Louisa May Alcott: Daughter of the Transcendentalists
Louisa May Alcott, the second daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, teacher and transcendentalist philosopher, and Abigail May, social worker and reformer, was born in the “disagreeable month” of November, just like her literary creation Jo March, the rambunctious heroine of Little WomenExternal.
“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.
“That’s the reason I was born in it,” observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.
“If something very pleasant should happen now, we should think it a delightful month,” said Beth, who took a hopeful view of everything, even November.
“I dare say, but nothing pleasant ever does happen in this family,” said Meg, who was out of sorts….
“My patience, how blue we are!” cried Jo…. “Oh, don’t I wish I could manage things for you as I do for my heroines!…I’d have some rich relation leave you a fortune unexpectedly….”
“Jo and I are going to make fortunes for you all. Just wait ten years, and see if we don’t,” said Amy, who sat in a corner making mud pies, as Hannah called her little clay models of birds, fruit, and faces.
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868. Chapter 15External
On November 29, 1832, Amos Bronson Alcott wrote his mother of his joy in “the birth of a second daughter on my own birth-day.” Convinced of the importance of early childhood, Bronson Alcott continued to keep a regular journal of each of his four daughters’ growth and activities. Shortly before her second birthday, Louisa’s father wrote of her:
Louisa…manifests uncommon activity and force of mind at present…by force of will and practical talent, [she] realizes all that she conceives.…
Bronson Alcott, November 5, 1834. The Journals of Bronson Alcott. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1938), page 47.
During Louisa’s early years, her father’s innovative Temple School in Boston failed, as did the family’s experiment with communal living with a group of transcendentalist mystics at Fruitlands, an early eighteenth-century farmhouse.
A happier time began after the family settled at Hillside House, later Nathaniel Hawthorne’s residence, which he renamed the Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts. There, the Alcotts found a sympathetic community and like-minded friends. Louisa and her sisters were always welcome to participate in the conversations of the poets, philosophers, and reformers that made up their parents’ circle.
The Alcott girls enjoyed the natural beauty of Concord, boating on the river, ice skating on Walden Pond, and running free in the surrounding fields and woods. Henry David Thoreau was one of Louisa’s instructors when she was a young girl. In one of his fanciful lessons, he taught her that a cobweb was a “handkerchief dropped by a fairy.” As a teenager, Louisa enjoyed borrowing books from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s collection and delighted in conversing with the “sage of Concord.”
For the most part, the Alcotts taught their daughters at home. Daily journal-keeping formed a significant part of the home curriculum. Louisa and her sisters each wrote a weekly journal in which they recorded family events and published their literary and artistic endeavors. The girls and their neighbors formed a dramatic society, and the Hillside barn became the local theater where they performed Louisa’s melodramatic plays.
Although their home and community life was rich, the family remained financially impoverished. Of necessity, all family members pitched in to support the family, with the daughters working as teachers, companions, and domestics. Besides their paid labors, they contributed their time and talents to the abolition movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and to the relief of those poorer than themselves.
Louisa resolved early on to earn money to relieve the hardship of her mother’s life. Gradually, she began earning a reliable income from stories and sketches published in The Atlantic MonthlyExternal and from dime-novel thrillers, including Behind a MaskExternal, published under the pseudonym “A. M. Barnard.” Her first book of stories, Flower FablesExternal, was published in 1855.
During the Civil War, Louisa served as a nurse at a Union Army hospital in Washington, D.C. There, she kept careful journals which she published later as Hospital SketchesExternal. A severe bout of typhoid fever brought her home to Concord an invalid. It is thought that she was treated with mercury for her fever, as were many others who became ill during this period. Mercury poisoning was apparently the cause of the slow debilitation that led to her death twenty years later.
In 1868, at the suggestion of her publisher, Louisa wrote a “story for girls” based on the experiences of her own family. Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth, and AmyExternal was an immediate success and brought her lasting fame. It was followed the next year by a second volume with the same title, subtitled, “Part Second,” and in subsequent years, by two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
During the 1870s, Alcott and her mother were deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement, canvassing door-to-door encouraging women to register to vote. In 1879, Louisa registered as the first woman to vote in the Concord school committee election.
Louisa’s later years were financially secure and her family was able to live comfortably and pursue their many intellectual and artistic interests at their second home in Concord, Orchard HouseExternal. Her last years, however, were shadowed by the deaths of two of her sisters and her brother-in-law. As the sole support of her parents, sisters, and her nephews and niece, she became overburdened with work and ill health. Louisa May Alcott died, two days after her father, on March 6, 1888, at the age of fifty-six.
- Search on Concord Massachusetts in the collection Detroit Publishing Company to see more photographs of scenes from Louisa May Alcott’s home.
- Today in History includes several features on Concord, Massachusetts and its inhabitants. Search on names such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Concord.
- Search the Library’s collection of Selected Digitized Books to find several titles by Louisa May Alcott. Also read the text of Louisa May Alcott’s works by searching her as the creator in advanced search at the Internet ArchiveExternal.
- Search on the phrase Louisa May Alcott in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers to find news articles, advertisements, and reviews about Alcott and her writings.
- Read the subject file on Louisa May Alcott in the National American Woman Suffrage Association Records.
- Read the poem “TransfigurationExternal” written by Louisa May Alcott in A Masque of PoetsExternal, included in the Making of AmericaExternal online collection.