Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator and philosopher, and Abigail May, the energetic, philanthropist. Louisa grew up in Concord and Boston, suffering from poverty as a result of her selfish idealist father’s inability to support his family. Bronson Alcott habitually sacrificed his wife and daughters by refusing to compromise with a venal world, most conspicuously when he subjected them to an experiment in ascetic communal living at Fruitlands farm in 1843.
However, the Alcotts’ intellectual environment was rich and stimulating: Louisa’s parents assidously encouraged her writing, and her friends included leaders in abolition and women’s rights, including the Transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa took nature walks with Thoreau and had the run of Emerson’s library. By the time she had reached her teens, she felt a responsibility to help her mother and older sister provide for the family.
She taught, sewed, worked as a domestic and a companion, and wrote fairy tales and romantic thrillers. When the Civil War broke out, she was eager to participate, animated by her dislike of female passivity as well as her hatred of slavery. She enlisted as a nurse ans served for three weeks in an army hospital in Washington, D. C. , until she contracted typhoid fever. She was treated with mercury, which permanently undermined her health.
The experience did, however, provide material for her Hospital Sketches, which vividly combines heartbreaking pathos in death of a gental, stoical blacksmith, indignation at male official callousness and mismanagement, and humorous self-portrayal as the warmhearted, hot- tempered, down-to-earth Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle. In that year, she proudly recorded in her journal, she earned almost $600 “by my writing alone,” of which she “spent less than a hundred” for herself.
From then on, she provided the major financial support for her family, while remaining obligated to help them with the heavy housework and nurse them when ill. She never married. Later on, a publisher approached Louisa to do a girls’ book, she accepted the offer only because she needed the money. The result was Little Women , one of the bestsellers of all time. Within four years it had sold 82,000 copies.
The Marches are an idealized re-creation of her own family, with Bronson kept discreetly offstage: Abba May appears as warm, capable Marmee, who keeps the family together; Louisa as the hot-tempered writer Jo, and her sisters as well-conducted Meg, saintly Beth, and selfish Amy. Through fresh and honest obsevation, Alcott re-creates female adolescent experience that we recognize as authentic even today and makes it interesting and significant.
She sucessfully turns into adventures such ordinary events as playacting, humiliations at school, laziness about doing minor housework, and misery resulting from a rather flat nose or tasteless clothes. She exposes the irritations of family life, as when Jo’s pretentiously boyish manners clash with Amy’s affected elegance, but she affirms its joys and consolations, as the Marches reliably support each other under setbacks from the outside world and make “a jubilee of every little household joy.
The girls’ moral struggles to overcome small selfish longings and to reconcile self-realization with duty to others are made significant without being inflated. The conflict is most acute for Jo, who must control her passionate temper to fit Marmee’s ideal of self-repression and subdue her masculine tastes, talents, and ambitions to fit society’s restrictive concept of feminine propriety.
Jo’s problem is dramatized hilariously in “Calls,” where Amy manipulates her into making the formal calls that were required of ninteenth-century ladies and vainly attempts to render her properly innocuous, while we sympathize with Jo’s rational rebellion against a meaningless social ritual, we also understand Amy’s exasperation at her provoking contrariness and deplore Jo’s self-indulgent lack of good sense when she throws away her only chance to go to Europe by gratuitously antagonizing her aunts.
As a sympathetic heroine who protests against the pressure on girls to be be tactful, pleasing, and confirmist, to care for dress and long for marriage as the culmination of their lives, Jo was and is an exhilirating model to female adolescents. And, although the book makes clear that Jo must learn to curb her impulses, it endorses her protest against reducing women to a narrow sexual-domestic role. The March girls pursue their artistic interests, struggle to protect their faults, enjoy their companionship. Alcott pointedly refused to let Jo’s friendship with Laurie develop into a conventional romance.
Most of Alcott’s later books capitalized on the success of Little Women: they are stories about and for young people, tracing their development toward maturity and contrasting good, enlightened ways of child rearing with worldly, unnecessarily restrictive, insufficiently moral ones. Little Men continues the story of the March family. In Little Men, Jo and her husband preside over Plumfield, a politically perfect place, inspired by Bronson Alcott’s progressive Temple School. Jo, still a nonconformist, has become a charitable matriarch, a broader-minded version of Marmee.
Although constantly enlivened by humor and knowledge of young people, these books become less interesting as Alcott goes further from the authencity of her own experience and increasingly subordinates realistic portrayal to moral teaching. Alcott herself felt the constrictions of writing the proper juvenile fiction her public demanded: near the end of her life, she made her alter ego Jo describes herself as “a literary nursery-maid” and acknowledged a temptation to conclude the chronicle of the March family “with an earthquake which should engulf Plumfield. “
Once the cause of abolition had been won, Alcott zealously campaigned for wmen’s rights. After 1870 she regularly contributed to the feminist Woman’s Journal and signed her letters “Yours for Reform. ” She and her mother both signed a woman suffrage petition on the occasion of the national centennial in 1875, and she vigorously urged the women of Concord to use their new opportunity when they got the right to vote in school committee elections. Even in her juvenile fiction, from Little Women on, she constantly preached the right of girls to develop their talents and pursue careers outside of marriage.
Jo admits Naught Nan to her boys’ school, and in Jo’s Boys Nan becomes a fine physician, as well as an ardent suffragist, and resolutely resists marriage. Alcott repeatedly portrayed groups of contentedly self-sufficient women, such as the young comrades in An Old-Fashioned Girl. Throughout her career, Alcott struggled to reconcile her Transcendentialist conviction that individuals must think independently and be true to themselves with the morality of submission, self-control, and self-sacrifice in which her parents trained her, a morality that was enjoined particularly on women.
She sometimes evaded the conflict by preaching the supreme value of womanly, especially maternal, love, in accordance with the contemporary cult of true womanhood. She tried to resolve it by claiming that independence was compatible with traditional womanliness, that a woman can happily divide her energies among ballot box, “needle, pen, palette and broom,” and even by insisting that self-denial deepens and authenticates artistic achievement. However, her assertations are less persuasive than her characters who rebel against conventionally defined female goodness.
Alcott, however, did not let her resentment surface in behavior: she constantly sacrificed her personal comfort and the artistic quality of her works to the demands of her family. She “plunged into a vortex” to write Work but had to stop to nurse her sister Anna through pneumonia; when she finished the book, it was “Not what it should be,-too many interruptions. Should like to do one book in peace, and see if it wouldn’t be good. ” When her father was dying, she regularly dragged herself out to see him, although very ill herself; two days after his death, free at last of family obligations, she died in Boston.
Alcott will always be remembered for Little Women , the classic American story of girls growing up. In her own time, it established her reputation as a purveyor of perceptive and sympathetic, but always morally uplifting, literature for young people. The subversive, feminist element in her books has only recently been clearly recognized. We now see not so much “the Children’s Friend” as a deeply conflicted woman whose work richly expresses the tensions of female lives in nineteenth-century America.