Louisa May Alcott: Contribution as American Novelist

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      Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were family friends. Alcott wrote under various pseudonyms and only started using her own name when she was ready to commit to writing. Her novel Little Women gave Louisa May Alcott financial independence and a lifetime writing career. She died in 1888.


      "Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead."
— Louisa May Alcott

Early Life

      Famed novelist Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Alcott was a best-selling novelist of the late 1800s, and many of her works, most notably Little Women, remain popular today.

      Alcott was taught 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, Massachusetts, Alcott worked as a domestic servant and teacher, among other positions, to help support her family from 1850 to 1862. During the Civil War, she went to Washington, D. C. to work as a nurse.

      A daughter of the transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, Louisa spent most of her life in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, where she grew up in the company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau. Her education was largely under the direction of her father, for a time at his innovative Temple School in Boston and, later, at home. Alcott realized early that her father was too impractical to provide for his wife and four daughters; after the failure of Fruitlands, a utopian community that he had founded, Louisa Alcotf's lifelong concern for the welfare of her family began. She taught briefly; worked as a domestic, and finally began to write.

      Alcott produced potboilers at first and many of her stories—notably those signed "A. M. Barnard"—were lurid and violent tales. The latter works are unusual in their depictions of women as strong, self-reliant, and imaginative. She volunteered as a nurse after the American Civil War began, but she contracted typhoid from unsanitary hospital conditions and was sent home. She was never completely well again. The publication of her letters in book form, Hospital Sketches (1863), brought her the first taste of fame.

      Alcott's stories began to appear in The Atlantic Monthly, and, because family needs were pressing, she wrote the autobiographical Little Women (1868-69), which was an immediate success. Based on her recollections of her own childhood, Little Women describes the domestic adventures of a New England family of modest means but optimistic outlook. The book traces the differing personalities and fortunes of four sisters as they emerge from childhood and encounter the vicissitudes of employment, society, and marriage. Little Women created a realistic but wholesome picture of family life with which younger readers could easily identify. In 1869 Alcott was able to write in her journal: "Paid up all the debts...thank the Lord!" She followed Little Women's success with further domestic narratives drawn from her early experiences: An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870); Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag, 6 vol. (1872-82); Little Men (1871); Eight Cousins (1875); Rose in Bloom (1876); and Jo's Boys (1886).

      Except for a European tour in 1870 and a few briefer trips to New York, she spent the last two decades of her life in Boston and Concord, caring for her mother, who died in 1877 after a lengthy illness, and her increasingly helpless father. Late in life, she adopted her namesake, Louisa May Nieriker, daughter of her late sister, May. Her own health, never robust, also declined, and she died in Boston two days after her father's death.

      Alcott's books for younger readers have remained steadfastly popular, and the republication of some of her lesser-known works late in the 20th century aroused renewed critical interest in her adult fiction. A Modern Mephistopheles, which was published pseudonymously in 1877 and republished in 1987, is a Gothic novel about a failed poet who makes a Faustian bargain with his tempter. Work: A Story of Experience (1873), based on Alcott's own struggles, tells the story of a poor girl trying to support herself by a succession of menial jobs. The Gothic tales and thrillers that Alcott published pseudonymously between 1863 and 1869 were collected and republished as Behind a Mask (1975) and Plots and Counterplots (1976), and an unpublished Gothic novel written in 1866, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was published in 1995.

Acclaimed Author

      Unknown to most people, Louisa May Alcott had been publishing poems, short stories, thrillers, and juvenile tales since 1851, under the pen name Flora Fairfield. In 1862, she also adopted the pen name A. M. Barnard, and some of her melodramas were produced on Boston stages. But it was her account of her Civil War experiences, Hospital Sketches (1863), that confirmed Alcott's 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.

      The great success of Little Women (1869—70) gave Alcott financial independence and created a demand for more books. Over the final years of her life, she turned out a steady stream of novels and short stories, mostly for young people and drawn directly from her family life.

      Louisa May Alcott American novelist and short-story writer. Nothing in her early life could have prepared Alcott for the success, she eventually achieved with the publication of Little Women. As the daughter of the Transcendentalist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott she was brought up within the formidably high-minded milieu of the 19th-century Massachusetts intelligentsia, and was principally taught at home by her father in preference to an orthodox schooling. She herself began a career in teaching in order to shield her family from the effects of Bronson Alcott's eccentric improvidence.

       When their circumstances worsened she took in sewing and worked as a general maid, before volunteering as a Union Army nurse at the outbreak of the Civil War. During this period she began to write a series of violently sensational magazine stories - 'I think my natural ambition', she declared, 'is for the lurid style. I indulge in gorgeous fancies and wish that I dared set them before the public.' Employing various pseudonyms, Alcott continued to produce such adult fare, with its murderous, drug-addicted heroines, long after she had made her reputation as a children's writer. The nature of this dual identity was only exposed during the 1940s, when Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg successfully penetrated her various literary disguises.

      After the Civil War, Alcott made the first of several visits to Europe, where she tried unsuccessfully to interest a London publisher in the manuscript which eventually became Little Women. Published in 1868, the novel, set against a background of a Yankee household managed by the mother while the father is absent fighting for the Union, was instantly popular, providing the author with the affluence and security earlier denied her. Just as Marmee, wise, benign matriarch of the March family, is based on Alcott's mother, so her four daughters - socially adventurous Meg, artistic Amy, angelic Beth, and Jo, whose literary hankerings are buoyed up by irrepressible high spirits - are all in some sense autobiographical refractions, or else based on Alcott family originals. To Jo, most plainly her creator's alter ego, three more books - Good Wives, Little Men and Jo's Boys - were devoted, and though Alcott claimed to be tiring of 'providing moral pap for the young', her fame continues to rest securely on her achievements in this genre. Despite obvious concessions to mid 19th-century sentimentality, her stories are firmly grounded in contemporary American life, never demanding that we view their heroines as anything more than ordinary girls of their period. Identification and republication of Alcott's adult potboilers, including a recently discovered novel, The Chase, have created a fresh context for feminist criticism of her writings for the young.

      Alcott's other books include Little Men (1871), Eight Cousins (1875) and Jo's Boys (1886). Alcott also tried her hand at adult novels, such as Work (1873) and A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), but these tales were not as popular as her other writings.

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