Pursued by Hounds
Marmee & Louisa:
The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother
By Eve LaPlante
New York: Free Press, 2012, 368 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Martha Saxton
In Marmee and Louisa, Eve LaPLante uses newfound documents to depict the lifelong knot that joined Louisa May Alcott and her mother, Abigail May Alcott. LaPlante, an Alcott descendant, found a cache of fascinating letters, journals, and other materials in her mother’s attic. Louisa and her father, Bronson Alcott, had, at Abigail’s wish, gone through her papers after her death and destroyed many of them; but more escaped the scissors and fire than investigators have thought. The newly discovered material fills out the poignant and sometimes distressing story of the powerful love, mutual dependency, identification, and shared disappointments that united mother and daughter during the family’s most difficult years of poverty and turbulence and indeed throughout their lives. LaPlante, whose last book was about another ancestor, Samuel Sewall, the famous diarist and a judge at the Salem witchcraft trials, blends these new documents and recent scholarship to produce an affecting and readable tale, if not entirely “untold.”
In the interests of transparency, I should say that I wrote a biography of Louisa May Alcott (first published in 1977). Studying the Alcott family distressed me for many reasons, and mine was an unhappy (and to keepers of the Alcott flame, unwelcome) narrative. The differences I discovered between the fictional March family, whom I had adored from girlhood, and the real Alcotts came to me as a betrayal. Previous biographers had portrayed the Alcotts as characters out of Little Women, not as they often were during Louisa’s childhood: miserable, destitute, and humiliated by their plight. I ended up believing that both of Louisa’s parents had used her. Her father was self-obsessed, critical, and unloving; her mother, while loving and courageous, was also needy, self-dramatizing, and sometimes suffocating. Louisa wrote predominantly to satisfy their emotional and financial needs; her most successful work idealized her mother and glossed over her father’s brutal irresponsibility. Deprived of a childhood and deeply unlucky in her effort to break away from home by becoming a nurse during the Civil War, Louisa endured years of physical pain and repeated, numbing treks to care for her mother. She was haunted by her belief that she could never stop working. The smug sexism and narrow mindedness of the Transcendentalists, whom I had been taught to admire, repelled me. My dismay over my findings and my outrage combined in a sharp-elbowed book.
Reading Eve LaPlante’s book made me angry all over again, but not because it is a bad book. On the contrary, it is valuable and illuminating. But her newly found documents reveal additional details about the burdens the Alcotts, especially Abigail, placed on Louisa. LaPlante does not deny the darkness that shadowed Louisa’s life; indeed, in broad outline her story is not so different from the one I told. But she sometimes draws back from fully acknowledging the consequences of her own assertions. And I was pained once again that Louisa May Alcott, in composing Little Women as a tribute to her mother, morally justified a disappointing and diminished existence for girls.
LaPlante argues that most scholars have wrongly seen Louisa’s father, the educator and philosopher, and his Concord colleagues, as fundamental influences on Louisa. She is right that leaving Abigail’s influence on her daughter’s writing all but invisible has been an egregious mistake. Still, the case should not be overstated. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others numbered among the family’s neighbors, friends, counselors, (and often creditors), and their ideas and works were Alcott dinner table conversation. They shaped Louisa’s world. Also, Bronson produced a suffocating torrent of words, compared to Abigail’s emphatic but less loquacious style. (Bronson left approximately 88 journals, some of them more than a thousand pages long, compared to which the material for Abigail and Louisa, before LaPlante’s discovery, was relatively thin, and even now is wispy in comparison to Bronson’s leavings.)
LaPlante’s evidence demonstrates Bronson’s influence on Louisa, and she implies that it was largely negative. He criticized his daughter’s vivid, expressive ways and impulsivity, tracing these to Abigail. He preferred Louisa’s sisters’ light complexions and hair—which were like his own—to her and her mother’s dark coloring. When she was young, Bronson explained to Louisa that “she, alone among his daughters was noisy and misbehaved.” The recipient of Bronson’s regular criticism, Louisa was later subjected to his efforts to direct her work. When she began to earn a little money writing, Bronson asked her more than once to write simple biographies of children’s lives. She did not relish the idea but, of course, she eventually executed it to unparalleled success. He begged her to write a book about his own childhood, but this she resisted.
While Bronson’s impact on Louisa was often painful, Abigail, LaPlante argues, was the love of her life—her marriage partner, as LaPlante expresses it. (At one point she says that Louisa had too much imagination not to have wished for a different kind of marriage partner, but here I think she underestimates how much both of Louisa’s parents managed to subvert her imagination and shape it for their own ends.
The bulk of LaPlante’s evidence focuses on the alliance that Abigail built with her daughter, dating from the time that Bronson’s Fruitlands experiment in collective living went from farce to disaster. By the early 1840s, Bronson’s progressive schools in Philadelphia and Boston had failed. His debts were large and his spirits depressed when Emerson staked him to a trip to Great Britain. Bronson returned with a new friend, Charles Lane, who believed, among other things, that the conventions of family life were flawed, and that people were better off without sex. Lane’s influence over Alcott and his family almost destroyed it. The eleven-year-old Louisa’s acute awareness of Abigail’s emotional suffering—as well as of her own hunger, cold, and unhappiness—added desperation to her bond with her mother. According to LaPlante, Louisa learned then the great differences between her parents. She wrote, “’No one will be as good to me as mother.” From then on she worked to support Abigail and “would do anything to bridge the gulf between her parents,” evidently understanding that that was what her often torn mother really wanted.
Over the next few years, as the family’s desperate financial straits persisted, Louisa took on the support of both parents and, at one time or another, all of her sisters as well as of her nieces and nephews. Little wonder that she wrote later, “[I] only remember the weary years, the work, the waiting and disappointment.” She felt, she said, as if “the hounds were after me.”
LaPlante shows that Abigail encouraged Louisa’ s writing and transferred to her daughter her expressive ambitions and her feminist views of the injustices under which women labored. She gave Louisa blank journals to write in. More disturbingly, starting when Louisa was nine, Abigail “habitually” gave her daughter her own journals and letters to read as examples of good writing and as material to write about. As a child, Louisa soaked up her mother’s drama until it became her own: the downward arc of the petted girl from a wealthy, Boston family, related to everyone who was anyone, who was transformed into the suffering companion of a vagabond, debt-ridden idealist whose philosophy prevented him from working for wages.
LaPlante quotes the scholar Lisa Stepanski as saying that Abigail gave Louisa her voice. And indeed, Louisa’s style, in her books about the March family and other young adult stories, closely resembles Abigail’s—vigorous, conversational, humorous, full of domestic allusions, references to Dickens, and sermonizing. However, neither Stepanski nor LaPlante note that one person’s giving another a voice is more ventriloquism than encouragement. If the relationship between mother and daughter was a version of marriage, as LaPlante reasonably suggests, it condemned Louisa to a kind of emotional couverture, as she supported the family with her mother’s vocabulary and stories.
Louisa’s channeling of her mother suggests to me that the stories Louisa most enjoyed writing and which were most genuinely hers were the extra-family ones that she wrote anonymously: tales of seduction, drugs, false love, and female revenge. These, unlike the children’s stories, which she called “moral pap for the young,” took her into wish-fulfillment land, as she fell into what she described as a “vortex” of escapist writing pleasure. LaPlante says Louisa sacrificed this outlet for her ideas and her free-wheeling imagination after the success of Little Women, when she was idolized by her young readers—just as, in Little Women, Jo renounces writing “blood and thunder tales” under the prodding of Professor Bhaer, who is concerned for her moral purity. By giving up her anonymous stories, Louisa sacrificed most of the excitement writing provided—although this remains implicit in LaPlante’s account.
LaPlante supplies rich material on the Alcotts’ perpetual moving and reconfiguring, as they attempted to find a place for themselves and to make a living. Children were transferred here and there, friends and relatives provided houses and money, as Abigail, hat in hand, tried to keep her children fed, clothed, sheltered and, when possible, employed. LaPlante gives life to those friends and relatives most important to the Alcotts, especially Abigail’s extraordinary brother, the Rev. Samuel Joseph May. He introduced Abigail and Bronson and then found himself strenuously working to keep them afloat during the long, hard years before Louisa took over. May was at the center of reform activity in the antebellum period—a comrade-in-arms of William Lloyd Garrison’s, not only in the fight for abolition but also for women’s rights. He was a temperance advocate, an educational reformer like Bronson, and an early champion of Indians’ rights. And these were not causes to which he gave simple lip service: he traveled, spoke, fought, and sometimes endured persecution for his activism. As LaPlante tells us, he was a genial, generous man with neither Garrison’s rage nor Emerson’s humorlessness. And, unlike Bronson, he never said anything to his fellow abolitionists like: “I am as pure and as wise as was Jesus Christ. The reason is I eat nothing but pure vegetables.” Among his many achievements were making Cornell University co-educational.
In the years since my indignant account of Louisa ‘s life and work was published, Alcott studies have flourished, and scholars have examined individual family members as well as the whole group. LaPlante’s focus on Louisa’s mother is a valuable addition to that growing knowledge, shedding light on how Abigail and her daughter came to share their life force, and the strange ways in which the relationship both augmented and diminished Louisa’s vitality.