the day at Fredericksburg was one of the worst battles of the war. It's been written about and loosely. Nobody knows why Burnside did that. But at any rate the ground was
carpeted with the union dead and the next morning Louisa May Alcott looked out the window of the Union Hotel hospital and she saw carts as far as she could see it looked to her like farmers coming to market but of course it was carts filled with the dead and wounded men from Fredericksburg coming to her hospital and she had no training nothing. But she loved it. She was great at being a nurse she knew how to talk to the men she knew how to dig and she learned how to wash wounds she worked with the surgeons. She took the job of being up all night of being the night nurse. She told them stories from Dickens. She wrote letters home when they were alive and then when the men died she wrote that very sad letter home saying that the man had died. She just everything that she hated and that had troubled her fell away. There was no phoniness there was no you know shame about being poor There were no tests about apples. It was life and death and she knew what to do when the
stakes were that high and it was an extraordinary experience for her and her letters home from the hospital. And I also believe her letters starts I think on the train are written in a completely different way than she had ever written before. She found her voice in the Union Hotel hospital and she wrote a book hospital sketches which is an extraordinary account of what the Civil War was like what it was like to be a civil war nurse Its one of the very few books written by women civil war nurses. And it's written in what I think of as her real style. It's vivid it's detailed it's moving. It's an astonishing book there's no sentimentality in it at all. And it's very buoyant as a result it's kind of an amazing style so. She however got very very sick at the Union Hotel hospital. She got a lung infection and in those days when you got sick they gave you Mercury because they thought that that would
remove whatever the disease was feeding on and so they gave her Mercury and she got sicker and sicker predictably. And the woman she was working with died and she got so sick that Dorothy Dix wrote a letter to Congress saying you have to come and get her. She couldn't get out of bed. Her father came down and picked and got her and took her back to Concord. They thought she was going to die. She was in bed for a month she was delusional she lost all her hair which had been one of her glories you know she had she thought she was in Spain she had all it did terrible things to her brain. And slowly she began to get better and one of the things that helped her was that she and Bronson got together and published hospital sketches they took her letters and put them into this book called Hospital sketches which was pretty successful. So as she got better she decided again that it was time to take her next step as a writer so she went to Thomas Niles who was her editor he had been James T Field's assistant and she said
to him you know what what should my next book be. And he said well he said the only book I could really sell that you might write would be a book for young women. And she was horrified she was insulted just like they asked Emerson to write a book for young women and I don't think so. All right what is this I thought I was a serious writer. You know all these years she had worked to be a serious writer she had written all these stories under a pseudonym for Frank Leslie. She had written moods. She had written hospital sketches and they were still sort of trivializing her she thought. But what happened was Thomas Niles was an inspired bully. So he wrote Bronson Ellicott a letter saying you know I'm a big fan of your writing. And I would love it if Louisa wrote this book for young women and if she did I think we could publish your next book as well. So that was a brilliant stroke Bronson started in on Louisa trying to get her to come home and write this book for young women.
And eventually he got her. She came home in January of or went back to Concord she had she'd gone to Boston she'd gotten herself a job she was having a good time she was going to write the book for young women. But he got her back to Concord in January of 1868 for the purpose of writing this book for young women which she didn't want to write and so she stalled and stalled and stall she did everything but write the book for young women January went by February March April May. Finally in May she sat down just thinking. You know I might as well try it. She was totally discouraged about it she thought she had written a little bit about four sisters who she called the pathetic family. So she just thought well I'll just write what happened you know which is of course not what she did but that's how it felt to her. And you know within about three weeks she had finished the first part of Little Women she didn't like it very much. Thomas Niles didn't think it was too great either. On Thomas Niles had a niece who got hold of the
manuscript and was up all night. But the minute almost the minute Thomas Niles published the first part of Little Women in November the outpouring of letters and admiration was huge and by Christmas Louisa May Alcott was one of the best known writers in the world and one of the wealthiest. So it was really a kind of amazing overnight success because of what happened with with little women that which she didn't want to write. And just to go back to perversity I want to end my readings from the book by reading you a short little letter that she wrote in 1871. So after the huge success of Little Women a letter to James T fields I remember he had lent her money. Dear Mr. Fields once upon a time you lent me forty dollars kindly saying that I might return them when I had made a pot of gold as the Miracle has been unexpectedly wrought. I wish to fulfil my part of the bargain and here with
repay my debt with many things. Very truly yours. L. M. all caught so she got her own back and I'm just going to talk for a second about how I came to write this. And then you'll ask me brilliant questions which I will answer perhaps less brilliantly. I in 1900 so 10 years ago my agent suggested that I write an introduction to an edition of little women that Random House was putting out like Louisa May Alcott I always need money. Unlike her I haven't written my little women. But perhaps this is it. And so my agent didn't want to hear from me and she said OK write this introduction they'll pay you a thousand dollars. I'm sending you the book so she sent me a little woman and I had read Little Women when I was 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 and then I stopped.
And like many women not just of my generation but like many successful women when I read about Jo March I got some kind of permission to be who I became. I don't even exactly know how it worked but people from Hillary Clinton to me say this and other words Jo March was a tremendously important creature in my life. But. I stopped reading it when I was 18 and I thought it was a book for young women. So when I read it in 1909 when I knew a little bit about literature I was astonished it's a great novel. No one had ever mentioned this to me. I thought it was like Nancy Drew you know which I also read in those years. I mean I just had no idea it's a great great novel by all the criteria that we judge great novels so that really got my attention. And then I read Martha Saxon's biography where Martha says that Laurie in Little Women is based on Henry David Thoreau and I went What. Because I'm an American studies major.
Right. I didn't go to her I went to Brown I majored in American studies I did graduate work at NYU and American studies. Nobody ever mentioned to me. That across the street from all these men Emerson Thoreau Whitman who I studied again and again and again was Louisa May Alcott. I had never ever made that connection and I was fascinated by it. You know that that all these people were in this little town together so that really got my attention and I got fascinated by Concord and I wrote American Bloomsbury which I talked about here five years ago four years ago whatever. And as I was writing American Bloomsbury I just fell in love with Louisa May Alcott with her and her situation and you know I think that for many women certainly for me this balance between the professional and the domestic between love and money is one of the big big questions that we have and Louisa May Alcott's
life and work. I found some solutions in as much as there are solutions and I don't think this question goes away I mean I was thinking about it now. I've been married three times. If I were going to marry a fourth time what am I looking for like a young doctor who can maybe take care of me as they age or are or am I looking for someone to finance my biography of Cummings which is what I want to write next or what. And other words these questions that women have to figure out for themselves do they want to marry some guy. You know who will provide a reliable income stream so they can do what they want. Or do they want to get that income stream for themselves and marry who they want. These are the questions that Louisa May Alcott is addressing in her life and in her work. And to me they're fascinating questions so I just wanted to you know write a whole book about her you know and I'm really glad I did. And thank you because it brought me here to talk to you. Well there were two part there two parts of Little Women we read as one novel but it's actually
in two parts. She wrote the first part she turned it and he didn't like it much he published it the outpouring was huge and then he said to her OK write the second part. And then they both realize that they had a tiger by the tail. And then God bless him he said to her I can give you a flat fee or you can take a percentage but if I were you I would take the percentage. So she did. But yes neither of them realized what she had done. It's sort of fascinating and I don't think that's that unusual. I have to say I think writers often don't know when they've done their best work. Well she liked she liked writing she liked little men she liked Rosenblum she got a little irritated about it she's quoted often as saying that she was writing moral pap for the very young which I think was just a cranky moment because she kept writing even when she didn't have to. Even you know after little man they had a lot of money and
but she did keep writing and I like all those books. You know they get more and more sentimental but they're sort of great. But you know I like that kind of thing. I like her so. But she continued to write and she wrote another 12 to 15 novels after Little Women and she went back to moods. And we wrote moods were still wasn't very good. She loved that novel moods. She wanted that to succeed you know. And this. I mean this little women wherever it is I mean it's so interesting how little she knew about her own work and as they said I don't think that's unusual. What did her parents think of her success they were delighted for one thing they had enough to eat they had a warm house. And Bronson was a very good sport about it he had been trying to make a living giving conversations which were lectures where he traveled all over the
country giving lectures and people would pay you know five cents to come in here and apparently was a much better talker than he was a writer. But after Little Women everybody wanted him to come as the father of the little women. And he loved that. He was fine with that. He thought that was great. He was thrilled. It was the one thing Louisa did that really pleased him was writing. And and making money yes. Well that's not really about Louise and that's really about Bronson. Have you already march. You know one of the interesting things about the all conses Louisa they loved to burn letters and journals loved it. And when you do research at the Hoden over and over you come on a note from Louisa May Alcott that says this is not for you know for you Susan Cheever No it says you know her family only please destroy. Right. So there is so little documentation that it's very frustrating because you know certain things happened but you can't write it if you're writing a biography because you've got nothing.
So two people three four more and more people are writing novels out of this frustration and March was the first of them. I think she honored him in a way. You know I thought it was a great book. I think Bronson Alcott is an endlessly fascinating character and I certainly think she honored that the fascination of him. But it wasn't really about Louise. It was it was really about his time in the South you know Bronson all got really his real name was Amos all Cox and he you know grew up in an impoverished Connecticut family with crazy impoverished Connecticut family and completely invented himself changing his name. He never went to school beyond about fifth grade. Everyone at all these other guys had gone to Harvard. And you know he really thought himself up and for a long time he was notions paddler in the South you know he went from house to house trying to sell you a comb or some lotion. And that's I thought that I thought she did very very well with that
part of his life. Well I don't think it's mathematical. I mean I think that she's a. I think Bronson being such a bad writer certainly made it easier for her to write because you have a lot of freedom but also she wrote to please him. It was the one thing she did that pleased him. Whereas my father did not want me to be a writer at all. He had a way. Well he had a completely different idea for me. He had in mind that I would be a completely different kind of person that in fact I turned out to be and I didn't write anything till I was about 35. So I started late and I started when I was living far away and I think that made the confrontation. I got energy from the confrontation rather than being so badly challenged by it but also my father in his brilliant
brilliant work has no interest in women. And that's really all I care about. So in a way you know I've written many many novels and by a raise but but you know it's women who interest me although I'm as I say I'm about to write about Cummings and really my father's interest in women was minimal that wasn't where his interests lay. So I don't feel so confrontational with him. But also I did wait a long long time and I got married and changed my name. I mean I decided I would never be a writer because of I hate to ascribe that to Harold Bloom because of the idea of being like Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg right. I didn't want to be charging suicidally into the entrenched enemy ranks. And I did everything I could to avoid it and I got married and took my husband's name and no one knew and that I became a high school English teacher I was very very happy with that. And through a series of unfortunate accidents I became a
writer almost against my will. So. Well he's not the first to mention that and you know one of the you know it's certainly certainly it affects you and some people I think. This goes back to the genius cluster stuff. Some people want to be challenged and that gives them energy and some people can't bear to be challenged. I think Louisa wanted to be challenge which is why the Union Hotel hospital was where she found herself. But I think. But she didn't write Leaves of Grass. But she Whitman was very menaced by her you know Whitman also Walt Whitman also was at Fredericksburg his brother was there fighting under Burnside and while women went to Fredericksburg to try to find his brother. As it turned out his brother was fine but Walt Whitman's life was also changed and he also
found his mature writing style in that very fruitful week in American history on the battlefield at Fredericksburg and he also went to Washington to become a civil war nurse and he also went back to New York to write about being a civil war nurse and he said to his publisher I won't just be sketches what I write. So there's a. But I don't know you know my father's been did 30 years almost 30 years and I don't know if that makes the challenge greater or lesser. I don't enjoy writing really I hate to say it. I don't want to say it's agony but I've gotten fairly I don't want to say good at it because as we know when you think you're doing well you're not when you think you're doing badly you're doing well. I have some experience with it some mastery of it and I like that it's the only thing I know how to do it all even though I don't know how to do it so very well. So there's pleasure in that. My research
I do research like everybody else in archives sitting there. I'm very I came to research very late I'm not an academic I wasn't good at school. The thing I said to my daughter that has shocked her the most in her entire life was when I was writing my first biography which was a biography of Bill Wilson the guy who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. And I was about halfway through and I said to her so when you quote a letter in a text how do you remember where it came from. And she went Wait I've never seen anyone look so sick in my life. She said Mom you don't write down that quote without writing down and then she gives me this whole list of things that you know so I've gotten much better. If you if you. Look at the end notes for this and the end notes for Bill Wilson you'll see that you know 60 huge improvement and the nice people at the home library have helped me a lot and the people at the Concord Free Library helped me a lot and I needed help. Still need help. But yes that's how
I do my research. I had one great research thing with this book where I had found in someone else's end notes that Bronson Alcott got fired from a school for doing something to the female children so I was like oh. So I went to it was in the Concord Free Library I looked it up in the journal and it said that he was fired from the school in Cheshire for carving the children especially the females and I thought what caring for the children. And I got the librarian over and I said what's this word it's his handwriting is very ornate a beautiful handwriting very ornate and she said I don't know when everyone in the archives came over and we were all scratching our heads. And then I looked and I saw that the entry for the next thing said fatter day. And it was caressing the children right in that car fing the children and especially the females. But of course in those days you could get fired for caressing the children because you were supposed to be beating the children. I mean I think it's in context a
different thing but that was a nice research moment where I went oh ass's. But I don't how do I decide what I'm going to devote my life to I don't know how do you decide what you're going to devote your life to how does one decide what one is going to devote one's life to. Besides writing human subjects had a way. It's always a series of unfortunate accidents that lead me to a subject you know I still have a book about Emerson that I want to write. But but instead I just became fascinated by E. Cummings Which brings me right back to the home and library I swore that I would find somebody whose papers were in New York where I live. But no. You know Cummings lived in New York his entire life he didn't even like Cambridge but there they are. So. So yeah. But I I don't know. Unfortunate accidents are really the best things that happened to me.
Jo March. Of course of course. Although you know little women is very much fiction it's interesting that really that's the family she longed to have. So instead of losing her hair through a disease that almost killed her she cuts it off for the civil war cause. And she invents a servant to do the work that Louisa did write Hanna the loving servant. Those were Louise's jobs right and also she takes the father who was very difficult and challenging and puts him over here. He's not even in Little Women. So it's very I also think that great work often comes from yearning. And there's so much yearning in Little Women. It's the family she desperately desperately wished that she had and didn't do it well at the end of Little Women she did not in fact in her own life she said liberty is a better husband than any man. Sorry it's a quote it's a quote.
Well there it's very frustrating not to have the letters and journals that once existed. And there's a woman in Concord who dresses up like Louisa May Alcott and she actually is Jan turned quiz who's the executive director of orchard house where she does a spectacularly good job. There goes your parent. But I interviewed her once as a kind of joke. It's not in the book. And what I wanted to know was I mean Louisa May Alcott had many intense connections to men. And I wanted to know how those unfolded. But the truth is we will never know. And you know as a biographer you kind of have to. Suck it up I mean that's one of the great things about biography now is that you can talk. There's also a moment January of 1843 when Bronson has founded this utopian community and they're all starving to death because there's no
food in the UTA and it's winter and it's Harvard mass if you've ever been there and yeah it's a nightmare and Abba writes a letter to her brother saying something like You know there's tremendous darkness in our lives right now and each biographer takes that situation and interprets it differently. You know John Madison thinks that means that Charles Lane who was the man who put up the money for fruit lands wanted to sleep with Bronson Alcott Martha Sexton thinks that it means Bronson Alcott wanted to have free love and be free of his marriage. Someone else thinks that I mean Charles Lane wanted to sleep with them. I mean you know when you have a tiny bit of information you make your guesses and I don't want to do that so instead I just say here's what everybody else thinks and here's the information. But there are so many things. There are so many letters that I know existed once and journals that I know existed or ones that I would like to see. Yes.
It's about six. It was very fast it was about six weeks. I read somewhere two and a half weeks but she starts in May and she's done by July. So but then the second half takes a little longer. Thomas Niles it was his title it was his title all along. It's a good title. He's not a bad guy. You know he's interesting because she he gets are there percentage any bullies are into doing it and not a nice way and he doesn't like it when she does it. But on the whole he's an interesting interesting influence in her life. I don't think she had women models I mean she knew Margaret Fuller but Margaret Fuller was older and far more glamorous. I mean Margaret Fuller got to use the Harvard library Margaret Fuller etc. etc. I think her mentors really in that way were Emerson and Thoreau who she was much younger then but Emerson was very connected to her she didn't just use his library she had a terrific crush on him. He gave her
this book about you know 15 year old girls and their older mentors. He suggested things for her to read they read together. She was a voracious reader. And these men responded to that because you know not everybody read everything but she did. But I think Emerson and I think he both helped her and hurt her I think. I think Emerson is the trouble with moods. You know that she really was trying to write in a way that wasn't her voice. Well I think she was trying to please them both. They were friends after all. But I think when she stopped trying to please anybody was when she had it. OK thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.
Harvard Book Store
WGBH Forum Network
Susan Cheever on Louisa May Alcott
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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Susan Cheever, novelist, memoirist, literary historian, and daughter of John Cheever, discusses her newest exploration of America's literary past, Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography.Louisa May Alcott never intended to write Little Women. She had dismissed her publishers pleas for such a novel. Written out of necessity to support her family, the book had an astounding success that changed her life, a life which turned out very differently from that of her beloved heroine Jo March. In Louisa May Alcott, Susan Cheever returns to Concord, Massachusetts, to explore the life of one of its most iconic residents. Based on extensive research, journals, and correspondence, Cheevers biography chronicles all aspects of Alcott's life, from the fateful meeting of her parents to her death, just two days after that of her father. She details Bronson Alcott's stalwart educational vision, which led the Alcotts to relocate each time his progressive teaching went sour; her unsuccessful early attempts at serious literature; her time as a Civil War nurse, when she contracted pneumonia and was treated with mercury-laden calomel, which would affect her health for the rest of her life; and her vibrant intellectual circle of writers and reformers, idealists who led the charge in support of antislavery, temperance, and women's rights.
History; Literature & Philosophy
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Distributor: WGBH
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Identifier: 73bcba7f2a7eee1fa847d34c12b016f3c3680489 (ArtesiaDAM UOI_ID)
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Chicago: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Susan Cheever on Louisa May Alcott,” 2010-11-18, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 24, 2024,
MLA: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Susan Cheever on Louisa May Alcott.” 2010-11-18. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 24, 2024. <>.
APA: Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Susan Cheever on Louisa May Alcott. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from