Tuesday, February 24, 2009

1970s Anger Clouds Nineteenth Century Life

8. Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxton

Not only is this biography outdated, but it exemplifies a wonderful reason why some books deserve to be outdated. I picked it up in a used bookstore, and bought it because I adore Louisa May Alcott and the last biography I read on her was definitely a children's book. Still, from what I remember of that book, one or the other has got to have some facts wrong.

The problem I have with Martha Saxton is not that her facts are wrong in general, but that she speculates far too widely and twists every word to make her point. Her thesis, essentially, is that Louisa was never happy with herself and was stunted emotionally and sexually due to her upbringing, namely her mother's martyrdom and her father's philosophy, and that most of her books are examples of her stunted, morally binary pain. That makes me so angry.

Saxton makes statements like (I'm paraphrasing) "Moods is undoubtedly her best work," and "Louisa never lived up to her potential because of her father," and "Abba (Louisa's mother) was unhappy all of the time." You can't say that! No biographer writing seventy years after her subject has died, knows that! Yes, all of the Alcotts left copious journals, but Saxton herself admits Louisa burned many of her journals. And then she makes assertions about what was in those burned journals! How does she know?

The book is not even particularly concerned with Louisa for at least the first half. The book begins with her parents' (Bronson and Abba) courtship and focuses (with much speculation) on their relationship, characters, motivations, and behaviors. At least title it, A Biography of the Alcott Family then!

The parts that annoy me most though are when she deconstructs Louisa's books and "explains" them in terms of who or what Louisa is "really" writing about. Apparently, half her male characters are actually Henry Thoreau. It's certainly accepted that Louisa had an adolescent crush on Thoreau, but Saxton takes it far too far.

She calls some of my favorite characters, like Rose from Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, priggish and boring and claims that not only Louisa, but her readers, didn't like them. She did help me see patterns in Louisa's writing and of course it relates to her transcendental upbringing, and yes there is "preaching" in the books, but isn't it possible Louisa believed she was doing a good thing or even being satirical? Perhaps I too, am obsessed with moral goodness and believe women can only be realized through men.

Alcott's books do reflect the views of her time, but her characters really are timeless. Even if Saxton's claims are true, why does it take away from Louisa's literary merit?

This was published in 1977 and is highly reflective of extreme feminist views. She continuously writes (another thing, she is REALLY repetitive) how Louisa's mother taught her to be afraid of men, and she could see all their problems stemmed from her father. It really makes me want to write my own, hopefully less biased and more accurate, biography of one of my favorite authors. Are there any more 'modern' biographies on her out there that I should know of?

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