Louisa May Alcott

by OMB Staff on July 18, 2008

Louisa May Alcott was a daughter of noted Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail May Alcott. Louisa’s father started the Temple School; her uncle, Samuel Joseph May, was a noted abolitionist. Though of New England parentage and residence, she was born in Germantown, which is currently part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She had three sisters: one elder (Anna Alcott Pratt) and two younger (Elizabeth Sewall Alcott and Abigail May Alcott Nieriker). The family moved to Boston in 1834 or 1835, where her father established an experimental school and joined the Transcendental Club with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

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 (1854), 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.

A lesser-known part 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.

Selected works
* The Inheritance (1849, unpublished until 1997)
* Flower Fables (1854)
* Hospital Sketches (1863)
* The Rose Family: A Fairy Tale (1864)
* Moods (1865, revised 1882)
* Morning-Glories and Other Stories (1867)
* The Mysterious Key and What It Opened (1867)
* Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868)
* Three Proverb Stories (includes “Kitty’s Class Day,” “Aunt Kipp,” and “Psyche’s Art”) (1868)
* Part Second of Little Women, also known as “Good Wives” (1869)
* An Old Fashioned Girl (1870)
* Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag (1872-1882)
* Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys (1871)
* Work: A Story of Experience (1872)
* Eight Cousins or The Aunt-Hill (1875)
* Beginning Again, Being a Continuation of Work (1875)
* Silver Pitchers, and Independence: A Centennial Love Story,” (1876)
* Rose in Bloom: A Sequel to Eight Cousins (1876)
* Under the Lilacs (1878)
* Jack and Jill: A Village Story (1880)
* Jo’s Boys and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to “Little Men” (1886)
* Lulu’s Library (1886-1889)
* A Garland for Girls (1888)
* Comic Tragedies (1893)

As A.M.Barnard
* Behind a Mask, or a Woman’s Power (1866)
* The Abbot’s Ghost, or Maurice Treherne’s Temptation (1867)
* A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866 – first published 1995)

First published anonymously
* A Modern Mephistopheles (1877)

Wikipedia contributors, “Louisa May Alcott,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Louisa_May_Alcott&oldid=225134359 (accessed July 18, 2008).

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