Tuesday, 13 October 2015

An Uninvincible Biography

The Newbery medalist for 1934, Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women, by Cornelia Meigs, hasn't aged well. But then biographies don't tend to. Continued historical research efforts into a subject of interest and scientific advances as well as the greater ease of access made possible by computerization and the rise of the internet means that the amount of biographical information available tends to grow rather than decrease, and very often an old biography proves to be not only incomplete but incorrect. Then too, the standpoint from which we view and analyze a historical subject can change radically.

Such is the case with Invincible Louisa. I wasn't far into my re-read of this book (I first read it as a teenager) before I decided I'd have to track down and read a more modern biography in order to assess the accuracy and worth of Invincible Louisa. These days there are many books available which treat not only Louisa May Alcott's life but also the other members of her exceptionally talented and accomplished family, but the one I chose was Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen, which from what I can tell seems solidly researched and written, though I will say I was taken aback by the several errors Reisen makes in her references to the text of Little Women (i.e., she writes that Beth March was sixteen when she died when Beth actually would have been twenty or twenty-one, and she refers to the twins Daisy and Demi Brooke as Jo's children when they were Meg's). I expected better accuracy from someone who describes herself as a passionate Alcott fan, especially when these textual references were so easy to verify. However, I am here to review Invicible Louisa rather than Reisen's book.

As I wrote above, Invincible Louisa, while it would have been solidly researched and written for its time, has been supplanted in its usefulness by more modern biographies. Thanks to relaxed social morés, modern biographers can write more freely on questions such as whether Alcott was a lesbian, and they also have much better access to documentation than Meigs would have had: more Alcott family correspondence and other writings as well as newspapers and city records, and more records of interviews with those who knew Alcott personally, as well as a great deal of Alcott's own fiction that was unknown in the thirties and has been rediscovered since, and the result is a fuller, more nuanced picture of who Alcott was and what her life and circumstances were. Meigs paints a portrait of the Alcotts as a family that lived on love and intellectual stimulation and took poverty in its cheerful stride. In Reisen's account, Reisen goes into much greater detail about Alcott's family background and her parents' early lives and marriage, and then relates how Bronson and Abba Alcott spent so irresponsibly and were so cavalier about debt that at one point they owed their various creditors the astounding sum of $6,000. (According to an online calculator I consulted, $6000 in 1850 dollars is the equivalent of $177,777.89 in 2015 dollars.) Bronson and Abba Alcott not only had no expectation or hope of ever repaying their debts but were none too concerned about it. Abba's well-to-do relatives became unwilling to lend them money outright and instead would take steps to safeguard any gifts of money by such measures as arranging a line of credit at the grocer's, and Abba was outraged by the terms of her father's will, which tied up her inheritance in an effort to keep the Alcotts from wasting it. This picture is a far cry from the kind of noble privation Meigs writes about, and it gets even darker when one considers Reisen's suggestion that Bronson Alcott may have been unable to earn a decent living for his family due to his suffering from some form of unrecognized and untreated mental illness. More sobering as Reisen's account may be, I much prefer it to Meigs' prettified version. It's far more interesting, for one thing. It's always better to know the truth of a matter, and the sentimentalization and oversimplification of poverty, with the accompanying claim that poverty's solution lies in rugged individualism, is a long-standing pernicious myth in North American society that can't be deconstructed often enough.

Speaking of pernicious forces, I can say the same of Meigs' sickly sweet portrayal of Louisa May Alcott herself as the dutiful, self-sacrificing daughter who never thought of herself and died just two days after her father, with her life's primary mission accomplished. Here are the closing sentences of Invincible Louisa:

When she died, she did not know that Bronson Alcott had gone just before her. What she did know was that she had taken care of him to the very last of his needing her, that she had been able to guard and protect and watch over the entire family. That, indeed, was happy ending; that was the whole of what she had wanted from life -- just to take care of them all.

You'll have to excuse me while I unroll my eyes. Meigs is asking us to believe that Louisa May Alcott, an ambitious, driven, passionate, moody, impatient, complex, talented, sophisticated, and intelligent woman, asked nothing more from life than to care for her family, and that's not a proposition that makes any sense even on its face. Reisen's account, which is supported by her references to historical documentation, is again a less simplistic view. Alcott was generous, she did love her family, and she did greatly enjoy providing them with the kind of easy, comfortable lifestyle she wanted them to have. But she was no saint, nor simple-minded, and there were other motives and emotions at play. She sometimes feared she was more loved as a moneymaker than as a daughter. She adored her young sister May (the counterpart of Amy March), but Alcott felt some resentment over the fact that her sister had an easier life than herself thanks partly to Alcott's efforts and partly to May's sunnier gifts: her more admired golden-haired looks, her gracious personality, and her even temperament. Alcott complained that May "always had the cream of things". As in Little Women where Amy is invited to go on a European tour with her aunt and cousin while Jo remains at home, the Alcotts' wealthy and well-connected relatives were quicker to be generous with the gentle, grateful May than the sharp-tongued, independent Louisa. Then too, Alcott's generosity wasn't without an ulterior motive: supporting those she loved kept them more closely bound to her.

Alcott also definitely wanted more out of life than simply to take care of her family. She loved her writing for its own sake and strove for literary excellence. She could be quite political and campaigned for the abolition of slavery, complete racial equality, and women's suffrage. She enjoyed social life and cultural attractions such as plays, lectures, and concerts (as long as they didn't take too much time away from her writing), and she wasn't above enjoying her wealth herself once she had it. I was glad to read that she indulged in silk dresses made by the best dressmakers and a European tour, and hired a household staff rather than subscribe to her father's view of housework as being good for the character. She had many friends, both male and female, some intense relationships with men (most notably with a certain Ladislas Wisniewski, a Polish expatriate twelve years her junior who became the model for Laurie Laurence of the Little Women series), and some marriage proposals, though she accepted none of them. She was not a woman who was so emotionally wrapped up in her birth family that she didn't wish to marry, but rather a passionate woman who never happened to meet a man she considered a satisfactory counterpart, and who consequently wisely embraced the freedom and independence of single life despite its loneliness rather than settle for any of the substandard marital partnerships that were open to her. Again, the true story is the one I would rather read. I don't care to see the Victorian mythic ideal of woman as a selfless and single-minded caretaker perpetuated.

Another myth that Reisen corrects is the theory that the poor health that plagued Alcott from her late twenties until her death in her fifties was due to her having been treated with mercury when she contracted typhoid pneumonia while working as Civil War nurse. This was Alcott's own view (it was a comfort to her to feel that she had lost her health for a noble cause), and was commonly believed by Alcott scholars until 2001, but it is not true. The mercury would have been eradicated from Alcott's system within a year, and it is now thought that her chronic health problems and early death were probably caused by lupus (though her extremely poor childhood nutrition certainly didn't help), as indicated by her symptoms as described in historical documents and by a telltale butterfly facial rash that appears in the only portrait ever painted of her.

I'm not faulting Cornelia Meigs for not writing a better biography. She did the best she could with the material and the knowledge she had available to her in the thirties. But I wouldn't recommend Meigs' biography to anyone but an avid Alcott fan who is determined to glean every nugget of information possible about Alcott by reading every book ever written about her. If you have a milder sort of interest in Louisa May Alcott and are only prepared to read one or two books on the subject of her life, go with Harriet Reisen's biography and/or some of the other more contemporary Alcott treatises. We have better options now.