Alcott, Louisa May (1832–1888)
Alcott, Louisa May (1832–1888)
American author whose best-known work is the classic Little Women. Name variations: (pseudonyms) Flora Fairfield; A.M. Barnard. Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on November 29, 1832; died in Dunreath
Place, Roxbury, Massachusetts, on March 6, 1888; second child of Bronson (a writer, educator, and Transcendentalist) and Abigail (May) Alcott; never married; no children.
Flower Fables (1855); Hospital Sketches (1863); Moods (1865); Little Women (1868); Little Men (1871); Jo's Boys (1886); and over 30 others.
Louisa May Alcott's best-known work, Little Women, is often said to have its basis in the author's own life. The novel is set in Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1800s, where a band of four sisters rally 'round their parents as all conspire to do good for their neighbors and be gentle, kind souls to one another, providing enough familial warmth to ward off even the harshest, sparsest winters. The vision was idyllic. It was, however, far from reminiscent of Louisa May Alcott's life, which was neither warm nor reassuring. The sights were perhaps similar, but Alcott's view was different: dominated by her father and bearing the financial weight of her sisters and mother, Louisa often disliked her life. She sequestered herself at home and journeyed out only as required to make a living for the Alcotts. She did not enjoy many people, and in fact was afraid of men. Her journals display a disappointment in self that is both unbending and unfair.
Louisa was the second child of Bronson and Abigail May Alcott (known as Abba). In 1830, the newly married couple had moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania, where Bronson, a writer and educator, became principal and teacher in the Germantown Academy. Anna Bronson Alcott was Bronson and Abba's first born, arriving on March 16, 1831. Bronson was fascinated by the child and watched her keenly. He kept a journal, starting from her first day. "Observations on the Life" recorded both Anna's physical and emotional development. She was a peaceful child and he showered her with adoration. On Bronson's 33rd birthday, November 29, 1832, Louisa May was born. Unlike her older sister, Louisa was a temperamental baby who cried often. She was instantly less favored, a fact based partially on Bronson's financial and personal reverses. He saw Louisa as less pleasant than her sister Anna and viewed her behavior clinically: "Louisa required authoritative measures in a few instances," he wrote. "She yields with less reluctance than yesterday." Meanwhile Anna "is generally quite docile and happy." By the summer of 1834, Bronson's educational efforts in Pennsylvania foundered. His teaching methods, based in the transcendental ideal—ascension to higher being by forsaking worldly material and physical pleasures—had caused parents to withdraw their children from all his schools. Destitute, the Alcotts sold their belongings and headed to Boston (both Bronson and Abba had grown up in New England). That fall, Bronson opened the Temple School and the small family took lodgings near Boston Common.
In June of 1835, the family increased to five with the birth of Elizabeth (Beth) Sewall Alcott . Though they enjoyed a brief period of financial success (Bronson was well-received and lauded in his efforts in the progressive Boston society), by 1837 his reputation and enrollment at Temple School had fallen. The family moved to cheaper rooms in the South End and subsisted on bread and vegetables, while Bronson believed that a diet not dependent on the sacrifice of animals purified them spiritually. On the rare occasions when Abba saved enough to buy meat, Bronson either refused to run the errand or conveniently forgot and spent the money otherwise. Abba and Bronson clashed frequently, as she tried to provide for the well-being and health of her children while he tried to further their spiritual growth. The marriage was unhappy, and Abba was forced to ask for charity from her more well-to-do family and friends. Bronson considered the arrangement mutually beneficial: while people supported him, he brought them closer to God.
On March 23, 1839, the Temple School closed. It was to be the end of Bronson's consistent, if meager, contribution to supporting his family. Two weeks later, an Alcott son was born, but he did not live. On the encouragement of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson's closest friend (and often financial benefactor), the family moved in 1840 to Concord, where the cost of living was much reduced. They continued to lean heavily on the aid of others. On July 26, 1840, May Alcott was born.
Alcott, Anna Bronson (1831–1893)
Sister of Louisa May Alcott and caretaker of Orchard House. Name variations: Anna Alcott Pratt. Born Anna Bronson Alcott on March 16, 1831; died in July 1893; daughter of Bronson (a writer, educator, and Transcendentalist) and Abigail (May) Alcott; sister of Louisa May Alcott and May Alcott ; married John Pratt (an insurance firm employee), in 1860; children: two sons.
For Louisa, the move to Concord, at age six, was a perfect fit. Her rambunctiousness and energy—traits that Bronson deemed unfeminine and therefore improper—needed space. She preferred solitude to the constant company of others, including her sisters. She ran through the woods and explored nature. She wrote her first known poem there, in wonder of winter giving way to spring. She also met Henry David Thoreau, who was to be her lifelong, unvoiced love. Henry and his brother John ran the Concord Academy, where Anna and Louisa were enrolled. Louisa adored Thoreau's withdrawn behavior. He was more like herself than anyone she had ever met. They often went on walks, exploring the woods and hillsides. She felt she understood him.
The Alcotts were journal keepers. While Bronson dedicated much of his time to recording each day's thoughts, Abba also wrote in a diary, and the couple instructed their daughters to do the same. By 1843, Louisa kept a regular journal. She was, by her own admission, an angry child, though it is apparent that this self-denunciation was in part caused and reinforced by years of her father's chiding and shunning of his wilder, second daughter. "[Father] asked us all what faults we wa[n]ted to get rid of," went an early entry. "I said Impatience." The following month, she wrote, "I was cross to-day, and I cried when I went to bed. I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I should be the best girl in the world. But I don't and so am very bad." She was not yet 11. A note appended to the entry by Alcott at a much later date reads, "Poor little sinner! She says the same at fifty.—L.M.A."
By 11, Alcott had already taken refuge in books, frequently withdrawing to her room to read and think. But there was much work to perform around the house, in addition to regular lessons from Bronson. He referred to his children as "living manifestations of my intellect" and insisted on keeping a heavy hand in their lessons. Both he and Abba also read their children's journals and commented on them. Abba wrote small notes to Louisa, wishing that she could be a "happier child" or praising the bits of poetry there. Bronson noted that Anna's journal was filled with thoughts of others. Louisa's, he observed with displeasure, was almost purely self-absorbed.
Alcott, May (1840–1879)
American artist. Born Abby May Alcott on July 26, 1840; died in December 1879, about a month after giving birth; daughter of Bronson (a writer, educator, and Transcendentalist) and Abigail (May) Alcott; sister of Louisa May Alcott and Anna Bronson Alcott ; studied art in Paris; married Ernest Nieriker (a Swiss businessman), on March 22, 1878, and settled in a Parisian suburb; children: daughter Louisa May Nieriker (b. November 8, 1879).
While studying in Paris, May Alcott wrote home and described a tea party in Mary Cassatt 's studio: "We sipped our chocalat [sic] from superior china, served on an India waiter, upon an embroidered cloth of heavy material. Miss Cassatt was charming as usual in two shades of brown satin and rep, being very lively and a woman of real genius, she will be a first-class light as soon as her pictures get circulated and known for they are handled in a masterly way."
But Alcott was just one of many fighting the art world's closed-door policy toward women artists. Writing home of the Julian academy, which charged more for women and offered less in the way of instruction, she complained, "The lower school as it is called, or male class, no longer opens its doors to women, for the price, being but one half of the upper [women's] school, attracted too many."
Ticknor, Caroline. May Alcott: A Memoir. Boston: Little, Brown, 1927.
In the spring of 1842, the Alcott women were briefly alone when Bronson sailed to England, a nation more receptive to his transcendental ideas. He returned in the fall buoyed by his success there, and the lives of the Alcott women grew even poorer. Bronson had been accompanied to England by Charles Lane and Henry Wright, and they had conceived a new household arrangement: communal, agricultural living. In a home that incorporated several families, they could work the land and pool their labors without depending so heavily on money. Of course, they needed money to launch the endeavor, so Abba turned, as she had often done before, to her brother. Sam May had grown tired of supporting his sister and brother-in-law. He complained of Bronson's unwillingness to work, and grudgingly gave more money. Lane paid the other half of the Alcott debts, and, in June 1843, the Alcotts, Lane and his son, and Wright moved from Concord to a farmhouse in Harvard, Massachusetts. They called the house "The Fruitlands," not for the fruit grown there, since there was none, but for its spiritual promise. The experiment lasted six months. Abba and her daughters were the only women in the household, which accepted whomever chose to pass through and share Bronson's vision. The men did little work, except occasional attention to the gardens. While the men discussed philosophy, Abba and her daughters cleaned, sewed, and prepared the food—a strictly vegetarian diet, the bulk of which was cooked or raw apples, sparse breads and grains, and any vegetables they could cultivate. Exhausted and ill, and watching her children grow sicker, Abba put forth an ultimatum: she and her children were returning to a more normal life. Though Bronson considered staying put or moving in with a Shaker community up the road, he did not abandon the family. He did, however, hold them responsible for his spiritual stagnation and retreated even further from his wife and daughters.
In the five years following The Fruitlands experiment, as the family moved from Harvard to Still River to Concord, Louisa grew to adolescence, a time that went virtually unnoticed by her parents. Abba was overwhelmed with keeping the family together, while Bronson continued his communal ways. In 1845, at age 13, Louisa wrote in her journal, "More people coming to live with us; I wish we could be together, and no one else. I don't see who is to clothe and feed us all, when we are so poor now." Her moods were erratic, and, at a time when boys might have been a fascination, Louisa's long exposure to her father made her largely afraid of any real romance. She continued to do battle with her disposition as well. "I have made a plan for my life, as I am , and no more a child…. People think I'm wild and queer; but Mother understands and helps me…. Now I'm going to work really, for I feel a true desire to improve and be a help and comfort, not a care and sorrow, to my dear mother." For the next several years, as she bent to the task of remolding herself, her journals were blank.
By 1848, Abba had grown miserable in Concord. The employment opportunities for women were few, and she was humiliated by having begged assistance for so long (other children even shared their school lunches with Anna and Louisa). That summer, the family moved to Boston. Louisa hated to leave the open expanses of Concord and found the Common, once a haven from people, no longer satisfying. Boston had grown more populated and citified, and the waters around the city were being filled in to make more space. Louisa stayed inside the dingy rooms the family rented and wrote plays that she and her sisters acted for their parents. Abba took a position, for $25 a month, collecting and handing out charitable donations and items. Anna and Louisa helped Abba teach a group of black children to read—the city provided no schools for blacks—as well as taking other teaching, nursemaid, or governess posts. They pooled their finances to be sure that daughters Beth and May could continue school.
Bronson, meanwhile, offered to give "conversations" with anyone who would listen. He occasionally traveled but never brought home more than a pocketful of change. In September of 1851, after dreaming about fame, Louisa saw her first poem published in Peterson's Magazine. "Sunlight" was printed under the name Flora Fairfield. Three years later, the Saturday Evening Gazette printed another Fairfield piece, the story "The Rival Prima Donnas." Alcott was paid the sum of $10. All the while, Anna and Louisa continued to work but found their most stable employment as teachers of their own small school. Though Bronson occasionally stopped by to lecture, the curriculum was standard and therefore enrollment remained steady. Louisa viewed teaching as a boring but necessary evil.
In December of 1854, the tables began to turn. Her first novel, Flower Fables, a series of moral tales written for a friend, was published. Recognizing her potential for providing a steady living, the family saw to it that 22-year-old Louisa spent more time writing, and they relieved her of most of her teaching duties. She continued to print pieces in the Saturday Evening Gazette at five dollars an item. Her writing wages were not enough, though, and, in July of 1855, the family moved north to Walpole, New Hampshire. Louisa returned to Boston in November to be near her publishers. Anna went to Syracuse to work as a governess, but the employment was brief; her sensitive nature made her easily tired or easily offended.
Louisa Alcott grew more confident in her 20s. She was 5'6" tall, dark-haired and eyed, and accustomed to hard work, which gave her a sturdy, stern look. Her rising status as the family breadwinner gave Louisa immeasurable pleasure. As she finally outgrew her position in the family as the troublesome one, the earnings from her writing made her the glue that kept the Alcotts together. "My book came out; and people began to think that topsy-turvy Louisa would amount to something after all," she wrote. She took in sewing to supplement her writing income. While patching her own clothes, she noted happily the gifts of new dresses for her sisters or ribbons for her mother's bonnet that she sent home. Bronson's absences or time in the garden were no longer a nuisance but commented on with cheer or encouragement. He became an innocent for whom Louisa cared and provided. It was a niche that gave her great purpose and satisfaction.
In June 1856, when she traveled to Walpole to be with the family, Alcott found her youngest sisters ill from scarlet fever. Abba had caught the germs from a charitable visit to a nearby family. May shortly recovered, but Louisa spent the bulk of the summer nursing Beth, who rose from bed for only brief periods. Louisa returned to Boston in the fall, and the family endured as they had before. By late 1857, it was apparent that Beth would not recover. The Alcotts decided to return to Concord, purchasing a house next door to Nathaniel and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (who had three children, including daughter Rose Hawthorne Lathrop ). The Alcotts spent the winter repairing the house, and planned to move in come springtime. Beth Alcott died on March 14, 1858, before the family was installed at Orchard House. Louisa had nursed Beth diligently and had slept at her bedside. Initially at peace with the loss, she later grew depressed. Her mood was exacerbated the following month by Anna's announcement of her intention to marry John Pratt, an insurance firm employee and acquaintance from local plays in which both Pratt and Anna had performed. Though Louisa liked John, he was taking her confidant, just after she had lost Beth. The family moved into Orchard House in July, but by October Louisa had gone to Boston for the year to earn wages to keep Orchard House running. In the fall of 1859, Louisa had her greatest publishing success to date. The Atlantic Monthly, a new and elite journal of literary work, accepted her story "Love and Self-Love." It earned Alcott $50 and praise from both her parents. Another story, "A Modern Cinderella," appeared in the Atlantic in 1860, shortly before Anna and John Pratt married and moved to Chelsea, Massachusetts.
After years of toiling at short stories, Alcott sat down in August of 1860 with an idea for a book called Moods. In her journal, she wrote, "Genius burned so fiercely that for four weeks I wrote all day and planned nearly all night, being quite possessed by my work. I was perfectly happy, and seemed to have no wants. Finished the book, or a rough draught of it, and put it away to settle." By December, she was the only daughter left at Orchard House. Sister May had gone, first to Boston, then to Syracuse, New York, to study and teach painting. "A quiet Christmas; no presents but apples and flowers," wrote Alcott. "No merry-making; for [Anna] and May were gone, and [Beth] under the snow." The bulk of the household chores rested on her. Abba, often sick, became her frequent patient, neglected only in times of Alcott's writing fits. She took up Moods again in February of 1861. "It was very pleasant and queer while it lasted; but after three weeks of it I found that my mind was too rampant for my body…. So I dropped the pen, and took long walks, cold baths, and had [Anna] up to frolic with me. Read all I had done to my family…. So I had a good time, even if it never comes to anything; for it was worth something to have my three dearest sit up till midnight listening with wide-open eyes to Lu's first novel."
Concord was an intellectual center, the most famous of its inhabitants being Bronson Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. It was therefore also the site of the most current political and social debates. The abolitionist movement found a supportive audience, and among them was Louisa. The war highlighted for her another of the inequities of her gender. She felt prepared to fight for the abolition of slavery, yet women's participation was unwanted, except for their sewing skills. Alcott stitched unflaggingly, but at the end of the year noted, "Wrote, read, sewed, and wanted something to do." The dull duty was broken up only by the death of Thoreau that May. She took it well, considering her long unrequited love for the writer. As she had never expected his attentions in return, his death merely made him more perfect in her mind. The event went unnoted in her journal. (Shortly before her death, Alcott's daily journals were destroyed by the author, as was most of her personal correspondence. What remains is a summary journal, usually limited to several sentences describing a month or a special event. At the end of each year is another short summary, plus an accounting of money earned. Thoreau's death most probably garnered some writing, but Alcott, tremendously private and aware of the likelihood that her journals would one day be read, seems to have eliminated any mention of his death.)
By September, her attentions returned to the war. She remarked that she liked "the stir in the air, and longed for battle like a warhorse when he smells powder." In November, the opportunity for a deeper involvement arose. A call had gone out for middle-aged women to serve as nurses in Army hospitals around Washington, D.C. Though Alcott was shy of the age requirement, she submitted her application and was called to the capital in late December. Granted train fare, accommodations, and 40 cents a day, she reported to the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown on December 13, 1862. Washington was in chaos. The city and its hospitals were raging with disease. Clean water was rare, and epidemics of pests, typhoid, diarrhea, and pneumonia ravaged patients more than the frequent amputations of their limbs. Alcott was responsible for a ward of male patients. The days were long and the prospects for the men seemed dismal. Despite her homesickness, she was thrilled at finally making a more important contribution to the abolition efforts.
Before she had served a month, however, Alcott was ill with what a doctor diagnosed as typhoid pneumonia. "Sharp pain in the side, cough, fever and dizziness. A pleasant prospect for a lonely soul five hundred miles from home!" she wrote. "Dream awfully and wake unfreshed, think of home and wonder if I am to die here." Doctors treated Alcott with calomel, an emetic used in massive doses. The intent was to induce enough vomiting and diarrhea to clear the patient's body of all illness. Calomel was prescribed for nearly any ailment, but the mercury-based medication had side effects. In those times, doctors dosed patients to the point of early acute mercury poisoning. Their other ailments were overshadowed or replaced in the short term with sore gums; loss of hair, teeth, and voices; swollen tongues (to four times normal size); and poisonous mucus that oozed from the mouth. Alcott, like countless others, was permanently poisoned. When her father was called from Concord to take her home, he found his daughter in delirious hysteria. They returned to Orchard House on the 23rd of January. The rest of her life would be marred by the effects of mercury poisoning.
When I had the youth I had no money; now I have the money I have no time; and when I get the time, if I ever do, I shall have no health to enjoy life.
—Louisa May Alcott
By mid-February, Alcott regained consciousness but could hardly stand, let alone walk. Because her hair had fallen out raggedly, she had it shorn off. Eating was difficult due to mouth sores, so she was wasting away. In March, she was able to resume minor movement around the house, but she had not regained enough strength to be present when Anna gave birth, at the end of the month, to Louisa's first nephew. Slowly, Alcott resumed her writing and standing as financial supporter. The family was glad of her return to health and therefore work. In particular, she had found that her more literary writing was not as good a source of money as the passionate and somewhat racy stories she seemed able to write with little effort. "Pauline's Passion and Punishment" earned the author her largest payment—$100. In fact, it exceeded Alcott's combined payments from teaching, nursing, and the publication of one other story that year by $30. Aware that such stories would earn her no praises at home or around Concord, Louisa stipulated that "Pauline's Passion" and others be published under the name A.M. Barnard. It was a secret she kept for many years, but a source of income that was both easy and rewarding. The fantastic, imaginative writing was truly enjoyable for her.
Late that spring, Alcott organized her letters home from her aborted stay in Washington, D.C., into a three-part series called "Hospital Sketches," to be published in the Commonwealth. Much to her surprise, they were a huge hit, reprinted nationally and finally collected as a book. The letters, slightly fictionalized, described the men who came through Union hospital from the perspective of Nurse Periwinkle. By year's end, the effort had earned her a surprising and welcome $200. Encouraged by the success, Alcott spent much time over the next several months touching up Moods and another book in progress, Work. She found that her strength waned quickly, however, and, for the once vigorous and active woman, exhaustion was frustrating. In January, finally feeling ready to share the novel nearest to her heart, Alcott submitted Moods to two editors. It was rejected by both, with the complaint that it was twice as long as they wanted. Dejected, Alcott put Moods away. Late that spring, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alcott's next-door neighbor, died.
In the fall, still dutifully writing stories to pay the family bills, Alcott struck upon the solution for Moods, which would cut it by ten chapters. She wrote without pause for a month, and when she was finished the book was accepted. By December, it was published and Alcott was gratified to find people, wherever she went, talking about it or reading it. Though its first edition sold out, interest waned and her brief fame faded. The stories continued to be more lucrative, and therefore earned more of Alcott's attention.
In June of 1865, Anna gave birth to a second son. While visiting her sister, Louisa was offered the opportunity to go to Europe as the nursemaid for shipping merchant William Weld's daughter Anna, an invalid. Rather abruptly, and against her own doubts, Louisa set sail with the young woman and her brother for an intended year abroad. The sea voyage made Alcott ill, and she was "heartily glad to set [her] feet on solid earth again." They arrived in England in August and began with a rapid tour through that country, France, and into Bavaria, where they stopped so Anna could receive a watercure from a local doctor. Before September was over, Alcott was annoyed by the dullness of the trip, which was slowed considerably by the onset of Anna's illness. While Anna's brother was able to explore during the delays, Alcott was housebound, keeping Anna company. In October, Alcott wrote, "I missed my freedom and grew very tired of the daily worry." By February, she "decided to go home in May though A. wants me to stay. I'm tired of it and as she is not going to travel my time is too valuable to be spent fussing over cushions and carrying shawls." Alcott left Weld's service and traveled on her own to Paris and London. When she returned home in July, Orchard House and its inhabitants were in great need of her administration. Abba and Anna were both ill, the house was in disrepair, and debts had sprung up anew. Louisa spent the entire fall writing and tending to the mess. Abba was to have surgery to restore part of her sight, but by the time it came around Louisa was too ill to accompany her. The mercury had seized her body again, and its fevers, restlessness, and rheumatic-like pain stayed with her until May of 1867.
For Alcott, the next 20 years were predictable, lifeless, and sad. Her arrangement with her parents formed new patterns. Bronson, who had previously hurt her and condemned them to poverty with his arrogance, now seemed to Louisa a wise yet childlike figure who depended on her wholly. She could think of him with less anger because his actions no longer weighed so on his wife and children. Louisa cared for her family, and saw that they were fed and clothed as best she could provide. She could afford to feel indulgent about her father's philosophies and way of life. For Abba, she had less patience. Once the matriarch, Abba had become rather an unseemly character. In part, she was losing her faculties, growing senile and sightless. She tended to preach to her daughters and neighbors—to anyone who would listen—and had even alienated Sophia Hawthorne, once a close friend. (Several years before, Abba had literally driven
Sophia into a such a nervous state that she began to avoid the Alcotts.) Abba had also become a tough critic. She was more reluctant to praise her daughter and cheer her efforts, when once she had been Louisa's greatest champion. Louisa settled into a grim regimen of caring for them and Orchard House while she churned out stories to pay the family bills. All the while, she periodically succumbed to the effects of the calomel, and had stretches of illness and debilitation.
Needing to focus on her writing in order to earn money, Alcott moved out of Orchard House to downtown Boston. In January of 1868, she accepted $500 to serve as a contributing editor for Merry's Museum, and the fee was more than enough to pay housekeepers in Concord and rent in the city. In the spring, Thomas Niles, a former employee of one of Alcott's editors, approached her about writing a children's story. He had been speaking with Bronson, who hoped to resume his own writing. Niles agreed to publish them both if Louisa would take on the assignment. In May, with the promise of lucrative earnings, Alcott returned to Concord to begin work on Little Women. "Marmee [Abba], Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don't enjoy this sort of thing." She sent the first volume of the manuscript off by July, and, though she did not much like it, young girls loved it. The book appeared in October to quiet praise, and Alcott, joined by her sister May, went back to Boston to live and work for the winter. Volume II of Little Women was released in the early spring of 1869. Alcott and her sister returned to Concord in May to tend to their parents, and Louisa was alternately ill and jittery. Needing rest, she went to Canada and Maine with cousins. She returned in August to find that the author of Little Women had become famous. Though she did not yet know it, never again would the Alcotts want for money. Louisa no longer wrote what she wanted, but what the world wanted, and they clamored for each new book. An Old Fashioned Girl followed Little Women and was an immediate success.
There was another trip to Europe, this time with her sister May, in April of 1870, but Alcott was unwell often. Still, it was a more engaging and restful trip than the previous one, though they experienced some delay in their travels due to the Franco-Prussian War. Finally, in September, they were able to proceed to Italy. There, in December, Louisa and May learned that their brother-in-law, John, had died the month before. Like Louisa, John had received calomel treatments for an ailment, but had not withstood the poisoning. The loss shocked Alcott again into worries of how she would support them all. Her response was to produce yet another children's book, Little Men, "that John's death may not leave A[nna] and the dear little boys in want." In May of 1871, receiving encouraging paychecks and reports of success from America, Louisa prepared to go home. "A very pleasant year in spite of constant pain, John's death, and home anxieties. Very glad I came, for May's sake. It has been a very useful year for her." Alcott returned alone, while May, funded by her sister, stayed on to study her art.
It was Concord for the summer, Boston for the fall, writing again. In 1872, Alcott rewrote Work and copied it in three impressions. The carbon copies required her to bear down so hard on her pen that she experienced permanent paralysis in her right thumb. She learned to write left-handed to compensate. May came back from Europe in the fall, returned to Paris in April of 1873, and arrived back home in November. Louisa went to Concord and back to Boston in the fall with Abba in tow, while Bronson was on a lecture tour. Fame was not what Alcott had imagined as a child; most upsetting was the disruption of her privacy. People sought her autograph and her company regularly, often stopping by Orchard House. She found her name in gossip columns more than once, prompting her to complain that they should read the books and leave the person alone.
Abba's health continued to slide as her daughters maintained round-robin bedside care. In September of 1876, Alcott rewarded May for her long stay at home with another trip to Europe. May had not returned by November of 1877 when, on the 25th, Abba died. Having worn herself out caring for her mother, Alcott was near death herself. They buried Abba next to Beth in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and both Louisa and Bronson suffered from the loss of direction that Abba had given them. Determined to put a memoir of her together, they began reviewing her years of letters and journals. Bronson, reading in Abba's daily entries the pain he had so often inflicted, felt a new awareness of his effect on his family. He regretted having caused his wife so much difficulty. Hovering over the papers together, Louisa and Bronson grew closer.
In February, the Alcotts received word from May that she was engaged to a Swiss businessman. On March 22, 1878, May married Ernest Nieriker in London, and they settled in a Parisian suburb. Alcott's letters and journal entries
express pleasure at their whirlwind romance, touched by a hint of desperation for her own situation. "How different our lives are just now!—I so lonely, sad, and sick; she so happy, well and blest. She always had the cream of things, and deserved it. My time is yet to come somewhere else, when I am ready for it." The spring was busied with cleaning and, to a degree, clearing out Orchard House. Anna had her own home, but Louisa and Bronson felt lost and unwilling to live where Abba had been so much a fixture. Instead, they boarded with Anna, and Bronson planned a Concord School of Philosophy. Informally, the school began at Orchard House that summer, receiving students from around town and fans of Bronson's from his western tours. The school gave Bronson new purpose and a renewed glory; for Louisa and Anna, it proved to be more work than fun. That fall, they mostly stayed at Anna's home, noting the one-year anniversary of Abba's passing. Louisa went into Boston for a brief stay and an attempt at writing, but she was back shortly. Depression and a weak body allowed her little energy to write. Visiting doctors frequently, Alcott questioned the quality of such a life.
On July 15, 1879, Bronson's school officially began at Orchard House. For one month, more than 400 people swarmed through and around Concord. "[T]hey roost on our steps like hens waiting for corn," Alcott wrote. "Father revels in it, so we keep the hotel going and try to look as if we like it…. [S]peculation seems a waste of time when there is so much real work crying to be done. Why discuss the Unknowable till our poor are fed and the wicked saved?"
Alcott continued to churn out stories and publications slowly. She had no strength for impassioned work, and mostly continued that which was popular and paid the bills. What energy she had she turned to the community or the ongoing effort for women's right to vote. Her patience was short for those who resisted changing the status quo. Plans to visit May and meet her new husband were permanently set aside. Alcott recognized that her health would never withstand the trip. Deeply disappointed, she went to Boston, where she received news that on November 8th, May had given birth to a daughter, Louisa May Nieriker . The joy was brief. Within two weeks of the birth, May grew suddenly ill. On the 31st of December, 1879, Ralph Waldo Emerson received a telegram from Nieriker, who hoped he could more gently break the news. Alcott was alone at home in Concord when Emerson arrived to tell her that another sister had gone. She was devastated not to have been with May.
In the months following, the Alcotts received frequent letters from Nieriker and his mother, describing May's last days, her burial in a cemetery outside the city, and the child Lulu. May had earlier extracted a promise from Louisa to care for the baby. That spring, trunks of May's diaries, clothing, and artwork arrived, and heightened Alcott's grief. She wrote little, read more, and began preparations for her niece's arrival. Lulu's trip to America was delayed from spring until fall, so Alcott took rooms in Boston. Bronson was to join her there after the School of Philosophy had finished. In late August, a nanny was dispatched to pick Lulu up, and they returned in mid-September. Alcott watched the baby's every step. At year's end, Louisa had only one publication, but finances were no longer pivotal. She had invested well.
For several years, all were absorbed by Lulu's progress. She was a happy and strong-willed child, and she adored her new "mother." For her part, Alcott finally seemed to have a reason for living that did not center on making money. Comfortable in finances, she could simply enjoy her days. Her journal entries are sparse. In the spring of 1882, Emerson, Alcott's strongest friend and supporter, also died. That fall, Louisa separated from Lulu for the first time, leaving her with Anna. Again, she went into Boston to work, and again her time there was cut short. On the 24th of October, 1882, Bronson had a stroke that paralyzed him and, for several months, robbed him of speech. Alcott returned home to help care for him, but by early spring of 1883 the sisters were back to routine. Anna cared for her father while Louisa went to
Boston to write. Lulu moved back and forth between the two homes, and Louisa went through a series of nannies, never finding an adequate caretaker for Lulu and often caring for her herself. The sisters took turns with Bronson so each could have their rest.
In December of 1884, Alcott began work on Jo's Boys, the last of the March family trilogy, which included Little Women and Little Men. She also set to work editing her letters and journals. Jo's Boys was completed in July of 1886, and the effort took the last of Alcott's strength. In January of 1887, she moved into a convalescent home in Roxbury, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, as Anna was unable to nurse both her sister and father. Alcott ate poorly and often slept restlessly, both the effects of mercury. She missed her family and noted their visits or absences often. On March 1, 1888, knowing her father's end was near, Alcott traveled to Boston to visit him. "Very sweet and feeble. Kissed me and said 'Come soon.' Smelt my flowers and asked me to write him a letter." The following day, Alcott wrote her final diary entry. "Fine. Better in mind but food a little uneasy. Write letters…. Sew. L[ulu] to come."
On March 4, Bronson passed away. And on March 6, at 3:30 in the morning, Louisa May Alcott died in her sleep, at age 55. While her father was being buried that day in Sleepy Hollow, mourners were greeted with news of her death. She followed him to Sleepy Hollow on the 8th. Final notes in her diary, including remarks about her funeral, are written by her sister. Alcott left her family well endowed. Anna and the boys received the bulk of her estate, with a provision for Lulu of $500. The little girl was sent back to Europe to live with her father. Anna returned to Concord, where Orchard House became a museum and memorial for Louisa May Alcott. Anna oversaw it until her death, in July of 1893. The responsibility then went to her sons.
Louisa May Alcott's writing was so prolific that her death did not prove to be the end of her publishing career. In the 1940s, biographer Madeleine Stern and historian Leona Rostenberg discovered, among the Alcott family papers and letters kept at Harvard University, the A.M. Barnard pseudonym. While the "blood and thunder" stories were some of Alcott's personal favorites, and certainly well written, Alcott had not considered them reputable. They are gothic, romantic, and fantastic. In 1975, four were published, with Stern as editor, under the title Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Alcott's manuscripts continue to be discovered by collectors. The Inheritance, believed to be her first novel, written in 1849 when Alcott was 17, was unearthed at a Harvard University library in 1996.
The previous year another came to publication. Kent Bicknell, a New Hampshire school principal, purchased the handwritten pages of A Long Fatal Love Chase, the writing of which receives no mention in Alcott's diaries. Intended as a magazine serial, it was apparently rejected. Bicknell's literary agents negotiated a $1.5 million advance for the book. Bicknell stipulated that he was to receive only 25% of whatever proceeds the book earned. The remainder of the advance, and 75% of royalties, was to be split between Bicknell's school, three Pratt brothers (grandnephews of Louisa), and the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Fund, which provides for the upkeep and operation of Orchard House. Said Bicknell: "My sense was that if I could do my best to follow her expectations for the book, to bring it to the public in the form she wanted, to use the income properly, including the support of her family and her house, it would all come together."
Cheney, Ednah D., ed. Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals. Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers, 1889.
Montgomery, M.R. "An Alcott Story's Surprise Ending," in Boston Globe. September 12, 1995, p. 25.
Myerson, Joel, and Daniel Shealy. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1989.
Saxton, Martha. Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Stern, Madeleine, ed. Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. NY: William Morrow, 1975.
Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts