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Little Women | Study Guide

Louisa May Alcott

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Louisa May Alcott | Biography


Louisa May Alcott was born November 29, 1832, the second child of four girls, to Abigail May Alcott and Amos Bronson Alcott. The family moved from Germantown, Pennsylvania, to Boston, Massachusetts, when Louisa was still a toddler. Alcott's parents were at the center of the counterculture of their day. They were staunch abolitionists, providing a stop on the Underground Railroad and harboring fugitive slaves; they knew fellow abolitionist John Brown, who led the infamous Harper's Ferry raid to initiate a slave revolt. They were active in the temperance (antialcohol) and women's rights movements. They were also involved with Transcendentalist philosophy, which emphasizes self-reliance, the importance of nature, and spirituality. An abolitionist, feminist, and rebel, Alcott had a close but fraught relationship with her father, who schooled her in an austere and restrictive philosophy of self-denial. She adored her mother, whose nature was more like her own.

Like her mother and sisters, Alcott worked at various jobs to help support the family. Alcott took any job she could find—domestic, laundress, seamstress, nurse, teacher, actress, and writer. She would gain the fame and fortune she desired through writing: "I will make a battering-ram of my head and make a way through this rough-and-tumble world," Alcott famously said. She began publishing poems, tales, and sketches under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield in 1852, producing her first book, Flower Fables, in 1855. A few years later she started writing thrillers under the pen name A.M. Barnard and making significant amounts of money. She served for a short time as a nurse in a Union hospital during the Civil War but came down with typhoid fever and was sent home.

Alcott published Hospital Sketches in 1863, which chronicled her nursing experiences, but she made more money as her shadow persona, writing stories about evil antiheroines and murderers. Additional work under her real name also continued, with her big break arriving when her publisher asked her to write a "girl's book." Alcott drew on her childhood experiences to write Little Women, which she called "moral pap for the young" in describing its religious and rational overtones. However, she later claimed, "It reads better than I expected." Published in 1868, the novel was a sensation, and she released the second volume (Part 2, originally called Good Wives) the following year, followed by two sequels and additional novels in a similar vein. These books made Alcott a wealthy woman, allowing her to provide handsomely for both herself and her relatives. She produced more than 200 works, including poems, plays, short stories, novels, and nonfiction articles. She also left behind journals and letters.

Alcott remained a dutiful daughter, caring for both sick parents in her last years and even for her niece after her youngest sibling died in 1879. Alcott resented the restrictions placed on women and regretted that she had not been born a man. Shortly after she turned down a marriage proposal and saw her older sister happily married in 1860, she nonetheless opined, "I'd rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe." She enjoyed the company of men more than women—except for her female family members—and likely had a brief romance with a Polish musician when she traveled to Europe for the first time in 1865.

Alcott checked in to a rest home in Boston because of crushing head pain, slipping into a coma shortly thereafter. She died on March 6, 1888.

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