Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Assuming financial responsibility for the support of her family, Louisa May Alcott launched a literary career as a prolific writer of works for both adult and juvenile audiences. Her writing reveals the vitality of everyday life, with the family being her most frequent subject.
Louisa May Alcott was devoted to her family throughout her life. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was an educator who struggled to earn a decent living for his family. Soon after Louisa’s birth, her father moved the family to Boston. During the years preceding Louisa’s success at writing, her family lived in poverty. This poverty forced the young Alcott daughters to work in order to contribute to the family funds. The family moved frequently, covering the areas from Boston to Concord. The four sisters, Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and Abba May, were reared by their father and their mother, Abigail (Abba) May.
As a result of their frequent relocations, the Alcotts came into contact with a variety of people. Through contact with Quaker neighbors, Louisa was exposed to Quaker notions of simplicity, which emphasized family relationships, rather than materialistic acquisitions. The Alcott family’s admiration for this ideal of simplicity made their poverty more bearable. Louisa was also exposed to Transcendentalism by her father, a serious philosopher who believed that honesty, sincerity, unselfishness, and other spiritual characteristics were more important to acquire and practice than the material pursuit of wealth and comfort. Bronson Alcott launched a utopian communal experiment on a farm known as Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts, where the girls maintained the family garden and worked in the barley fields. During this time, the family was influenced by their close proximity to the Shakers, who owned property in common and who worked together to complete tasks.
Because her father was interested in philosophy and education, Louisa and her family were acquainted with many of the great minds of the time. Bronson Alcott was a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and these men greatly influenced Louisa, who had little formal education. After Thoreau’s death, Louisa wrote a poem, entitled “Thoreau’s Flute,” which was published in Atlantic in May, 1863.
In Concord, at the age of thirteen, Louisa began to write and produce little dramatic plays in the barn. At age sixteen, she decided to accept a job as teacher to Emerson’s children so that she could contribute to her family’s earnings. During these years of teaching, Louisa wrote stories for Ellen Emerson. These stories were later compiled into a book, entitled Flower Fables, published by George W. Briggs in 1855.
As a child, Louisa was deeply affected by contrabands, runaway slaves who had escaped from the South and fled to northern towns for protection. She was filled with compassion for the slaves and later wrote a poem for John Brown, the radical abolitionist who led the raid on Harpers Ferry. When the Civil War broke out, Louisa volunteered as a nurse and went to Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C. During her experiences in the hospital, she wrote a series of “Hospital Sketches” which were printed serially in Commonwealth and later published as a book in 1863. Her volunteer service as a nurse was terminated after only a month because Louisa came down with typhoid and had to return to Concord.
In 1865, Louisa sailed to Europe as a nurse and companion to a family friend’s invalid daughter. During this year-long trip, Louisa met Ladislas Wisniewski, who became a close friend. Ladislas would later serve as the model for the character Laurie in Little Women.
A wide range of experiences gave Louisa May Alcott the opportunity to observe many different people. She knew farmers, Quakers, Shakers, and people of Boston society. She knew poverty, but she was also exposed to a rich intellectual world by her father, and by Emerson and Thoreau. Her travels to Europe gave her further perspectives on people, but when it came time to write, she wrote of what she knew best—her family.
Little Women, Alcott’s most popular book, was published by Roberts Brothers in Boston. The book was published in two parts: part 1 (1868) and part 2 (1869). Little Women was Alcott’s story of her life as one of four sisters. Family members and family friends were at the core of her writing. Daughters, mothers, and grandmothers across the country loved this book written by a female author who understood their experiences. With the success of Little Women, Alcott’s works were in demand, and she wasted no time in producing more books.
In 1870, Alcott began work on An Old-Fashioned Girl, which was published in March of the same year. Many readers praised the story for offering an accurate picture of life in Boston society during that time period. Alcott’s observations of life in Boston were particularly keen because she drew upon her own rural...
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IntroductionLouisa May Alcott had the good fortune to be raised by highly unconventional, literary-minded parents. Her mother was a pioneer in the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, and her father was a transcendentalist philosopher and social reformer. Alcott’s first and still best-known novel, Little Women, was an immediate popular success and continues to enjoy a wide readership. Largely based on her own childhood experiences, Little Women recounts the story of sisters Jo, Amy, Beth, Meg, and their mother, “Marmee” March. The March women must learn to fend for themselves when their father leaves home to fight in the Civil War. Little Women and Alcott have rallied generations of women who find strength in the love, support, and success of her dynamic female characters. Alcott would go on to write three follow-up novels about Jo March as well as numerous other novels, poetry, and nonfiction.
- Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, moved the family to a commune called “Fruitlands” when Louisa was 11 years old.
- Regular visitors and family friends to the Alcott home included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
- Until she was a successful author, Alcott held various low-paying jobs, including working as a servant and a seamstress.
- Want to read all of Alcott’s works? Early poems and later, racy mysteries (A Long Fatal Lovechase and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment ) were penned under the pseudonym “A. M. Barnard.”
- Alcott is buried in Concord, Massachusetts, in Author’s Ridge of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. She died in 1888 at the age of 56, just two days after her father.
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Alcott was a productive and astute writer, assessing the needs of her audience and writing what would sell. Whether writing in the sentimental or gothic vein, realistic novels for children or for adults, Alcott expressed her respect for individualistic women, her scorn for women’s limited economic opportunities, and her esteem for the family unit. Her characters are memorable, her dialogues demonstrate an ear for conversation, her descriptions are strong and picturesque, and her narratives are unfailingly vivid and fast-paced.
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Louisa May Alcott was the second daughter of Abby May and Amos Bronson Alcott, a leader in the Transcendentalist movement headed by essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. When it became evident that Bronson Alcott would not be a reliable provider, Louisa perceived it as her mission in life to support the family. The death of her younger sister and the marriage of her older sister were traumatic experiences for her; partly to fill the void left by their absence and partly to seek some purpose in life and to participate in the Civil War in the only way open to women, Alcott became an army nurse in Washington, D.C. After six weeks, she contracted typhoid fever, an illness from which she never fully recovered, owing to the effects of...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on November 29, 1832, to Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail May Alcott, but she spent most of her life in Massachusetts, mainly Concord and Boston. Considered spirited and willful, she did not fit the image of the ideal, docile child of which her Transcendentalist father approved, but she did not allow her spirit to be broken. Like the beloved character Jo in Little Women, Alcott actively participated in drama and literature, writing plays and a newspaper based on the childhood capers of her and her three sisters. Although her family was often on the brink of poverty, partly because of her father’s novel teaching methods and frequent moves, the family’s friendship...
(The entire section is 680 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Louisa May Alcott, the famous daughter of a famous father, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1832, but her early life was spent in the vicinity of Concord and Boston, where she grew up under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a transcendentalist and a nonresident member of Brook Farm. Reformer, scholar, and educator, he founded the well-known Temple School in Boston.
Early in life Louisa May Alcott realized that her impractical father needed financial assistance to run his household. Accordingly she worked as a domestic, as a seamstress, and as a...
(The entire section is 373 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
While Louisa May Alcott is associated with the New England setting where she lived most of her life, she was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on November 29, 1832, the second of four daughters born to Amos Bronson and Abba May Alcott. Louisa’s father, friend and admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, was a man of great vision and idealism but few practical skills. His inability to provide for his family of six became increasingly apparent as time went on. Soon after Louisa’s birth, Bronson moved his family to Boston, where he organized the Temple School. While the school had much to recommend it, it was much more liberal than many Bostonians could accept, and six years later Bronson was forced to close its...
(The entire section is 969 words.)
Born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania Louisa May Alcott is best remembered for her books about the March family, especially her children's masterpiece, Little Women. From the 1840s into the late 1860s, Alcott (under the pseudonyms A. M. Barnard and Flora Fairchild) also wrote sensational novels and thrillers for adults, most of which are no longer in print. Ironically, Alcott preferred her adult novels to the children's novels that account for her lasting fame.
The Alcotts lived in Concord, Massachusetts, with friends and neighbors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Alcott's youth was shaped by both the philosophical climate and the poverty in which she lived. Bronson Alcott, Louisa's father, was a transcendentalist thinker and writer who refused to take work that was not related to education or philosophy. (Transcendentalism is a philosophy that holds that there is an ideal spiritual reality beyond material reality.) Unemployed, he committed to educating his four daughters, Anna (Meg in Little Women), Louisa (Jo), Elizabeth (Beth), and May (Amy). A radical pioneer in education, his experiments yielded an erratic but thorough education for his daughters. In 1843, he initiated a large-scale experiment known as Fruitlands, an effort to create a utopian society. Within a year, it failed, and while Alcott seemed flippant about the failure, this experience showed that Bronson could not be relied upon to support the family. Responsibility fell on Alcott's mother, Abba, who came from a respected Boston family. For thirty years, she did the housework and supported the family as a social worker.
Recognizing their daughter's talent, Bronson and Abba placed heavy expectations on her. She was a creative, difficult, and willful girl who was both moody and loyal. As a child, Alcott doted on Emerson and accompanied Thoreau on nature walks in the area of Walden Pond. Although surrounded by transcendentalists, she eventually rejected the philosophy as too abstract, using fiction to give voice to her objections. Still, Alcott's writing demonstrates her acceptance of the transcendentalist emphasis on self-reliance and independence.
Little Women contains many autobiographical elements, and critics are quick to note that the stormy character Jo is modeled after Alcott herself. This novel, along with the seven others featuring the March family, is cherished for its cheerful depiction of domestic life, its wholesomeness, and its ability to teach life lessons without the preachy quality found in other children's novels.
Alcott began Little Women in 1868, after the Civil War, in which she had served as a nurse during the winter of 1862-1863. She completed part one in only six weeks, and did not revise it as she was in the habit of doing for her adult fiction. It was published as a complete novel. When her public demanded to know more about the Marches, she wrote part two the following year. The novel alludes to the war, but does not include lengthy passages about its disastrous effects on American families and the country as a whole. Her contemporaries, after all, did not need such explanations. In her introduction to the novel, Ann Douglas observes, "Little Women, like its avowed model, Pilgrim's Progress, is in part an allegory. Alcott was writing about a house in conflict but not divided, a family that offered an analogy and possibly a corrective to America."
By the time Little Women was published, Alcott had already become fiercely private. She dreaded interacting with her readers, preferring instead to stay home with her family. Her brief stint as a nurse left her health permanently weakened, a condition that got worse with age. She never married, and, as she grew older, she took very seriously her role as the provider and caretaker of her family. In the end, she was unhappy and unsatisfied with her life. She believed, as do many critics, that her talent was greater than the children's books for which she is so fondly remembered. Alcott died on March 6, 1888, in Boston.