Louisa May Alcott, or more commonly known as the author of the classic novel, Little Women, was born on November 29th, 1832 at Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was the second of four daughters born to Bronson and Abigail “Abba” Alcott. She had an older sister named Anna, and two younger sisters: Elizabeth and May. Through her writing and her novels, she managed to create a name for herself and achieve financial security for her family. She was truly a successful American author. Though the Alcott girls, including Louisa, never received any sort of formal education, they were taught by their father.
The family’s friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau provided many opportunities as well. For example, Emerson allowed Louisa full access to his library. Louisa grew up at the Wayside Inn during a period called the “American Renaissance”. The era was defined with major literary figures and philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also in this era were women such as Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. Louisa also admired women writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis, the author of Life in the Iron Mills.
Louisa described her delight in meeting with Davis in one of her many diary entries. Growing up, Louisa’s family moved frequently. In 1834, the family moved to Boston, where Bronson established the Temple School. The Temple School was a transcendentalist institution that failed in 1838 when it was attacked as ‘religiously unorthodox’. Afterwards, the family moved to Concord, Massachusetts. During the years of 1849 to 1852, the Alcotts lived at various addresses in Boston. Eventually, when the rest of her family returned to Concord, Louisa decided to remain in Boston.
The frequent changes in her environment did not inhibit Louisa’s writing. Even as a child, Louisa had a talent for writing. She has a vivid imagination, and was constantly encouraged by her father. She wrote often, and sisters would act out Louisa’s stories for friends. It wasn’t until early adulthood, however, that officially marked the start of Alcott’s writing career. At the age of sixteen, Alcott produced a collection of fairy tales called Flower Fables. Though it wasn’t published until 1854, Flower Fables was one of her earliest works.
She produced her own income by writing stories to submit to magazines, as well as doing a variety of jobs, from tailoring to housekeeping. The stories that she wrote were both sentimental and sensational, and were published in magazines such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and The Flag of Our Union under the pseudonym of A. M. Barnard. She also spent much of her time writing Gothic Romances – stories with sensational plots, romantic settings, and horrifying themes. The year of 1858 marked many important events and changes in Louisa’s life.
The events included the death of Louisa’s beloved sister, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Alcott. More joyous things included the marriage of May Alcott to Ernest Nieriker. Now, Louisa, at the age of 25, decided to finally return to her family, now currently residing at the Orchard House in Concord. It is the Alcott’s first permanent home, and it is there that the family would spend the rest of their lives. Louisa, however, still spent much of her time in Boston, where she continued to write. When the Civil War started, Alcott wanted to contribute to the war efforts. In 1862, she enlisted as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital.
Yet, within six weeks, she returned home after contracting typhoid. She was treated with a toxic mercury compound that was commonly used at that time. While she did recover, the effect of the compound permanently weakened her. Louisa never fully recovered. Her experiences were published in 1863 in a book, Hospital Sketches. It was a collection of letters to her family during the six weeks that she served as one of Dorothea Dix’s nurses. Moods, Alcott’s first acknowledged novel, was published in 1864. Like Hospital Sketches, it was a book intended for adult audience.
The novel was about a girl who married a man whom she was fond of, but not loved. After its publication, Louisa traveled through Europe by working as a lady’s companion. The idea of Little Women came to be after the Civil War. In the September of 1867, Thomas Niles, Louisa’s publisher, urged her to write a ‘girl’s story’. At this time, Alcott was working as an editor at Merry’s Museum, an illustrated children’s magazine. She had no problems writing the Little Women. Though she did it reluctantly, it was finished in six weeks. It was published in 1868, and gained great success almost instantly.
By transforming Anna, Elizabeth, May, and herself into Meg, Beth, Amy, and Jo March, Alcott managed to captivate thousands of girls with a story about her own family life. After the success of the first Little Women volume, Alcott wrote a second volume to Little Women in a mere two months. She published it as Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second in 1869. The success for the book allowed Alcott to travel to Europe in 1870. The success of Little Women finally achieved the financial success she had long craved (“Alcott, Louisa May (1832–1888). ). She became a respected and successful novelist, and in 1870, her work was in demand. Sequels soon followed: Little Men, published in 1871, and Jo’s Boys, published in 1886.
Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag, Eight Cousins, and A Garland for Girls were successful as well. While her works for children became very popular, her adult novels, such as Work, and A Modern Mephistopheles, were less so. Even with the success, Alcott never stopped doing what she loved most: writing. The year of 1877 marked the death of Louisa’s beloved mother, Abigail May Alcott. My duty is done, and now I shall be glad to follow her. My only comfort is that I could make her last years comfortable, and lift off the burden she had carried so bravely all these years,” she recorded in her journal (Kort). Louisa looked up to her mother, and Abigail was the emotional anchor for the Alcott family. After Bronson’s stroke in 1882, Alcott moved to Louisburg Square with him. Also living there were her elder sister Anna (a widow by that time); Anna’s two sons; and Louisa (May Alcott Nieriker’s daughter, whose mother died in 1879).
On March 4th, Bronson Alcott died, and Alcott died two days later, supposedly of the long term effects of mercury poisoning, from when she contracted typhoid. She was buried in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in the family’s plot. During her lifetime, she wrote over 270 different works, and most memorably, Little Women. She never stopped writing. When she was young and well, she wrote almost feverishly. Even when she got sick, she never stopped writing. It was not until her death that she finally put her pen down. Even so, her stories lived on in our hearts.
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