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War is no place for saints

Mr. March, from 'Little Women,' enlists to fight for equality

By Ron Charles / March 1, 2005

If Emerson and Thoreau are the stars of 19th-century idealism, Bronson Alcott is the dark matter that exercises enormous, invisible influence. Now, of course, he's "just" Louisa May's father, the absent Mr. March in her bestselling "Little Women." But during his lifetime, he generated the energy that powered others' work.

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Children released for 20 minutes of recess can thank Alcott for introducing that innovation, along with an astonishing list of liberal ideas that eventually transformed American classrooms.

But cynics will snort, "Is there a sillier figure in American history?" They have a point. Even the most respectful summary of Alcott's life can't help including descriptions that sound like a satire of suicidal naiveté. And it goes beyond the easy targets, like his efforts to get toddlers to explain the Virgin Birth. His idealism kept his family in withering poverty. His refusal to use cotton (from enslaved Africans) or wool (from enslaved sheep) meant the family froze in winter. When he forbade them to disturb canker worms, their apple crop was lost.

In her deeply engaging new novel, "March," Geraldine Brooks has rescued Alcott from the praise of his fans and the mockery of his detractors. What's more, by drawing his voice from scores of journals and thousands of letters he left behind, Brooks rescues Alcott from his best-known published work, the "Orphic Sayings," which reads like a collection of stale fortune cookies at a New Age restaurant.

As millions of readers can recall, "Little Women" begins with the March sisters bemoaning their drab Christmas prospects, "thinking of father far away ... where our men are suffering so in the army." At the end of the novel, a year later, Mr. March returns to his family, "in the delightful story-book fashion," to celebrate the wonderful transformation of his girls. "But," Brooks writes in the afterword to her own novel, "what war has done to March himself is left unstated. It is in this void that I have let my imagination work."

That work involved imagining Bronson Alcott as a Yankee chaplain named Mr. March. The result, not really a biography or a companion to "Little Women," is a wholly original and engrossing story about a man whose lofty principles are scorched by his failings during the Civil War.

He promised to write to his beloved Marmee every day, but he admits privately in the opening chapter, "I never promised I would write the truth."

So begins a double helix of entwined narratives - cheery letters to his little women about the noble fight against slavery and searing descriptions for us of the ghastly defeats of war. "To sit here under the shelter of a great tree as the men make their cook fires and banter together provides a manner of peace," he tells the home crowd, but in fact he's surveying the carnage of Bull's Bluff, where his regiment was routed.