Updated Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 07:01 AM
‘Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother’by Eve LaPlante
Free Press, 384 pp., $26
‘My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother’edited by Eve LaPlante
Free Press, 256 pp., $15
New Englander Eve LaPlante’s genealogy has propelled her into becoming the biographer of some remarkable characters in America’s colonial past, including Puritan renegade Anne Hutchinson and Samuel Sewall, a judge at the Salem witch trials.
But the most famous personage in LaPlante’s family tree was the best-selling children’s author Louisa May Alcott. LaPlante’s great-great-grandmother was Louisa’s first cousin and lifelong friend, and LaPlante’s access to family papers has prompted her to write “Marmee & Louisa,” a revelatory dual biography.
Abigail May Alcott, called Marmee by her four daughters, was the obvious model for the wise and beloved matriarch in Louisa’s best-selling book “Little Women.” But as LaPlante points out in her new biography, the real-life mother was more vociferous than her fictional namesake. Abigail was an ardent woman who chafed against convention and was an early advocate for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery.
Abigail’s problematic marriage to Bronson Alcott, a self-educated philosopher who preferred living in idealistic penury to lifting a hand to support his family, spurred her to enter the workforce herself — a highly unusual move for a woman of her generation and background.
LaPlante makes a convincing case that Abigail’s doggedly pragmatic responses to the intertwined and ongoing catastrophes of Bronson’s inconsistent emotional involvement and the family finances left an indelible impression on Louisa, who vowed from an early age to take care of her mother.
For her part, Abigail had no wish for her daughters to repeat her mistakes. She urged them to aspire to better days and, with her meager budget but ample family connections, strove to equip them with skills, tools and opportunities to make that happen.
While other biographers have accorded some credit to Bronson and his male colleagues (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and others) for Louisa’s professional success, LaPlante argues that Abigail was the emotional and intellectual anchor for all her daughters, and most particularly Louisa. This biography’s focus on the mother-daughter dynamic is persuasive.
However, LaPlante’s claim that her research has “exploded a number of myths about the Alcotts that have arisen as a consequence of ‘Little Women’ ” is an overstatement. Anyone who has delved into the family’s history is aware of Bronson and Abigail’s sometimes unhappy marriage, as well as the unsettled existence they offered their children and the ways Louisa compensated for those childhood deprivations throughout the rest of her life.
But LaPlante certainly is justified in crowing about “My Heart Is Boundless,” the vibrant companion volume that has been released synchronously with “Marmee & Louisa.”
For the first time, Abigail May Alcott’s own writings — once thought to have been destroyed — have been compiled and published. LaPlante has edited and lightly annotated a rich selection of letters, journal entries, and sketches that demonstrate, in Abigail’s own words, the spirited, complicated, visionary woman she was.
Many of her reflections and worries and prayers ring as sonorously today as when Abigail wrote them nearly two centuries ago: how to find one’s voice, how to live true to one’s ideals, how to engage with life’s problems (even at her most destitute, she boasts, “I could stop to throw my stone of indignation at Congress”), and how to raise the next generation.
Each of these books demonstrates that Abigail’s daughters were her dreams made manifest.