Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

by John Matteson

Hardcover, 2007





W. W. Norton & Company (2007), Edition: 1, 512 pages


The beloved author of Little Women was torn between pleasing her idealistic father and planting her feet in the material world. Now, Louisa May Alcott's name is known universally; yet, during her youth, the famous Alcott was her father, Bronson--an eminent teacher, lecturer, and friend of Emerson and Thoreau. Willful and exuberant, Louisa flew in the face of all her father's theories of child rearing. She, in turn, could not understand the frugal life Bronson preached, which reached its epitome in the failed utopian community of Fruitlands. In a family that insisted on self-denial and spiritual striving, Louisa dreamed of wealth and fame. At the same time, like most daughters, she wanted her father's approval. This story of their tense yet loving relationship adds dimensions to Louisa's life, her work, and the relationships of fathers and daughters.--From publisher description.… (more)


(71 ratings; 4)

Media reviews

Author John Matteson won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, and deservedly so. The depth and scope of his research is admirable.
3 more
A double biography is a difficult thing to bring off but Matteson does it beautifully, giving a vivid but delicate account of two complicated characters inextricably entwined.
Matteson tells his story so clearly and attractively that no previous acquaintance with the remarkable Alcott clan and their various, equally remarkable friends is needed to relish their world as he re-creates it.
In "Eden's Outcasts," Matteson pays assiduous attention to detail (over a thousand footnotes!) and offers perceptive literary critiques. Nonetheless, this book should have appeal beyond academia. Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott may be larger-than-life personas in the history of American
Show More
letters, but this engaging dual biography points out how thoroughly human they were.
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member saraswati27
Eden's Outcasts is an outstanding double biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson Alcott. I was very impressed at the author's balancing act for all the disparate themes touched on in subjects lives.

Matteson gives a full background and exploration of the life and influences on
Show More
Bronson Alcott, and his circle of contemporary transcendentalists. For the reader who comes to this biography wanting to know more about Louisa May Alcott, this background is illuminating. But Matteson gives Bronson's life full and compelling coverage, and he never treats Bronson as only "Louisa's Father".

Having read other biographies (excellent ones) of Louisa May Alcott, I was wondering what new information this bio would provide. But Matteson's approach to Louisa's life and literary influences does explore areas which other biographers have not covered, and Matteson ties together his research and his theories into a fresh and exciting story.

Most importantly, I felt that Matteson did a wonderful job of sympathizing with his subject's human failings without becoming an apologist or providing justifications for the subject's actions. This is especially hard given the dual nature of this biography, and the fact that the two subjects were sometimes in conflict with one another. Matteson fearlessly explored places where his subjects were less than heroic. But he always did so respectfully and with an eye to a better understanding, rather than to place blame or cast judgment.

I would highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in Alcott, the Transcendentalist Philosophy, American Writers, Feminist History, or in knowing more about the author of Little Women. The writing is absolutely accessible to those outside of academia, without talking down to anyone.
Show Less
LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
I'm very much the right audience for this book--I read Little Women and its sequels too many times to count when I was growing up, and in fact at one point named one of my dolls Louisa May Alcott Bassham. (Between this book and My Wilder Life, the last couple of months have been a real trip down
Show More
Memory Lane.)

But leaving that aside, Matteson does great work in this book. It's a dual biography of Louisa and her father Bronson (they died a mere three days apart), who are both fascinating characters. Matteson has obviously done a lot of research, but he wears it lightly. He writes well; the book was simply a joy to read. I only wish I'd read it before we visited the Alcott house a couple of years ago.
Show Less
LibraryThing member christinejoseph
@ Louisa + Bronson Alcott
Pulitzer Prize - Winner

Louisa May Alcott is known universally. Yet during Louisa's youth, the famous Alcott was her father, Bronson, an eminent teacher and a friend of Emerson and Thoreau. He desired perfection, for the world and from his family. Louisa challenged him with
Show More
her mercurial moods and yearnings for money and fame. The other prize she deeply coveted her father's understanding seemed hardest to win. This story of Bronson and Louisa's tense yet loving relationship adds dimensions to Louisa's life, her work, and the relationships of fathers and daughters.
Show Less
LibraryThing member PuddinTame
I very much enjoyed this book, it was well-researched, vivid, and read very well. I recommend reading it with Eve LaPlante's Marmee & Louisa, a joint biography of Abigail May Alcott and their daughter, Louisa, which has a different view of Bronson Alcott. Matteson is by no means uncritical of
Show More
Bronson and his many faults, but LaPlante has a far less flattering view of him, and she lets him condemn himself out of his own mouth. I should probably find a biography of Louisa alone. I think that Matteson has much more sympathy for Bronson, and seems very happy that his last years were far more successful than the rest of his life. This book, of course, says a great deal more about Bronson's relationship with his daughters than the other, though less about his relationship with his wife. Reading both gives a better picture of the family as a whole.

Personally, I never has any interest in Transcendentalism (I have only recently read Philip Gura's excellent American Transcendentalism), because it seemed to me that so many Transcendentalists were dependent fools, with Bronson Alcott, then and now, as Exhibit #1. (I haven't the heart to tell my friends, who admire some of them, what I think about the others. I don't want them falling dead at my feet from a stroke, or hitting me over the head with their chair.) I've read several of Louisa May Alcott's books, including Little Women, which I enjoyed, but since I didn't identify at all with Jo, I seem to be an outlier (again.)

Bronson may have meant well, but he generally didn't do well. My prime example is that having moved his family to Fruitlands, and leaving the domestic work to Abigail, and the children, except for the brief period when Anna Page was there, and occasional help from her aunt, Hannah Robie. So much for the oral feminism that was part of what attracted Abigail to Bronson in the first place. Then, Bronson, the farmer's son, and the rest of the men, went off leaving the crop in the field, and it was left to Abigail and the children to save it in the face of a storm.

Pictures, generally of high quality, of many places and people are interwoven with the text, a system that I find preferable to an independent section of plates, if all of the illustrations are black and white. There is both a bibliography and an extensive section of bibliographical notes. It used to be common for the title of a chapter to run along the top of the pages, while the notes contained only the chapter number. I am glad to see that the fault is NOT repeated here. There is also a detailed index; I didn't notice any flaws while using it.

I'm happy to see that Matteson also wrote a biography of Margaret Fuller, the next Transcendentalist that I intend to check out.
Show Less
LibraryThing member fromthecomfychair
A very special book. So informative and well-written. I can see why it won the Pulitzer. I'm a native of eastern Massachusetts, and I love reading about Transcendentalists, specially because I can easily visit sites in Boston and Concord.

Matteson did a great job writing a double biography, pulling
Show More
from a huge number of sources. At first Bronson was the focus. I had a very negative opinion of him before reading this; after reading it, I'm still not going to run out and try to find one of his old books. But I have more respect for him as a parent and teacher than I did previously. I was very surprised to learn that the experiment at Fruitlands lasted only seven months and involved so few people. I visited Fruitlands for the first time in the fall and it is quite developed as a history site, given the short time they spent there.

I have even more respect for Louisa after reading about her lifelong struggle with "moods," and the therapeutic poisoning she suffered when serving as a Civil War nurse in Washington, D.C. After six weeks, she was too sick to continue and was sent home to recover, but never again to feel well. And yet she soldiered on, intent on making her writing pay the bills that her father seemed unable and unwilling to pay with his own labor. Even her great novel, Little Women, was something she wrote at her publisher's request. She was never able to produce her masterpiece for adults.
Show Less
LibraryThing member bell7
Amos Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May didn't always see eye to eye. He was a friend of Emerson and Thoreau's, a staunch abolitionists and a vegetarian, a philosopher, a teacher, yet always poor and in debt. His daughter Louisa was temperamentally was much like her mother and sometimes had
Show More
her father at his wit's end with her impetuousness and spirit. Then, as she grew older she was much more practical and desirous of the comforts solvency can bring.

In this dual biography of Bronson and his famous daughter, John Matteson draws on the wealth of writings, including personal journals and letters, of the Alcott family to illuminate not just two lives but their changing relationship. Matteson does occasionally venture a little too far in his surmising (I noted a passage where he took Louisa's love for Jane Eyre as potentially linked to her fascination with the idea of mental health being hereditary), and tends to see a lot more autobiography in Louisa's fiction that I thought was perhaps warranted. Still, this well-researched, Pulitzer-prize winning book is a thorough and entertaining read, illuminating these two fascinating people in light of their relationship which each other. Born on the same day 33 years apart and dying within days of each other, Bronson and Louisa may not have always seen eye to eye, but they clearly loved each other and grew in mutual respect over the years. Well worth reading for anyone interested in literary history, Massachusetts history, or Transcendentalists.
Show Less


Pulitzer Prize (Winner — 2008)
Massachusetts Book Award (Honor Book — Nonfiction — 2008)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

512 p.; 6.5 inches


0393059642 / 9780393059649
Page: 0.3622 seconds