Louisa May Alcott was an American novelist, feminist and poet best known for her novel Little Women.
Alcott was born in 1812 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She grew up in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, and from a young age she would write stories which she and her sisters would act out for friends. Her father briefly established an experimental school and joined the Transcendental Club with Henry David Thoreau. Together the two men, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson provided Alcott and her siblings with their education. Occasionally they would also receive lessons from family friends Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller.
At the age of 15, Alcott became acutely aware of the fact that her family lived in poverty and was determined to contribute, despite the fact that there were few opportunities for women seeking employment. Alcott took any job that she could, working as a teacher, seamstress, governess or household servant for a number of years. During this time, she found solace in her writing which was both a creative and emotional outlet for her. In 1847, Alcott and her family were part of the mid-19th century social reform movement, and served as station masters on the Underground Railroad, housing a fugitive slave for a week. Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist, and after she had educated herself about women’s suffrage and women’s rights, and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts in a school board election.
In 1851, Alcott began publishing writing under the pen name Flora Fairfield, beginning with the poem “Sunshine” in Peterson’s Magazine. In 1854, her first book of short stories entitled Flower Fables was published. Two years later, Alcott’s sister Lizzie contract scarlet fever, and died in 1858. She would later become Beth in Alcott’s novel, Little Women. She continued to work to support her family, and in 1860 began writing for the Atlantic Monthly. During the American Civil War, she served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C. Her letters home were then collected and published as Hospital Sketches in the Boston anti-slavery paper The Commonwealth.
In the mid-1860’s, Alcott wrote a series of novels and sensational stories under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, including A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. She began to attract some success, which only grew after the first part of Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy was published in 1868, she followed this with Good Wives in 1869 and Little Men in 1871. Little Women was a semi-autobiographical novel, with the heroine ‘Jo’ being based on Alcott herself, although unlike Jo, Alcott remained single for her whole life. The book was well received, with a reviewer calling it “the very best of books to reach the hearts of the young of any age from six to sixty” and “Jo March” was the first American juvenile heroine to act from her own individuality –a living, breathing person rather than the idealised stereotype then prevalent in children’s fiction.”
Alcott became financially independent following the success of Little Women, and was part of a group of female authors including Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis and Anne Moncure Crane who were committed to writing about women’s issues. She published over 30 books and collections of stories during her lifetime, and died in 1888, being burned in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord along with her fellow literary icons including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau on a hillside now known as “Authors’ Ridge”. Alcott’s home, Orchard House is featured on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.