Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott is renowned for her classic novels Little Women and Little Men. Her passion for literature and the intellectual life was shaped in the bosom of her family. She was one of four daughters of the prominent Transcendentalist and pioneering educational innovator Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), and his wife, Abigail May Alcott (1800-1877), who distinguished herself in the Abolitionist, Suffrage, and other reform causes of the period. The children were Anna Bronson Alcott (1831-1893), Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), Elizabeth Sewall Alcott (1835-1858), and May Alcott (1840-1879).
Louisa May was born in Pennsylvania, but grew up in Boston and later in Concord, where she associated directly with her parents’ circle, which included the Emersons, Thoreaus, Hawthornes, and Ripleys. Accustomed to the straitened circumstances to which her father’s idealism perpetually condemned the family, Louisa began to write stories at an early age to supplement the family income. Emerson said of her genteel novels, “She is a natural source of stories… . She is and is to be, the poet of children. She knows their angels.” But as recent scholarship has demonstrated, the mature Louisa May also knew about the demons that people the human soul. Her tales of Gothic fiction, written behind a mask of pseudonyms, reveal a psychological depth that compares favorably with the best writers of the genre, such as Poe and Hawthorne.
Before her death in 1888, Louisa May’s book sales had reached the one million mark and she had realized the considerable sum of $200,000 from her fiction. Unlike their daughter, Louisa’s parents were never to know financial ease; they always experienced life as a continuing struggle to maintain uncompromising moral and social ideals, while staying one step ahead of poverty.
Amos Bronson Alcott was born in 1799 in Wolcott, Connecticut, and though he was largely self-taught, he went on to become one of America’s most influential educational reformers. After supporting himself as an itinerant salesman, Bronson began a series of teaching assignments that took first him and then later his wife Abigail, whom he married in 1830, and his growing family to a series of schools in Connecticut, Boston, and Germantown, Pennsylvania. His pedagogical philosophy stressed the emotional and physical, as well as the intellectual development of a child, and he believed that learning was the result of dialogue between teacher and student. Bronson’s most famous experiment was his founding of the Temple School in Boston in 1834. There he established an aesthetic environment conducive to learning and to stimulating the imagination. He hired his accomplished fellow Transcendentalists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody as assistants. From their work came Bronson’s controversial publication Conversations With Children on the Gospels (1836), in which he recounted dialogues with his pupils on the meanings of the Bible. His free-thinking treatment of religious issues, with its personalized view of Jesus, shocked some people, as did his insistence on color-blind enrollment of students. Accepting a mulatto girl in 1839 dealt the Temple School its coup de grâce, and it folded in 1840, with Bronson Alcott almost bankrupt.
In debt and jobless, Bronson and his family repaired to Concord, where he found solace in Emerson’s company and his practical and moral support, while Anna and Louisa would be taught by John and Henry David Thoreau at the Concord Academy. Eager to put his Transcendentalist, pacifist, and vegetarian principles into practice, Bronson joined Charles Lane in founding a communal farm, Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts, in 1843, but six months later the experiment–which stressed a mixture of farming and philosophizing–failed disastrously. The family returned to Concord to Hillside, a house purchased with funds Abigail May Alcott had inherited, and most of Louisa May’s idyllic childhood memories date from this period.
Strapped again financially, Abigail accepted a job as a social worker in Boston, where Bronson gave conversations and lectures, and Anna and Louisa began to teach school. The family’s peripatetic life continued with moves to Walpole, New Hampshire, in 1855 (though Louisa remained in Boston teaching and publishing her first fiction) and then back to Concord in 1857, where they took up residence in Orchard House, with the Hawthornes and Emersons as neighbors. It was in Concord that the third daughter, Elizabeth, died of scarlet fever, and that Bronson Alcott was appointed, largely through Emerson’s good offices, to the honorary position of superintendent of the Concord Schools (it paid $100 annually). Delighted to have once again a platform for his theories, Bronson overhauled the curriculum, introducing singing, calisthenics, physiology, and dancing, plus instruction in his now-famous Socratic method of conversations and readings. Still considered too innovative, he was not reappointed after the first year.
For the remainder of their lives, Bronson and Abigail lived primarily in Concord, where Bronson published his book, Concord Days, in 1872. He mourned the passing of his wife in 1877, and at 80 years of age, in 1879, he established the Concord School of Philosophy as an adult summer intellectual retreat. He suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1882 and died in Boston on March 4, 1888.
Louisa May, whose literary earnings had become the support of her entire family, had written her two best-selling novels at Orchard House, after spending time as a Civil War nurse and a traveling companion on a European jaunt. These were Little Women in 1868, and Little Men, the sequel inspired by her sister Anna’s plight as a recent widow, in 1871. She survived two of her siblings (as noted, Elizabeth died of scarlet fever in 1858; May succumbed to meningitis in 1878). Dividing her year between Boston and Concord, Louisa May continued to devote her life to literature (publishing anonymous Gothic tales in addition to sentimental novels) and worked tirelessly for the causes of her youth, becoming the first woman to cast a vote in Concord. On March 6, 1888, two days after Bronson’s passing, Louisa May died. She was laid to rest in the Authors Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Concord. In death as in life, her neighbors were the Hawthornes, Emersons, and Thoreaus.
Selected Quotations from Bronson Alcott
“Every man is a revelation and ought to write his record.”
“The human body is in itself the richest and raciest phrase book.”
“It is the part of the wise instructor to tempt forth from the minds of his pupils the facts of their inmost consciousness, and make them apprehend the gifts and faculties of their own being. Education, when rightly understood, will be found to lie in the art of asking apt and fit questions, and in leading the mind by its own light to the perception of truth.”
Selected Quotations from Louisa May Alcott
From Little Women (about Jo, Louisa May’s alter-ego):
“She took to writing sensational stories; for in those dark ages even all-perfect America read rubbish. She told no one, but concocted a ‘thrilling tale’ and boldly carried it herself to Mr. Dashwood, editor of the Weekly Volcano.”
From The Abbot’s Ghost (1867, published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard):
“Eight narrow Gothic windows pierced either wall of the north gallery. A full moon sent her silvery light strongly in upon the eastern side, making broad bars of brightness across the floor….As Octavia cried out, all looked, and all distinctly saw a tall, dark figure moving noiselessly across the second bar of light far down the hall.”
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Photo: Louisa May Alcott, Library of Congress