Biography of Louisa May Alcott, American Writer

Louisa May Alcott
The American novelist Louisa May Alcott (1831-1888) best known for her popular children's stories including Little Women and Good Wives. ca. 1860.

 Hulton-Deutsch / Getty Images

Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888) was an American writer. A vocal abolitionist and feminist, she is notable for the moral tales she wrote for a young audience. Her work imbued the cares and internal lives of girls with worth and literary attention.

Fast Facts: Louisa May Alcott

  • Known For: Writing Little Women and several novels about the March family
  • Also Known As: She used the noms de plume A.M. Barnard and Flora Fairfield
  • Born: November 29, 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: Amos Bronson and Abigail May Alcott
  • Died: March 6, 1888 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Education: none
  • Select Published Works: Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men, Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag, Jo’s Boys
  • Awards and Honors: none
  • Spouse: none
  • Children: Lulu Nieriker (adopted)
  • Notable Quote: “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.”

Early Life and Family

Louisa May Alcott was born the second daughter to Abigail and Amos Bronson Alcott in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She had an older sister, Anna (later the inspiration for Meg March), who was described as a gentle sweet child, while Louisa was described as “vivid, energetic” and “fit for the scuffle of things.” 

While the family had noble ancestry, poverty would dog them throughout Louisa’s childhood. Abigail, or Abba as Louisa called her, was descended from the Quincy, Sewell, and “Fighting May” families, all prominent American families since the American Revolution. However, much of the family’s earlier wealth was diminished by Abigail’s father, so while some of their relatives were wealthy, the Alcotts themselves were relatively poor. 

In 1834, Bronson’s unorthodox teaching in Philadelphia led to the dissolution of his school, and the Alcott family moved to Boston so that Bronson could run Elizabeth Peabody’s co-ed Temple School. An abolitionist, radical educational reformer, and Transcendentalist, he educated all his daughters, which helped expose Louisa to great writers and thinkers at an early age. He was great friends with contemporary intellectuals including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Louisa May Alcott
Portrait of Louisa May Alcott, American novelist. Culture Club / Getty Images

In 1835, Abigail gave birth to Lizzie Alcott (the model for Beth March) and in 1840 she gave birth to Abigail May Alcott (the model for Amy March). To help combat postpartum depression, Abigal began working as one of the first social workers in Boston, which put the family in contact with many immigrant families who were even worse off than the impoverished Alcotts, which contributed to Louisa’s focus on charity and her commitment to providing for her own family.

In 1843, the Alcotts moved with the Lane and Wright families to establish Fruitlands, a utopian commune in Harvard, Massachusetts. While there, the family sought ways to subjugate their bodies and soul based on Bronson’s teachings. They wore only linen, as it wasn’t tainted by slave labor the way cotton was, and consumed fruit and water. They did not use any animal labor to farm the land and took cold baths. Louisa did not enjoy this forced restraint, writing in her diary that “I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family.”

After the dissolution of the unsustainable Fruitlands in 1845, the Alcott family relocated to Concord, Massachusetts, at the request of Emerson to join his new agrarian community center of intellectual and literary thought. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau also moved to Concord around this time, and their words and ideas helped expand Louisa’s early education. However, the Alcotts were remarkably poor; their only source of income was the small salary Bronson earned by lecturing with Horace Mann and Emerson. Late in 1845, Louisa joined a school in Concord taught by John Hosmer, an aged revolutionary, but her formal education was sporadic. She grew to be very close friends with a roughhousing boy named Frank. Early in 1848, Louisa wrote her first story, “The Rival Painters. A Tale of Rome.”

In 1851, Louisa published the poem “Sunlight” in Peterson’s Magazine under the nom de plume Flora Fairfield, and on May 8, 1852, “The Rival Painters” was published in the Olive Branch. Thus, Louisa began her career as a published (and paid) writer.

That fall, Nathaniel Hawthorne bought “Hillside” from the Alcotts, who then moved back to Boston with the funds. Anna and Louisa ran a school in their parlor. In 1853, Anna took a teaching job in Syracuse, but Louisa continued running schools and tutoring seasonally through 1857, working in Walpole, New Hampshire, during the summers to help direct the productions of the Walpole Amateur Dramatic Company. She wrote several plays throughout her life, and tried to become an actress herself, with much less success than her literary creations. 

Early Work and Little Women (1854-69)

  • Flower Fables (1854)
  • Hospital Sketches (1863)
  • Little Women (1868)
  • Good Wives (Little Women Part II) (1869)

In 1854, Alcott published Flower Fables based on nursery stories she’d been told by Thoreau. Her advance—$300 from a friend of the Emersons—was her first substantial income from her writing. The book was a success and earned out, which Louisa viewed with great pride even when she was making much greater sums later in life.

Abby and Lizzie contracted scarlet fever in the summer of 1856, and their health prompted the family to relocate back to Concord in 1857, when they moved into Orchard House. However, the country air was not enough and Lizzie died of congestive heart failure on March 14, 1858. Two weeks later, Anna announced her engagement to John Pratt. The pair weren't married until 1860.

New England Exteriors And Landmarks
A general view of The Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott, on November 4, 2014 in Concord, MA. Paul Marotta / Getty Images

In 1862, Louisa decided that she wanted to contribute more formally to the abolitionist cause and signed on to work as a nurse for the Union Army; she was stationed at Georgetown Hospital. She wrote letters and observations back to her family, which were first serialized in the Boston Commonwealth and were then compiled into Hospital Sketches. She stayed at the hospital until she contracted typhoid fever, and her poor health forced her to return to Boston. While there, she made money writing thrillers under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard, even as her own literary fame was on the rise.

After the war, Louisa traveled around Europe for a year with her sister, Abigail May. While there, May fell in love and settled down with Ernest Nieriker in Paris. For her part, Louisa flirted with a younger Polish man named Laddie, who is often considered the basis for Laurie. Yet she was determined to remain unmarried, so she left Europe without an engagement.

In May 1868, Alcott’s publisher Niles famously asked Alcott to write a “girls’ story” and so she began rapid work on what would become Little Women. However, she was not convinced at first of the worthiness of the endeavor. She wrote in her diary that “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” The book contained many autobiographical elements, and each key character had their real-life foil. 

Little Women by Louisa M Alcott...
Title page: Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. Illustrations by M V Wheelhouse (1895-1933). Culture Club / Getty Images

When Little Women was published in September 1868, it had a first printing of two thousand copies, which sold out in two weeks. On this success, Louisa was granted a contract for a second part, Good Wives. She intentionally gave her heroine, Jo, a peculiar husband in the sequel, to spite readers who want to know “who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life.” Little Women has never been out of print since its publication, and since Louisa held her copyright, it brought her fortune as well as fame.

Later Work (1870-87)

  • Little Men (1871)
  • Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag (1872, 73, 77, 79, 82)
  • Jo’s Boys (1886)

While the Little Women trilogy was never officially marked as such, (with Little Women and Good Wives reprinted as a contiguous book under the heading Little Women), Little Men is widely considered the sequel to Little Women, as it follows Jo’s school for boys at Plumfield. Even though Louisa began to tire of writing tales for children, readers eagerly purchased more stories about the Marches and in 1871, the Alcott family needed the money. 

Alcott wrote six volumes of short magical stories under the heading Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag, which were widely popular. While they were not about the March family, the clever marketing ensured that fans of Little Women would purchase the stories.

Abba died in 1877, which was a grave blow to Louisa. In 1879, May died following complications relating to childbirth, and her daughter, Lulu, was sent to live with Louisa as her surrogate mother. While Alcott never gave birth to children of her own, she considered Lulu her true daughter and raised her as such.

In October 1882, Alcott began work on Jo’s Boys. While she’d written her previous novels very rapidly, she now faced family responsibilities, which slowed progress. She felt that she could not write about the characters of Amy or Marmee “since the original[s] of [those] character[s] died, it has been impossible for me to write of [them] as when [they were] here.” Instead, she focused on Jo as a literary mentor and theatrical director and followed the jovial youthful antics of one of her charges, Dan.

DISCOVERY OF A LOUISA MAY ALCOTT MANUSCRIPT
Louisa May Alcott manuscript. Sygma / Getty Images

Bronson suffered a stroke in late 1882 and became paralyzed, after which Louisa worked even more diligently to care for him. Starting in 1885, Alcott experienced frequent cases of vertigo and nervous breaks, which impacted her writing and adherence to publishing deadlines for Jo’s Boys. Her doctor, Dr. Conrad Wesselhoeft, forbade her to write for six months, but eventually, she allowed herself to write for up to two hours a day. After completing the book in 1886, Alcott dedicated it to Wesselhoeft. Like the previous March novels, Jo’s Boys was a wild publishing success. Over time, her maladies shifted and broadened to include insomnia, anxiety, and lethargy. 

Literary Style and Themes

Alcott read a wide range of material, from political treatises to plays to novels, and was especially influenced by the work of Charlotte Brontë and George Sand. Alcott’s writing was canny, candid, and humorous. While her voice matured and tempered through war reporting and crushing family deaths, her work sustained a conviction in the ultimate joy to be found in love and God’s grace, despite affliction and poverty. Little Women and its sequels are beloved for their charming and realistic portrayal of the lives and inner thoughts of American girls, an anomaly in the publishing landscape of Louisa’s time. Alcott wrote about women’s work and creative potential and some critics consider her a proto-feminist; scholars Alberghene and Clark say “To engage with Little Women is to engage with the feminist imagination.”

Alcott also incorporated radical morality and intellectual instruction into fabulistic anecdotes, often in line with the teachings of Transcendentalists such as Bronson. Yet she always managed to stay true-to-life, never straying too far into the symbolism common in Romantic writers of the period.

Death

As her health declined, Alcott legally adopted her nephew John Pratt, and transferred all the Little Women copyrights to him, stipulating that he would share the royalties with his brother, Lulu, and mother. Shortly thereafter, Alcott left the responsibilities of Boston behind to retreat with her friend Dr. Rhoda Lawrence in Roxbury, Massachusetts for the winter of 1887. When she returned to Boston to visit her ailing father on March 1, 1888 she caught a cold. By March 3, it had developed into spinal meningitis. On March 4, Bronson Alcott died, and on March 6, Louisa died. Since Louisa was very close to her father, the press applied much symbolism to their linked deaths; her New York Times obituary spent several inches describing Bronson’s funeral. 

Legacy

Alcott’s work is widely read by students across the country and the world, and none of her eight young adult novels have ever been out of print. Little Women remains Alcott’s most impactful work, as it brought her to acclaim. In 1927, a scandalous study suggested that Little Women had more influence on American high schoolers than the Bible. The text is regularly adapted for the stage, television, and screen.

On the set of Little Women
Actresses Margaret O'Brien, Janet Leigh, June Allyson, Elyzabeth Taylor and Mary Astor on the set of Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott and directed by George Cukor. Corbis / Getty Images

Writers and thinkers around the world have been influenced by Little Women, including Margaret Atwood, Jane Addams, Simone de Beauvoir, A. S. Byatt, Theodore Roosevelt, Elena Ferrante, Nora Ephron, Barbara Kingsolver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Cynthia Ozick, Gloria Steinem, and Jane Smiley. Ursula Le Guin credits Jo March as a model that showed her that even girls can write.

There have been six feature film adaptations of Little Women, (two of which were silent films) often starring big celebrities like Katherine Hepburn and Winona Ryder. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation is notable for diverging from the book to include elements of Alcott’s life and highlight the autobiographical nature of the book.

Little Men has also been adapted as a movie four times, in America in 1934 and 1940, in Japan as an anime in 1993, and in Canada as a family drama in 1998. 

Sources

  • Acocella, Joan. “How ‘Little Women’ Got Big.” The New Yorker, 17 Oct. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/08/27/how-little-women-got-big.
  • Alberghene, Janice M., and Beverly Lyon Clark, editors. Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays. Garland, 2014.
  • Alcott, Louisa May. “Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag, by Louisa M. Alcott., www.gutenberg.org/files/26041/26041-h/26041-h.htm.
  • Alcott, Louisa May. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. Edited by Joel Myerson, Univ. of Georgia Press, 2010.
  • Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Golgotha Press, 2011.
  • “All the Little Women: A List of Little Women Adaptations.” PBS, www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/specialfeatures/little-women-adaptations/.
  • Brockell, Gillian. “Girls Adored 'Little Women.' Louisa May Alcott Did Not.” The Washington Post, 25 Dec. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/12/25/girls-adored-little-women-louisa-may-alcott-did-not/.
  • Little Women II: Jo's Boys, Nippon Animation, web.archive.org/web/20030630182452/www.nipponanimation.com/catalogue/080/index.html.
  • “Little Women Leads Poll; Novel Rated Ahead of Bible for Influence on High School Pupils.” The New York Times, 22 Mar. 1927.
  • “Louisa M. Alcott Dead.” The New York Times, 7 Mar. 1888.
  • Reisen, Harriet. Louisa May Alcott: the Woman behind: Little Women. Picador, 2010.