Susan Cheever on Transcendentalists, Louisa May Alcott, and Memoir-Haters
Over the past twenty five years Susan Cheever has written brazenly honest biographies and memoirs, ranging in subjects from her own struggles with alcoholism, sex addiction, and motherhood to her father, famed author John Cheever. Her most recent book, Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography delves into the life of the Little Women author, exploring her role among the Transcendentalist thinkers and journey to find her own authorial voice.
We talked with Susan to find out what about Louisa May she found compelling, Transcendentalism, and the role of the memoir in today's literature. Susan will be at the Miami Book Fair Sunday at 1 p.m.
New Times: What drew you to Louisa May Alcott as a potential biography subject?
Susan Cheever: he whole thing started back in 1999 when I was asked to write an introduction to a new edition of Little Women that Random House was bringing out. The first thing I did was reread the book, which just knocked my socks off. It's a fantastic novel. I was just deeply impressed and felt that she was a much more significant writer than she was given credit for. I started reading biographical material and was stunned to find out she was a member of the transcendentalist community. No one ever mentioned to me that along all these great men there was Louisa May Alcott. And although she wasn't regarded as one of them, she was there.
I started reading about the transcendentalists and just thought this is the most interesting community I've ever heard of. My formula for American Bloomsbury was that many people had written brilliantly about the transcendentalists, but nobody had ever included the women. These women had not just been doing the cooking and cleaning, but also doing the writing and thinking. I fell more and more in love with Louisa May Alcott. I found that in her life and in her books she kind of embodied this problem that women have of how to balance their intelligence and their sexual currency. And I still see that happening all around me.
I was very sad when I finished American Bloomsbury. I just thought, 'I'm not done with Louisa May Alcott.' I have so much more interest in her, so much more to say about her. There are so many journals and letters I haven't read yet. I just had to write a biography about her.
You used Transcendentalism to describe the teachings of Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, a previous biographical subject for you. Was that what drew you to the philosophy?
I came to the transcendentalists through Louisa May Alcott. And I guess I was working on the Bill Wilson biography when it became apparent that his philosophy came out of Thoreau and Emerson in its own way. The truth is that I'm sort of in love with New England, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. And that's where all this stuff comes from, AA, transcendentalism, all of it.
It seems as though Louisa was a figure haunted by her commercial success versus her own artistic fulfillment.
Her father was this brilliant guy who just could not support them. Early on she decided she had to make money. Which was an unusual decision for a woman in those days. So she started doing whatever she could to make money. She worked as a seamstress and opened a couple of schools and she wrote whatever she could sell. And one of these things she could sell were these potboilers that she wrote under an assumed name that she referred to as her "Blood and Thunder stories." But she longed to be a more serious writer. And she longed for something she could put her own name on. In the 1850's she started work on this serious novel she called Moods. And she worked very hard on it, but it was very much a novel written to please Emerson and Thoreau and her father. None of these Transcendentalists wrote very well, with the exception of Emerson and Thoreau. And so when she went to write a Transcendentalist novel, it didn't come out very well.
Where did she finally find her authorial voice?
What happened was she went to the Civil War and served as a Civil War nurse and while she was on her way down to Washington D.C. and working in these hospitals she wrote these letters home. And these letters home (is) where she found a mature writing style, unadorned, detail oriented, very moving, and sentimental. Under the pressure of working day and night with wounded and dying men in a Civil War hospital. All the kind of ideas that she had about writing fell away and she just wrote letters home describing what she was seeing and doing. When she got home she collected these letters into a wonderful memoir called Hospital Sketches. At that point, she had acquired an entirely fresh, thrilling writing style.
Then, through a series of accidents, she sat down to write Little Women. Unbeknownst to her, she had this writing style available. So she wrote Little Women in this carefree, simple style. Incredibly honest. A style that completely honored details of her ideas, whereas her old style put ideas before details. After Little Women, anyone would publish anything she wrote. She became immensely rich.
It seems like in the past ten years the memoir has rapidly become one of the most widely read styles of writing. As a memoirist, what do you think draws audiences to the format?
I'm a huge fan of the memoir. I think it's the novel of the 21st century. The critics can say what they want, it's what everybody wants to read and it's what everybody wants to write. And I tell my students they mustn't have memoir shame. I think what's happened with memoir is that there is a huge political dimension to it. What Louisa May Alcott took advantage of was that memoir enables people who never had a voice before to have a voice, whether it's a woman in 1864 or people of color, drug addicts, poor people. Memoir says to you as a writer that any story you want to tell is worth telling. And I think politically it's going to change the way the world works. It began what was carried out by the Internet.
Susan Cheever will be at the Miami Book Fair International at 1 p.m., Sunday, November 21 at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus (300 NE Second St., Miami) Auditorium, Building 2, Second Floor, Room 1261. The event is free.
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