Alcott's stories of nineteenth-century domestic life include what is widely known as the quintessential women's novel: Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (1868). Her novels detailing the lives of Jo, Meg, Amy, Beth, their children, and their careers have remained popular for over a century, though many observers consider them the exclusive province of female readers. During her lifetime, Alcott spoke publicly on feminist causes, including suffrage, equal pay, and women's right to education. As a prolific professional author she also set an important precedent, demonstrating the viability of fiction writing as a career for women.
The second of four daughters, Alcott was born November 29, 1832 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 and political 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, shared her husband's Transcendental ideals but sometimes objected to the failure of this way of life to provide for her family's practical needs. Amos was frequently absent as he traveled the world spreading his philosophical precepts, leaving the family severely impoverished. Abigail Alcott assumed the role of family financial manager, 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 Flora Fairfield. She subsequently published a number of serial stories under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, providing her family with a relatively steady and significant 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 fever—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 (1864), which sold well despite charges that it was immoral. 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 satires, 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 able to support her family with her earnings. Biographers have noted, however, that this success proved to be a mixed blessing for Alcott, who felt restricted by demands for more books written in a similarly domestic style. She nevertheless accommodated the interests of her readers with three sequels to Little Women: Good Wives (1869; volume two of Little Women), Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (1871), and Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out (1886). Alcott was a staunch supporter of both abolition and women's suffrage. Although her frail health kept her from being as active as she would have liked, she consistently supported and encouraged others' efforts, corresponding and meeting regularly with prominent suffragists and abolitionists, and by directly addressing the issues in her fiction and nonfiction. Alcott continued to write juvenile fiction during her later years, although her productivity sharply declined as a result of her failing health. In addition to writing, she devoted her last years to the care of her father and her young niece Lulu, whose mother (Alcott's sister May) had died as a result of complications in childbirth. Alcott died on March 6, 1888, just two days after her father's death. They were buried in the Alcott family plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.
Alcott's literary career can be divided into three periods. The first phase, spanning the 1840s to the late 1860s, is characterized by the lurid, sensational short stories which were published anonymously and pseudonymously in various New England periodicals. Many of these tales feature a mysterious, vengeful woman bent on manipulation and destruction. Whether this motif reflects Alcott's suppressed rage at the restrictions of her life or simply her talent for writing to please a mass audience remains a topic of scholarly debate. The publication of Moods inaugurated Alcott's most profitable and popular period. The story of a young woman who makes significant errors in life choices by following the whims of her moods rather than using informed judgment, Moods is unique among novels of the period for its discussion of divorce as a real option for unhappy couples. During this period Alcott began the chronicles of the March family, for which she is best known. The first of these, Little Women, is the work that still defines Alcott's career. The Little Women books, which were the most successful series of their time, illustrate the struggles between adolescence and maturity, but they also represent a prominent theme in much of Alcott's fiction: the conflict experienced by women who must choose between individuality and the bonds of family responsibilities and social traditions. Jo, the heroine of Little Women, for example, is an unconventional young woman who strives for independence and personal achievement as a writer, but ultimately modifies her dreams when she gets married. From 1875 onward, as her health deteriorated, Alcott primarily produced popular juvenile literature. Two exceptions are the adult novels A Modern Mephistopheles (1877) and A Whisper in the Dark (1880). Many of her later works, particularly Work: A Story of Experience (1873) and Rose in Bloom (1876), depict heroines who have acquired inner strength through personal hardship and achieve personal satisfaction through careers rather than marriage. Work is generally considered the most overtly feminist of Alcott's works; the novel details its heroine Christie Devon's search for economic independence. As in Little Women, however, Devon's quest for freedom includes a traditional marriage and domestic life. Similarly, in Jo's Boys, Nan pursues a career in medicine and chooses not to marry, but Bess and Josie give up their careers as an artist and actress, respectively, in order to marry. Alcott's apparent denial of complete feminine independence for many of her characters has made her final position on women's roles ambiguous at best.
During Alcott's lifetime, her stories for children were widely regarded as American classics. The early twentieth century, however, witnessed a decline in the critical assessment of Alcott's works, with some critics denouncing the moralizing tone of her fiction. What had once been interpreted as the charm and innocence of the March girls in particular was later seen as overly sentimental. For several decades into the twentieth century, the sentimentality of Alcott's work was assessed by critics as her support for the prevailing ideology of separate spheres of social activity for men and women. With the rise of feminist criticism and women's studies, however, Alcott's works for both children and adults have been the subject of critical reexamination, with much discussion surrounding the nature of her views on the role of women in the family and society. Critics who have identified a feminist champion in Alcott emphasize Alcott's alignment with feminist causes throughout her life, her nonfiction writing in support of women's suffrage and women's work, and her adult fiction as evidence of Alcott's general feminist sensibility. Sarah Elbert emphasizes Alcott's personal involvement in women's social issues, including women's education, the vote, and equal pay for equal work, but she also notes that Alcott considered women's civilizing influence on men to be a peculiar duty of womanhood. Part of the challenge of interpreting Little Women and other stories in Alcott's oeuvre is their status as childhood classics; several critics have attempted to analyze the stories' enduring popularity and resonance. Scholars have argued that Little Women affects critics emotionally because of their adolescent connection to the story, thus coloring scholarly interpretations of the work. In exploring the depth and nature of Alcott's feminist views, critics have turned to her early thrillers, which were not collected until 1975. For years, critics assumed that the thrillers, published pseudonymously, were written solely for financial gain and represented Alcott's compromising of her artistic principles. More recently, however, some feminist scholars have suggested that the thrillers reveal a repressed rage and possibly a truer representation of Alcott's strong feelings about the unjust status of women than may be present in her other works.