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.
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.
For Mr. March, the military defeat is overshadowed by his failure to save a panicked young soldier from drowning during the chaotic retreat. It's a gripping scene, one of many that crashes through this narrative with tremendous energy, but March rehearses it in his mind only to torture himself for his own weakness. What becomes increasingly fascinating in this novel is the complicated nature of idealism in the real world and the way that stress twists March's conscience and warps his once pure relationship with the woman he loves. Again and again, March does everything possible to save others but, failing that, can only berate himself for the shame of surviving.
The story moves back and forth in time as he describes the horrible setbacks of battle, the events in Concord that led him to enlist (against everyone's advice), and his compromising involvement with abolition terrorist John Brown, which exhausted his once comfortable fortune.
Most disturbing to him, though, are the memories inspired by a ruined plantation that his men are using as a hospital and morgue. Twenty years ago, while passing through Virginia as a peddler from Connecticut, he was a guest in these lavish rooms, seduced away from his principles by the master's opulence and flattery. A romantic entanglement with one of the house servants tore the fabric of civility and taught him the brutal consequences of his naiveté.
Seeing that black woman again, enslaved now only by her sense of duty, calls up all the old conflicted feelings of desire, responsibility, and guilt.
March, it turns out, is a saint, but a wholly ineffective chaplain. His transcendental theology strikes most listeners as downright weird. His idealism exceeds that of anyone around him - sometimes obnoxiously so. He's shocked to discover that the young men he's charged with comforting couldn't care less about freeing slaves. They serve "with ill grace and no fervor of the cause," he notices.
His colonel snaps at him one evening, "I know you mean well, but the thing of it is, you're too radical for these mill-town lads.... Your duty is to bring the men comfort, and yet all you seem to do is make people uncomfortable."
In this highly sympathetic portrayal, Brooks nonetheless suggests that there's a narcissistic quality to the drive for perfection that can lead a man to ignore the common but no less pressing needs of those who depend on him. That problem arises most painfully in relation to his family back home. Hovering between idealism and despair, March taxes his wife almost to the breaking point. Who really pays the price, Brooks asks, for one's principles?
Toward the end, Mrs. March appears to narrate a few chapters herself, and our vision of their marriage grows even more complicated. Clearly, it's hard to live with a saint. The moral certainty that March maintains for his wife is, in the end, more important to him than to her. She loves "this inconstant, ruined dreamer" almost despite his ideals.
The great philosophical and military clashes of 19th-century America come excitingly alive in this carefully researched novel. But Brooks is equally interested in the battles that will always rage in the conscience of anyone caught between the exigencies of real life and the demands of principle.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.