Louisa May Alcott
(November 29, 1832 – March 6,
1888) was an American novelist
best known for the novel Little
Women, set in the Alcott family home, Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts and published in
This novel is loosely based on her childhood
experiences with her three sisters.
Childhood and early work
Alcott was the daughter of noted transcendentalist
and educator Amos
and Abigail May Alcott
She shared a birthday with her father on November 29. In a letter
to his brother-in-law, Samuel Joseph
, a noted abolitionist
father wrote: "It is with great pleasure that I announce to you the
birth of my second daughter...born about half-past 12 this morning,
on my [33rd] birthday." Though of New England heritage, she was born in Germantown, which is currently part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
She was the second of four daughters;
Anna Bronson Alcott
eldest, Elizabeth Sewall
and Abigail May
were the two youngest. The family moved to Boston in 1834, After the family moved to Massachusetts,
her father established an experimental school and joined the
Transcendental Club with
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
after several setbacks with the school, the Alcott family moved to
a cottage on of land, situated along the Sudbury River in Concord,
Massachusetts. The Alcott family moved to the Utopian Fruitlands community for a brief interval in 1843-1844 and
then, after its collapse, to rented rooms and finally to a house in
Concord purchased with her mother's inheritance and financial help
from Emerson. They moved into the home they named "Hillside" on April 1, 1845.
Alcott's early education included lessons from the naturalist
Henry David Thoreau
received the majority of her schooling from her father. She also
received some instruction from writers and educators such as
Ralph Waldo Emerson
, Nathaniel Hawthorne
, and Margaret Fuller
, who were all 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
relates the family's experiment in "plain living and high thinking"
As an adult, Alcott was an abolitionist
and a feminist
. In 1847, the family housed
a fugitive slave for one week. In 1848 Alcott read and admired the
"Declaration of Sentiments" published by the Seneca Falls Convention
Poverty made it necessary for Alcott to go to work at an early age
as an occasional teacher
domestic helper, and writer
. Her first book
was Flower Fables
(1855), a selection of tales originally
written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson
. In 1860, Alcott
began writing for the Atlantic
. 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.
home, revised and published in the Commonwealth
collected as Hospital Sketches
(1863, republished with
additions in 1869), garnered her first critical recognition for her
observations and humor. Her novel Moods
(1864), based on
her own experience, was also promising.
She also wrote passionate, fiery novels and sensation stories under
the nom de plume A. M.
. Among these are A Long Fatal Love Chase
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. Following a
style which was wildly popular at the time, these works achieved
immediate commercial success.
Alcott 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
, and the semi-autobiographical tale Work
Literary success and later life
Louisa May Alcott
Alcott's literary success arrived with the publication 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
, also known as Good
(1869) followed the March sisters into adulthood
and their respective marriages. Little
(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
(1886) completed the "March Family Saga."
Most of her later volumes, An
Old Fashioned Girl
(1870), Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag
vols., 1871–1879), Eight
and its sequel Rose
(1876), and others, followed in the line of
Alcott based her heroine "Jo" on herself in "Little Women." 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
, "... because I have fallen in love with so many pretty
girls and never once the least bit with any man."'
In 1879 her younger sister, May, died. Alcott took in May's
daughter, Louisa May Nieriker ("Lulu"), who was two years old. The
baby had been named after her aunt, and was given the same
later life, Alcott became an advocate of women's suffrage and was the first woman to
register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts in a school board election.
, along with Elizabeth Stoddard
, Rebecca Harding Davis
, Anne Moncure
Crane, and others, were part of a group of female authors during
the Gilded Age
to address 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'" (“Review 2 – No Title” from The Radical
, May 1868,
see References below).
Alcott continued to write until her death. Alcott suffered chronic
health problems in her later years. Alcott and her earlier
biographers attributed her illness and death to mercury poisoning
: During her American Civil War
fever and was treated
, a compound containing mercury.
Recent analysis of Alcott's illness suggests that mercury poisoning
was not the culprit. Alcott's chronic health problems are
associated with autoimmune disease, not acute mercury exposure.
Moreover, a late portrait of Alcott shows rashes on her cheeks
characteristic of lupus
. Alcott died in
Boston on March 6, 1888 at age 55, two days after visiting
her father on his deathbed.
Her last words were "Is it not
The story of her life and career was initially told in Ednah D.
Cheney's Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals
(Boston, 1889) and then in Madeleine B. Stern's seminal biography Louisa May Alcott
(University of Oklahoma Press
As A. M. Barnard
First published anonymously
- Behind a Mask, or a Woman's Power (1866)
- The Abbot's Ghost, or Maurice Treherne's Temptation
- A Long Fatal Love
Chase (1866 - first published 1995)
- A Modern Mephistopheles (1877)
- Little Women, Little Men, Jo's Boys (Elaine Showalter,
ed.) (Library of America, 2005)
- Orchard House, where Alcott lived when writing Little
- Walpole, New Hampshire, where the abundant lilacs in the town inspired
Alcott to write the book Under the Lilacs
- Greenwich Village, New York City, where Alcott lived for a time while
she was writing "Little Women"
- 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
- “Review 2 – No Title” from The Radical (1865 - 1872). May 1868.
American Periodical Series 1740 - 1900. (link is password only) (29 January
- Bibliography (including primary works and
information on secondary literature - critical essays, theses and