THUNDERTOME II: ROUND 8
SURVIVOR: the long ships (frans g. bengtsson)*
CHALLENGER: louisa may alcott (harriet reisen)
louisa may alcott enthusiasts are a spooky bunch. little women was a pleasant enough childhood read, but the little women (and little men, and jo's boys, and so on) scene is an intense one: like anne of green gables fangirls and little house on the prairie reenactors, the alcott admirers i've met tend to brag about growing up without television and, like, refer to their hair as their glory. while there's nothing formally terrible about either of those tendencies, i'd rather not get trapped in an elevator with someone who exhibited them.
it would be superconvenient re: THUNDERTOME structure if, having read harriet reisen's painstakingly-researched alcott biography, i now felt differently about little women women, or was at least able to tell you that alcott herself wasn't spooky at all. i'm fairly sure i don't, is the thing, and she...is?
by all accounts, growing up alcott was pretty miserable. louisa's father, bronson, a transcendentalist who ran with nineteenth-century luminaries like emerson, thoreau, and hawthorne in massachusetts, had little interest in conventional living arrangements or employment (or, eventually, property**). principles like bronson's are well and good for single, unmoored fellows whose bones are finished growing, but they're pretty lousy for dependent wives and little girls; louisa's long-suffering mother, abby, scrambled to pay the family's crippling debts with help from her relatives (including, at a frighteningly young age, louisa herself; she was her family's principal breadwinner from her late teens until her death), and all of the family starved and froze when he decided they would both adhere to his strict vegetarian principles and subsist on what they could grow and forage at the various utopian communities he attempted to establish (and from which they were perpetually in danger of being evicted).
"but he was a dreamer," you say, "and we should treasure and indulge and nurture our dreamers!" he was also an insufferably self-important pedagogue who, in his attempts at educational reform at various experimental schools in boston and elsewhere, "invited students to defy him and then punished them by public shunning—making visible what it meant to lose god's love" and handed down "lordly dismissal[s] of any views but his own."
papa alcott was a piece of work, is what i'm saying, and in some ways his is the central personality in reisen's book; abby orbited bronson, the girls orbited their parents (whose gravity was immense - abby would read and comment in louisa's diary), and the alcotts' financial responsibilities tethered louisa's writing to the commercial realities of her day.
to say that reisen (also a writer-producer of an alcott documentary) is wildly sympathetic to her subject is, if possible, a huge understatement; in the preface to her biography, she explains that she herself is an alcott addict, and that her hope
[...] is that readers of this book will be inspired to track down the dozen or more of Louisa May Alcott's works whose titles are known but whose whereabouts are not, to bring them forth from obscure periodicals in the backs of old library shelves, attic trunks, even from inside the walls of old houses, as pages of Louisa's Fruitlands diaries were, so they may be published and read as widely as their most recent predecessors have been. If they do, I may never have to run out of new work from the prodigious pen of Louisa May Alcott.damn, louisa; your biographer so ardent! i'm tempted to admire alcott's devotion to her family for reisen's sake - the latter is a graceful, deft, compelling storyteller, and the story she tells of louisa's refused marriage proposals and truncated trips abroad is nearly heartbreaking - but the truth is that, quoth louisa, "i'd rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe." behind the pen name a.m. barnard, she wrote pulp fiction about "spies and transvestites and drug takers" - but she didn't seem to have much interest in the world beyond the family hearth (her brief and disastrous stint as a nurse during the civil war notwithstanding). she sure could fictionalize that hearth and make it sound
i'm aware that louisa may alcott inspired hordes of girls who went on to become accomplished writers. i'm aware that i am in all seriousness a terrible person for disliking her; i console myself, gentle readers, with the thought that if you've been reading kidchamp for long, you knew that already. reisen i like very much (i'd have loved to have taken one of her film classes at stanford), and if she'd managed to work a viking ex machina in at the end of her biography in lieu of louisa's crippling headaches and doping, i'd have considered letting her kilos of research pile-drive bengtsson's fanciful man-book. in its absence, i can but say that i'd happily read another reisen bio, and that i wish her well.
VICTOR: red orm & friends (the long ships), of course, with a sickening squelch. would a book about creepy martyrdom even want to win?***
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 with whom would you like to be trapped in an elevator?
02 would you rather be trapped in an elevator with kanye west, anthony bourdain, or kirk cameron? death is not an option.
03 at what age is it reasonable for a child to make his or her own decisions about, say, whether or not he or she is a vegetarian?
04 having at that from the other direction: must a parent edit his personal philosophy for the sake of his children? how much?
05 ladies, did you once see yourself as jo march?
06 biography-readers, do you choose your texts for their subjects or their authors?
07 to what tale would you like to append a viking ex machina?
*previous battle here.
**louisa's uncle sam in a letter to emerson about the alcotts: "it is very important that...my sister [abby] and her family might have a shelter...without implicating [bronson] in the sin of living upon soil appropriated to his exclusive use [...] not that I think the plan practicable....but he is so sincere, so devout, so full of faith, that i long to have him try his experiment to his own entire satisfaction."
***"from 1888 until 1950 there was no full-length biography of louisa may alcott, not surprising given her utter lack of critical cachet," reisen writes. "her readers never knew or cared." i'm reminded of a passage of john jeremiah sullivan's, read last night as i waited for the long-suffering m14 bus to take me and my sprained ankle down grand street:
Llewis taught me something. At high school in Jamaica, he said, when your team lost, it was traditional to chant, on your way out of the grounds, "We feel no way! We feel no way!" Meaning essentially, we're not sweating it, we didn't really give a shit anyway.