Louisa May Alcott is cool (even if she doesn’t look it). She had the courage of her convictions, and she had all the right convictions. She was experimental and she was loyal. She loved to travel and she loved her home. She valued freedom more than luxury. She was funny and smart, brave and persistent. If we wanted to describe the best of what it means to be an American, she is the perfect example. (See “Backstory” below –make this a link—to find out why I wanted to write about the perfect example of an American.)
Louisa was born November 29, 1832 in Germantown Pennsylvania, on her father’s birthday. She was the second of the four daughters she later made famous in Little Women.
Her father Bronson Alcott is a difficult man to pin down. He was a self-taught philosopher who was endlessly fascinated with his own mind. He wrote a five million word journal describing his every thought. His uncompromising idealism impressed Ralph Waldo Emerson so much that he invited the Alcotts to live near him in Concord MA.
All Bronson’s navel-gazing left him little time to earn a living; that was up to his wife Abba Alcott, and then his daughter Louisa. To give him credit, however, Bronson was a staunch abolitionist and a supporter of women’s right to vote when both were highly unpopular and sometimes dangerous positions. He ran a school for a while in Boston, which was closed down by angry, bigoted parents when he admitted a black girl to his class.
Louisa was the rowdy daughter, just like her creation Jo March in Little Women. She loved nature, jokes, plays and her family. She was very athletic for her day, going on daily runs in the woods and fields around Concord and Boston to keep her mind and muscles in sh
ape. All that ended, though, after she caught typhoid while working as a nurse in a Union Army hospital in Washington DC during the Civil War. The treatment for typhoid in those days was an oral form of mercury, now known to be toxic. Louisa suffered terrible stomach, eye and muscle pains from mercury poisoning for the rest of her life.
Louisa never married, preferring, as she said, “to paddle my own canoe.” In her day, marriage meant a considerable loss of personal and legal freedom. She loved to travel, making two year-long trips to Europe. Besides working to free the slaves and gain the right to vote for women, Louisa also worked to improve conditions in prisons, orphanages and work houses.
Her primary goal, though, was to dig the Alcott family out of perennial poverty and free her exhausted mother from her work as an employment counselor and social worker for poor women. Refusing to “marry for money,” Louisa tried every job open to a respect
able young woman in the mid-1800s—sewing, house cleaning, teaching, being a servant and a paid companion. She finally hit the jackpot with writing.
She wrote three kinds of stories:
- A series of eight books that are in the Little Women genre—girls and boys growing up and learning about the world; making mistakes and (usually, eventually) getting it right.
- Several hundred lurid, gothic short stories about murder, suicide, drugs, love and betrayal. For these, she used a pseudonym “A.M. Barnard.”
- Serious novels for and about adults. Moods was her favorite and Work is my favorite. She also wrote a terrific short book about her experiences as a nurse during the Civil War called Hospital Sketches and one about her utopian commune days called Transcendental Wild Oats.
When Louisa was 48, her youngest sister May (Amy in Little Women) died in childbirth in Paris. The baby was named Louisa. May’s dying wish was that her sister Louisa would raise her daughter. So Louisa became a single mother at age 48 when Lulu, as she was called, arrived in Boston.Louisa died eight years later, in March 1888, of the accumulated complications of her Civil War mercury poisoning.
You can visit the Alcotts’ home in Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa wrote Little Women. The associationwww.louisamayalcott.org maintains the house. If you visit Concord, you can also tour Louisa’s neighbors’ homes: Ralph Waldo Emerson lived across the road and Nathaniel Hawthorne lived right next door. Henry David Thoreau, with whom Louisa was a little bit in love, lived with the Emersons for a while, when not with his mother in town. After the Thoreaus died, Louisa bought the Thoreau family house and gave it to her sister Anna (Meg in Little Women).