Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is one of America's best-known writers of juvenile fiction. She was also a reformer, working in the causes of temperance and woman's suffrage.

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pa., in 1832. She was the daughter of Bronson Alcott, the Concord transcendentalist philosopher and educator. She and her three sisters spent their childhood in poverty. However, they had as friends, and even as tutors, some of the most brilliant and famous men and women of the day, such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker. This combination of intellectual plenty and physical want endowed Alcott with an ironical sense of humor. She soon realized that, if she or her sisters did not find ways to bring money into the home, the family would be doomed to permanent poverty.

In her early years Alcott worked at a variety of menial tasks to help financially. At 16 she wrote a book, Flower Fables (not published for 6 years), and she wrote a number of plays that were never produced. By 1860 she was publishing stories and poems in the Atlantic Monthly. During the Civil War she served as a nurse until her health failed, and her Hospital Sketches (1863) brought the first taste of widespread public attention.

The attention seemed to die out, however, when she published her first novel, Moods, in 1865, and she was glad to accept in 1867 the editorship of the juvenile magazine Merry's Museum. The next year she produced the first volume of Little Women, a cheerful and attractive account of her childhood, portraying herself as Jo and her sisters as Amy, Beth, and Meg. The book was an instant success, so in 1869 she produced the second volume. The resulting sales accomplished the goal she had worked toward for 25 years: the Alcott family was financially secure.

Little Women had set the direction, and Alcott continued a heavy literary production in the same vein. She wrote An Old-fashioned Girl (1870), Little Men (1871), and Work (1873), an account of her early efforts to help support the family. During this time she was active in the causes of temperance and woman's suffrage, and she also toured Europe. In 1876 she produced Silver Pitchers, a collection containing "Transcendental Wild Oats," an account of her father's disastrous attempts to found a communal group at Fruitlands, Mass. In later life she produced a book almost every year and never wanted for an audience.

Alcott died on March 6, 1888, in Boston. She seems never to have become bitter about her early years or her dreamy, improvident father, but she did go so far as to say that a philosopher was like a man up in a balloon: he was safe as long as three women held the ropes on the ground.


Further Reading on Louisa May Alcott

Ednah Cheney, ed., Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (1889), is an early biography. Also of interest are Katharine S. Anthony, Louisa May Alcott (1938), and Marjorie M. Worthington, Miss Alcott of Concord (1958). A documented, full-length study of Miss Alcott's works is Madeleine B. Stern, Louisa May Alcott (1950).