Neatly interlaced biography profiles a father of New England Transcendentalism and his bestselling daughter.
Bronson and Louisa May Alcott shared a birthday (November 29, 1799 and 1832 respectively) and died within 40 hours of each other in 1888. As Matteson (English/John Jay College) ably shows in his debut, their lives were inextricably intertwined, even during the occasional brief periods when they lived apart. After offering a snapshot of a low point in Bronson’s life, the 1837 auction of furniture, supplies and books from his beloved, failing Temple School, the narrative moves back to his birth on a Connecticut farm and proceeds chronologically thereafter. Young Bronson mystified his parents with his passion for reading. With little formal education, he traveled as a peddler before devoting the rest of his life to educating others—sometimes in schools, sometimes in lectures and “conversations,” sometimes in his writings. Matteson shows all facets of Bronson’s character: his fierce work ethic, his feckless financial ways (the Alcotts were perennially saved from ruin by the kindnesses of friends), his loyalty to his family. An early and ferocious opponent of slavery, he could be a remarkably clear thinker, but he was also clueless about his own foolishness and irresponsibility. Louisa, a tomboy with a temper, seemed at times the living refutation of her father’s genial theories about human development. In her childhood, she sat at the knees of Emerson, Thoreau and other Concord notables. While serving as a nurse during the Civil War, she became severely ill and was treated with a toxic, mercury-based medication that caused her much suffering and shortened her life. Matteson capably describes Louisa’s feverish devotion to her family and to her writing, the failures in love, the struggles to succeed that came to fruition with the publication of Little Women, her subsequent celebrity, travels and literary triumphs.
Carefully researched and sensitively written. Essential.