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Unruly women.



Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biograph

By Susan Cheever

New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010, 298 pp., $26.00, hardcover

Jane Addams: Spirit in Action

By Louise W. Knight

New York: W.W. Norton, 2010, 334 pp., $28.95, hardcover

They were definitely the unruly women who make history. They didn't marry, and they spoke truth to power. When Louisa May Alcott didn't like the company, she would pretend she was a horse; Jane Addams galloped around the world, kicking up dust everywhere. Susan Cheerer (Alcott) and Louise W. Knight (Addams) clearly love their subjects, and who wouldn't? There's much to admire, and to sigh and wonder about.

Cheerer, a novelist herself, starts Alcott's life story (1832-1888) at a critical moment: Alcott is resisting her publisher's push to write a "girls' book." She has already published Hospital Sketches, a jaunty but sobering picture of her work as a nurse in a Civil War hospital. Under the name A. M. Barnard, she's published hot-selling "blood and thunder tales"--histrionic melodramas with diabolical lovers, wild landscapes, and "Paulines in peril."

Alcott did not want to write what turned out to be Little Women. She thought the lives of girls would be dull, and so did her publisher, when she finally turned in a 400-page manuscript. But in the 140 years since its original publication, Little Women has never been out of print, and the tomboy character of Jo March, so similar to Alcott, still delights and inspires girls all over the world.

An author doesn't always know what she's doing, as both these biographers confess. As a creative writer herself, Cheever has insight into the trancelike state needed for fiction writing, saying, "Writers rarely know what alchemy of time, place, and mood will find their truest voice. If they write every day, it's because they do not know which days are the ones that count." Alcott, who described her family as "poor as rats," had to make every writing day count.

Jane Addams (1860-1935) was only two years old on the day that devastated her life. Her mother, pregnant with her sixth child, went to help a neighbor, fell on the ice, and died. Addams's widowed father, a prosperous industrialist and Illinois state senator, remarried, but Addams never got along with her stepmother, a drama queen and society dingbat. Like Alcott, Addams didn't fit in with girly girls--and, of course, it's the malcontents and the nonconformists who change the world.

Alcott, unlike Addams, had two parents for most of her life, which was rare for women writers of her era: most lost their mothers before they were ten years old. Alcott's childhood and adolescence are well-documented, since everyone in her family's circle kept journals, and the Alcotts' friends and neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, the one woman among the Transcendentalists. (She was the visitor surprised by young Alcott's neighing and prancing.) Cheerer's earlier book, American Bloomsbury (2007), describes in gossipy detail the intimate lives of the Transcendentalists, who were not always as lofty, spiritual, and starchy as their reputations. In this book, Cheever hones in on her favorite, the boldest and brightest member of a very odd family.

Louisa May Alcott's mother, Abba (Abigail), was a Boston Brahmin princess, but her father, Bronson, was a self-made, mostly self-educated farm boy full of grandiose ideas. As a teacher, he believed in encouraging children's free curiosity rather than in rote learning, and his pupils received an enthralling, Montessori-style education until, as inevitably happened, he was fired (in one instance, for encouraging youngsters to talk about sex).

One of his daughter Louisa's most entertaining pieces is "Transcendental Wild Oats," her satirical portrait of the ideal society, Fruitlands, that her father created when she was ten. Off into the Massachusetts wilderness went the Alcotts and a dozen other "colonists," including an English nudist, to live off the land. They would wear only linen, because cotton was grown by slaves, silk was "worm slaughter," and wool was "sheep robbery." Even using manure for fertilizer was not permitted, as it took something from the animals producing it.

Abba Alcott occasionally sneaked bits of meat to her four daughters, and her work kept the community afloat while Bronson and his pals orated about freedom. (Like hippie men of the 1960s, they also sought "free love" and were usually rejected.) Finally faced with winter and nothing but potatoes and apples to eat, Abba made the group sell out and go back to the village.

Alcott wrote about them slyly and wryly, but her own life wound up being devoted to breadwinning, as there was no other provider. One Alcott sister, like Beth in Little Women, died young. For most of Alcott's life, her family was desperately poor and malnourished. The Transcendentalists, like Jane Addams's family, were abolitionists who fed and sheltered runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. But Louisa was the only one who left home and actually enlisted in the war. As a nurse, she was a Civil War veteran, and her grave is the only one in the Concord cemetery decorated with an American flag.

Susan Cheever is an ideal Alcott biographer. She's loved Little Women all her life, ever since it told her as a preteen that she could be rebellious and still be loved (which wasn't true for the book's real-life author). Cheever, like Alcott, is the daughter of a difficult and powerful father, the novelist John Cheever, and she's had a lifetime to ponder what an intellectual father can and can't do for his daughters. Her prose is charming, graceful, and fast-paced, and as a life-writer myself I keep wondering, "How did she ever organize this material?"

Biographers worry a lot about filing.

Organizing was probably easier for Louise Knight, since a public figure such as Addams leaves official papers. Her adult life can be documented chronologically, and her childhood was much less weird than Alcott's.

Addams went to regular schools, read Emerson and Fuller, and loved Little Women (she found Jo "heroic"). She longed to go to Smith, a new and rigorous women's college, to become a medical doctor. But her father refused to send her, and she had no money of her own. Instead, she attended and enjoyed Rockford Female Seminary.


For both Alcott and Addams, the traditional destiny of women was to marry, but both saw the risks. Alcott was ten and hungry when she first referred to her household as "the pathetic family," and she was 48 when her best-loved sister, May, died in childbirth. She rejected her one offer of marriage with a curtly funny note: "I have decided that it be best for me to decline your proposal. In haste, L. M. Alcott." Later, she was furious with readers who clamored for Little Women's bold, independent Jo to marry the boy next door.

Addams may have been more polite than Alcott, but she was also more drawn to women. She had a female life-partner for 37 years, Mary Rozet Smith, who performed many comforting, wifely functions and encouraged what she called Addams's "ribald" humor.

Addams's life used to be held up to schoolgirls (like me) as an uplifting tale of a woman who lived only to serve others. Addams created Chicago's Hull-House settlement house, the first in the United States, which provided dubs and classes and social services in a day when there was no public help for undernourished, homeless, or abused women and children. But Addams was no goody goody. Knight captures the full, radical range of her sympathies and achievements.

Because her wealthy father died when she was 21, she had her own money. She never had to work (or marry) for a living. She spent all her money on helping others and later in life supported herself through lecturing and writing--but the money gave her that choice.

Her social class made her an insider, but she was also an excellent listener. Knight shows how Addams learned, from women, that benevolence and self-righteousness were not enough. She supported trade unions and believed that workers' shelter and wages should be rights, not gifts. She campaigned against child labor at a time when many in her class refused to believe such horrors existed. She helped persuade the third-party presidential candidate Teddy Roosevelt to come out in favor of women's votes in 1912. When women finally got the right to vote in 1920, after 72 years of campaigning, Addams was mentioned as a potential candidate for president of the United States.

She was already running everything else. She was president of every board or group she joined; she gave powerful speeches; she wrote ten books (which makes me wonder about her secretarial support as well as her filing.) She was on the founding boards of the NAACP and the ACLU, started the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. She operated according to "unconscious feelings" as well as "mindful judgment," Knight says, and was "one of the greatest American women this nation has yet produced." She was wildly popular, and speakers who just mentioned her name got "rapturous applause"--until she came out against World War I.

Knight explains why, succinctly: Addams didn't approve of people killing each other. Alcott, in the 1860s, had been horrified by war, as were the young male enlistees she knew. They had understood that they might be killed, but they had never imagined killing someone else, face-to-face, hand-to-hand. Addams observed of soldiers around the world that they had to get very drunk before they could force themselves to bayonet an enemy, to murder a stranger. She was labeled a traitor for saying so.

She had been criticized before, notably by African American women for not pushing for their voting rights--although she had supported Ida B. Wells-Barnett's antilynching campaigns. But criticizing war was beyond the pale.

She was called a "complacent and self-satisfied woman" and a "foolish and garrulous woman." According to a New York newspaper, she was "a silly, vain, impertinent old maid ... who is now meddling with matters far beyond her capacity." Her headquarters were ransacked, and her mailbox and door were "befouled in hideous ways."

She later observed that men were too emotional for war.

The most memorable and poignant parts of a woman's life are often hidden from view. Alcott and Addams, like most women of the nineteenth century, suffered from chronic pain. Alcott may have had lupus, and she probably died from mercury poisoning, acquired during her service in the Civil War, when she came down with typhoid and was treated with the "drug" calomel. Addams lived with her back in a leather and steel corset, and endured excruciating surgery.

Each outlived siblings and friends: when Alcott sat down to write Little Women, she recalled Thoreau as the lively flute-playing tutor who had shown her the wonders of nature--but he had died six years earlier, at age 44. Both were caregivers for male relatives who were mentally off the rails, and--like most strong women--they were their families' designated worriers.

Cheever and Knight are sparkling guides to women's lives. Cheever alludes to her own struggles to find time, money, and a room of her own. Knight, the intellectual historian, traces the growth of Addams's mind through reading, conversations, and an open heart--though not an openness about her same-sex relationship, except in private letters to "My best beloved." She lived with the homophobia of her time.

Both books drew me in. Their writers are warm and knowledgeable. They make me appreciate, again, what the last half-century of feminism has taught us about seeing the world through women's eyes. In their day, their subjects were chased by frantic female fans who clawed and kissed Alcott and fought to caress Addams's foot. We needn't do these things, but we do need to celebrate the foremothers who make us angry, make us laugh, make us feel their pain and their glory.

Horsing around or giving hell they never fit in, and neither should we.

Emily Toth, professor of English and women's studies at Louisiana State University, has published biographies of Grace Metalious and Kate Chopin, as well as Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia (1997) and its all-new sequel, Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (2008). She writes the Ms. Mentor academic advice column for the Chronicle of Higher Education's online Career Network, and has firm, fine-toothed opinions about everything.
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Title Annotation:'Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography' and 'Jane Addams: Spirit in Action'
Author:Toth, Emily
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2011
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