Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) - a five-cent stamp issued in 1940
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 had 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 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.
Click here to read Louisa May Alcott's full biography.