Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott at about age 25
November 29, 1832|
Germantown, Pennsylvania, United States
|Died||March 6, 1888
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
|Pen name||A. M. Barnard|
|Subjects||Young Adult stories|
|Notable work(s)||Little Women|
Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888) was an American novelist best known as author of the novel Little Women and its sequels Little Men and Jo's Boys. Raised by her transcendentalist parents, Abigail May and Amos Bronson Alcott in New England, she grew up among many of the well-known intellectuals of the day such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. Nevertheless, her family suffered severe financial difficulties and Alcott worked to help support the family from an early age. She began to receive critical success for her writing in the 1860s. Early in her career, she sometimes used the pen name A. M. Barnard.
Published in 1868, Little Women is set in the Alcott family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts and is loosely based on Alcott's childhood experiences with her three sisters. The novel was very well received and is still a popular children's novel today. Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist. She died in Boston.
Childhood and early work
Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, which is now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on her father's 33rd birthday. She was the daughter of transcendentalist and educator Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May and the second of four daughters: Anna Bronson Alcott was the eldest; Elizabeth Sewall Alcott and Abigail May Alcott were the two youngest. The family moved to Boston in 1838, where Alcott's father established an experimental school and joined the Transcendental Club with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Bronson Alcott's opinions on education and tough views on child-rearing shaped young Alcott's mind with a desire to achieve perfection, a goal of the transcendentalists. His attitudes towards Alcott's sometimes wild and independent behavior, and his inability to provide for his family, sometimes created conflict between Bronson Alcott and his wife and daughters.
In 1840, after several setbacks with the school, the Alcott family moved to a cottage on 2 acres (8,100 m2) of land, situated along the Sudbury River in Concord, Massachusetts. The three years they spent at the rented Hosmer Cottage were described as idyllic. By 1843, the Alcott family moved, along with six other members of the Consociate Family, to the Utopian Fruitlands community for a brief interval in 1843–1844. After the collapse of the Utopian Fruitlands, they moved on to rented rooms and finally, with Abigail May Alcott's inheritance and financial help from Emerson, they purchased a house in Concord. They moved into the home they named "Hillside" on April 1, 1845.
Alcott's early education included lessons from the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, but she received the majority of her schooling from her father, who was strict and believed in "the sweetness of self-denial". She also received some instruction from writers and educators such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, all of whom were family friends. She later described these early years in a newspaper sketch entitled "Transcendental Wild Oats". The sketch was reprinted in the volume Silver Pitchers (1876), which relates the family's experiment in "plain living and high thinking" at Fruitlands.
Poverty made it necessary for Alcott to go to work at an early age as an occasional teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and writer. Her sisters also supported the family, working as seamstresses and governesses, while their mother took on social work among the Irish immigrants. Only the youngest, May, was able to attend public school. Due to all of these pressures, writing became a creative and emotional outlet for Alcott. Her first book was Flower Fables (1849), a selection of tales originally written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As an adult, Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist. In 1847, she and her family served as station masters on the Underground Railroad, when they housed a fugitive slave for one week and in 1848 Alcott read and admired the "Declaration of Sentiments", published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights, advocating for women's suffrage and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts in a school board election. The 1850s were hard times for the Alcotts. At one point in 1857, unable to find work and filled with such despair, Alcott contemplated suicide. During that year, she read Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë and found many parallels to her own life. In 1858, her younger sister Elizabeth died, and her older sister Anna married a man by the name of John Pratt. This felt, to Alcott, to be a breaking up of their sisterhood.
In 1860, Alcott began writing for the Atlantic Monthly. When the American Civil War broke out, she served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862–1863. Her letters home – revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863, republished with additions in 1869) – brought her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. It was originally written for the Boston anti-slavery paper The Commonwealth. She speaks out about the mismanagement of hospitals and the indifference and callousness of some of the surgeons she encountered. Her main character Trib showed a passage from innocence to maturity and is a "serious and eloquent witness". Her novel Moods (1864), based on her own experience, was also promising.
In the mid-1860s, Alcott wrote passionate, fiery novels and sensational stories under the nom de plume A. M. Barnard. Among these are A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline's Passion and Punishment. Her protagonists for these tales are willful and relentless in their pursuit of their own aims, which often include revenge on those who have humiliated or thwarted them. She also produced wholesome stories for children, and after their positive reception, she did not generally return to creating works for adults. Adult-oriented exceptions include the anonymous novelette A Modern Mephistopheles (1875), which attracted suspicion that it was written by Julian Hawthorne; and the semi-autobiographical tale Work (1873).
Alcott became even more successful with the publication by the Roberts Brothers of the first part of Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868), a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood with her sisters in Concord, Massachusetts. Part two, or Part Second, also known as Good Wives (1869), followed the March sisters into adulthood and their respective marriages. Little Men (1871) detailed Jo's life at the Plumfield School that she founded with her husband Professor Bhaer at the conclusion of Part Two of Little Women. Jo's Boys (1886) completed the "March Family Saga".
In Little Women, Alcott based her heroine "Jo" on herself. But whereas Jo marries at the end of the story, Alcott remained single throughout her life. She explained her "spinsterhood" in an interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, "I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul put by some freak of nature into a woman's body ... because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man." However, Alcott's romance while in Europe with the young Polish man Ladislas "Laddie" Wisniewski was detailed in her journals but then deleted by Alcott herself before her death. Alcott identified Laddie as the model for Laurie in Little Women, and there is strong evidence this was the significant emotional relationship of her life. Likewise, every character seems to be paralleled to some extent, from Beth's death mirroring Lizzie's to Jo's rivalry with the youngest, Amy, as Alcott felt a sort of rivalry for May, at times. Though Alcott never married, she did take in May's daughter, Louisa, after May's death in 1879 from childbed fever, caring for little "Lulu" until her death.
Little Women was well received, with critics and audiences finding it suitable for many age groups. A reviewer of Eclectic Magazine called it "the very best of books to reach the hearts of the young of any age from six to sixty,". It was also said[by whom?] to be a fresh, natural representation of daily life.
Along with Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, Anne Moncure Crane, and others, Alcott was part of a group of female authors during the Gilded Age, who addressed women’s issues in a modern and candid manner. Their works were, as one newspaper columnist of the period commented, "among the decided 'signs of the times'"
Alcott, who continued to write until her death, suffered chronic health problems in her later years, including vertigo. She and her earliest biographers attributed her illness and death to mercury poisoning. During her American Civil War service, Alcott contracted typhoid fever and was treated with a compound containing mercury. Recent analysis of Alcott's illness, however, suggests that her chronic health problems may have been associated with an autoimmune disease, not acute mercury exposure. Moreover, a late portrait of Alcott shows rashes on her cheeks, which is a characteristic of lupus.
Alcott died at age 55 of a stroke in Boston, on March 6, 1888, two days after her father's death. Her last words were "Is it not meningitis?" She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, on a hillside now known as "Authors' Ridge".
- The Inheritance (1849, unpublished until 1997)
- Flower Fables (1849)
- Hospital Sketches (1863)
- The Rose Family: A Fairy Tale (1864)
- Moods (1865, revised 1882)
- Morning-Glories and Other Stories (1867)
- The Mysterious Key and What It Opened (1867)
- Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868)
- Three Proverb Stories (includes "Kitty's Class Day", "Aunt Kipp" and "Psyche's Art") (1868)
- A Strange Island, (1868)
- Part Second of Little Women, also known as "Good Wives" (1869)
- Perilous Play, (1869)
- An Old Fashioned Girl (1870)
- Will's Wonder Book (1870)
- Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (1871)
- Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag (1872–1882)
- "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873)
- Work: A Story of Experience (1873)
- Eight Cousins or The Aunt-Hill (1875)
- Beginning Again, Being a Continuation of Work (1875)
- Silver Pitchers, and Independence: A Centennial Love Story" (1876)
- Rose in Bloom: A Sequel to Eight Cousins (1876)
- Under the Lilacs (1878)
- Jack and Jill: A Village Story (1880)
- The Candy Country (1885)
- Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to "Little Men" (1886)
- Lulu's Library (1886–1889)
- A Garland for Girls (1888)
- Comic Tragedies (1893 [posthumously])
As A. M. Barnard
- Behind a Mask, or a Woman's Power (1866)
- The Abbot's Ghost, or Maurice Treherne's Temptation (1867)
- A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866 – first published 1995)
- A Modern Mephistopheles (1877)
- Kathryn Cullen-DuPont (August 1, 2000). Encyclopedia of women's history in America. Infobase Publishing. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-0-8160-4100-8. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
- Obituary: Louisa May Alcott, New York Times, March 7, 1888. The obituary indicates that the family moved to Boston when Alcott was 6 years old, therefore in 1838-9. This is supported by the United States Census, 1850, which records that her younger sister, Elizabeth, was born in Massachusetts and was aged 15 (therefore born around 1835) at the time of the census.
- Showalter, Elaine (1988). Alternative Alcott. Rutgers University Press.
- Cheever, Susan (2011). Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography. Simon and Schuster. p. 45.
- Matteson, John. Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007: 174. ISBN 978-0-393-33359-6
- Sands-O'Connor, Karen (March 1, 2001). "Why Jo Didn't Marry Laurie: Louisa May Alcott and The Heir of Redclyffe". The American Transcendental Quarterly. Highbeam. Retrieved 6 June 2013.
- "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women," Harriet Reisen, 2009
- Little Women Introduction, Penguin Classics, 1989. ISBN 0-14-039069-3
- Stern, Madeleine B. (1999). Louisa May Alcott: A Biography : with an Introduction to the New Edition. UPNE.
- Clark, Beverly Lyon (2004). Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge University Press.
- “Review 2 – No Title” from The Radical, May 1868, see References below
- Maura Lerner, "A diagnosis, 119 years after death," Star Tribune, August 12, 2007.
- Donaldson, Norman and Betty (1980). How Did They Die?. Greenwich House. ISBN 0-517-40302-1.
- Hirschhorn, Norbert; Greaves, Ian (Spring 2007). "Louisa May Alcott: Her Mysterious Illness". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 50 (2): 243–259. doi:10.1353/pbm.2007.0019. PMID 17468541.
- Hirschhorn and Greaves (2007), pp. 243–259.
- vu.union.edu – Famous Last Words
- Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, eds., Mortal Remains: Death in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), p. 244 n42
- Shealy, Daniel, Editor. "Alcott in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends and Associates." University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, Iowa, 2005. ISBN 0-87745-938-X.
- “Review 2 – No Title” from The Radical (1865–1872). May 1868. American Periodical Series 1740 – 1900. (link is password only) (January 29, 2007).
|About Louisa May Alcott|
|By Louisa May Alcott|
- Eiselein, Gregory and Anne K. Phillips (eds.) (2001). The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press; online in ebrary.
- LaPlante, Eve (2012). Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother. Free Press. ISBN 1-451-62066-7.
- Larson, Rebecca D. (1997). White roses: stories of Civil War nurses. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications. ISBN 1577470117. OCLC 38981206.
- MacDonald, Ruth K. (1983). Louisa May Alcott. Twayne. ISBN 0-8057-7397-5.
- Matteson, John (2007). Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-05964-9.
- Myerson, Joel; Daniel Shealy, Madeleine B. Stern (1987). The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-59361-3.
- Myerson, Joel; Daniel Shealy, Madeleine B. Stern (1989). The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-59362-1.
- Reisen, Harriet. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind 'Little Women'.
- Saxton, Martha (1977). Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-25720-4.
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- Works by or about Louisa May Alcott at Internet Archive (scanned books original editions color illustrated)
- Works by Louisa May Alcott at Project Gutenberg
- Works by Louisa May Alcott at Online Books Page
- Works by Louisa May Alcott at Project Gutenberg Australia
- Audio books of Louisa May Alcott's works at LibriVox
- Index entry for Louisa May Alcott at Poets' Corner
- Bibliography (including primary works and information on secondary literature – critical essays, theses and dissertations)
- Works by or about Louisa May Alcott in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Guide to Louisa May Alcott papers, MS Am 800.23 at Houghton Library, Harvard University
- Guide to Louisa May Alcott additional papers, 1839–1888, MS Am 2114 at Houghton Library, Harvard University
- Guide to Louisa May Alcott additional papers, 1845–1945, MS Am 1817 at Houghton Library, Harvard University
- Guide to Louisa May Alcott additional papers, 1849–1887, MS Am 1130.13 at Houghton Library, Harvard University
- The Louisa May Alcott Society A scholarly organization devoted to her life and works.
- Louisa May Alcott, the real woman who wrote Little Women. Documentary materials.
- Obituary, New York Times, March 7, 1888, Louisa M. Alcott Dead
- Minneapolis Tribune, March 7, 1888, OBITUARY: Miss Louisa M. Alcott
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Louisa May Alcott