Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott was the second of four daughters of Abigail May Alcott, the product of a distinguished Boston family, and philosopher Bronson Alcott, a self-educated farmer’s son. The Alcotts were the inner circle of the Transcendentalist movement; Bronson Alcott’s closest friends were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The two great thinkers would be the objects of teenage Louisa’s intense romantic yearnings. Her childhood would be peopled with the most important activists of the abolition movement as well as the era’s leading intellectuals.
Bronson Alcott worked hard, but never with the mundane objective of earning a living, and brought his young family to the verge of homelessness and starvation. Alcott’s childhood poverty was tempered by family unity and intellectual riches. Under some 30 temporary Alcott roofs, she was taught to cultivate an open mind and a social conscience, and to revere nature as God’s best work. From the age of eight she would keep a journal, recording her passions, her moods, and her difficulty controlling her temper, and would continue to express her feelings throughout her lifetime in hundreds of works in a wide variety of literary forms.
When Louisa was 10, Bronson enlisted the family in an experiment in communal living on a tract he named Fruitlands in honor of its wizened orchard. Six months of Transcendental agriculture left the Alcotts destitute, Bronson suicidal, and the Alcott marriage on the verge of dissolution. A distressed Louisa reported it all in her childhood diary. The Fruitlands fiasco fueled Louisa’s fierce ambition to make the family rich. She wanted to be famous, too.
Her first and favorite plan was to attain wealth and renown by becoming a great actress. From her teenage years she wrote, costumed, produced, directed, and starred in plays. Off the stage, her life was not without drama. The Alcotts were staunch abolitionists, supporting complete racial equality, including intermarriage. As part of the Underground Railroad, they risked their own freedom hiding fugitive slaves. (Seven year-old Louisa once opened an unused oven to discover a frightened fugitive inside. She taught him to write letters.) As an adult she would know the orator Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Editor of The Liberator, the fiery antislavery newspaper; Mrs. John Brown, widow of the hanged leader of the raid on Harper’s Ferry; Julia Ward Howe, who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Reverend Theodore Parker. In Boston and Concord, the Alcotts were intimates of the great transcendentalist thinkers and writers of the day. Emerson encouraged Louisa to spend hours in his library. On excursions at Walden Pond, she studied botany with Thoreau. The Hawthornes lived next door.
Young Louisa tried her hand at poetry as well as drama, and at the age of 17 wrote her first novel, The Inheritance, heavily influenced by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. (The manuscript would languish for 130 years before it was discovered and published.)
Louisa’s first earnings came from endeavors far less glamorous than acting or writing. By her late teens she had worked, for pitiful wages, as a governess, teacher, seamstress, laundress, and live-in household servant. By her twenties, Louisa was determined, as she put it in a letter to her father, “to turn my brains into money by stories.” Soon her romantic tales were appearing regularly in local publications. She learned to tailor her material to different markets and experimented in various styles of fiction, gradually becoming more skilled and confident.
Poverty gave Louisa a vantage point shared by few women of her background. When her mother took a job running an unemployment agency, she came to know the illiterate Irish immigrant and black women who had to take the roughest jobs. With nothing else to give, Louisa, her sister Anna, and their mother held free classes in reading and writing. At home, shy Beth Alcott kept house, and somehow money was found for May to go to school. Bronson Alcott’s financial contribution was negligible; he returned from a long lecture tour with one dollar. In 1858, ten years after they came to work in Boston, the Alcotts learned that Beth was dying from the effects of scarlet fever. Relatives and Emerson made possible a return to Concord, where Beth died. A few months later, after thirty family moves, the Alcotts finally came to rest at Orchard House. They would live there for the next twenty years.
Anna, the oldest and closest to Louisa of the Alcott sisters, was married soon after the move to Orchard House. Louisa returned to Boston to find work, in such despair about the diminished family circle that she briefly considered suicide.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Louisa found a new purpose, reporting to Concord's town hall to sew Union uniforms and bandages. As soon as she turned thirty, old enough to enlist as an army nurse, she prevailed upon family friend Dorothy Dix to waive the ban on admitting single women. Within days of her arrival at a makeshift hospital in war-torn Washington, she was tending victims of the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg, assisting at amputations performed without anesthesia, and holding the hands of soldiers enduring long, painful deaths.
The impact of Louisa’s nursing experience upon her own health was devastating. She contracted typhoid fever and pneumonia, and was treated with calomel, a mercury derivative poisonous to the nervous system. She was plagued by illness, pain, and periodic frailty for the rest of her life.
Although she lost her health in the war, Alcott won her reputation as a writer. Hospital Sketches, adapted from letters home, became her first bestseller. A different kind of literary product boosted her earnings from writing – anonymous or pseudonymous “thrillers” bought by editors of popular national magazines. Despite her burgeoning literary career, Louisa still needed to supplement her income by sewing.
A job offer to travel as companion to an invalid allowed Louisa to fulfill her lifelong desire to see Europe. In Switzerland she became enchanted with a younger man, a recent Polish freedom fighter, Ladislas Wisniewski. She nicknamed him “Laddie,” and later used him as the model for “Laurie” in Little Women. Louisa would leave her job and travel alone to meet Wisniewski in Paris, where she spent two weeks, unchaperoned. “A little romance with Laddie,” she wrote in her journal at the time, but scratched out the rest of the passage so firmly she tore the paper – the only such instance in all her journals. Over what remained of the paper she later wrote “couldn’t be”.
Laddie was one of a number of flirtatious friendships Louisa had with men considerably younger (and Emerson and Thoreau were two of several attachments she had to men considerably older). Nathaniel Hawthorne's son Julian, a younger male friend, speculated about Louisa in a reminiscence. “Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew; yet how could a nature so imaginative, romantic and passionate escape it?” In an undated poem toward the end of her life, Alcott writes of herself as a woman whose romantic lover never appeared. The anonymous thrillers appear to have been an important emotional outlet; she wrote them in what she called a “vortex,” where time, food, and rest seemed not to exist. In an era when marriage was the only sanctioned framework for the fulfillment of romantic love, Louisa faced a dilemma. As a wife she could have no economic or legal identity. Motherhood she thought incompatible with earning a living. She decided bravely to “paddle my own canoe,” but her many lonely responsibilities made for a heavy cargo.
Louisa returned from Europe in 1866 to find the Alcotts again in debt, but found she was able now “to earn more from my pen than from my needle.” Finally in 1868, when she was 35, Louisa Alcott’s fortune changed forever with the publication of Little Women, a fictionalized account of her own childhood. An instant success, the book earned her lasting fame and fortune; never out of print, it has been translated into some 50 languages. She wrote the novel methodically in a few weeks, at the urging of a publisher, without the passionate surrender she brought to writing thrillers.
Producing what she disdainfully called “moral pap for the young” would be Alcott’s literary fate. Describing herself as “the goose that laid the golden egg,” time and again she sacrificed her artistic and personal wishes to her family's emotional and monetary needs.
Literary acclaim did not deter the former nurse, known to sign letters “Yours for Reform of all Kinds” from her efforts to heal the world. She campaigned for women's suffrage, successfully petitioning door-to-door for the vote in the Concord school committee election of 1879. In protest, the townsmen withheld their ballots; Louisa was among 20 proud women who cast theirs.
Alcott was generous with her money as well as with her time. She funded a home for orphaned newsboys, and acting upon her belief in “the healing qualities of a simple tale,” told stories to prisoners at the Concord State Reformatory, to poor city children at Walden Pond, and to patients in the New England Hospital for Women and Children.
Louisa was pleased by the recognition that her fame brought to her long-unrecognized father. Bronson Alcott, gorgeously attired in a cape and high hat, at the age of 80 toured the country to sellout audiences as “The Father of the Little Women.” He reveled in the borrowed glory, and published several wordy books of philosophy. Louisa, on the other hand, loathed the limelight. When presumptuous fans knocked at the door of Orchard House, the most famous woman in America defended her privacy by posing as her own servant. She recorded a hundred uninvited visitors in a single month, and wrote a satiric poem about the transformation of Concord's literati into sight-seeing destinations.
At fifteen Louisa had vowed to “be rich, and famous, and happy before I die.” She was gratified to see the Alcotts living in comfort, but in the pursuit of her own happiness Alcott encountered obstacle after obstacle. A succession of family deaths added to her self-imposed financial burden and prevented her from traveling as she had long wished. During her first trip to Europe as a wealthy woman Anna Alcott Pratt’s husband died, leaving two young children and little money. In her hotel room in Venice, Louisa wrote Little Men, assigning her nephews the royalties. She canceled plans for a subsequent voyage to stay in Concord at her dying mother’s bedside. For her widowed father Louisa built a public platform, the Concord School of Philosophy, where he promulgated Transcendentalism at summer conclaves. After he suffered a stroke, Louisa established Bronson in a handsome house in Boston’s elegant Louisburg Square, where she visited him nearly every day she was not in residence there.
Thanks to Louisa’s generosity, her sister May Alcott had studied art in Europe, where she had married happily, but too briefly, for she died soon after childbirth. May’s baby daughter, named Louisa after her generous aunt, was sent across the ocean to become a weighty but joyful family responsibility. “Lulu” called her aunt “Mother,” and lived with the Alcotts until Louisa's death ten years later.
During her last years Louisa, ever open-minded and hoping to improve her health, explored homeopathy and mind cure as well as conventional medicine of the day. In 1888 she went to a convalescent home in Roxbury, expecting that with rest she would live another 20 years.
At the beginning of March she visited Bronson, knowing he was near death and that she was seeing him for the last time. “Father,” she said, “Here is your Louy. What are you thinking of as you lie there so happily?” He pointed toward Heaven and answered, “I am going up. Come with me.”
“Oh, I wish I could,” she said.
Bronson Alcott died a few days later, on March 4, 1888. He was as old as the century. Louisa, born on her father’s birthday, died just two days after he did, at the age of 55. By her bedside were her pen – she was writing a story – and her needle, threaded in red, on a flannel dress she was making for a poor family’s baby.
Louisa May Alcott is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery across the foot of her parents’ graves, fulfilling her wish “to support them in death and life.” Close by are the resting places of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Elizabeth Alcott. An inconspicuous marker, set flat on the ground, reads only “Louisa M. Alcott.” Next to it a small American flag flies in honor of her service in the Civil War.
- Obituary: Louisa May Alcott, New York Times, March 7, 1888. The obituary indicates that the family moved to Boston when Alcott was 2 years old, therefore in 1834–5. This is supported by the United States Census, 1850 which records that her younger sister, Elizabeth, was born in Massachusetts and was aged 15 (therefore born around 1835) at the time of the census.
- Louisa May Alcott: Little Women Introduction Penguin Classics, London 1989, ISBN 0-14-039069-3
- Daniel Shealy (ed.): Alcott in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends and Associates. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, Iowa, 2005. ISBN 0-87745-938-X.
- Review 2 – No Title from The Radical (1865–1872). May 1868. American Periodical Series 1740–1900.