Born November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, Louisa May Alcott is best known as the author of Little Women (1868), a children's novel about the four March sisters, based on the experiences of her own family. Her father, BRONSON ALCOTT, was a well-known transcendentalist who failed in his career as a schoolteacher and afterward made little money to support his family. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, took in sewing, did domestic work, and became a charity agent to help make ends meet. "Louy" and her three sisters, on whom the March girls were closely modeled, grew up in poverty but with a rich domestic life. Alcott always felt a strong sense of duty toward her family. She never married, instead devoting herself to supporting her relations through her successful writing career.
Before she began writing, Alcott was the subject of a book of observations by her father. In 1831 Bronson Alcott began a journal in which he recorded the development of his first daughter, Anna. Louisa entered its pages the following fall. Bronson continued his observations for five years, filling 2,500 manuscript pages with details of his daughters' development. His portrait of Louisa is strikingly similar to her creation, Jo March. Young Louisa was headstrong, physical, and aggressive–a difficult child.
Alcott wrote many novels and short stories for children, including Flower Fables (1855), Good Wives (1869), Little Men (1871), Eight Cousins (1875), Rose in Bloom (1876), Jack and Jill (1880), and Jo's Boys (1886). She also wrote adult fiction, including Moods (1865) and gothic thrillers under various pseudonyms. Her children's fiction differed in tone from much of the literature that appeared before it; her characters were more realistic, and her message was less moralistic and overtly didactic. Although Alcott's works have been criticized for presenting a sentimentalized depiction of Victorian domesticity, her stories also include characters who challenge societal norms. The tomboy Nan Harding from Little Men, who like Jo March and Louisa herself rejects Victorian standards of girlhood, becomes a doctor and never marries. Alcott also challenged the practice of corporal punishment, creating an indelible scene in Little Men where the kindly schoolteacher, Mr. Bhaer, punishes a misbehaving student by compelling the youth to beat Mr. Bhaer himself. Alcott's novels support coeducation, and her fictional Plumfield School even opens its doors to a black student.
Alcott's conceptions of childhood were shaped by her father and the other transcendentalist writers with whom she was intimate. As a child, Alcott took nature walks with Henry David Thoreau. She borrowed books from Ralph Waldo Emerson and composed her first short stories for his children. Like her mentors, Alcott adopted the romantic belief that children were intuitively wise and good. She believed the purpose of education was to develop children's consciences and to help them to become self-reliant.
Alcott was a hearty youth who was raised on a strict vegetarian diet and subjected to cold-water baths in the early morning. A short stint nursing Union soldiers during the Civil War, however, ruined her health. Calomel treatments for a case of typhoid fever left her with mercury poisoning that caused muscle aches and hair loss. She died at the age of fifty-five on March 6, 1888, three days after the death of her father.
See also: Children's Literature.
MacDonald, Ruth K. 1983. Louisa May Alcott. Boston: Twayne.
Payne, Alma J. 1980. Louisa May Alcott: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall.
Stern, Madeleine B. 1950. Louisa May Alcott. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
RACHEL HOPE CLEVES