In an alternate universe, Louisa May Alcott would be 184 today. In my alternate universe, we all live — as a matter of course — to at least 200. And because of our extended life span, we are better custodians of our earth recognizing that we will have to live in the mess we make of tomorrow when we despoil our world today.
Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888) was an American novelist and poet, best known as the author of the novel Little Women (1868) and its sequels Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).
Raised by her transcendentalist parents, Abigail May and Amos Bronson Alcott in New England, she also grew up among many of the well-known intellectuals of the day such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.
Bronson Alcott was a dreamer, not an earner. The result was that her family went through extended periods of dire poverty and Louisa was required to work to help support the family from very early on.
Published in 1868, Little Women is set in the Alcott family home, Orchard House, later renamed Hillside, then the Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts and is loosely based on an idealized portrait of Alcott’s childhood experiences growing up with her three sisters. Real life was much harder than the life she lived in “Little Women.”
“Little Women” was high successful almost immediately.
As Joan Goodwin explains, “from this point on Louisa May Alcott was a victim of her own success. Though she yearned to do more serious fiction, children’s books flowed from her pen for the rest of her life because their sales supported her family. Louisa herself wrote, “Twenty years ago, I resolved to make the family independent if I could. At forty that is done. Debts all paid, even the outlawed ones, and we have enough to be comfortable. It has cost me my health, perhaps; but as I still live, there is more for me to do, I suppose.”
Following in her mother’s path, Alcott pursued women’s rights with fervor, enlisting the aid of famous colleagues such as Thoreau and Hawthorne to her cause.
Goodwin goes on to write that now “Alcott gave her energy to practical reforms, women’s rights and temperance. She attended the Women’s Congress of 1875 in Syracuse, New York, where she was introduced by Mary Livermore. She contributed to Lucy Stone’s Woman’s Journal while organizing Concord women to vote in the school election. ‘
“I was the first woman to register my name as a voter,’ she wrote. “Drove about and drummed up women to my suffrage meeting. So hard to move people out of the old ruts.” And again, “Helped start a temperance society much-needed in Concord]. I was secretary, and wrote records, letters, and sent pledges, etc.”
Louisa continued to publish children’s books, and in 1880, after her sister, May, died after childbirth, she adopted May’s baby who was named for Louisa, but called “Lulu.” In 1882, after her father suffered a stroke, Louisa settled the remaining members of her family at 10 Louisburg Square. Her own health was failing. It is generally believed from her pictures and other descriptions that she suffered from Lupus. There was little knowledge of Lupus at that time. No cure or medicine to lessen its impact. Louisa moved “from place to place in search of health and peace to write, settling at last in a Roxbury nursing home,” according to Joan Goodwin.
Her father, Bronson Alcott, who she faithfully tended even as her own health declined, died on March 4, 1888. Louisa outlived him by only two days. She passed away at age fifty-six.
She had known her death was near, despite her relative youth. She had adopted her widowed sister Anna’s son John Pratt to whom she willed her copyrights. Through him, all income from her books would be shared amongst her nieces and nephews — Anna, Lulu, John, and Anna’s other son Fred.
Louisa May Alcott never married, in part because the right person eluded her — but ultimately because she was unwilling to give up her freedom and personal power to a husband.
Louisa May Alcott was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord on “Author’s Ridge” near Thoreau and Emerson. A Civil War veteran’s marker graces her gravestone. During her lifetime, she produced almost three hundred books, but the one that most every knows remains “Little Women.”