Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1355
Louisa May Alcott 1832-1888
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Flora Fairfield, A. M. Barnard, Cousin Tribulation, A. M., and Abba May Alcott.) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and dramatist.
See also Louisa May Alcott Short Story Criticism.
Alcott's heart-warming depictions of nineteenth-century domestic life in such novels as Little Women (1868-69) and Little Men (1871) have remained extremely popular—particularly with female readers—for over a century. While the continued following for Alcott's fiction speaks to its relevance to several generations, Alcott's novels have also been the subject of extensive critical attention, particularly as they relate to the role of nineteenth-century American women in society. Her success as a prolific professional writer during a time when fiction-writing was newly emerging as a potential career for women and women's writing was opening a major new publishing market has been the source of historical as well as literary interest. Alcott's oeuvre also contains the lesser known adult novels Moods (1864), Work (1872), A Modern Mephistopheles (1888) and A Whisper in the Dark (1888), as well as a series of pseudonymous romantic thrillers which received substantial critical attention following the discovery of their authorship by Alcott.
The second of four daughters, Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and lived most of her life in Concord, Massachusetts. Both of her parents strongly influenced her education and the development of her social views. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a Transcendentalist philosopher and an educational reformer whose idealistic projects tended to take precedence over his familial and financial responsibilities. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, initially shared her husband's Transcendental ideals, but soon became disillusioned by the failure of this way of life to provide for her family's practical needs. Following the disappointment of the Alcotts' failed attempt at a communal farm society called "Fruitlands," Abigail Alcott assumed the role of family decision-maker, and she and her daughters pursued practical employment. Louisa, for example, taught school, took in sewing, and worked briefly as a domestic servant; her early experience of poverty and her observation of her father's financial instability may have contributed to her strong desire to achieve a steady income through her writing. She began writing at age sixteen, and in 1851, her first poem was published in Peterson's Magazine under the pseudonym of Flora Fairfield. She subsequently published a number of sensational serial stories under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, providing her family with a relatively lucrative source of income. In 1862, Alcott traveled to Washington, D.C. to serve as a nurse to soldiers wounded in the American Civil War. Although she was forced to return home after she contracted typhoid pneumonia—the treatment for which resulted in mercury poisoning and permanent damage to her health—the brief experience provided material for the book that would become her first major literary success, Hospital Sketches (1863). This Civil War memoir was followed by her first novel, Moods, which sold well despite accusations of immorality by reviewers. Encouraged by the prospect of financial stability, Alcott agreed to assume the editorship of a girls' magazine titled Merry's Museum, for which she composed short stories, poems, and advice columns. At the request of her publishers, she also agreed to write a novel for girls, and the publication of her semi-autobiographical novel Little Women proved to be the defining moment of her career. The success of the novel made Alcott famous, and she was now easily able to support her family with her earnings. Biographers have noted, however, that this...
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