Sunday, September 11, 2005


Just Ask My Friends

Today's Boston Globe reviews Daniel Shealy's Alcott In Her Own Time, which presents an interesting biographical approach:

"Alcott in Her Own Time" is a collection of letters and essays written by people who knew her before, during, and after the success of ''Little Women," offering a detailed look at her life, her family, and what it was like to live in 19th-century Massachusetts. Each essay.... begins with a paragraph or so explaining the essayist's relationship to Alcott. Some of the recollections recount stories from Alcott's childhood, stories attributed to the character Jo Marsh in ''Little Women," but several illustrate events in Alcott's life that did not make it into her books, including the death of her sister May and her adoption of May's daughter, Lulu; Alcott's unorthodox education; and her experience at Fruitlands, a short-lived, Utopian community founded by her father, Bronson Alcott, in 1843. Other essays, such as ''When Louisa Alcott Was a Girl," by Ralph Waldo Emerson's youngest child, Edward, and ''Beth Alcott's Playmate," by neighbor Lydia Hosmer Wood, offer an intimate look at the Alcott family as a whole. Still others share snippets of private letters and old conversations.

The first time I came across this "oral biography" approach -- by people around the subject, I mean, and not "In Their Own Words" from the subject themselves -- was in Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee's 1978 volume Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. (I see that Thunder's Mouth Press is about to issue a new edition of it next month.) It's a fascinating approach to biography; it certainly doesn't supplant the traditional single-narrator biography, but it does round it out rather nicely.

One surprise, though: when I fed the phrase into "oral biography" into Amazon I only got 57 titles back, and most of them out of print. Though there are surely many other oral biographies without the phrase in their title, this really does still seem to be a underutilized genre...

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?