Louisa May Alcott

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Alcott, Louisa May

Alcott, Louisa May, 1832–88, American author, b. Germantown, Pa.; daughter of Bronson Alcott. Mostly educated by her father, she was a friend of Emerson and Thoreau, and her first book, Flower Fables (1854), was a collection of tales originally created to amuse Emerson's daughter. Alcott was determined to contribute to the small family income and worked as a servant and a seamstress before she made her fortune as a writer. Her letters written to her family when she was a Civil War nurse were published as Hospital Sketches (1863); her first published novel, Moods, followed in 1864. She first achieved wide fame and wealth with Little Women (1868), one of the most popular children's books ever written. The novel, which recounts the adolescent adventures of the four March sisters, is largely autobiographical, the author herself being represented by the spirited Jo March. Good Wives (1869), Little Men (1871), and Jo's Boys (1886) are sequels.

Alcott's other novels for young readers include An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Eight Cousins (1875), and Under the Lilacs (1879). They all picture family life in Victorian America with warmth and perception. She also wrote novels for adults, including Work (1873), which is grounded in Alcott's experiences as a breadwinner for her family, and the unfinished Diana and Persis, an examination of the relationship between two women artists. Another adult volume, the novel A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866), which was originally rejected by her publisher as too sensational, was discovered in manuscript in the early 1990s and finally published in 1995. In 1996 yet another manuscript was unearthed; it contained Alcott's very first novel, written for young people, entitled The Inheritance and composed in 1849 when the author was 18.


See her letters and journal, ed. by E. D. Cheney (1889, repr. 1966); Journals of Louisa May Alcott, ed. by J. Myerson et al. (1989); Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, ed. by J. Myerson et al. (1987); biographies by K. S. Anthony (1938, repr. 1977) and S. Elbert (1984); dual biography of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott by J. Matteson (2009); E. LaPlante, Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother (2012); studies by R. L. MacDonald (1983) and C. Strickland (1985).

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Alcott, Louisa May

(1832–88) writer; born in Germantown, Pa. She was tutored by her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, until 1848, and studied informally with family friends such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker. Residing in Boston and Concord, Mass., she worked as a domestic servant, a teacher, and at other jobs to help support her family (1850–62); during the Civil War she went to Washington, D.C., to serve as a nurse. Unbeknown to most people, she had been publishing poems, short stories, thrillers, and juvenile tales since 1851, under the pen name of "Flora Fairfield"; in 1862 she also adopted the pen name "A. M. Barnard"; some of her melodramas were actually produced in Boston stages. But it was her account of her Civil War experiences, Hospital Sketches (1863), that confirmed her desire to be a serious writer. She began to publish stories under her real name in Atlantic Monthly and Lady's Companion and took a brief trip to Europe in 1865 before becoming editor of a girls' magazine, Merry's Museum, in 1868. The great success of Little Women (1869–70) gave her financial independence and also created a demand for more writings. For the rest of her life she turned out a steady stream of novels and short stories, most for young people, and, like Little Women, drawing fairly directly on her family life: Little Men (1871), Eight Cousins (1875), Jo's Boys (1886). She also tried her hand at adult novels—Work (1873), A Modern Mephistopheles (1877)—but did not have the literary talent to attract serious readers. Like so many women of her day and class, she supported women's suffrage and temperance; but she never found much happiness in her personal life. She grew impatient with the demands made on her as a successful writer, she became the caretaker of her always impractical father, and she became increasingly beset by physical ailments that led to a succession of remedies and healers. Sickly and lonely, she died at age 55 on the day of her father's funeral.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.