Author Study: Louisa May Alcott
I’ve talked often on the Storyformed podcast about how I missed reading most of the best children’s books when I was growing up. There are so many wonderful books for young girls, and one of the most prolific and beloved authors that I never had the pleasure of meeting as a child is Louisa May Alcott.
I was well into my 30’s when I finally pulled an old, worn copy of Little Women down off of the shelves and dove in, and I was immediately enchanted. I fell in love with the March girls and their beloved Marmee. I highlighted so many beautiful, wise passages as I was reading that, by the time I was finished, most of the book was covered in yellow ink! It was several years later, after my third son was born, that I read the sequel, Little Men. I reasoned that since I was raising my own brood of “little men,” it would be an appropriate use of my reading time! I loved it even more than Little Women. It was so rich with truth, wisdom, and beauty, and I immediately knew that I would model my boys’ education after the school at Plumfield described in its pages. More than that, I knew that I had discovered an author that I deeply, deeply loved.
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown (now part of Philadelphia), PA on November 29, 1832 to Bronson and Abba May Alcott, on her father’s 33rd birthday. She was the second of four daughters and, from the very beginning, she felt a tight bond with her parents and her sisters Anna, Elizabeth, and May. Despite her close family ties, however, Louisa was a fiercely independent child. She was spirited--a dreamer and a wanderer. From her earliest days, she loved adventure and exploration and often felt fitful and restless. She would frequently wander away from her mother and her home to explore and run. It was during one such time of exploration that she found herself too close to a frog pond and tumbled in. Unable to swim, she struggled and choked down water until she was finally pulled to safety. She was surprised to find that her rescuer was (what she called) “a negro boy,” and the memory of that event had a profound impact on her for the rest of her days.
There were many events and people that impacted Louisa in her childhood, but the most profound influence was probably her father, Amos Bronson Alcott. In fact, it is impossible to discuss Alcott’s childhood, or her life in general, without mentioning him. Bronson was a philosopher and, like Louisa, he was a dreamer and an idealist. His most passionate views and ideals were embodied in his philosophy of education, his abolitionist leanings, and in the philosophy of Transcendentalism, all of which had a impact on Louisa’s life and her writings.
Bronson was largely self-educated, and his views on education were considered extremely progressive at the time. At a time when the status quo was that “children should be seen and not heard,” Bronson Alcott believed that children had minds and hearts of their own and should have a voice in their own affairs. He opened several experimental schools, the first one in Germantown, PA with the support of his Quaker friend Reuben Haines. Unfortunately, Haines died shortly after the school opened and it was forced to close due to lack of funding and support. Bronson then moved the family to Boston, where he set up a new school in the Masonic Lodge, which he called the Temple School. The Temple School was very successful for a time and had many famous visitors, including philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would become a close and influential family friend.
In spite of teaching at the Temple School, however, Bronson chose to educate his young daughters at home, instructing them in reading, writing, and basic arithmetic. He also required them to write daily in their journals. Bronson understood children, but was extremely idealistic and imposed his philosophies on his daughters. He required the family to discuss ideals at the dinner table and then, at the fireside after, would often ask Louisa and her sisters philosophical questions, which they were required to ponder and answer.
Eventually, the Temple School was forced to close after many parents removed their children due to Bronson’s abolitionist leanings and his connection to Transcendentalism. The family then moved to Concord, MA at Emerson’s urging, where Bronson did odd jobs to support the family. Bronson’s idealistic and philosophic nature led to many ventures and experimental communities, schools, and teaching opportunities. Unfortunately for the rest of the Alcott family, the variety and sheer number of ventures led to twenty-nine moves in Louisa’s first twenty-eight years of life, and few means of steady income. Despite their poverty, however, the Alcott family always felt that they had more to give away, sometimes eating only one meal per day so that they could share with those less fortunate.
When Louisa was ten years old, Bronson moved the family to Harvard, MA where he and his friend Charles Lane set up an experimental agricultural community based on Transcendentalist principles, which they called Fruitlands. Louisa May Alcott’s biographer Cornelia Meigs writes of the commune: “This company at Fruitlands thought that private property was wrong and that everything must be owned in common. They also followed the principle that animals must not even be forced to labor for man. They got up at first light, bathed in cold water, and ate...vegetables, bread, fruit, and grain porridge. Breakfast was apt to be hurried and lunch eaten in weary silence; but there was a carefully observed rule that as they dined in the evening there must be talk of higher things. The men wore linen smocks, since wool robbed the sheep and cotton was produced by slave labor. They made their firmest stand of all against slavery.”
Because they believed so firmly in the Abolitionist cause, the Alcott family and other Transcendentalists often hid runaway slaves who were attempting to escape to freedom in Canada. A memory of one such event stayed with Louisa all of her life, though she may have only been as young as two when it occurred. While she was playing, she opened the door to the large bread oven next to the fireside, only to find a frightened male slave hiding inside!
Bronson Alcott was firmly entrenched in the Transcendental community of New England, which included such notable names as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Louisa and her sisters had ample opportunities to converse with these great minds and learned much from them. In fact, while they lived close by, Emerson gave Louisa full access to his extensive library, of which she took frequent advantage.
Eventually, Bronson’s friend Charles Lane urged him to abandon his family to fully live out his ideals. Lane had observed what he perceived to be a utopia in the Shaker community, which did not include the institute of marriage or procreation. Bronson considered the proposition, but ultimately chose to remain with his family, which led to the disbandment of the Fruitlands experiment. Bronson subsequently became very ill from toil of labor and weary heart, and lingered close to death for some time.
Ever aware of her family’s financial predicament, Louisa became determined to help and, at a very young age, made a pledge to herself that she would do all that she could to alleviate their precarious situation. As soon as she was old enough, she began by following her father’s example and setting up a small school. Her first pupil was Ellen Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s young daughter, and other young Emerson children soon followed. When the family moved once again, however, Louisa was forced to close her little school and mourn the loss of her meager income. The family moved to Boston, but she resolved to continue to provide some means of support. There, Louisa worked as a governess and a seamstress.
It was while she was teaching Ellen Emerson, however, that the first inkling of Louisa’s destiny appeared. She had been writing intermittently since she was young, scripting and performing plays that were locally renowned. But for Ellen Emerson’s delight, she ventured into writing short stories, which she called “Flower Fables.” Later, Bronson discovered one of these stories and showed it to a friend in the publishing business, who bought and published it. Louisa then began to consider what kind of income she might be able to provide for her family with only her pen.
A COUNTRY AT WAR
The Civil War began in 1861, and twenty-nine year old Louisa decided to volunteer her services to the cause by becoming a nurse. She left her family and traveled to Washington, DC, where she served at a military hospital. She was a capable nurse, despite her lack of medical training, and well-loved by the wounded and the sick. She wrote home often, describing in detail the events and the people that she encountered day after day. But after only one month there, she succumbed to typhoid and Bronson was summoned to carry her home. Once again, it was Bronson who turned the hand of fate to Louisa’s favor when he took her letters to an editor friend, who published them in succession under the title “Hospital Sketches” in his local newspaper The Commonwealth.
Once recovered from her long illness, Louisa discovered that readers were clamoring for more of her “Hospital Sketches.” It wasn’t long before a publisher approached her about publishing them as a collection in one volume. Louisa agreed and, in 1863, Hospital Sketches was released. The book was well-received and the publisher asked for more work for Louisa.
LOUISA THE AUTHOR
Louisa had been contemplating what sort of income could be made with her pen as soon as her first short story was published and, therefore, had begun work on several novels. At her publisher’s request, she re-worked one of these early novels and submitted it for publication. Moods, as it was called, was well-received and was even lauded by such people as a young Henry James.
The following year, Louisa set sail for Europe as the employee of an invalid friend who wished to see the continent. They settled in Switzerland for a short time, and it was there she met Ladislas Wisniewski, a Polish revolutionary. They became fast friends and spent many weeks together, teaching each other various languages and generally conversing and confiding in one another. When she returned home, she again set about finding ways to earn money for her family, which she found even more impoverished than it was at her departure one year earlier.
It was in 1868 when one of the publishers that had urged Louisa to publish her “Hospital Sketches” approached her about writing a novel for young girls. Louisa had often entertained the idea of writing a book about her family and thought that, perhaps, this might be the occasion to finally do so. She hesitantly agreed, declaring, “ I know nothing about girls.”
She submitted the first chapters of her new story for girls to the publisher and they were not very well received. In fact, Louisa admitted that she didn’t like them very much herself, but she persisted in finishing the novel. The publisher was equally ambivalent about the finished work, but admitted that as a middle aged male, he was a poor judge. He shared the novel with his young niece and some other young girls, who were immediately enchanted and delighted by it.
Because of their enthusiasm, Little Women was published in October of 1868 and Louisa’s life and the circumstances of the Alcott family were changed forever.
Little Women was loosely based on her life with her three sisters. Fictionalized as the March family, she wrote of many events that had occurred in her own life, in particular the death of her beloved sister Elizabeth and her friendship with Ladislas (whom readers would recognize as Laurie). Success followed the publication of Little Women, as did a steady stream of novels, including the beloved sequel Little Men. In Little Men, Alcott finally had the opportunity to see her father’s educational philosophies come to fruition through the fictional school of Plumfield. After Little Men, novels such as Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and Jack and Jill were published and well-received. Through the use of her pen and her imagination (fueled by ample memories from her own life), Louisa was finally able to provide what she had always desired: financial peace and security for her family.
By 1876, Louisa had made enough money to send her sister May to Europe for a visit. There, May met and married a Swiss man and settled down. Back home, Louisa wrote while she cared for their ailing mother until her death. Then Louisa set about to care for their aging father, who was finally enjoying a measure of success on the lecture circuit. She enjoyed a close relationship with her sister Anna’s sons and enjoyed life as a beloved author in New England.
In 1879, Louisa received the happy news that May had delivered a daughter, named after Louisa and called Lulu, but very shortly after the joyous occasion, Louisa also received word that May had passed away. She left Lulu in Louisa’s care and so, several months later, baby Lulu and May’s sister-in-law arrived in Massachusetts, forever changing Louisa’s life once again. Louisa was now a “mother” and she continued to write and raise little Lulu in the same manner that her parents had raised her and her beloved sisters. Eventually, Louisa also adopted her sister Anna’s youngest son as a business decision, in order to have a legal male heir to inherit all of her copyrights.
Under her father’s influence, Louisa was an ardent abolitionist prior to the Civil War and she remained an advocate for freed slaves. She held progressive views on education and was a staunch supporter of women’s rights, particularly suffrage. In 1879, when the state of Massachusetts passed a law allowing women to vote, Louisa was the very first woman registered in the city of Concord, where she lived. She was always concerned with the plight of women who had to make their own way in life. She would often meet with such women to hear their stories, and in 1888 published them in a book called A Garland For Girls.
Louisa’s health had never fully recovered after her bout with typhoid, and many report that she also suffered from mercury poisoning from her time as a nurse in the military hospital. She remained frail most of her life. In early 1888, her elderly father Bronson passed away. Two days later, at the age of 56, Louisa died in Boston.
Famous Works by Louisa May Alcott
Biographies of Louisa May Alcott for Further Reading
*Note: I have not read all of these biographies in their entirety, so I do not know if they contain any information that would be inappropriate for young readers. The only exception is Invincible Louisa, which won the Newbery Medal and is highly recommended for both children and adults.