By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department
I have a confession to make. (Don’t get excited, it’s severely tame as far as confessions go.) I’ve never read Louisa May Alcott’s classic girl-coming-of-age story, Little Women. I haven’t seen any of the film adaptations, either. As you might expect, this makes writing a blog about it somewhat challenging . . .
Louisa May Alcott (herein referred to as LMA) was born on November 29, 1832, on her father’s 33rd birthday, in Germantown (which later became part of Philadelphia), Pennsylvania. She was the second of four daughters born to educator and transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May Alcott, and joined 20-month-old sister Anna Bronson Alcott. The births of Elizabeth Sewall Alcott in June 1835 and Abigail May Alcott in July1840 completed the Alcott clan. Readers will notice the many parallels between LMA’s family and that of the March Family in her most widely known publication, Little Women, which was published on September 30, 1868.
The Alcott Family moved to Boston in 1834, where LMA’s father established an experimental school and joined the ranks of the Transcendental Movement with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The majority of LMA’s education came from her strict, high-minded father Bronson Alcott, but she also received instruction from Thoreau, Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, all of whom were family friends. In 1840, after several disappointing setbacks with the school, the Alcotts moved to a cottage on the river in Concord, Massachusetts. LMA has described this period of her life as idyllic, and it was in Concord that she first began writing poems and stories and keeping a journal. In 1843, the Alcotts and six other people moved to a communal farm called Fruitlands. A rigid lifestyle was maintained at this Utopian commune; members of the community did not eat meat, chicken, or fish, and they wore clothing made of rough linen spun from flax fibers, as they believed it was wrong to take the life of an animal for its hide or even to shear its coat (i.e., wool) or to use a product of slavery (cotton.) This grand experiment collapsed spectacularly, leaving Bronson bitterly disappointed and physically ill. LMA’s mother nursed him back to health, and with an inheritance from Abby’s family and financial help from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Alcotts were able to purchase a homestead in Concord in April of 1845. Hillside, later called The Wayside, is the backdrop for Little Women, and the novel is a semi-autobiographical account of LMA’s childhood experiences with her three sisters: Anna, Elizabeth, and May.
The Alcott clan endured periods of extreme poverty, due in large measure to the idealistic and impractical nature of LMA’s father. Family was everything to LMA, so when she realized just how poor her family was, and how terribly her beloved mother suffered as a result, she decided to devote her life to supporting her family. LMA went to work at a very early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, maid, and writer. As a coping mechanism to survive these pressures, writing became an emotional and creative outlet for LMA. Her first book, Flower Fables, was published when she was just seventeen years old. The stories that she wrote during her teenage years earned her very little money. Hospital Sketches, a collection of letters that LMA had written home during her stint as a nurse in the American Civil War, finally won her some critical acclaim, and the publication of Little Women in 1868 brought her fame that exceeded everything she had dreamed of, and freed her family from poverty forever.
In Little Women, LMA based her protagonist Jo March on herself, and nearly every character in the novel is paralleled to some extent on her family members and friends. Beth March’s death mirrors that of Lizzie Alcott from scarlet fever, and LMA’s love and admiration of her mother shines through the characterization of Marmee, the beloved matriarch of the March Family. Little Women (or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) was very well received, as readers and critics found it suitable for many age groups. It was said to be a “fresh, natural representation of daily life” in New England, and a reviewer at Eclectic magazine called it one of the very best books to reach the hearts of anyone from six to sixty. A second part to Little Women, titled Good Wives, was published in 1869, and afterward was published in a single volume. The next novel in the Little Women trilogy, Little Men: Life at Plumfield With Jo’s Boys, was published in 1871; the completion of the series was published in 1886 under the title Jo’s Boys and How They Turned Out.
LMA endured many health problems in her later years, and died of a stroke at age 55 in March 1888, just two days after the death of her father. Early biographers have attributed her poor health to mercury poisoning from the treatment she received for typhoid fever during her service as a nurse during the American Civil War. More recent analysis suggests that LMA may have suffered from an autoimmune disease such as lupus, and not acute mercury exposure. She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near her instructors, friends, and mentors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, on a hillside now known as “Author’s Ridge.” Her most famous creation, Little Women, has endured the test of time and is still widely read and enjoyed today.
*Opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are in no way reflective of WCPL employees or their siblings. Additionally, the author takes full responsibility for her intellectual sloth in not actually reading the book that she so arrogantly blogs about, and hereby honestly swears to do better next time.
Sources and suggested reading:
- Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs (J 92 ALC)
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (J F ALCOTT)
- Louisa May Alcott: Her Girlhood Diary by Cary Ryan (J 818.403 ALC)
- Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott by Yona Zeldis McDonough (J 92 ALCOTT)