On Thursday evening at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Susan Cheever talked about her new book, Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography. Cheever is a practised raconteur. With material like the Alcott family, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Henry James, the Civil War and more, 75 minutes should fly by. And they did.
Of the audience, 80% were women. A number who spoke cited their emotional reaction and attachment – life long – to Jo March, Little Women’s heroine – a feeling Cheever shares. My mother read Little Women aloud to her four sons. It is a book I recall vividly her reading – not just that she read it to us. And even at the time it was clear why.
Alcott was not ‘one hit wonder’. She was determined to be a writer, and worked long and hard at it. The leading editor of her day rejected a manuscript, telling her to her face she would never be a writer. Her father was a famously failed writer – among other things. In one of Cheever’s funniest asides, she quoted the doggrel on Bronson Alcott’s thudding prose composed by his friend, the ultra-serious poet, scholar and diplomat, James Russell Lowell. Louisa May Alcott did not come by her writing skills at birth.
Alcott had lived all her life in the tight confines of Concord and Boston. But at 31 at a very low point for the Union, she volunteered for a new corps of female nurses, founded by Dorothea Dix. She found herself in Washington at the moment carts of wounded Union soldiers arrived from the slaughter at Fredericksburg.
Alcott proved a brave, resourceful nurse, but in very short order contracted a disease whose cure – doses of mercury – ruined her health forever. From that experience she drew her first successful book, Hospital Sketches (1863).
Cheever expressed amazement that Civil War courses don’t use Alcott. No other woman saw what she did and wrote about it. She compared favorably Alcott’s to Walt Whitman’s writing on nursing soldiers in Washington. And his prose on this subject is as wrenching as any of his poetry.
For some of us deeply influenced by her father, John Cheever, Ms. Cheever will always be honored for her great memoir, Home Before Dark. She has also written well about her life and the people who’ve enriched it. Here I’m thinking of her fine biography, My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson–His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Cheever is a generous writer and speaker. She knows how to tell stories and how to field questions from an intelligent audience. She likes her audiences, and she responds warmly and amply even to weak questions.
The feeling is reciprocated. One woman had seen a note about the talk in that morning’s Boston Globe, raced to catch the last ferry from Block Island, and arrived in Porter Square just in time for the 7 p.m. talk – no mean feat on a Thursday evening. She did not regret her effort.
H/T: To the great staff at Porter Square Books whom put on ten or more of these intimate events each month and make them seem effortless – the surest sign of how much very hard work and thought goes into each.