Louisa May Alcott
Information and Articles About Louisa May Alcott, a notable woman of the civil war
Louisa May Alcott Facts
November 29, 1832, Germantown, PA
March 6, 1888 (aged 55), Boston, MA
A. M. Barnard
Nurse in The Civil War
Author of Little Women
Louisa May Alcott summary: Louisa May Alcott was an American writer who authored over 30 books and short-story collections and wrote poetry as well. Little Women, her most famous book, was a novel for girls. Written in 1868, it departed from the existing practice of idealized and/or stereotypical children in books meant for young readers. Instead, it offered a fully realized young heroine in the spirited character of tomboy Jo March. Little Women remains a beloved classic of children’s literature today. Alcott is also remembered for her book Hospital Sketches, which she penned in 1863 based on letters she had written home while serving as a nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War.
Louisa May Alcott’s family
Louisa May Alcott was born November 29, 1832, to Amos Bronson Alcott, called Bronson, and Abigail May Alcott in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was the second of four daughters: Anna Bronson Alcott was the oldest, born March 16, 1831; Elizabeth Sewell Alcott was born June 24, 1835; and Abigail May Alcott was born July 26, 1840.
Alcott’s parents were New Englanders who were part of the mid-19th century social reform movement, supporting the abolition of slavery—even acting as station-masters on the Underground Railroad—and active in the temperance and women’s rights movements. Bronson was a teaching pioneer whose new methods of educating children often didn’t sit well with the communities in which he taught; he de-emphasized rote learning, used a more conversational, didactic style with his students, and avoided traditional punishment. The school he taught at in Germantown was the third school he had started, this time with aid from a wealthy benefactor who paid the tuition of many of the students. When the benefactor died, the school closed and the Alcotts moved to Philadelphia briefly, where Bronson ran an unsuccessful day school before returning to Boston in 1834 when Louisa was two years old. An idealist, Bronson was capable of ignoring the fact that his family was at times literally surviving on bread and water. Louisa no doubt was thinking of her father when she said many years later, "My definition (of a philosopher) is of a man up in a balloon, with his family and friends holding the ropes which confine him to earth and trying to haul him down."
In Boston, Bronson established the Temple School in the fall of 1834, named for the Masonic Temple on Tremont Street in Boston in which classes were held, with about 30 students from wealthy families. The school was as controversial as his previous schools, although he managed to continue operating it for seven years. In 1836, Bronson became a member of a group of liberal intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, who met to discuss their ideas about the general state of American culture and society. The group began the philosophical movement of transcendentalism, which believed that people and nature were both inherently good and pure, and that both are corrupted by society and its institutions. Louisa May Alcott was educated mainly by her father, although Thoreau, Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller—all family friends—also gave her lessons. She began writing when she was young, and she and her sisters acted out some of her stories in plays performed for family and friends.
Financial difficulties with Temple School forced the family to leave Boston in 1840 for Concord, Massachusetts, where they lived in a rented cottage, called Hosmer Cottage, for three years. In 1843, they moved briefly to Fruitlands, a Utopian commune established on a farm in Harvard, Massachusetts. Alcott later wrote about the experience in Transcendental Wild Oats, a satire originally published in a New York newspaper in 1873. After seven months, the commune failed; in December, 1843, the Alcotts moved to rented rooms and then back to Hosmer Cottage. Using Abigail’s inheritance and a loan from Emerson, the family purchased a house in Concord across the street from the Emersons that they named Hillside (later renamed Wayside by Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family), moving into it in April, 1845. The following three years were idyllic and happy ones for Alcott that became the basis of her novel Little Women.
Louisa May Alcott begins writing
In 1847, at the age of 15, Louisa had begun working to help support the family, doing any job available, often as a domestic servant or as a teacher. She had vowed to see to it that her family would not remain in poverty. When Bronson moved the family back to Boston in 1849 Alcott continued working and but also began submitting her writing to publishers. In 1851, her first poem, "Sunshine," was published under the pen name of Flora Fairfield in Peterson’s Magazine. Many more poems and short stories followed in various publications, including her first book of short stories, Flower Fables, in 1854.
In 1855, the Alcott family moved briefly to Walpole, New Hampshire, but Louisa stayed on in Boston. The family was forced to move back to Concord after Alcott’s youngest sister Elizabeth, "Lizzie," contracted scarlet fever in 1856. Emerson bought the family Orchard House, just down the street from Hillside House, their previous house. Orchard House would be the Alcott’s most permanent home; they would live there until 1877, having moved over 20 times in 30 years. Unfortunately, Lizzie never regained her full health and died two years later in 1858 of a "wasting illness" at the age of 23—the family was devastated. Alcott immortalized Lizzie in Little Women as the gentle-natured Beth. Shortly after Lizzie’s death, Anna announced that she would marry. To comfort her mother and ease difficulty of losing two daughters from the household at once, Alcott moved back in with her family.
Alcott continued working in and around Boston, taking any jobs available to women. In 1862, she had began using the pen name A. M. Barnard to write potboiler melodramas—a few of which were turned into plays and performed in Boston—strictly to earn money. At the outset of the American Civil War, she volunteered to sew clothes and provide other supplies to soldiers. On November 29, 1862, her 30th birthday, she decided to do more: she volunteered to be a nurse in Washington, D.C. She wrote many letters home about her experiences, which she later edited and fictionalized, although she remained true to her experience. Hospital Sketches, published in 1863, confirmed her desire to be a serious writer. While in Washington she contracted typhoid fever and was treated with mercury, which affected her for the rest of her life, causing pain, weakness and hallucinations.
In 1868, her publisher asked her to write a book for "little girls." In the space of a few weeks, she produced what would become her most famous work, Little Women, a story of three girls growing up in New England. The characters and story parallel much of her life and that of her family. The protagonist, Jo March, is a tomboy, just as Alcott was, though by the end of the book she has become a lady. Although the novel was moralistic it did not have the preachy tone common to children’s literature of the time, and it became—and remains—a much-beloved story. Alcott, however, didn’t particularly care for what she had written, but it accomplished her primary goal in writing it: It made money.
Alcott died on March 6, 1888, and is buried in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the final resting place of several American literary icons including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. Her father had died two days before she did.
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