Communing with the Alcotts

Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Matteson says the Alcotts reminded him of his own family.

John Matteson won a Pulitzer Prize this year for writing about Little Women author Louisa May Alcott and her father, but the most important work of fiction in his life was Kevin Costner's movie "Field of Dreams."

Matteson, a professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law. He was litigating when he caught Costner's film about casting off regrets and turning dreams into reality. He had become a lawyer "for all the wrong reasons ... money and the illusion of power. I realized that I ought to be doing something better with words than just hitting people with them," he said.

He was particularly struck by the film's signature line, "If you build it, he will come," in which a voice tells a struggling farmer that if he clears his cornfield for a baseball diamond, superstar Shoeless Joe Jackson—banned from baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series—will come and play.

"This may sound a little corny, but right then and there, I decided that I was running out of time to build my own ball field, which for me was going to be reading good books and talking and writing about them. And at that very moment, I decided I was going to take the GRE and go back to graduate school in English," Matteson said. He joined John Jay's faculty in 1997, teaching literature and legal writing, and earned a Columbia Ph.D.

His interest in Alcott and her father, Bronson, grew out of his research into 19th century utopian communities, including Fruitlands, a commune based on transcendental principles that Bronson cofounded in 1840. The title of his prizewinning dual biography, Eden's Outcasts, refers to its failure.

"They say that all biography is autobiography, and I think that's true," Matteson said. The Alcotts reminded him of his own family. "Like Louisa, I'm the child of a perfectionistic, emotionally complicated father and, like Bronson, I'm intensely interested in childhood development and parenthood." Both men left careers in their 30s. "I felt as if I knew them and could tell their story with the kind of sensitivity and balance that perhaps previous biographers had fallen short of achieving."

There were surprises. "One of my initial mistakes was that I assumed Bronson and Louisa were much closer in temperament than they actually were." Louisa's fictionalized family in "Little Women" is "tightly-knit emotionally, and I expected the same from their true story. But actually Bronson and Louisa stood at emotional poles. Bronson was placid, he was domestic and theoretical and completely removed from the cares of the world. You could not imagine this man writing fiction. Whereas Louisa was dramatic, she was practical, she was dedicated throughout her life to very aggressive, assertive action, and she was light years away from her father's philosophic stance. So all of these conflicts made for, I think, a more interesting book."

Matteson said that joining the college faculty "allowed me to combine my background in law and my interest in literature into my teaching, and to connect with an open-minded, eager group of students. Signing on with John Jay was like buying Intel at a dollar a share. The stock in John Jay, I think, is just going to keep going through the roof."