Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888) was an American novelist. She is best known for the novel Little Women, published in 1868. This novel is loosely based on her childhood experiences with her three sisters.
During her childhood and early adulthood, she shared her family's poverty and Transcendentalist ideals. In 1840, after several setbacks with the school, her family moved to a cottage on two acres along the Sudbury River in Concord, Massachusetts. The Alcott family moved to the Utopian Fruitlands community for a brief interval in 1843-1844 and then, after its collapse, to rented rooms and finally to a house in Concord purchased with her mother's inheritance and help from Emerson. Alcott's early education had included lessons from the naturalist Henry David Thoreau but had chiefly been in the hands of her father. She also received some instruction from writers and educators such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, who were all family friends. She later described these early years in a newspaper sketch entitled "Transcendental Wild Oats," afterwards reprinted in the volume Silver Pitchers (1876), which relates the experiences of her family during their experiment in "plain living and high thinking" at Fruitlands.
As she grew older, she became both an abolitionist and a feminist. In 1847, the family housed a fugitive slave for one week. In 1848 Alcott read and admired the "Declaration of Sentiments" published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights.
Due to the family's poverty, she began work at an early age as an occasional teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and writer — her first book was Flower Fables (1855), tales originally written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1860, Alcott began writing for the Atlantic Monthly. She was nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862-1863. Her letters home, revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863, republished with additions in 1869), garnered her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. Her novel Moods (1864), based on her own experience, was also promising.
Lesser-known parts of her work are the passionate, fiery novels and stories she wrote, usually under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. These works, such as A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline's Passion and Punishment, were known in the Victorian Era as "potboilers" or "blood-and-thunder tales." Her character Jo in "Little Women" publishes several such stories but ultimately rejects them after being told that "good young girls should [not] see such things." Their protagonists are willful and relentless in their pursuit of their own aims, which often include revenge on those who have humiliated or thwarted them. These works achieved immediate commercial success and remain highly readable today.
Alcott also produced moralistic and wholesome stories for children, and, with the exceptions of the semi-autobiographical tale Work (1873), and the anonymous novelette A Modern Mephistopheles (1875), which attracted suspicion that it was written by Julian Hawthorne, she did not return to creating works for adults.
Most of her later volumes, An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag (6 vols., 1871–1879), Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom (1876), and others, followed in the line of Little Women, remaining popular with her large and loyal public.
Although the Jo character in Little Women was based on Louisa May Alcott, she, unlike Jo, never married. Alcott explained her "spinsterhood" in an interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, "... because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.'
In 1879 her younger sister, May, died. Alcott took in May's daughter, Louisa May Nieriker ("Lulu"), who was two years old. The baby was named after her aunt, and was given the same nickname.
Alcott, along with Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, Anne Moncure Crane, and others, were part of a group of female authors during the U.S. Gilded Age to address women’s issues in a modern and candid manner. Their works were, as one newspaper columnist of the period commented, "among the decided 'signs of the times'" (“Review 2 – No Title” from The Radical, May 1868, see References below).
Despite worsening health, Alcott wrote through the rest of her life, finally succumbing to the after-effects of mercury poisoning contracted during her American Civil War service: she had received calomel treatments for the effects of typhoid. She died in Boston on March 6, 1888 at age 55, two days after visiting her father on his deathbed. Her last words were "Is it not meningitis?
The story of her life and career was initially told in Ednah D. Cheney's Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals (Boston, 1889) and then in Madeleine B. Stern's seminal biography Louisa May Alcott (University of Oklahoma Press, 1950).
First published anonymously