Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott (1832-88)

photo of Louisa May Alcott

Although author Louisa May Alcott (1832-88) is best known for her book, Little Women, describing her family life in Concord, Massachusetts, she had several homes in Boston where she was better able to earn money to support her family. When her writing began to sell, living in Boston kept her close to her publisher, Roberts Brothers, and to other reformers and literary figures.

Louisa was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1832 to Bronson Alcott and Abigail May. Louisa’s mother was a member of the prominent May family of Boston where they attended King’s Chapel. Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, was a teacher who would become one of America’s most influential reformers of education. He was also part of the Transcendentalist movement, which encouraged the perfection of the individual. As an educator, Bronson Alcott stressed the intellectual, physical, and emotional development of each child on his or her own terms, through dialogue between teacher and child. Louisa’s older sister, Anna, had already been born. Two more sisters, Elizabeth and Abby May would succeed.

In 1834, Bronson Alcott moved his family to Boston where he opened his progressive and controversial Temple School in the Tremont Temple on Tremont Street. To assist him with teaching, he relied on two of the brightest women in Boston—Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller, who were also Transcendentalists. Their work produced Alcott’s book Conversations with Children (1836), which shocked Bostonians when they learned he was teaching children a more “personalized” view of Jesus. When Bronson Alcott enrolled a young African American girl in his school, insisting on a school policy of color blindness, parents withdrew their children and the school closed by 1840. Alcott nearly went bankrupt.

Meanwhile, his family was living in Concord in one of several houses they would occupy and Louisa was being educated at home. Louisa once wrote, “I never went to school except to my father or such governesses as from time to time came into the family … so we had lessons each morning in the study. And very happy hours they were to us, for my father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child’s nature as a flower blooms, rather than crammed in, like a Strasburg goose, with more than it could digest.” However, the Alcott family struggled financially and always would. Bronson Alcott was a brilliant philosopher and educator, but a dismal provider.

The Alcotts lived near fellow Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau whose counsel Bronson Alcott sought for new projects and guidance. In 1834, he moved his family to Harvard, Massachusetts, where he hoped to establish a model community called Fruitlands. As the historian Joan Goodwin described the project, “Fruitland [made] use of no animal products or labor, except, as Abigail Alcott observed, for that of women. She and her small daughters struggled to keep household and farm going while the men went about the countryside philosophizing.”

The harsh reality of winter brought an end to Fruitlands, and the Alcotts returned to Concord where they took another house near Emerson called Hillside. Louisa was allowed to use the great man’s impressive library, and she began to read works of great literature and history that sparked her imagination. In her teenaged years she began to write thrillers, which she hoped to sell and provide income for, as she put it, her “pathetic family.” She wrote her first such story in 1848, although it was not published until four years later in the Olive Branch. Meanwhile, Louisa and her older sister took teaching positions to earn money. A brief stint as a governess in Dedham led to her essay “How I Went Out to Service.” Publisher James T. Fields rejected her work and advised her, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.”

Louisa was now living in Boston, taking in sewing, serving as a governess, reading, and working to improve her writing. What money she made, she sent home to Concord. In Boston, Louisa also encountered some of the greatest reformers of the nineteenth century, including Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, John Turner Sargent, and William Lloyd Garrison. She enjoyed the Boston theater and had one of her plays accepted but not performed. Between 1855 and 1857, while summering in Walpole, New Hampshire, she organized the Walpole Amateur Dramatic Company. In 1857, back in Concord, she formed the Concord Dramatic Union.

Still writing, tutoring, and supporting her family from Boston, Louisa’s stories were finally beginning to sell. In 1863, “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” written under the pen name A. M. Barnard, appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newsletter. For her effort, she won $100. Louisa was also writing two serious novels that would be published a number of years later: Moods and Work.

During the winter of 1862-3, Louisa worked as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, Virginia, wanting to contribute what she could to the end of slavery which she, her father, and so many of their friends had been advocating for years. Unfortunately, she contracted typhoid pneumonia and had to return home. (It is likely that the mercurous chloride with which she was treated contributed to her early death.)

Louisa May Alcott’s brief service as a Civil War nurse inspired her to write “Hospital Sketches” which appeared in the Boston Commonwealth as a series and as a book in 1863. Hospital Sketches was enormously popular, and her work was now in demand. After the war, Louisa traveled to Europe as the companion of Anna Weld for a short visit to see the sites she had read about as a girl. When she returned to Boston, she accepted the editorship of Merry’s Museum, a children’s magazine. She also became its major contributor. In 1867, the magazine’s editor, Thomas Niles, asked her to write a book especially for girls. The result was part one of Little Women. The book was a best seller, and readers clamored for more. Part two appeared the following spring.

As Joan Goodwin explains, “from this point on Louisa May Alcott was a victim of her own success. Though she yearned to do more serious fiction, children’s books flowed from her pen for the rest of her life because their sales supported her family. Louisa herself wrote, “Twenty years ago, I resolved to make the family independent if I could. At forty that is done. Debts all paid, even the outlawed ones, and we have enough to be comfortable. It has cost me my health, perhaps; but as I still live, there is more for me to do, I suppose.”

Goodwin goes on to write that now “Alcott gave her energy to practical reforms, women’s rights and temperance. She attended the Women’s Congress of 1875 in Syracuse, New York, where she was introduced by Mary Livermore. She contributed to Lucy Stone’s Woman’s Journal while organizing Concord women to vote in the school election. ‘Was the first woman to register my name as a voter,’ she wrote. ‘Drove about and drummed up women to my suffrage meeting. So hard to move people out of the old ruts.’ And again, ‘Helped start a temperance society much needed in C[oncord]. I was secretary, and wrote records, letters, and sent pledges, etc.’”

Louisa continued to publish children’s books, and in 1880, after the death of her sister, May, shortly after childbirth, she welcomed May’s infant daughter who was named for Louisa but called “Lulu.” She published the stories she told the little girl as Lulu’s Library. In 1882, after her father suffered a stroke, Louisa settled the remaining members of her family at 10 Louisburg Square. Her own health was failing, and she moved “from place to place in search of health and peace to write, settling at last in a Roxbury nursing home,” according to Joan Goodwin.

Bronson Alcott died on March 4, 1888; Louisa died two days later at the age of fifty-six. By then, knowing her death was not far off despite her young age, she had legally adopted her widowed sister Anna’s son John Pratt to whom she willed her copyrights. Any income would be shared by Anna, Lulu, John, and Anna’s other son Fred.

Louisa May Alcott was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord on “Author’s Ridge” near Thoreau and Emerson. A Civil War veteran’s marker graces her gravestone. During her lifetime, she produced almost three hundred literary works.

– Bonnie Hurd Smith