Skip to main content
Select Source:

Alcott, Louisa May

Louisa May Alcott

Born: November 29, 1832
Germantown, Pennsylvania
Died: March 6, 1888
Boston, Massachusetts

American writer

Louisa May Alcott is one of America's best-known writers of juvenile (intended for young people) fiction. She was also a reformer who worked to gain the right to vote for women and who opposed the drinking of alcohol.

Early poverty

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on November 29, 1832. She was one of four daughters of Bronson Alcott, an educator and philosopher (one who seeks an understanding of the world and man's place in it), and Abigail May Alcott. Her father was unsuited for many jobs and also unwilling to take many of them, and as a result he was unable to support his family. The Alcotts were very poor. Her father moved the family to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1834 and founded the Temple School, in which he planned to use his own teaching methods. The school failed, and the family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1840.

Alcott's father was a strong supporter of women's rights and an early abolitionist (opponent of slavery), and his friends were some of the most brilliant and famous men and women of the day. His friends included Henry David Thoreau (18171862), Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), Margaret Fuller (18101850), and Theodore Parker (18101860). Alcott and her sisters became friends with these visitors as well, and were even tutored by them at times. This combination of intellectual richness and actual poverty helped Alcott develop her sense of humor.

Alcott soon realized that if she and her sisters did not find ways to bring money into the home, the family would be doomed to permanent poverty. In her early years she worked at a variety of tasks to make money to help her family, including teaching, sewing, and housework. At sixteen she wrote a book, Flower Fables (not published for six years), and she wrote a number of plays that were never produced. By 1860 her stories and poems were being published in the Atlantic Monthly. During the Civil War (186165; a war fought in the United States between the states in the North and the states in the South mainly over the issue of slavery), Alcott served as a nurse until her health failed. Her description of the experience in Hospital Sketches (1863) brought her work to the attention of many people.

Success arrives

The attention seemed to die out, however, when she published her first novel, Moods, in 1865, and she was glad to accept a job in 1867 as the editor of the juvenile magazine Merry's Museum. The next year she produced the first volume of Little Women, a cheerful and attractive account of her childhood. The character Jo represented Alcott herself, and Amy, Beth, and Meg represented her sisters. The book was an instant success, and a second volume followed in 1869. The resulting sales accomplished the goal she had worked toward for twenty-five years: the Alcott family had enough money to live comfortably.

After Little Women set the direction, Alcott continued producing similar works. She wrote An Old-fashioned Girl (1870), Little Men (1871), and Work (1873), an account of her early efforts to help support the family. During this time she took an active role in speaking out about the danger of drinking alcohol, and she also campaigned for women's suffrage (right to vote). She also toured Europe. In 1876 she produced Silver Pitchers, a collection containing "Transcendental Wild Oats," a description of her father's failed attempts to found a communal group (where people live together and share ownership and use of property) in Fruitlands, Massachusetts. In later life she produced a book almost every year and maintained a loyal following of readers.

Alcott died on March 6, 1888, in Boston, Massachusetts. She seems never to have become bitter about the struggles of her early years or her father's flaws. She did give some indication of her feelings about him, however, when she said that a philosopher was like a man up in a balloon: he was safe, as long as three women held the ropes on the ground.

For More Information

Ruth, Amy. Louisa May Alcott. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1999.

Saxton, Martha. Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995.

Stern, Madeleine B. Louisa May Alcott. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Alcott, Louisa May." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Alcott, Louisa May." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alcott-louisa-may

"Alcott, Louisa May." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alcott-louisa-may

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is one of America's best-known writers of juvenile fiction. She was also a reformer, working in the causes of temperance and woman's suffrage.

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pa., in 1832. She was the daughter of Bronson Alcott, the Concord transcendentalist philosopher and educator. She and her three sisters spent their childhood in poverty. However, they had as friends, and even as tutors, some of the most brilliant and famous men and women of the day, such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker. This combination of intellectual plenty and physical want endowed Alcott with an ironical sense of humor. She soon realized that, if she or her sisters did not find ways to bring money into the home, the family would be doomed to permanent poverty.

In her early years Alcott worked at a variety of menial tasks to help financially. At 16 she wrote a book, Flower Fables (not published for 6 years), and she wrote a number of plays that were never produced. By 1860 she was publishing stories and poems in the Atlantic Monthly. During the Civil War she served as a nurse until her health failed, and her Hospital Sketches (1863) brought the first taste of widespread public attention.

The attention seemed to die out, however, when she published her first novel, Moods, in 1865, and she was glad to accept in 1867 the editorship of the juvenile magazine Merry's Museum. The next year she produced the first volume of Little Women, a cheerful and attractive account of her childhood, portraying herself as Jo and her sisters as Amy, Beth, and Meg. The book was an instant success, so in 1869 she produced the second volume. The resulting sales accomplished the goal she had worked toward for 25 years: the Alcott family was financially secure.

Little Women had set the direction, and Alcott continued a heavy literary production in the same vein. She wrote An Old-fashioned Girl (1870), Little Men (1871), and Work (1873), an account of her early efforts to help support the family. During this time she was active in the causes of temperance and woman's suffrage, and she also toured Europe. In 1876 she produced Silver Pitchers, a collection containing "Transcendental Wild Oats," an account of her father's disastrous attempts to found a communal group at Fruitlands, Mass. In later life she produced a book almost every year and never wanted for an audience.

Alcott died on March 6, 1888, in Boston. She seems never to have become bitter about her early years or her dreamy, improvident father, but she did go so far as to say that a philosopher was like a man up in a balloon: he was safe as long as three women held the ropes on the ground.

Further Reading

Ednah Cheney, ed., Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (1889), is an early biography. Also of interest are Katharine S. Anthony, Louisa May Alcott (1938), and Marjorie M. Worthington, Miss Alcott of Concord (1958). A documented, full-length study of Miss Alcott's works is Madeleine B. Stern, Louisa May Alcott (1950). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Louisa May Alcott." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Louisa May Alcott." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/louisa-may-alcott

"Louisa May Alcott." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/louisa-may-alcott

Alcott, Louisa May

Louisa May Alcott, 1832–88, American author, b. Germantown, Pa.; daughter of Bronson Alcott. Mostly educated by her father, she was a friend of Emerson and Thoreau, and her first book, Flower Fables (1854), was a collection of tales originally created to amuse Emerson's daughter. Alcott was determined to contribute to the small family income and worked as a servant and a seamstress before she made her fortune as a writer. Her letters written to her family when she was a Civil War nurse were published as Hospital Sketches (1863); her first published novel, Moods, followed in 1864. She first achieved wide fame and wealth with Little Women (1868), one of the most popular children's books ever written. The novel, which recounts the adolescent adventures of the four March sisters, is largely autobiographical, the author herself being represented by the spirited Jo March. Good Wives (1869), Little Men (1871), and Jo's Boys (1886) are sequels.

Alcott's other novels for young readers include An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Eight Cousins (1875), and Under the Lilacs (1879). They all picture family life in Victorian America with warmth and perception. She also wrote novels for adults, including Work (1873), which is grounded in Alcott's experiences as a breadwinner for her family, and the unfinished Diana and Persis, an examination of the relationship between two women artists. Another adult volume, the novel A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866), which was originally rejected by her publisher as too sensational, was discovered in manuscript in the early 1990s and finally published in 1995. In 1996 yet another manuscript was unearthed; it contained Alcott's very first novel, written for young people, entitled The Inheritance and composed in 1849 when the author was 18.

Bibliography

See her letters and journal, ed. by E. D. Cheney (1889, repr. 1966); Journals of Louisa May Alcott, ed. by J. Myerson et al. (1989); Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, ed. by J. Myerson et al. (1987); biographies by K. S. Anthony (1938, repr. 1977) and S. Elbert (1984); dual biography of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott by J. Matteson (2009); E. LaPlante, Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother (2012); studies by R. L. MacDonald (1983) and C. Strickland (1985).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Alcott, Louisa May." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Alcott, Louisa May." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alcott-louisa-may

"Alcott, Louisa May." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alcott-louisa-may

Alcott, Louisa May

Alcott, Louisa May (1832–88) US writer, daughter of Bronson Alcott. Her first book, Flower Fables (1854), helped ease the family's financial troubles. Hospital Sketches (1863) is an account of her experiences as a nurse in the Civil War. Little Women (1868), one of the most successful children's books ever written, was the first of a semi-autobiographical series of novels, which includes Good Wives (1869), An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Little Men (1871), and Jo's Boys (1886).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Alcott, Louisa May." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Alcott, Louisa May." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alcott-louisa-may

"Alcott, Louisa May." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alcott-louisa-may