Louisa May Alcott
|Born:||November 29, 1832 |
|Died:||March 6, 1888 |
|Nationality:||United States, New England|
|Writing period:||Civil War|
Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888) was an American novelist. She is best known for the novel Little Women, which she wrote in 1868.
Alcott was the daughter of noted Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail May the third. Her grandfather, Samuel Joseph May, had been a noted abolitionist. Though of New England parentage and residence, she was born in Germantown, now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She had three sisters, the older Anna, and younger sisters Elizabeth and May. The family moved to Boston in 1844, where her father established an experimental school and joined the Transcendentalist Club with Emerson, Thoreau, etc.
During her girlhood and early womanhood, she shared in her family's poverty and Transcendentalist ideals. In 1840, after several setbacks with the school, her family moved to a cottage on two acres along the Concord River in Concord, Massachusetts. The Alcott family moved to the Utopian Fruitlands community for a brief interval in 1843-1844, and then after its collapse to rented rooms, and subsequently a house in Concord purchased with her mother's inheritance and help from Emerson. Alcott's early education had included lessons from the naturalist Henry David Thoreau but had chiefly been in the hands of her father. She also received some instruction from writers and educators such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, who were all family friends. She later described these early years in a newspaper sketch entitled "Transcendental Wild Oats", afterwards reprinted in the volume Silver Pitchers (1876), which relates the experiences of her family during their experiment in "plain living and high thinking" at Fruitlands.
As she grew older, she developed as both an abolitionist and a feminist. In 1847 the family housed a fugitive slave for one week, and in 1848 Alcott read and admired the "Declaration of Sentiments" published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights. Due to the family's poverty, she began work at an early age as an occasional teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic help, and writer — her first book was Flower Fables (1854), tales originally written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1860, Alcott began writing for the Atlantic Monthly, and she was nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862-1863. Her letters home, revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863, republished with additions in 1869), garnered her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. Her novel Moods (1864), was also considered promising.
A lesser-known part of her work are the passionate, fiery novels and stories she wrote, usually under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. These works, such as A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline's Passion and Punishment, were known in the Victorian Era as "potboilers" or "blood-and-thunder tales" and were later referred to as "dangerous for little minds" in Alcott's own novel Little Women. Their protagonists are willful and relentless in their pursuit of their own aims, which often include revenge on those who have humiliated or thwarted them. These works achieved immediate commercial success and remain highly readable today.
In contrast, Alcott also produced moralistic and wholesome stories for children, and, with the exceptions of the semi-autobiographical tale Work (1873), and the anonymous novelette A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), which attracted suspicion that it was authored by Julian Hawthorne, she did not return to creating works for adults.
Louisa May Alcott's overwhelming success dated from the appearance of the first part of Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, (1868) a semiautobiographical account of her childhood years along with her sisters in Concord, Massachusetts. A sequel, Good Wives, (1869) followed the March sisters into adulthood and their respective marriages. Little Men (1871) detailed the characters and ways of her nephews who lived with her at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Jo's Boys (1886) completed the "March Family Saga." Most of her later volumes, An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag (6 vols., 1871–1879), Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom (1876), and others, followed in the line of Little Women, remaining popular with her large and loyal public.
Although the Jo character in Little Women was based on Louisa May Alcott, Alcott, unlike Jo, never married. She explained her "spinsterhood" in an interview with the writer Louise Chandler Moulton, "... because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man." 
In 1879 her younger sister, May, died, and Louisa May took in May's daughter, Louisa May Nieriker ("Lulu"), who was two years old.
In her later life, Alcott became an advocate of women's suffrage, and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.
Despite worsening health, Alcott wrote through the rest of her life, finally succumbing to the after effects of mercury poisoning contracted during her American Civil War service (she had received calomel treatments for the effects of typhoid). She died in Boston on March 6, 1888 at age 56, two days after visiting her father on his deathbed.
The story of her life and career was initially told in Ednah D. Cheney's Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals (Boston, 1889) and then in Madeleine B. Stern's seminal biography Louisa May Alcott (University of Oklahoma Press, 1950).