Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, her father’s 33rd birthday. Although she was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania her childhood was nomadic. Amos Bronson Alcott was a forward thinker and firmly believed in the power of education for all children. As a result, his methods of training up his students were considered to be tantamount to sacrilege in the days of Victorian ethics. He refused to discipline children by physical means and allowed them the freedom to ask questions. This was a courageous move at a time when child rearing was peppered with axioms such as, “spare the rod and spoil the child” or “a child should be seen and not heard.” Despite all this he refused to compromise his convictions and established several schools only to have to move on to another location when his student population dwindled to only his own children. At one of these locations he welcomed a young black girl into the school, causing a scandal.
Amos and his wife, Abigail May Alcott, were staunch abolitionists and, at one point, ran an underground railroad. Abby was also a force to be reckoned with. She was considered to be one of the first paid social workers when she ran a relief agency for young Irish immigrant women. They could come to the agency for information on which employers were considered to be reputable and guide them away from those who were not.
Amos and Abby were Transcendentalists and maintained friendships with many like-minded persons of the time, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was, in fact, a Unitarian minister who left his position to pursue the course of reaching perfection through self reliance and philosophical dissertation. In fact, they did attempt to create a communal living situation called Utopian Fruitland in Concord, Massachusetts that ultimately collapsed.
Louisa was the second born of four sisters. Just as in the book Little Women, the eldest Anna, took a very traditional path and married, giving birth to two boys. Younger sister, Elizabeth, died at a young age, much in the same manner as the character, Beth, and May, the youngest, went off to Europe with a friend where they studied art. She might have become a very famous artist had she not died after the birth of her daughter, Louisa (Lulu) at the age of 39.
Louisa was 35 when she wrote Little Women in 1868. When the book speaks of their father coming home from the war very ill, it was actually referring to Louisa herself. She spent a short six months as a nurse at Union Hospital in Georgetown. There she contracted Typhus and had to return to her family home to recover. At the time, Typhus was treated with a form of mercury which could be attributed to her poor health the rest of her life.
Even though she struggled with health issues Louisa managed to write Good Wives (1869), Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). With her earnings she provided a more comfortable existence for her parents who had brought them up in extreme poverty.
Louisa was considered to be one of a small group of women writing during what was termed the Gilded Age who addressed women’s issues in an open and candid manner. Although she did enjoy success, one wonders what she might have accomplished had she not succumbed to her illness in 1875 at the age of 55. It’s interesting that she died just two days after her father.