Alcott, Louisa May

views updated Jun 27 2018

Louisa May Alcott

Born November 29, 1832
Germantown, Pennsylvania

Died March 6, 1888
Roxbury, Massachusetts

Writer and editor

"Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead."

Louisa May Alcott is most famous as the author of Little Women (1868) and the seven novels that followed in the "Little Women" series. The novels are realistic and entertaining accounts of the March family, and show children developing as independent and thoughtful individuals, facing and learning from conflicts, and sharing a warm and loving family life. Alcott enjoyed widespread popularity in her lifetime as a children's author. Meanwhile, she was secretly successful as a magazine writer of sensational fiction about crime, revenge, and romance. Alcott was not revealed as the writer of those stories until more than fifty years after her death.

Keeping a journal

Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was the second of four daughters of Amos Bronson Alcott, a noted philosopher and educator, and Abigail May, a descendant of one of Boston's more prominent families. The family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1834 when Alcott's father founded a school based on some of his principles of education. Bronson Alcott believed that education should emphasize play and the imagination as activities through which children learn and develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. His educational system was too different from conventional educational practices of the time to become firmly established. The family was often in need of money, and they moved several times between Boston and Concord, Massachusetts.

Alcott and her sisters were taught at home by their father, who brought them into contact with some of America's greatest writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850). The Alcott girls were required to keep journals, and together they wrote a family newspaper and plays in which they performed. Their education also included domestic skills, from housekeeping to sewing and clothes-making.

About the time Alcott turned eleven in 1843, the family joined a communal living experiment at Fruitlands, a farm in Harvard, Massachusetts. (Communal living involves several people or families who live together as a group—sharing work, expenses, and the fruits of their labor). Alcott wrote about the experiences in her journal, which were later published, in 1889, in Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals. She described life at Fruitlands as a kind of vacation, but later she would note the experiment failed because the adults were not prepared for the demands of farming.

The family moved back to Concord and lived there from 1845 to 1850. Beginning in her mid-teens, Alcott worked at such jobs as seamstress, governess, teacher, and servant. In 1848, at age sixteen, she taught neighborhood children in a school in Concord. Many of her lessons were conveyed as fairy tales. One of the students, Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, loved the tales, so Alcott wrote them down for her in a notebook. Ellen's mother, Lidian Emerson, read them and recommended that Alcott try to publish the stories.

Writing career begins

In 1848, the family moved back to Boston, where Alcott's mother founded an employment service. While Alcott worked as a teacher and seamstress, she continued writing and was published before she turned twenty. Her poem "Sunlight" appeared in Peterson's Magazine in September 1851 under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield. (A pseudonym is a fictitious name a writer sometimes uses to conceal his or her identity, especially if the writer is involved in different styles of writing.) Alcott published her first story, "The Rival Painters," in the May 1852 issue of the Olive Branch, another leading magazine of the time. While these pieces were tame and sentimental, Alcott realized she could make money regularly to help support the family by submitting stories for magazines. Magazines wanted sensational (curious, unusual, emotional) stories, and Alcott began writing and submitting them under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard.

Alcott's first book, Flower Fables, was published when she was twenty-three. The book collected stories she used when teaching and had written down for Ellen Emerson. Among other activities during this time, Alcott performed as an actress in free theater productions. She also wrote two plays during the mid-1850s. Nat Batchelor's Pleasure Trip was accepted in 1855 and performed later at Harvard University in 1860. The Rival Prima Donnas, which she adapted from one of her short stories, was accepted by the Boston Theater in 1856 but never performed.

The late 1850s proved a harrowing time for Alcott. Violence had erupted in the United States over slavery and Alcott's strongly abolitionist (antislavery) family helped provide refuge for runaway slaves. Meanwhile, Alcott provided care for her sister, Elizabeth, who died in 1858 after a long illness.

Famous Rejection Letter

After submitting her story "How I Went Out to Service" to publisher James T. Fields in 1874, Louisa May Alcott received a reply from him: "Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can't write."

When the American Civil War (1861–65) began in 1861, Alcott became determined to help the Union cause. The Civil War was a conflict that took place between the Northern states (Union) and the Southern seceded states (Confederacy). Alcott began working as a nurse in December 1862 at the Union Hotel Hospital in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. However, six weeks later, she contracted typhoid fever (a bacterial disease that causes fever, headaches, and intestinal problems) and had to stay at home. She suffered there for three months before she could leave her room. Treatment for her illness left her with bouts of headaches for the rest of her life.

Upon regaining her health, Alcott quickly returned to writing. Letters she wrote to her family while serving as a nurse were published in 1863 as Hospital Sketches. Rich with detail and related by a witty narrator named Tribulation Periwinkle, Hospital Sketches relates the experiences of an idealistic young woman working as a nurse in a war hospital. She becomes more mature after viewing the horrors of war, but gains an important sense of balance between her imagination and the reality around her.

Hospital Sketches was well-received, providing Alcott with some clout with publishers and confidence as a writer. The following year, she published Moods, a novel she had completed in 1860. She trimmed back the original manuscript, and while some critics found the story uneven, the book was immediately popular and provided enough money for Alcott to travel to Europe. (Moods was later republished with both the original, complete text and the cut version.)

When Alcott returned from Europe in the summer of 1866, her family was in need of money. Alcott returned to writing anonymous stories for magazines. These stories, which often featured crimes and romantic entanglements, were never attributed to Alcott during her lifetime. Not until a 1943 article by Leona Rostenberg, "Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa M. Alcott," was published in Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, was Alcott revealed to have made money and written in the popular sentimental and sensational style. Most of the stories Alcott published anonymously or under the pseudonym of A. M. Barnard were documented and collected in publications after 1970.

Big success with Little Women

In 1867, Alcott became editor of Merry's Museum, a leading children's monthly magazine. During that year, she was approached by Thomas Niles, an editor at Roberts Brothers, the firm that published Alcott's books. He suggested that Alcott write a novel for girls. Drawing on her own family and their experiences, including those of her sisters Anna, Elizabeth, and May, Alcott produced the manuscript for Little Women within two months. Niles and Alcott were unsure about whether the book would sell, but their doubts were eased when Niles's young niece read the book with delight, then immediately began rereading it. Little Women was published in October 1868 and became an immediate sensation.

Book reviewers praised the novel's refreshing approach. Children's literature of the time typically presented youngsters as merely cute and precious, with simple conflicts; the approach of Little Women, however, was more realistic, showing children as unique individuals with ranges of emotion, who learn from their experiences. Subsequent critics have shown how the novels demonstrate Alcott's values: the characters learn the limits of equating happiness with money and possessions; the importance of coeducation (where boys and girls are educated equally and together) and other theories of education held by her father are shown; and the girls grow into independent young women who pursue their own paths in life, not merely what society expects of them. Little Women relates the adventures of the four March sisters as they strive to improve themselves and become "good girls" on their own terms. The children in Little Women are imperfect, and many readers found traits in one of the sisters that they could see in themselves.

When hundreds of letters poured into the publisher from fans asking for more stories about the March sisters, Alcott quickly wrote a sequel in 1869 published as Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second, which was another big seller. In all, Alcott would produce eight novels grouped as the "Little Women" series. After the first two volumes, Alcott wrote An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Little Men (1871), Eight Cousins (1875), Rose in Bloom (1876), Under the Lilacs (1878), Jack and Jill (1880), and Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out (1886). These novels follow the lives of the March sisters and their families as they grow older while evoking the local color of the New England towns where they lived. All of the books remained immensely popular. During the twentieth century, the books were adapted to major motion pictures in 1933, 1949, and 1994 and as a television movie in 1978.

An Excerpt from Little Women

Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain. Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long, thick hair was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net, to be out of her way. Round shoulders had Jo, big hands and feet, a fly-away look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn't like it. Elizabeth, or Beth, as everyone called her, was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression which was seldom disturbed. Her father called her "Little Miss Tranquillity," and the name suited her excellently, for she seemed to live in a happy world of her own, only venturing out to meet the few whom she trusted and loved. Amy, though the youngest, was a most important person, in her own opinion at least. A regular snow maiden, with blue eyes, and yellow hair curling on her shoulders, pale and slender, and always carrying herself like a young lady mindful of her manners. What the characters of the four sisters were we will leave to be found out.

Prolific writer

With the financial success of Little Women, Alcott took another trip to Europe. She returned to Boston during the summer of 1871 after receiving news of the death of her brother-in-law. While she was in Europe, the editor of Merry's Museum published Will's Wonder-Book, a collection of eight stories by Alcott that were published when she worked for the magazine. The stories are based on animals and show the value of kindness and friendliness. Alcott was also active in the women's suffrage (women's right to vote) movement, writing for the Woman's Journal, a women's activist magazine. In 1879, she became the first woman in Concord to register to vote in the village's school committee election.

Alcott turned forty in 1871 and spent what would be the last fifteen years of her life writing books and caring for her mother and father in their old age, as well as for other members of her family. She served as legal guardian of her sister May's daughter and later adopted her sister Anna's son. Alcott had a novel, A Modern Mephistopheles, published anonymously in 1877. The tale tells of a man who sells his soul to the devil. In 1887, a year before her death, Alcott gave permission for her publisher to reprint A Modern Mephistopheles under her name, along with "A Whisper in the Dark," one of her early sensation stories.

Between 1870 and 1880, Alcott published many books, including five of the "Little Women" novels as well as six volumes of short stories under the title Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag. During this period, her mother died, and in 1879, following the death of her sister, May, Alcott took in May's infant daughter. In 1882, Alcott's father suffered a stroke, and Alcott cared for him as well.

In 1885, the family moved to Boston. The following year, Alcott published Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out (1886), a sequel to Little Men and the final book in the "Little Women" series. Alcott died on March 6, 1888, two days after her father died.

An avid readership of Alcott, particularly for Little Women, has continued through the generations. A year after she died, Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals provided more material for her adoring fans. The publication of Alcott's sensation stories beginning in 1975 inspired interest nearly a century later in several adult novels she had published. Meanwhile, the sustained popularity of Alcott's LittleWomen attests to the significance of the writer Alcott's biographer Ednah Dow Cheney called "the Children's friend."

For More Information


Alcott, Louisa May. Girlhood Diary of Louisa May Alcott, 1843–1846: Writings of a Young Author. Edited by Kerry A. Graves. Mankato, MN: Blue Earth Books, 2001.

Alcott, Louisa May. Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1889. Multiple reprints.

Cheney, Ednah Dow. Louisa May Alcott: The Children's Friend. Boston: Prang, 1888. Reprint, New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 1980.

Eiselein, Gregory, Anne K. Phillips, and Madeleine B. Stern. The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

Gormley, Beatrice. Louisa May Alcott: Young Novelist. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. Little Women: A Family Romance. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Stern, Madeleine B. Louisa May Alcott: From Blood and Thunder to Hearth and Home. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Web Sites

"Little Women." American Studies at the University of Virginia. (accessed on June 16, 2004).

Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association. Orchard House—Home of the Alcotts. (accessed on June 16, 2004).

Alcott, Louisa May

views updated Jun 11 2018

ALCOTT, Louisa May

Born 29 Nov. 1832, Germantown, Pennsylvania; died 6 March 1888, Boston, Massachusetts

Also wrote under: L.M.A., A. M. Barnard, Flora Fairfield, A.M.

Daughter of Amos B. and Abba May Alcott

Although regarded during much of the 20th century only as the author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott had a manyfaceted personality. She was the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, the high priest of transcendentalism, friend and admirer of Emerson and Thoreau. She was the pseudonymous author of sensational and sentimental potboilers, as well as the realistic recorder of her brief career as a Civil War nurse, and she was the world-known author of delightful accounts of family life. Personally, she was a "child of duty" supporting her family, and an early advocate of woman suffrage, prison reform, and emancipation.

Although the early years of Alcott's life were marked by poverty and uncertainty, as her father sought to establish his "perfect school," they were rewarding years. She had little institutionalized education but her father taught her under his advanced educational theories. She knew and learned from Emerson, Thoreau, and the many books which she read from an early age. Her love of drama gave her an awareness of the melodramatic and sensational in everyday life. Her attempts to augment the family income by teaching, sewing, working as a servant, and acting as a companion provided raw material for her own creative works.

In 1855 the first book published under Alcott's own name, Flower Fables, was dedicated to Emerson's daughter, Ellen. Earlier she had contributed poems under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield, and scattered throughout her later career were "necessity tales," sometimes lurid and sensational, which were also published under pseudonyms. With Hospital Sketches (1863) and Little Women (1868), followed by a series of titles between 1870 and 1886, Alcott became an institution, a center of public attention. In addition to these well-known volumes, she wrote on contemporary problems such as suffrage, temperance, prison reform, and child labor.

Driven by the demands of her public, Alcott wrote until ill health made her unable to continue. Worn out by personal tragedy, family responsibility, and sickness, she died within hours of the death of her father.

Although Alcott is most commonly associated with the juvenile series beginning with Little Women, she wrote in a variety of genres. Her first published book, Flower Fables, represents the charming, imaginative fantasies written for young children. A combination of colorful prose and delicate poetry, it not only peopled the child's world with fairies, elves, and small animals, but taught lessons of compassion, patience, duty, honor, and above all, the power of love, in terms a child could understand. The scholar can detect the influence of transcendentalism in the importance given to all living things, but for the child reader the fairy songs and the enchanted world from which they come are enough. Alcott continued to please her young audience in stories included in Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag (4 vols., 1872-78), and Lulu's Library (3 vols., 1886-89).

Not until the publication of Leona Rostenberg's "Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott" in 1943 did Alcott's public become aware of her many contributions under various pen names to the body of sensational fiction appearing in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, The Flag of Our Union, and other periodicals. Four of these stories ("Behind a Mask," "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," "The Mysterious Key," and "The Abbot's Ghost") were made available to the general reader in Madeleine Stern's Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (1975). The title story retains its appeal for the modern reader of gothics. In it, Jean Muir, an aging but fascinating actress, has been spurned by the man she loves and finds revenge as well as security in her plot to ruin the entire Coventry family. This brooding, passionate woman, deeply aware of her sexual power, was perhaps the strongest and best developed of many skillfully drawn characters peopling Alcott's escapist literature. Madeleine Stern proves Alcott was a very conscious artist, producing these "thrillers" for a definite audience, while writing for economic reasons.

There is no doubt of the influence of her own experiences on another group of Alcott's works. The earliest published book based almost completely on her life was Hospital Sketches (1863), and its critical reception convinced its author that success lay in portraying real life rather than in flights of fancy. The experiences of "Tribulation Periwinkle" not only reflect the realities of Alcott's nursing career but also rank with Whitman's poetic record in its picturing of suffering, gallantly borne, and the compassion of those who served as nurses.

Throughout her career, Alcott produced poems, essays, and stories which were obviously autobiographical. "Thoreau's Flute" (1863) reflected her hours spent at Walden Pond; "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873) provided a frank, humorous-pathetic account of the family's abortive Utopia; while "Ralph Waldo Emerson" (1882) paid tribute to the guardian angel of the Alcott family.

In 1867 Alcott initiated a new genre when she rather reluctantly agreed to write a girls' book. The result was Little Women, which succeeded largely because, as Alcott said, "We really lived most of it." Using experience as her starting point, she created a gallery of characters that entered American literature. Little Women was an instant success, with multiple editions and translations in more than 30 languages. The simple everyday events and small crises of Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy, and the warmth of the family life provided by "Marmee" and Mr. March, along with the friendship of Laurie, Mr. Laurence, and the sharp-tongued Aunt March have influenced every generation since 1868. Although Jo's marriage to Professor Bhaer disappointed many readers who hoped she would marry Laurie and disapproved of his eventual marriage to Amy, the Bhaer family soon developed its own personality.

In Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886), Alcott not only gave Jo two boys of her own but provided a whole school of boys and girls of all ages, races, and levels of wealth, who were loved and educated on the estate bequeathed by Aunt March. The freedom of the learning environment is reminiscent of Amos Bronson Alcott's avant-garde philosophy; the lessons of love and duty taught to the March girls are transmitted to all. The readers' interest in the destinies of the 12 boys who lived at Plumfield led Alcott to write Jo's Boys, set 10 years later than Little Men. Interest continued far longer than Alcott could ever have imagined with a television series based on Little Men running in 1999.

Although the destinies of all the characters who peopled Little Men are traced in Jo's Boys, the changes which 15 years brought in the author herself are evident in the ending of the book. Despite the pleas of young readers, Dan's imprisonment as the result of killing a man, even by accident, shuts him off from marrying Bess, the exquisite daughter of Amy and Laurie. Nan, Meg's daughter, defends her position as a new woman and pursues her career as a doctor, while Bess becomes an artist and Josie an actress, before they become wives.

Lesser known but equally delightful are Eight Cousins (1875) and Rose in Bloom (1876), which trace the adventures of Rose and her seven cousins, adding more memorable portraits to Alcott's gallery and providing the author with many opportunities to comment upon the silliness of Victorian society's values and customs.

In Under the Lilacs (1878), Ben and his remarkable performing dog, Sancho, join Bab and Betty in a series of happy adventures on Miss Celia's estate, The Lilacs. In this children's world and in that of Jack and Jill (1880), many lessons are learned by the characters and by the readers who follow the everyday crises and joys so realistically presented.

The critical reception of Alcott's works during her life ranged widely but was generally favorable. There were few reviews of Flower Fables, but Hospital Sketches was praised for its "fluent and sparkling style." Little Women securely established its author in the favor of critics, who saw it as giving pleasure to young and adult readers. An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870) was particularly well received, but the other six volumes of the series became more and more identified with a juvenile audience.

The death of Alcott produced many personal tributes but no critical evaluation until the appearance in 1889 of Edna Cheney's Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals. As a personal friend, Cheney stressed the autobiographical nature of Alcott's best work and the effect her sense of duty had upon what might have been a greater career. This biography was influential in shaping the criticism which followed. In 1909 the first biography written in the 20th century, Belle Moses' Louisa May Alcott, Dreamer and Worker, appeared. Moses' examination of known details of publication provided the first attempt at scholarly examination of Alcott. Jessie Bonstelle and Marian DeForest collected Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott in 1914, providing important primary sources. Not until the 1930s, however, did an important body of Alcott scholarship appear. Louisa May Alcott: A Bibliography (1932) was compiled by Lucile Gulliver, and it made information available on all editions of American, English, and foreign origin. A Newbery Medal was awarded in 1933 to Cornelia L. Meigs for The Story of the Author of Little Women: Invincible Louisa, which provided background valuable to an understanding of Alcott's works. In 1936 Katherine S. Anthony's psychoanalytical study, Louisa May Alcott, aroused controversy but went beyond the usual interpretation of Alcott as a writer for children.

Leona Rostenberg's "Some Anonymous and Pseudonymous Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott" provided knowledge of the sensational fiction written under a variety of pen names. Madeleine Stern followed with a number of articles presenting other facets of Alcott; she climaxed her studies with Louisa May Alcott, a sound critical biography in 1950 (a second edition in 1971 made available a bibliography of 274 items).

The 1968 centennial celebration of the first edition of Little Women was marked by the important publication of Louisa May Alcott: A Centennial for Little Women, by Judith C. Ullom. Cornelia Meigs's biography was reprinted with a new introduction. She also introduced a Centennial Edition of Little Women and edited Glimpses of Louisa: A Centennial Sampling of the Best Short Stories by Louisa May Alcott. Her critical overview presents an excellent final judgement of this writer whose potential sociohistorical worth has not yet been fully explored. In Meigs' opinion, Alcott's strength lay in her honesty, awareness of the danger of overmoralizing, and in her ability to present a story with a distinctive pattern and an atmosphere in which the common life, its joy or pain or despair, attains a true splendor.

Other Works:

Moods (1865). Morning-Glories, and Other Stories (1868). Kitty's Class Day (1868). Aunt Kipp (1868).Psyche's Art (1868). Three Proverb Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868). My Boys: Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag, I (1872). Shawl-Straps: Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag, II (1872). Work: A Story of Experience (1873). Cupid and Chow-Chow: Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag, III (1874). Silver Pitchers; and Independence, a Centennial Love Story (1876). A Modern Mephistopheles (1877). My Girls: Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag, IV (1878). Proverb Stories (1882). An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving: Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag, V (1882). A Garland for Girls (1888). Recollections of My Childhood's Days (1890). Comic Tragedies Written by Jo and Meg and Acted by the Little Women (1893). The Poetry of Louise May Alcott (1997).


Anthony, K. S., Louisa May Alcott (1936). Auerbach, N., Communities of Women (1978). Bedell, M., The Alcotts: Biography of a Family (1980). Bonstelle, J., and M. DeForest, eds., Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott (1914). Cheney, E., Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals (1889). Clark, B. L., and Albergheni, J., eds., Little Women and The Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays (1999). Elbert, S., A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women (1984). Gulliver, L., Louisa May Alcott: A Bibliography (1932). Keyser, E. L., Little Women: A Family Romance (1999). MacDonald, R. K., Louisa May Alcott (1983). Meigs, C. L., The Story of the Author of Little Women: Invincible Louisa (1933). Myerson, J. et al eds., The Journals of Louise May Alcott (1989, reprinted 1997). Moses, B., Louisa May Alcott, Dreamer and Worker: A Story of Achievement (1909). Papashvily, H. W., Louisa May Alcott (1965). Peare, C. O., Louisa May Alcott: Her Life (1954). Saxton, M., Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott (1977). Stern, M. B., Louisa May Alcott (1950). Stern, M., Lousie May Alcott: From Blood and Thunder to Hearth and Home (1998). Ullom, J. C., Louisa May Alcott: A Centennial for Little Women (1969).

Reference Works:

Bibliography of American Literature (1955). NAW (1970). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other reference:

American Literature Review (Winter 1973). Bibliographical Society of America Papers (2nd Quarter, 1943). New England Quarterly (June 1943, Dec. 1949). NYTM (Dec. 1964).


Alcott, Louisa May

views updated May 11 2018

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.

Louisa May Alcott

views updated May 23 2018

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). □

Alcott, Louisa May

views updated May 11 2018


(1832 - 1888)

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Flora Fairfield, A. M. Barnard, Cousin Tribulation, Oranthy Bluggage, Minerva Moody, and Aunt Weedy) American novelist, short story writer, and playwright.


Alcott, Louisa May

views updated May 14 2018

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).

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Louisa May Alcott

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