Louisa May Alcott Biography

Louisa 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.

Facts and Trivia

  • Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, moved the family to a commune called “Fruitlands” when Louisa was eleven 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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2101

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 background to offer a point of comparison.

Alcott’s next book, Little Men, was published in June, 1871. Although it was a fictional work, the book drew upon the real life experiences of Alcott’s sister Anna, who reared two sons alone following her husband’s death. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Men in three weeks while staying at an apartment in Rome. Her description of the death of the character based on her brother-in-law John Pratt is a fine illustration of how she translated intimate personal experiences into literature.

Eight Cousins was written within six to eight weeks and was published in 1875. By this time, Alcott had been labeled as a writer for children, so when Henry James read a copy of this book, he was puzzled by its content. The satirical tone used in describing elders and social mysteries seemed out of place. Nevertheless, Alcott’s many juvenile readers seemed eager to accept Eight Cousins as a mirror of reality.

The book’s sequel, Rose in Bloom (1876), was written in three weeks while Alcott stayed at Orchard House in Concord. Just as Eight Cousins revealed something of Alcott’s social theory, Rose in Bloom reflected her views on love and morality. In Rose in Bloom, Alcott combines reason with emotion in warning readers to look closely at potential marriage partners before commitment. She advises that no person is completely perfect; all humans have their flaws. The story of Rose and Mac is a rational approach to love and was written for a public that used common sense to control the extremes of romance.

Alcott abandoned her customary juvenile subject matter in 1877, when she wrote A Modern Mephistopheles, a story inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Critics claimed that this novel of emotion was similar to the romances Alcott had written at age fifteen, but this story lacked the vitality of her earlier material. The book met with an indifferent reception and was called by some, “her middle-aged folly.”

Louisa May Alcott went on to write additional stories, but they came out of a life that was increasingly more difficult. In her 1938 biography on Alcott, Katharine Anthony aptly described how Alcott translated her life into writing: “Out of such flights into loneliness, restlessness, and emptiness she made her rich, breathing, ardent stories of home.” When Alcott’s life was touched by the tragedy of losing family members and close family friends, she concealed her grief over their deaths and wrote cheerful, lively tales. Although she enjoyed literary celebrity and financial security as a result of her publications, Alcott suffered from a variety of illnesses during her later years. After visiting her dying father in Boston on March 4, 1888, she herself fell unconscious and died in her sleep two days later at the age of fifty-five.

Summary

Louisa May Alcott was a born storyteller who could deliver realistic plots and maintain a compelling point of view. She wrote of the life she saw in Boston and Concord and also offered simple reforms to improve American society. Honing her writing skills in her early sentimental stories and Gothic thrillers for magazine readers, she was most popular as a children’s writer who captured family life during a particular time in history. Although many critics admired her skill in portraying affectionate and intelligent American families, some questioned her literary art. Some claimed she wrote of a simplicity that was common rather than intelligent; others claimed that her stories were too coldly rational, mercenary, and didactic. Nevertheless, admirers praised Alcott’s importance as a writer of childhood tragedy and melodrama whose popularity with young readers stemmed from her ability to depict the ups and downs of childhood from a sympathetic point of view. Her stories were read widely by daughters, mothers, and grandmothers who admired Alcott’s writing because they perceived themselves in her stories.

Alcott’s concern for women went beyond her stories of family and relationships. With her interests in philanthropy, abolitionism, and other aspects of the reform movements that flourished during her era, Alcott was concerned with social issues. She was particularly interested in the right of women to work to support themselves economically. Having grown up in a family of poverty, she recognized the need for women to be respected in the work place. In the early years, Alcott concentrated her efforts in gaining recognition for women workers and in striving for economic equality for women.

Later, however, she became more active in her support of political rights for women. She edited a suffrage magazine and led a procession to gain delegates for woman suffrage. She also convinced her chief publisher, Thomas Niles, to publish a history of the suffrage movement. In addition, Alcott was interested in other reforms concerning education, temperance, housing, and prisons. Realizing that because she paid a poll-tax, she was entitled to vote, Alcott encouraged several other women to follow her example. Although she took a stance on these issues, her primary interest in life was storytelling. While instructing her readers on the nature of democracy, simplicity, and affection, Alcott also created stories that convey a strong and picturesque image of life in the United States during the late nineteenth century.

Bibliography

Alcott, Louisa May. A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Edited by Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. This book contains tales of mystery and melodrama that were published anonymously in weeklies before Alcott wrote her tales of social realism. These stories reveal a side of Alcott that is little known by the general public.

Alcott, Louisa May. Louisa May Alcott: Selected Fiction. Edited by Daniel Shealy, Madeleine B. Stern, and Joel Myerson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. A collection of stories that cover the romances Alcott wrote during her teens and the thrillers and Gothic novels she wrote before turning to realism. In these stories, Alcott’s rebellious spirit is reflected as a supporter of abolition and women’s rights.

Alcott, Louisa May. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. Edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Many of Alcott’s unpublished journals are housed in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. This book, however, offers a personal look at the experiences and responses that she wrote in letters to family members and friends throughout her life.

Anthony, Katharine S. Louisa May Alcott. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977. Reveals the social influence of Alcott’s writing as she kept alive the ideals of the Victorian period. Anthony’s biography discusses the misrepresentation of Alcott by the literary world, which consistently categorizes her as a children’s writer. Includes an excellent bibliography on Alcott and her entire family.

Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984. A feminist study of Alcott, this critical biography analyzes the connections between Alcott’s family life and her work, and places Alcott squarely within the reform tradition of the nineteenth century and the debate over the proper role of women.

Meigs, Cornelia. Invincible Louisa. Boston: Little, Brown, 1933. This biography emphasizes Alcott’s work with young people and her belief that children must have the opportunity to earn independence. Meigs also discusses Alcott’s assistance to soldiers during the Civil War and her trip to Europe. Contains a fine chronology of Alcott’s life.

Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. University: University of Alabama Press, 1985. Like the work by Elbert above, Strickland’s study surveys the range of Alcott’s ideas about domestic life and considers Alcott’s literary treatment of women, families, and children within the various fictional forms in which she chose to work.

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