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Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography

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Through no fault of her own, Louisa May Alcott is mainly remembered for a book which she despised, as much as she loathed the celebrity it brought her: Little Women. Sales in the millions may be all very well, but Louisa May was remarkable for other reasons. Now, Martha Saxon has written the first modern biography of the ambivalent rebel and irreverent feminist who became Through no fault of her own, Louisa May Alcott is mainly remembered for a book which she despised, as much as she loathed the celebrity it brought her: Little Women. Sales in the millions may be all very well, but Louisa May was remarkable for other reasons. Now, Martha Saxon has written the first modern biography of the ambivalent rebel and irreverent feminist who became our most popular author, in spite of herself. Louisa May Alcott's story of the March family is really the story of the Alcotts -- and the truth is far different from the author's often syrupy fantasy. Her father, Bronson, let his wife and daughters suffer while he philosophized. He did not believe in working for wages but he was perfectly willing to have his wife and daughters do it for him. It was Louisa's pen that would eventually save them all from starvation, but at great cost to her own health and happiness. Outwardly a self-sacrificing, if slightly eccentric, New England spinster, Louisa May Alcott lived a rich inner life that enabled her to deal with her father's indifference and to create, under a pseudonym, heroines who smoked hashish and exacted vengeance against uncaring males. Martha Saxton has also written an account of a special time and place: New England in its flowering. Here is Boston in the midst of antislavery riots. Here are Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau (whom Louisa May secretly loved), the literary greats of a Concord that sometimes sounds like a village out of Chekov. Or characters such as the Reverend Theodore Parker, who liked to think of himself as the most unpopular man in America; Ellery Channing, whom Louisa May described as a "mood once claiming to be a man"; and the weird crew of ascetics who populated that ship of fools known as the utopian colony of Fruitlands. But most of all, this is the story of the curious, contentious, and ever unwilling bond between Louisa May and Bronson Alcott--a bond so powerful that they would even die within two days of each other.


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Through no fault of her own, Louisa May Alcott is mainly remembered for a book which she despised, as much as she loathed the celebrity it brought her: Little Women. Sales in the millions may be all very well, but Louisa May was remarkable for other reasons. Now, Martha Saxon has written the first modern biography of the ambivalent rebel and irreverent feminist who became Through no fault of her own, Louisa May Alcott is mainly remembered for a book which she despised, as much as she loathed the celebrity it brought her: Little Women. Sales in the millions may be all very well, but Louisa May was remarkable for other reasons. Now, Martha Saxon has written the first modern biography of the ambivalent rebel and irreverent feminist who became our most popular author, in spite of herself. Louisa May Alcott's story of the March family is really the story of the Alcotts -- and the truth is far different from the author's often syrupy fantasy. Her father, Bronson, let his wife and daughters suffer while he philosophized. He did not believe in working for wages but he was perfectly willing to have his wife and daughters do it for him. It was Louisa's pen that would eventually save them all from starvation, but at great cost to her own health and happiness. Outwardly a self-sacrificing, if slightly eccentric, New England spinster, Louisa May Alcott lived a rich inner life that enabled her to deal with her father's indifference and to create, under a pseudonym, heroines who smoked hashish and exacted vengeance against uncaring males. Martha Saxton has also written an account of a special time and place: New England in its flowering. Here is Boston in the midst of antislavery riots. Here are Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau (whom Louisa May secretly loved), the literary greats of a Concord that sometimes sounds like a village out of Chekov. Or characters such as the Reverend Theodore Parker, who liked to think of himself as the most unpopular man in America; Ellery Channing, whom Louisa May described as a "mood once claiming to be a man"; and the weird crew of ascetics who populated that ship of fools known as the utopian colony of Fruitlands. But most of all, this is the story of the curious, contentious, and ever unwilling bond between Louisa May and Bronson Alcott--a bond so powerful that they would even die within two days of each other.

30 review for Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Manybooks

    So the first time I read Martha Saxton's 1977 Louisa May Alcott: a Modern Biography (in December 2012 and in one mega and continuous reading session) I failed to post a review. And this was mostly because I was unable at that time to verbally (and indeed to and for me reasonably enough) express how much reading Louisa May Alcott: a Modern Biography had made me actively and vehemently despise Louisa May Alcott's father Bronson Alcott. For while Bronson Alcott might in fact be an individual whose So the first time I read Martha Saxton's 1977 Louisa May Alcott: a Modern Biography (in December 2012 and in one mega and continuous reading session) I failed to post a review. And this was mostly because I was unable at that time to verbally (and indeed to and for me reasonably enough) express how much reading Louisa May Alcott: a Modern Biography had made me actively and vehemently despise Louisa May Alcott's father Bronson Alcott. For while Bronson Alcott might in fact be an individual whose transcendentalism and liberal views on education I have always much respected (especially since for the 19th century, his educational reform ideas are indeed delightfully modern and student-friendly), the Alcott family life information and details presented by Martha Saxton in Louisa May Alcott: a Modern Biography (and in particular regarding the Alcotts' life at Fruitlands) also clearly and decidedly show that Bronson Alcott obviously was a total and utter failure as a husband and as a father, that Bronson Alcott was someone who seemingly let his children starve or more to the point, was totally willing and able to let his family suffer poverty and food insecurity rather than to in even a small way compromise his so-called ideals and beliefs, who strongly and adamantly believed that making money, that working for wages was somehow degrading and beneath him but who also and of course expected both his wife and his daughters to provide for him and the family (but yes and infuriatingly, Bronson Alcott also never ceased to be critical of his daughter's, of Louisa's writing, basically often letting her know in no uncertain terms that he firmly believed that she was selling herself, even as he, as Bronson expected and demanded Louisa's financial support). And while I do agree with those reviewers who point out that Louisa May Alcott: a Modern Biography does at times present just a bit too much dramatics and equally too much of author Martha Saxton injecting her own philosophies into her featured text (and at the expense of providing a straight Louisa May Alcott biography) and that yes, sometimes the obvious hatred Martha Saxton experiences and feels for Bronson Alcott kind of majorly seems to overtake everything, I still have for the most part very much enjoyed reading Louisa May Alcott: a Modern Biography and have found it also a very intensely enlightening and educational reading experience that I for one am glad not to have missed. Because yes indeed, Louisa May Alcott: a Modern Biography was actually the very first Louisa May Alcott biography I read which in fact and in my opinion looks at Louisa May Alcott's family and especially at her father, at Bronson Alcott, critically and unflatteringly (and as such and happily very much unlike earlier Louisa May Alcott biographies such as for example Cornelia Meigs' 1933 Invincible Louisa where Bronosn Alcott is generally still placed very much on an unassailable lauding pedestal, which I for one and after having read Louisa May Alcott: a Modern Biography and also checking online certainly do not think he in any way even remotely deserves).

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    I borrowed this to write a paper on L.M. Alcott for Children's Lit and was supposed to be skimming through it to find relevant info for my paper but found it too interesting and ended up reading the whole thing. M. Saxton has a very dramatic style, she makes all these dark hints and wild claims like "Little Women was a regression for Louisa as an artist and as a woman!" or "Louisa felt x, Louisa thought y" but as she doesn't include in-text references I often found myself wondering how much was I borrowed this to write a paper on L.M. Alcott for Children's Lit and was supposed to be skimming through it to find relevant info for my paper but found it too interesting and ended up reading the whole thing. M. Saxton has a very dramatic style, she makes all these dark hints and wild claims like "Little Women was a regression for Louisa as an artist and as a woman!" or "Louisa felt x, Louisa thought y" but as she doesn't include in-text references I often found myself wondering how much was fact and how much was Saxton's personal opinions/suppositions. Still. A really good read. As with L.M. Montgomery's journals, I often found myself feeling so sorry for Louisa, who just was not cut out to fit her society's ideals of womanhood, and whose father was such an annoying fruitcake! I seriously wanted to give him a good smack and tell him to wake up to himself, get off his backside and start supporting his family. 'Morally opposed' to working for a living, indeed!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Polly Clarke

    Hallelujah, praise be, I have finally finished reading this biography at 1.18am. If ever you've wondered why there hasn't been a more modern, modern biography on Louisa May Alcott since 1978 it's because this is the only biography you'll ever need. So complete and concise is this, there is nothing more to add. A tad tedious (more my fault than anything) at times but at all times, Martha Saxton is able to take the well documented information and transform it into objective (with a twist of wonder Hallelujah, praise be, I have finally finished reading this biography at 1.18am. If ever you've wondered why there hasn't been a more modern, modern biography on Louisa May Alcott since 1978 it's because this is the only biography you'll ever need. So complete and concise is this, there is nothing more to add. A tad tedious (more my fault than anything) at times but at all times, Martha Saxton is able to take the well documented information and transform it into objective (with a twist of wonderful seventies feminism) critique. Saxton also has a great understanding of Louisa's place in the world at this time and this is what makes this a three star for me. My favourite chuckle was Louisa's description of Dickens and the most heart breaking was the death of her slightly spoilt younger sister. The most interesting insight is the varied people the May family came into contact with and if you're studying the history of religion, this may be of benefit to you. There's a lot in this biography and for me, the first half of the book could have been written in one chapter as its only when Louisa starts her published life, it gauges my interest.

  4. 4 out of 5

    June Geiger

    A portrait of Louisa and her sisters you're not likely to forget. Trust me, these are not "Marmee's girls." More darkness than we'd like surrounds their struggles--to be frank, I think a word of caution is in order. Martha Saxton's slant on Louisa's life, while moving and seemingly spot-on for the most part, comes across a bit overly dramatic, almost macabre at times. Hard to explain. An intriguing read -- I'm just not sure she's a biographer you want to give yourself (and your cherished subject A portrait of Louisa and her sisters you're not likely to forget. Trust me, these are not "Marmee's girls." More darkness than we'd like surrounds their struggles--to be frank, I think a word of caution is in order. Martha Saxton's slant on Louisa's life, while moving and seemingly spot-on for the most part, comes across a bit overly dramatic, almost macabre at times. Hard to explain. An intriguing read -- I'm just not sure she's a biographer you want to give yourself (and your cherished subject matter) over to completely.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

    To all Louisa May Alcott fans who loved this work, this biography explores his life and times in full detail. This sheds insight on what kind of person she was back then. There's also a 2006 updated version in paperback.

  6. 5 out of 5

    christa

    Interesting in depth look at Louisa May Alcott's life and times. Women's issues at the time as well as descriptions of Emerson and Thoreau are also included. Lots of quotes from letters and diaries.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Leigh

    I rediscover LMA from time to time-what an amazing person and an amazing writer she was!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Madhavi Singh

    An excellent read on many counts. It gives us an idea of life in Victorian America in New England and particularly the growth of Boston. It gives us a peek into the abolitionist and suffragette movements in New England. It paints a vivid portrait of the Alcott family. And brilliantly sketches Louisa M Alcott - her nature, struggles, fears, relationships, health. Enjoyed it very much.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Greta Linnik

    A fascinating and well researched look into the transcendental period of New England history. There was much more than just a biography on Alcott. It contained much information on her mother and father and how they were shaped by the trancendants of the day. They were well acquainted with Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne which gave an interesting insight into their lives as well.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Irene Powell

    Very detailed. Going back to her grandparents. She had anything but a "Little Women" upbringing and family. Amazed to know how much she didn't like "Little Women", but it brought in needed income. It was a long-read, but still interesting. This is an old book (1977, I think) that's been on my bookshelf for many years to read. Glad I did, but I had to plow through.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    Immersion in the world of Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lucia

    Questa biografia di Louisa May Alcott, pubblicata da Martha Saxton nel 1977, viene ora ottimamente tradotta in italiano da Daniela Daniele e pubblicata dalla casa editrice Jo March (come poteva essere altrimenti?). Devo dire che leggerla non è stato facile perché mi sono resa conto che l’immagine popolare dell’autrice di Piccole donne ha poco a che vedere con le caratteristiche, la personalità e le esperienze di vita di Alcott. L’idealizzazione di una vita familiare affettuosa, anche se modesta, s Questa biografia di Louisa May Alcott, pubblicata da Martha Saxton nel 1977, viene ora ottimamente tradotta in italiano da Daniela Daniele e pubblicata dalla casa editrice Jo March (come poteva essere altrimenti?). Devo dire che leggerla non è stato facile perché mi sono resa conto che l’immagine popolare dell’autrice di Piccole donne ha poco a che vedere con le caratteristiche, la personalità e le esperienze di vita di Alcott. L’idealizzazione di una vita familiare affettuosa, anche se modesta, si scontra con la vera e propria miseria e gli stenti che contraddistinsero l’infanzia e la giovinezza della scrittrice, tutta tesa da allora in poi a farsi strada da sola (e tra mille delusioni, prima di avere successo) con l’unico scopo di guadagnare denaro che permettesse ai genitori ed alle sorelle di sopravvivere e di far fronte alla montagna di debiti che il padre Bronson, idealista trascendentalista americano, aveva contratto negli anni. Accanto a Piccole donne ed ai vari titoli della saga di Jo March, poi, convivono molti scritti “minori”, spesso pubblicati sotto pseudonimo, in cui Alcott esprime sentimenti più violenti e lugubri, annoverabili nello stile gotico. Ed ancora, pochi sanno che l’autrice di uno dei più celebrati romanzi della letteratura americana fu per lungo tempo malata (non si era mai ripresa dal trauma e dalle infezioni contratte nel breve periodo in cui lavoro come infermiera in un ospedale da campo della guerra civile a Washington), afflitta da crisi violentissime che la lasciavano indebolita e incapace di muoversi e di scrivere per settimane intere. Fino a quando, appena due giorni dopo la morte del padre, all’età di soli 53 anni anche lei si spegneva, da sola, stroncata dall’incessante tortura del suo organismo intossicato di oppio e laudano.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lady Jane

    By half-way through this biography, I was frustrated that the book had yet to really focus on Alcott herself. The first half of the book is really a biography of Bronson Alcott and a portrait of the family which had such a profound influence on L. M. Alcott. Saxton seems to feel that this father-daughter (or family-daughter) relationship is of such overwhelming importance to who Alcott became that she allows it to completely dominate the biography. It was hard while reading not to feel that Alco By half-way through this biography, I was frustrated that the book had yet to really focus on Alcott herself. The first half of the book is really a biography of Bronson Alcott and a portrait of the family which had such a profound influence on L. M. Alcott. Saxton seems to feel that this father-daughter (or family-daughter) relationship is of such overwhelming importance to who Alcott became that she allows it to completely dominate the biography. It was hard while reading not to feel that Alcott herself becomes a side-story in her own biography, with the story of who she is and what she accomplished taking up only half the book. I can not deny that her family was her major motivation and influence in life, but I think that more balance could have been created since Alcott herself is supposed to be the main subject of the biography.

  14. 4 out of 5

    A.

    After visiting the Orchard House and Fruitlands this summer, I spent some time reading up on the Alcotts. I started with this bio because it was a little more liberal than I thought I was going to like, so of the two biographies I got, I wanted to end on a high note. I was pleased to read in the intro that Saxton looks at the book now as being a bit brash--that softened me to her arguments. Overall, it was interesting but I thought it was fairly presumptuous about Louisa's personal thoughts.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Janice

    Surprising arduous life and career. Good insight on Existentialist contemporaries.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jcatme

  17. 4 out of 5

    Paula

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kristine

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jackie Shepherd

  20. 4 out of 5

    Deirdre

  21. 5 out of 5

    Melody

  22. 5 out of 5

    Booklover1951

  23. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  24. 4 out of 5

    Susan Humeston

  25. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

  27. 4 out of 5

    Charisse Gulosino

  28. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Cáceres

  29. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Edwards

  30. 5 out of 5

    Beth

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