Louisa May Alcott

The fact that Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania is all but irrelevant to a life grounded in Massachusetts.  Except for two European tours, a few months in Washington, and occasional business trips to New York, Louisa May Alcott lived her entire life in the Boston area, which also provided the setting for her fiction.

She was strongly influenced by her father; his presence affected her to the last moment of her life, when she died on the day of his funeral.  Bronson Alcott has a complex reputation among his contemporaries: while he was welcomed as an associate of America’s greatest early philosophers (Emerson and the transcendentalists), he was also seen as a consummate ne’er-do-well whose idealism and naivete led his family into one financial disaster after another.  The second of his four daughters, Louisa soon came to see the family’s financial needs as her own.

Doubtless this sense of responsibility was conveyed to her by her mother, Abigail (Abba), who, although a member of the old Bostonian May family, not only lived a married life of genteel poverty, but also actually worked outside the home when the need was desperate.  Although this would be seen by her social group as an almost unforgivable failure on the part of her husband, Abba Alcott not only did not seem to resent Bronson, but held him up to her daughters as a paragon of good.

While his radical ideas brought few paying students to the schools that Bronson Alcott established, this progressive education (along with tutoring from family friend Henry Thoreau) played a significant role in developing young Louisa’s writing talents.  She began publishing in 1851, when just nineteen, and by the end of her life, she had written almost three hundred works.  Because many were issued under pseudonyms, it is only recently that she has been credited with authorship that was previously assumed to be male.

Her first decade of work consisted of lurid short stories, adventurous plays, sentimental poems, and novelettes clearly written for the money that they would bring.  Many of her sensationalist tales were distinctly masculine—aimed at an audience of boys, reflective of Civil War violence, and signed with initials that presumed a male author.  Yet all this artifice and pot-boiling was not enough, as during this time Alcott also worked as a governess, seamstress, schoolmarm, and even domestic servant to help support her family.  Much of this employment served as material for later writing, especially her experience as a companion on a European trip in 1865.  Hospital Sketches (1862) also reflected her brief time as a Civil War nurse, when she nearly died of typhoid at a hospital near Washington.

 

In 1867, Alcott took her only job as an editor, supervising the publication of a girls’ magazine called Merry Museum.  Meanwhile, her publisher friend Thomas Niles renewed his requests that she write a book-length work for girls, and Alcott reluctantly began what would become her greatest achievement, unequaled by anything she would write later.  Little Women, published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, became America’s first classic of juvenile literature.

Set in the middle-class North of the Civil War, Little Women gives an intimate picture of domestic life that readers have found captivating for more than a century. An immediate hit, booksellers found it hard to get enough copies of Little Women to meet the demand of the public.  The phenomenon revealed a neglected audience of young female readers, and Alcott would go on to publish books almost annually for the next twenty years, including An Old Fashioned Girl, Little Men, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and Jo’s Boys.

Abba Alcott died in 1873; seven years later, at age forty-eight, “Aunt Louy” adopted the infant child of her youngest sister Abbie, who died just a year after she married.  The 1880s thus were devoted to tending both the young and the old, as Bronson Alcott lingered into incoherent senility.  Louisa’s own health declined meanwhile, but she pressured herself into finishing Jo’s Boys.  Although just fifty-five when she died, her last years were so stressful that she seemed older. Despite these responsibilities, she belonged to the New England Woman’s Club, one of the first organizations of women with professional and political goals.  She actively supported the American Woman Suffrage Association that was headed by Lucy Stone, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and other Massachusetts feminists, and she wrote for the Woman’s Journal that the American Association published for decades.  Much of her fiction focuses on domesticity, but Alcott endorsed gender equality in education and employment, as well as women’s right to vote.