Meet Louisa May Alcott

December 18, 2013

 

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

 

  • Raised in New England (primarily Concord, Mass) with her 3 sisters: Anna (oldest), Elizabeth and May (two youngest)

    • She and her sisters would create and perform “romantic melodramas” for the neighbors.

 

  • Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, was heavily involved in causes such as the suffragist, temperance, and abolitionist movements. She also worked to help the poor wherever she lived. By 1848, she took an unusual step (for married women of her time), by taking a full-time job as a social worker.

    • Marmee seems to be a close copy of “Abba” Alcott. Both have strong moral centers, a large heart for those in need, and a desire to correct the injustice they see around them.

 

  • Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a very involved member of the Transcendentalist Movement.

    • Transcendentalism: A set of beliefs that emphasizes basic human goodness and mankind’s ability to rise above (“transcend”) evil tendencies. Strong emphasis on self-improvement and helping the less fortunate.

    • Led by well-known thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    • LMA was tutored by both Thoreau and Emerson, and owed much of her intellectual development to them.

      • Much of Professor Bhaer’s character is based on these two philosophers (though she never fell in love with either of them...)

    • She also spent quite a deal of time with novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller during her childhood. These relationships fueled her love for writing.

 

  • Inspired by the Transcendentalist philosophy, Bronson founded Fruitlands in 1843, intended to be a utopian commune (hipster hippies?).

    • It failed utterly, closing in 1844.

    • He sank most of the family money into it, so after its failure they were destitute for the next couple decades.

      • LMA gave the March family a similar financial disaster, but “sanitized it” to genteel poverty, rather than destitution. She also lessened the blame, so that Mr. March was a victim of a scam rather than utterly responsible for the fiasco.

    • With Emerson’s financial help, they were able to buy a small home (which they had to sell shortly thereafter).

 

  • Bronson never managed to hold down a job for long, and as long as he was responsible for providing for his family, they always faced poverty (as in, actually starving poverty).

    • LMA created an idealized – though largely absent – version of her father for Little Women, portraying an odd blend of wish-fulfillment and resentment regarding Bronson.

    • It was LMA’s literary success that finally provided her family with financial stability.

 

  • LMA grew up an abolitionist and a feminist.

    • Her family served as conductors for the Underground Railroad.

    • She closely followed the events of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first national convention organizing women to fight for the right to vote; it had a profound impact on her political views. She voted in the 1850 school board election (and was the first woman in her region to do so).

    • One can see her ideals in the family’s position during the war and Jo’s independent path.

    • Some believe that LMA’s portrayal of Meg as the “perfect-but-rather-boring-housewife” is a criticism of the era’s image of proper womanhood.

 

  • In 1858, the family bought the cottage Orchard House, which is where LMA set Little Women.

    • Lizzie, LMA’s younger sister, dies at the age of 23. She had been ill for the previous 2 years (initially scarlet fever, then a mysterious “wasting illness”). Upon her death, those around her witnessed a mist rising from her body.

    • LMA most closely mirrors her beloved Lizzie in the character of Beth – her temperament, her frail health, her angelic attitude about death all shine through.

 

  • In 1860, Anna (the oldest sister) marries John Pratt. They have 2 children (but not twins).

 

  • When the Civil War began in 1861, the 29-year-old LMA volunteered in a Union Army hospital for a few months. The essays that came out of that, Hospital Sketches, was her first real publishing success.

    • Though minimized in the play, the Civil War is very present in the first half of the book. The March family’s poverty is made worse by the fact that their father is away at war. Jo longs to join the army, hating that she’s a girl. Their father’s injury – and Marmee’s need to visit him in the hospital – prompts Jo to sell “her one beauty” for the funds.

 

  • By 1864, LMA began publishing sensationalist, romantic serials in monthly magazines. She published under the name A.M. Barnard.

    • Jo’s foray into dramatic and outrageous story-telling, both for her sisters and later for the Weekly Volcano comes from these experiences.

 

  • In 1868, LMA takes a departure from her normal writing style, and publishes what we know as the first half of Little Women. It becomes a hit.

    • Aside from some idealization, Part I is a fairly accurate portrait of LMA’s growing-up years and interactions with her sisters, as well as tracking LMA’s budding career as a writer.

 

  • By 1871, she produces Good Wives, now “part 2” of Little Women. Not everyone was happy with the fact that Jo and Laurie do NOT get together. Oh, well. Much less of Part 2 was based on any real-life events in LMA’s world.

    • Anna did get married, and had 2 children (not twins, though). Her husband died a year before Good Wives was published.

    • May also married and had a daughter (named after Louisa), but died in childbirth. Anna and Louisa raised “Lulu.”

 

  • LMA never married. She became the financial provider for her parents.

    • Like Jo, LMA began with sensational melodramatic tales. She continued to write such stories throughout her whole life, but only achieved real notoriety with her “children’s books”, the Little Women series. The whole set consists of:

      • Little Women

      • Little Men

      • Under the Lilacs

      • Jack and Jill

      • Jo’s Boys

 

 

 

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