Celebrating the Life of Louisa May Alcott

Today’s Google Doodle honors the 184th birthday of American author Louisa May Alcott, who wrote the classic novel “Little Women” as well as various other popular works.

Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Family friends of the Alcott’s included Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Alcott was known for writing under various pseudonyms and only started using her real name when she was ready to commit to writing. Her novel, Little Women, gave her the financial independence that she desired and a lifetime writing career.

The Early Days of One of America’s Beloved Authors

Louisa was born on her father’s 33rd birthday and was the daughter of transcendentalist and educator Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May. She was the second of four daughters. Anna Bronson Alcott was the oldest, Elizabeth Sewall Alcott and Abigail May Alcott were the two youngest.

Young Louisa was taught by her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, until 1848. She would also study informally with family friends such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker.

Alcott’s family suffered financial difficulties and while she worked to help provide support for her family at an early age, she was always looking for an outlet that she found in writing. She started to receive critical success for her writing in the 1860s. Early in her career, she would sometimes use the pen name A.M. Barnard, under which she wrote several novels for young adults.

The Alcott family moved to Boston in 1834, where Louisa’s father established an experimental school and joined the Transcendental Club along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Bronson Alcott’s opinion on education and his tough views on child-rearing shaped the young Alcott’s mind with a desire to achieve perfection, a goal of the transcendentalists.

In 1840, after a few setbacks with the school the Alcott family moved to a cottage on 2 acres of land that was situated along the Sudbury River in Concord, Massachusetts. The three years they spent at the rented Hosmer Cottage were described as idyllic. By 1843, the Alcott family moved along wth six other members of the Consociate Family to the Utopian Fruitlands community for a brief time between 1843-1844. After the collapse of the Utopian Fruitlands, they moved on to rented rooms and finally, with Abigail May Alcott’s inheritance and financial help from Emerson, they purchased a homestead in Concord. They moved into the home they named “Hillside” on April 1,1845.

While she lived in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, she worked as a domestic servant and teacher, among other positions, to help support her family between the years of 1850 and 1862. During the time of the Civil War, Alcott went to Washington D.C., to work as a nurse.

Becoming an Acclaimed Author

While she was unknown to most people, Louisa May Alcott had been publishing poems, short stories, thrillers, and juvenile tales since 1851, under the pen name of 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 in 1863 that confirmed Alcott’s desire to be a serious writer. She started 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 an editor of a girls’ magazine, Merry’s Museum.

The Success of Little Women

With the great success of Little Women that spanned from 1869 to 1870, Alcott finally had the independence and financial stability that she needed, the popularity of Little Women also 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. Her other books include Little Men, Eight Cousins, and Jo’s Boys. Alcott also tried her hand at adult novels, such as Work in 1873 and A Modern Mephistopheles in 1877 but these tales were not as popular as her other writings.

In Little Women, Alcott based her heroine “Jo” on herself, but whereas Jo marries at the end of the story, Alcott remained single throughout her life. She explained her ‘spinsterhood’ in an interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” However, Alcott’s romance while in Europe with the young Polish man Ladislas “Laddie” Wisniewski was detailed in her journals but then deleted by Alcott herself before her death. Alcott identified Laddie as the model for Laurie in Little Women, and there is strong evidence this was the significant emotional relationship of her life.

Alcott suffered from chronic health issues during her later years, including vertigo. She and her earliest biographer attributed her illness and death to mercury poisoning. During the Civil War when she served as a nurse, she contracted typhoid fever and was treated with a compound that contained mercury. Recent analysis of Alcott’s illness suggests that her chronic health condition may  have been associated with an autoimmune disease instead of mercury lead poisoning.

Alcott died of a stroke at the age of 55 in Boston on March 6, 1888, two days after her father’s death. She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord near Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau.