cover image Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

John Matteson, . . Norton, $29.95 (497pp) ISBN 978-0-393-05964-9

They were both born on November 29 (he in 1799 and she in 1832), but willful, passionate Louisa May Alcott couldn’t have been more different from her serene, unworldly father, Bronson, whom fellow transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau revered for his wide-ranging philosophical pursuits and occasionally ridiculed for his lack of common sense. Bronson’s failed educational and utopian ventures placed a great burden on his wife, Abba, while elder daughters Louisa and Anna worked as teachers and paid companions to support the family. Yet Louisa honored her father’s steadfast principles, avers Matteson, a professor of English at John Jay College, who views both father and daughter with a sympathy that doesn’t quite conceal the book’s slightly specious premise. Bronson was far closer to Anna and younger sister Lizzie; Louisa’s fiery nature sometimes dismayed him. She only gained his full approval when mistreatment with a mercury-based medicine during the Civil War made her a near-invalid for the rest of her life. This is really a biography of the whole Alcott family, though it narrows to a dual portrait after the wild success of Little Women in 1868 gave Louisa the independence she longed for and Bronson enjoyed more modest acclaim for his book Tablets and lecture tours out West. 26 illus. (Aug.)