Louisa May Alcott
Alcott, c. 1870
Alcott, c. 1870
Born(1832-11-29)November 29, 1832
Germantown, Pennsylvania U.S.
DiedMarch 6, 1888(1888-03-06) (aged 55)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Resting placeSleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.
Pen nameA. M. Barnard
OccupationNovelist
PeriodAmerican Civil War
Genre
SubjectYoung adult fiction
Signature

Louisa May Alcott (/ˈɔːlkət, -kɒt/; November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888) was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet best known for writing the novel Little Women (1868) and its sequels Good Wives (1869), Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). Raised in New England by her transcendentalist parents, Abigail May and Amos Bronson Alcott, she grew up among many well-known intellectuals of the day, including Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.

Alcott's family suffered from financial difficulties, and while she worked to help support the family from an early age, she also sought an outlet in writing. She began to achieve critical success for her writing in the 1860s. Early in her career, she sometimes used pen names such as A. M. Barnard, under which she wrote lurid short stories and sensation novels for adults.

Published in 1868, Little Women is set in the Alcott family home, Orchard House of Concord, Massachusetts, and is loosely based on Alcott's childhood experiences with her three sisters, Abigail May Alcott Nieriker, Elizabeth Sewall Alcott, and Anna Alcott Pratt. The novel was well-received at the time and is still popular today among both children and adults. It has been adapted for film and television many times.

Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist and remained unmarried throughout her life. She also spent her life active in reform movements such as temperance and women's suffrage. She died from a stroke in Boston on March 6, 1888, just two days after her father's death.

Early life

Louisa May Alcott at age 20

Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown,[1] which is now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents were transcendentalist and educator Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abigail "Abba" May.[2][3] She was the second of four daughters: the eldest, Anna, with Elizabeth and May following.[4] As a child, she was a tomboy who preferred boys' games.[5] The family moved to Boston in 1834,[6] where Alcott's father established the experimental Temple School[7] and met with other transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.[8] Bronson participated in child-care but often failed to provide income, creating conflict in the family.[9] Alcott's father was constantly teaching morals and improvement, while Abba emphasized imagination and supported Alcott's writing.[10] Alcott also shared her mother's temper and deeply-rooted feminism.[4]

External videos
video icon Tour of Orchard House, June 19, 2017, C-SPAN

In 1840, after several setbacks with Temple School, the Alcott family moved to a cottage in Concord, Massachusetts rented by Emerson. Louisa described the three years they spent at Hosmer Cottage as the "happiest of her life."[10] By 1843, the Alcotts moved to Fruitlands, a utopian community started by Alcott's father and Charles Lane.[11][12] She later described these early years in a newspaper sketch entitled "Transcendental Wild Oats." The sketch was reprinted in the volume Silver Pitchers (1876), which relates the family's experiment in "plain living and high thinking" at Fruitlands.[13] After the collapse of Fruitlands, they rented rooms next to their old cottage, then in 1845 used Abba's inheritance to buy a home in Concord they called Hillside, although the family struggled without income beyond the girls' sewing and teaching. Eventually, some friends arranged a job for Abba[11] and three years after moving into Hillside, the family moved to Boston. Hillside was sold to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852.[14] After moving over twenty times in 30 years, the Alcotts returned to Concord once again in 1857 and moved into Orchard House, a two-story manor house with a tenant house joined onto the back, in the spring of 1858 until 1877. It was at Orchard House that Alcott wrote Little Women.[15]

Louisa May Alcott

Alcott was primarily educated by her father, who established a strict schedule and believed in "the sweetness of self-denial."[16][17] She was also instructed by naturalist Henry David Thoreau, as well as Sophia Foord, who lived with the family for a time, and whom she would later eulogize.[18] She also grew up around writers and educators such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Julia Ward Howe, all of whom were family friends. Alcott had a particular fondness for Thoreau and Emerson; as a young girl, they were both "sources of romantic fantasies for her."[19][20][21]

Poverty made it necessary for Alcott to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and writer. Her sisters also supported the family by working as seamstresses, while their mother took on social work among the Irish immigrants. Only the youngest, Abigail, was able to attend public school. Due to all of these pressures, writing became a creative and emotional outlet for Alcott.[22] Her first book was Flower Fables (1849), a selection of tales she originally told Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.[13][23] Alcott, who was driven in life not to be poor, is quoted as saying, "I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day."[24]

When Alcott was young, her family served as station masters on the Underground Railroad, when they housed fugitive slaves. Alcott knew Frederick Douglass later as an adult.[25] Alcott read and admired the Declaration of Sentiments published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights, advocated for women's suffrage, and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts in a school board election.[26] The 1850s were hard times for the Alcotts, and in 1854 Louisa found solace at The Boston Theatre where she wrote The Rival Prima Donnas, which she later burned due to a quarrel between the actresses over who would play what role. At one point in 1857, unable to find work and filled with despair, Alcott contemplated suicide. During that year, she read The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell and found many parallels between Charlotte Brontë's life and her own.[27][28] In 1858, her younger sister Elizabeth died and her older sister Anna married a man named John Pratt. Alcott considered these events catalysts to breaking up their sisterhood.[22]

Life in Dedham

Alcott's mother, Abba, ran an "intelligence office" to help the destitute find employment.[29] When James Richardson came to Abba in the winter of 1851 seeking a companion for his frail sister who could also help out with some light housekeeping, Alcott volunteered to serve in the house filled with books, music, artwork, and good company on Highland Avenue.[30] Alcott may have imagined the experience as something akin to being a heroine in a Gothic novel, as Richardson described their home in a letter as stately but decrepit.[30]

Richardson's sister, Elizabeth, was 40 years old and suffered from neuralgia.[30] She was shy and did not seem to have much use for Alcott.[30] Instead, Richardson spent hours reading her poetry and treating her like his confidant and companion, sharing his personal thoughts and feelings with her.[30] Alcott reminded Richardson that she was supposed to be Elizabeth's companion, not his, and she was tired of listening to his "philosophical, metaphysical, and sentimental rubbish."[30] He responded by assigning her more laborious duties, including chopping wood and scrubbing the floors.[30]

Alcott quit after seven weeks, when neither of the two girls her mother sent to replace her decided to take the job.[30] As she walked from Richardson's home to Dedham station, she opened the envelope he handed her with her pay.[30] According to Alcott family tradition, she was so unsatisfied with the four dollars she found inside that she mailed the money back to him in contempt.[30] She later wrote a slightly fictionalized account of her time in Dedham titled How I went into service, which she submitted to Boston publisher James T. Fields.[31] He rejected the piece, telling Alcott that she had no future as a writer.[31]

Literary success

Louisa May Alcott

As an adult, Alcott was an abolitionist, temperance advocate, and feminist.[32] In 1860, Alcott began writing for the Atlantic Monthly. When the American Civil War broke out, she served as a nurse in Union Hospital in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., for six weeks in 1862–1863.[13] She intended to serve three months as a nurse, but contracted typhoid fever and became deathly ill halfway through her service, although she eventually recovered. Her letters home—revised and published in the Boston anti-slavery paper Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863, republished with additions in 1869)[13]—brought her first critical recognition for her observations and humor.[33] This was her first book and was inspired by her army experience.[34] She wrote about the mismanagement of hospitals, the indifference and callousness of some of the surgeons she encountered, and her passion for seeing the war firsthand.[35] Her main character, Tribulation Periwinkle, shows a passage from innocence to maturity and is a "serious and eloquent witness".[22] Soon after, she wrote her novel Moods (1864), based on her own experience and stance on "woman's right to selfhood."[36]

After she served as a nurse, Alcott's father wrote her a heartfelt poem titled "To Louisa May Alcott. From her father".[37] The poem describes her father's pride in her nursing work, helping injured soldiers, and bringing cheer and love into their home. He ends the poem by telling her she's in his heart for being a selfless, faithful daughter. This poem was featured in the books Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (1889) and Louisa May Alcott, the Children's Friend, which details her childhood and close relationship with her father.[38]

Between 1863 and 1872, Alcott anonymously wrote at least thirty-three gothic thrillers for popular magazines and papers such as The Flag of Our Union; they were rediscovered in 1975.[39] In the mid-1860s she wrote passionate, fiery novels and sensation stories akin to those of English authors Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon under the nom de plume A. M. Barnard. Other pen names she used include Aunt Weedy, Flora Fairfield, Oranthy Bluggage, and Minerva Moody. Among these sensation stories are A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline's Passion and Punishment.[40][41] The protagonists of these books, like those of Collins and Braddon (who also included feminist characters in their writings), are strong, smart, and determined. She also wrote stories for children and did not return to writing for adults after her children’s stories became popular. Alcott also wrote the novelette A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), which was published anonymously and during her lifetime believed to be the work of Julian Hawthorne. She also wrote the semi-autobiographical novel Work (1873).[42]

Catherine Ross Nickerson credits Alcott with creating one of the earliest works of detective fiction in American literature, preceded only by Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and his other Auguste Dupin stories, with the 1865 thriller "V.V., or Plots and Counterplots." Alcott published the story anonymously and it concerns a Scottish aristocrat who tries to prove that a mysterious woman has killed his fiancée and cousin. The detective on the case, Antoine Dupres, is a parody of Poe's Dupin who is less concerned with solving the crime than in setting up a way to reveal the solution with a dramatic flourish.[43]

Alcott achieved further success with the first part of Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868), a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood with her sisters in Concord, Massachusetts, published by the Roberts Brothers. When Alcott returned to Boston following her travels in Europe, she became an editor of the children's magazine Merry's Museum. There she met Thomas Niles, who encouraged the writing of Part I of the novel by asking her to write a book especially for girls.[44] Part II, also known as Good Wives (1869), followed the March sisters into adulthood and marriage. Little Men (1871) detailed Jo's life at the Plumfield School she founded with her husband Professor Bhaer after Part Two of Little Women. Lastly, Jo's Boys (1886) completed the "March Family Saga", Alcott's best-known books.[45]

Louisa May Alcott commemorative stamp, 1940 issue

In Little Women, Alcott based her heroine "Jo" on herself. However, Jo marries at the end of the story, whereas Alcott remained single throughout her life. She explained her "spinsterhood" in an interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, saying "I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul put by some freak of nature into a woman's body.... because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”[46][47] Alcott's romance while in Europe with the young Polish man Ladislas "Laddie" Wisniewski was detailed in her journals but then deleted by Alcott before her death.[48][49] Alcott identified Laddie as the model for the character Laurie in Little Women.[50] Likewise, each of her characters seems to have parallels with people from Alcott's life—from Beth's death mirroring Lizzie's to Jo's rivalry with the youngest sister, Amy, mirroring Alcott's own rivalry with her sister (Abigail) May.[51][52] In addition to drawing on her own life during the development of Little Women, Alcott also took influence from several of her earlier works including "The Sisters' Trial", "A Modern Cinderella", and "In the Garret". The characters within these short stories and poems, in addition to Alcott's own family and personal relationships, inspired the general concepts and bases for many of the characters in Little Women and the author's subsequent novels.[53]

Little Women was well-received, with critics and audiences finding it to be a fresh, natural representation of daily life suitable for many age groups. An Eclectic Magazine reviewer called it "the very best of books to reach the hearts of the young of any age from six to sixty".[54] With the success of Little Women, Alcott shied away from public attention and would sometimes act as a servant when fans came to her house.

Louisa May Alcott's grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.

Along with Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, Anne Moncure Crane, and others, Alcott was part of a group of female authors during the Gilded Age who addressed women's issues in a modern and candid manner. Their works were, as one newspaper columnist of the period commented, "among the decided 'signs of the times'".[55]

Later years

In 1877, Alcott helped found the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in Boston.[56] After her youngest sister May died in 1879, Louisa assumed the care of her niece, Lulu, who was named after Louisa.[57] Alcott suffered from chronic health problems in her later years,[58] including vertigo.[59] She and her earliest biographers[60] attributed her illness and death to mercury poisoning. During her American Civil War service, Alcott contracted typhoid fever and was treated with calomel, a compound containing mercury.[49][58] Recent analysis of Alcott's illness suggests that her chronic health problems may have been associated with an autoimmune disease, not mercury exposure. However, mercury is a known trigger for autoimmune diseases as well. An 1870 portrait of Alcott shows her cheeks to be quite flushed, perhaps with the "butterfly rash" across cheeks and nose which is often characteristic of lupus,[58][60] but there is no conclusive evidence available for a firm diagnosis.

Alcott died of a stroke[61] at age 55 in Boston, on March 6, 1888,[59] two days after her father's death.[34] She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, on a hillside now known as Authors' Ridge.[62] Her niece Lulu was only eight years old when Louisa died. She was cared for by Anna Alcott Pratt, then reunited with her father in Europe and lived abroad until her death in 1976.

Louisa frequently wrote in her journals about going on long walks and runs. She challenged prevailing social norms regarding gender by encouraging her young female readers to run as well.[63][64]

Legacy

Biography and documentary

Before her death, Alcott asked her sister Anna Pratt to destroy her letters and journals; Anna did not destroy all of them and gave the rest to family friend Ednah Dow Cheney.[65] In 1889 Cheney was the first person to undergo a deep study of Alcott's life, compiling the journals and letters to publish Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals. The compilation has been published multiple times since then.[66] Cheney also published Louisa May Alcott: The Children's Friend, a version of the first compilation revised to focus on Alcott's appeal to children.[65] Other various compilations of Alcott's letters were published in the following decades.[67] In 1909 Belle Moses wrote Louisa May Alcott, Dreamer and Worker: A Study of Achievement, which established itself as the "first major biography" about Alcott.[68] Katharine S. Anthony's Louisa May Alcott, written in 1938, was the first biography to focus on the author's psychology.[69] A comprehensive biography about Alcott was not written until Madeleine B. Stern's 1950 biography Louisa May Alcott.[70] In the 1960s-1970s, feminist analysis of Alcott's fiction increased; analysis also focused on the contrast between her domestic and sensation fiction.[71]

"Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind 'Little Women'" aired in 2009 as part of the American Masters biography series and was aired a second time on May 20, 2018.[72] It was directed by Nancy Porter and written by Harriet Reisen, who wrote the script based on primary sources from Alcott's life.[73] The documentary, which starred Elizabeth Marvel as Alcott, was shot onsite for the events it covered. It included interviews with Alcott scholars, including Sarah Elbert, Daniel Shealy, Madeleine Stern, Leona Rostenberg, and Geraldine Brooks.[72]

Aclott homes

The Alcotts' Concord home, Orchard House, where the family lived for 25 years[74] and where Little Women was written, is open to the public and pays homage to the Alcotts by focusing on public education and historic preservation.[75] The Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association allows tourists to walk through the house and learn about Alcott.[76] Her Boston home is featured on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail.[77]

Film and television

Little Women inspired film versions in 1933, 1949, 1994, 2018, and 2019. The novel also inspired television series in 1958, 1970, 1978, and 2017, anime versions in 1981 and 1987, and a 2005 musical. It also inspired a BBC Radio 4 version in 2017.[78] Little Men inspired film versions in 1934, 1940, and 1998, and was the basis for a 1998 television series.[79] Other films based on Alcott novels and stories are An Old-Fashioned Girl (1949),[80] The Inheritance (1997),[81] and An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving (2008).[82]

Influence

Various modern writers have been influenced and inspired by Alcott's work, particularly Little Women. As a child, Simone de Beauvior felt a connection to Jo and expressed, "Reading this novel gave me an exalted sense of myself.[83] Cynthia Ozick calls herself a "Jo-of-the-future", and Patti Smith explains, "[I]t was Louisa May Alcott who provided me with a positive view of my female destiny."[83] Writers influenced by Alcott include Ursula K. Le Guin, Barbara Kingsolver, Gail Mazur, Anna Quindlen, Anne Lamott, Sonia Sanchez, Ann Petry, Gertrude Stein, and J. K. Rowling.[84] U. S. president Theodore Roosevelt said he "worshiped" Alcott's books. Other politicians who have been impacted by Alcott's books include Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Hillary Clinton, and Sandra Day O'Connor.[85] Louisa May Alcott was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1996.[86]

Selected works

Bust of Louisa May Alcott

The Little Women series

Novels

As A. M. Barnard

Published anonymously

Short story collections

Other short stories and novelettes

Songs

References

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Works cited

Further reading

External videos
video icon Presentation by Harriet Reisen on Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, November 12, 2009, C-SPAN

Sources

Archival materials

Other