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Louisa May Alcott

Nancy Imelda Schafer
CREDIT SOURCE: All information contained herein was obtained at the Camden County Free Library, Voorhees NJ, USA

BIOGRAPHY:

Alcott, the second of four daughters, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a noted New England Transcendentalist philosopher and educator who worked only sporadically throughout Louisa May's life. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, was descended from the witch-burning Judge Samuel Sewall and the noted abolitionist Colonel Joseph May. Although severely impoverished, Alcott's childhood was apparently happy. Taught by her father, Alcott was deeply influenced by his transcendentalist thought and experimental educational philosophies. Ralph Waldo Emerson's personal library of classics and philosophy was available for use to the young Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau taught her botany. Margaret Fuller, James Russell Lowell, and Julia Ward were only a few of Alcott's intellectually influential neighbors and friends. Women's rights and educational reform--important social reform issues of nineteenth-century America--were two of Alcott's pet causes that often appear as themes in her novels.

Bronson Alcott founded several schools, but all of them failed, forcing Abigail and her daughters to undertake the financial support of the family. Later, Alcott often remarked that her entire career was inspired by her desire to compensate for her family's early discomfort. Alcott taught school, took in sewing, and worked briefly as a domestic servant. At age sixteen she began writing, convinced that she could eventually earn enough money to alleviate the family's poverty. In 1851, her first poem was published in Peterson's Magazine under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield, bringing Alcott little money but a great deal of confidence. It was during the ensuing years that Alcott published, as A. M. Barnard, a number of sensational serial stories, which were both popular and lucrative.

Alcott is best known for her sentimental yet realistic depictions of nineteenth-century domestic life. Her Little Women series attracted young and old readers alike and remains popular today. Alcott's continuing popular appeal is generally attributed to her believable characterizations and simple, charming writing style, reflected in her adage: "Never use a long word when a short one will do as well." The twentieth century has seen increased attention given to Alcott's canon, with literary critics noting in particular her prevalent feminist and psychosexual themes. Alcott scholar Madeleine B. Stern noted that "today ... [Louisa May] is viewed as an experimenting, complex writer, and her work has become fertile ground for the exploration both of literary historians and psychohistorians."

In 1862, Alcott went to Washington, D.C. to serve as a nurse to soldiers wounded in the American Civil War. It was a shortlived experience, however, for she contracted typhoid within a month, from which she nearly died. Her good health, undermined by the long illness and by mercury poisoning from her medication, was never fully recovered. Alcott later recounted her experiences as a nurse in her popular Hospital Sketches (1863) which was originally published in the periodical Commonwealth. Her first novel, Moods (1864), pronounced immoral by critics, sold well nonetheless, and its success encouraged Alcott to continue writing. In 1865, Alcott traveled through Europe as a companion to a wealthy invalid and wrote for periodicals. While abroad, she was offered the editorship of Merry's Museum, an American journal featuring juvenile literature. She accepted the position and became the journal's chief contributor.

The turning point of Alcott's career came with the publication of Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (1868-69). An autobiographical account of nineteenth-century family life, the novel traces the development of Alcott, depicted as Jo March, and her three sisters. The work was an immediate success and established Alcott as a major author. She published four sequels to Little Women entitled Good Wives (volume two of Little Women), Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (1871), Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag (1872-82), and Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out (1886). Alcott was regarded as a celebrity and was easily able to support her family with her earnings.

Alcott's literary career can be divided into three periods. The first phase, spanning the 1840s to the late 1860s, is characterized by the lurid, sensational short stories that were published anonymously and pseudonymously in various New England periodicals. Critics generally agree that the characters in these early efforts are well drawn and colorful and that the plots are intricate and tightly woven. Most of these tales feature a mysterious, vengeful woman bent on manipulation and destruction. Alcott also included ghosts, opium eaters, and mercenaries in these serials. These melodramatic stories were extremely popular and provided Alcott with a steady income as she worked on lengthier pieces.

The publication of Moods inaugurated Alcott's most profitable and popular period. The Little Women books, which were the most successful series of their time, illustrate the struggles between adolescence and maturity. Little Women depicts the March family with a strong sense of realism and represents New England manners and customs with documentary accuracy. Critics have noted that its organization, in which each chapter comprises a well-rounded episode with a moral commentary, succeeds as a study of adolescent psychology. In particular, commentators praise Alcott's insightful characterization, which they regard as the essential reason for the book's enduring popularity.

From 1875 onward, as her health deteriorated, Alcott primarily produced popular juvenile literature. Most of her later works, particularly Work: A Story of Experience (1873) and Rose in Bloom (1876), depict heroines who have acquired inner strength through personal hardship and achieved personal satisfaction through careers and without marriage. In general, these works provoked mixed reviews. Most critics applaud the feminist tone reflected in these later pieces, but consider their characters and plots to be weak.

CAREER:

Author of novels, short stories, and poems. In her youth, held a variety of jobs, including teacher, seamstress, and domestic servant; nurse at Union Hospital, Georgetown, District of Columbia, 1861-63; editor of Merry's Museum (children's magazine), 1867. Active in reform movements, including temperance, education, and women's suffrage.

Henry James called Alcott the "novelist of children ... the Thackeray, the Trollope, of the nursery and the schoolroom ...," and other contemporaries remarked that her spirited, wholesome stories were destined to become American classics. The twentieth century, however, witnessed a change in the critical assessment of Alcott's works. Although still popular with an adolescent audience, Alcott's Little Women has been criticized for its blatant moralizing. In 1920, Katharine Fullerton Gerould carried the criticism further, calling the March girls "underbred" and "unworldly." Gerould found the novel dated and sentimental and attacked the work for its "inexcusable amount of love-making." She insisted that Alcott wrote as one who had never loved. Both Little Women and Little Men have been faulted by some early-twentieth-century scholars for poor structure and organization. Specifically, critics charged that the works resemble collections of single sketches and lack the unity of integrated novels. More recent critics, however, value this method of construction and maintain that it mirrors the adolescent point of view. The last two decades have seen a renewed interest in Alcott's melodramatic early work. The noted Alcott critic Madeleine Stern has reprinted two collections of these colorful stories and introduced them to a new audience.

Alcott remains an enduring figure in American literature. Although some regard her portrayals of nineteenth-century domestic life as dated, she is remembered for her sympathetic and realistic depictions of the maturing adolescent. Her most popular work, Little Women, was instrumental in changing the focus of juvenile literature to include sensitive, not merely formulaic, portrayals of young adults.

PERSONAL:

Born November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, United States; died March 6, 1888, in Boston, Massachusetts, United States; buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, MA; daughter of Amos Bronson (an educator and philosopher) and Abigail (May) Alcott.

EDUCATION:

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Tutored by her father until the age of sixteen; later studied under Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker.

WRITINGS:

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  • Flower Fables, George W. Briggs (Boston), 1855.
  • Hospital Sketches (also see below), James Redpath (Boston), 1863.
  • The Rose Family: A Fairy Tale, James Redpath, 1864.
  • On Picket Duty, and Other Tales , James Redpath, 1864.
  • Moods (American Women Writers Series) 1865
    Moods (Notable American Authors Series - Part I)
  • Nelly's Hospital, U.S. Sanitary Commission, 1865.
  • The Mysterious Key, and What It Opened, Elliott, Thomes & Talbot (Boston), 1867.
  • The Inheritance -- Louisa May Alcott; Mass Market Paperback
  • Morning-Glories, and Other Stories, Horace B. Fuller (Boston), 1868.
  • Kitty's Class Day (also see below), A. K. Loring, 1868.
  • Aunt Kipp (also see below), A. K. Loring, 1868.
  • Psyche's Art (also see below), A. K. Loring, 1868.
  • Louisa M. Alcott's Proverb Stories (also see below; contains Kitty's Class Day, Aunt Kipp, and Psyche's Art), A. K. Loring, Alcott1868, reprinted as Proverb Stories, Reprint Services, 1989..
  • Little Women:
    • Little Women -- Louisa May Alcott, et al; Hardcover
    • Little Women -- Louisa May Alcott; Mass Market Paperback
    • Little Women (Penguin Classics) -- Louisa May Alcott, Elaine Showalter (Editor); Paperback
      or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy , two volumes, Roberts Brothers, 1868-69; volume 2 republished as Little Women Wedded, Low (London), 1872, as Little Women Married, Routledge (London), 1873, and as Nice Wives , Weldon (London), 1875; both volumes republished as Little Women and Good Wives, Nisbet (London), 1895; volume 1 republished as Little Women: Four Funny Sisters, edited by Kathryn Lindskoog, Questar, 1991.
  • Hospital Sketches [and] Camp and Fireside Stories, Roberts Brothers, 1869.
  • An Old-Fashioned Girl , Roberts Brothers, 1870.
  • Will's Wonder Book, Horace B. Fuller, 1870.
  • (Under pseudonym A. M. Barnard) V.V; or, Plots and Counterplots , Thomes & Talbot (Boston), c. 1870.
  • Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys, Roberts Brothers, 1871.
  • Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag , Roberts Brothers, Volume 1, 1872, Volume 2, 1872, Volume 3, 1874, Volume 4, 1878, Volume 5, 1879, Volume 6, 1882.
  • Work: A Story of Experience, Roberts Brothers, 1873.
  • Something to Do (contains Proverb Stories), Ward, Lock & Tyler (London), 1873.
  • Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill, Roberts Brothers, 1875.
  • Silver Pitchers [and] Independence, a Centennial Love Story , Roberts Brothers, 1876.
  • Rose in Bloom: A Sequel to "Eight Cousins," Roberts Brothers, 1876.
  • (Published anonymously) A Modern Mephistopheles (also see below), Roberts Brothers, 1877.
  • Under the Lilacs, Roberts Brothers, 1878.
  • Meadow Blossoms, Crowell, 1879.
  • Water Cresses, Crowell, 1879.
  • Sparkles for Bright Eyes, Crowell, 1879.
  • Behind a Mask - The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott
  • Jack and Jill: A Village Story , Roberts Brothers, 1880.
  • Spinning-Wheel Stories, Roberts Brothers, 1884.
  • Lulu's Library, Roberts Brothers, Volume 1: A Christmas Dream, 1886, Volume 2: The Frost King, 1887, Volume 3: Recollections, 1889.
  • Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to "Little Men," Roberts Brothers, 1886.
  • A Garland for Girls, Roberts Brothers, 1887.
  • A Modern Mephistopheles [and] A Whisper in the Dark, Roberts Brothers, 1889.
  • Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals, edited by Ednah D. Cheney, Roberts Brothers, 1889.
  • Comic Tragedies Written by "Jo" and "Meg" and Acted by the Little Women, Roberts Brothers, 1893.
  • A Round Dozen: Stories, edited by Anne Thaxter Eaton, Viking, 1963.
  • Glimpses of Louisa: A Centennial Sampling of the Best Short Stories by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Cornelia Meigs, Little, Brown, 1968.
  • Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Madeleine B. Stern, Morrow, 1975.
  • Louisa's Wonder Book: An Unknown Alcott Juvenile, edited by Stern, Central Michigan University/Clark Historical Library, 1975.
  • Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Stern, Morrow, 1976.
  • Diana and Persis, edited by Sarah Elbert, Ayer Company, 1978.
  • Transcendental Wild Oats, Harvard Common Press, 1981.
  • The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson, Little, Brown, 1987.
  • The Works of Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888, Reprint Services Corp., 1987.
  • A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Stern, Little, Brown, 1988.
  • Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter, Rutgers University Press, 1988.
  • An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving, illustrated by Michael McCurdy, Holiday House, 1989.
    Shawl Straps, Reprint Services, 1989.
    Silver Pitchers and Other Stories, Reprint Services, 1989.
    From Jo March's Attic: Stories of Intrigue and Suspense, edited by Madeline Stern and Daniel Shealy, Northeastern University Press, 1993.
    A Long Fatal Love Chase, edited by Kent Bicknell, Random House, 1995.

Numerous stories published in books, both individually and in collections. Author of several unproduced melodramas, including The Bandit's Bride and The Moorish Maiden's Vow. Also contributor of "sensational" fiction, appearing in periodicals and dime novels anonymously or under pseudonyms. Contributor to numerous periodicals. Alcott's works have been translated into numerous foreign languages. Alcott family papers are collected at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

MEDIA ADAPTATIONS:

Several film adaptations have been made of Alcott's writings, including Little Women, Famous Players, Lasky Corp., 1919; Little Women, RKO, 1933; Little Women, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1949; Little Women, Columbia Pictures, 1994; Little Men, Mascott, 1934; Little Men, RKO, 1940; An Old-Fashioned Girl, Pathe Industries, 1949, and Little Women, 1994. Several recordings of Alcott's work have also been made.

CREDIT SOURCE: All information contained herein was obtained at the Camden County Free Library, Voorhees NJ, USA
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