An Alcott biography that reads like a novel
Storytelling lifts Cheever’s version
By Rebecca Steinitz
November 19, 2010
"No one reads novels for ideas alone. We all read for storytelling,’’ writes Susan Cheever in “Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography.’’ Substituting biographies for novels, her words could easily apply to her own book. There are few viable rationales for writing a biography of a popular figure whose story has already been told dozens of times. You can have new information, like Madeleine Stern, whose 1950 biography revealed that the beloved children’s writer also wrote melodramatic potboilers. You can have a new perspective, like John Matteson, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father’’ focused on her most important relationship. Or you can simply tell the story well, as Cheever does here.
One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is its length. In an era when biographers seem compelled to compile cultural surveys, genealogical treatises, medical minutiae, and discussions of every conversation, book, or battle into weighty tomes, Cheever packs an entire life into fewer than 300 pages.