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Louisa May Alcott

Author, Little Women

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Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Archive Photos / Getty Images
Louisa May Alcott portrait

Louisa May Alcott

Culture Club / Getty Images
Illustration from Little Women, 1870

Illustration from Little Women, 1870

Culture Club / Getty Images

Louisa May Alcott Facts

Occupation: writer. Briefly: tutor (of Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson), nurse.

Known for: Little Women and other children's stories, connections to other Transcendentalist thinkers and writers

Dates: November 29, 1832 - March 6, 1888

Also known as: L. M. Alcott, Louisa M. Alcott, A. M. Barnard, Flora Fairchild, Flora Fairfield

Family:

  • Father: Amos Bronson Alcott, Transcendentalist, philosopher and educational experimenter, founder of Fruitlands, a utopian community which failed
  • Mother: Abigail May, relative of abolitionist Samuel May
  • Louisa was the second of four daughters

Marriage, Children: Louisa May Alcott never married. She was a guardian for her sister's daughter and adopted a nephew.

Louisa May Alcott Biography:

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, but the family quickly moved to Massachusetts, a location with which Alcott and her father are usually associated.

As was common at the time, she had little formal education, taught mainly by her father using his unconventional ideas about education. She read from the library of neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson and learned botany from Henry David Thoreau. She associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Theodore Parker, Julia Ward Howe, Lydia Maria Child.

The family's experience when her father founded a utopian community, Fruitlands, is satirized in Louisa May Alcott's later story, Transcendental Wild Oats. The descriptions of a flighty father and down-to-earth mother probably reflect well the family life of Louisa May Alcott's childhood.

She early realized that her father's flighty educational and philosophical ventures could not adequately support the family, and she sought ways to provide financial stability. She wrote short stories for magazines and published a collection of fables she'd originally written as tutor for Ellen Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter.

During the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott tried her hand at nursing, going to Washington, DC, to work with Dorothea Dix and the U.S. Sanitary Commission. She wrote in her journal, "I want new experiences, and am sure to get 'em if I go."

She became ill with typhoid fever and was affected for the rest of her life with mercury poisoning, the result of the treatment for that illness. When she returned to Massachusetts, she published a memoir of her time as a nurse, Hospital Sketches, which was a commercial success.

She published her first novel, Moods, in 1864, traveled to Europe in 1865, and in 1867 began editing a children's magazine.

In 1868, Louisa May Alcott wrote a book about four sisters, published in September as Little Women, based on an idealized version of her own family. The book was successful quickly, and Louisa followed it a few months later with a sequel, Good Wives, published as Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second. The naturalism of the characterizations and the non-traditional marriage of Jo were unusual and reflected the Alcott and May families' interest in Transcendentalism and social reform, including women's rights.

Louisa May Alcott's other books never matched the lasting popularity of Little Women. Her Little Men not only continues the story of Jo and her husband, but also reflects the educational ideas of her father, which he was never able to communicate effectively in writing.

Louisa May Alcott nursed her mother through her final illness, while continuing to write short stories and some books. Louisa's income financed the move from the Orchard House to the Thoreau house, more central in Concord. Her sister May died of complications of childbirth, and assigned guardianship of her child to Louisa. She also adopted her nephew John Sewell Pratt, who changed his name to Alcott.

Louisa May Alcott had been ill since her Civil War nursing work, but she became worse. She hired assistants to care for her niece, and moved to Boston to be near her doctors. She wrote Jo's Boys which neatly detailed the fates of her characters from her most popular fiction series. She also included the strongest feminist sentiments in this final book.

By this time, Louisa had retired to a rest home. Visiting her father's deathbed on March 4, she returned to die in her sleep on March 6. A joint funeral was held, and they were both buried in the family cemetery plot.

While she is best known for her writings, Louisa May Alcott was also a supporter of reform movements including antislavery, temperance, women's education, and women's suffrage.

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