Profiles in Greatness: Louisa May Alcott

Raised among transcendentalists, abolitionists and some of the 19th century’s most famous writers, Louisa May Alcott probably didn’t surprise anyone by pursuing a literary career. But no one could have imagined how she would rise from poverty to fame and fortune despite coming of age before women even had the vote, much less the promise of meaningful and lucrative careers.

We caught up with Alcott’s lively and independent spirit at Orchard House, her old family home in Concord, Mass.

Q: You flourished as a young woman during a time when there were few opportunities for women outside of marriage. Do you recall an example of your free thinking and independence as a child?

A: “No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy.”

Born in 1832 and raised in Boston and Concord, Mass., Alcott benefited from growing up among liberal and highly educated parents. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was an educator and was well-known in the transcendentalist movement, which espoused the innate goodness of humanity and nature, believed that society and its institutions corrupted this goodness, and advocated self-reliant living. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were among its chief figures. Alcott and her three sisters were educated by their father. Her mother, Abigail, was a sometime social worker.

Alcott also benefited from her parents’ close friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne, all of whom were her informal educators, and she spent many hours perusing the shelves of Emerson’s library. She also went on nature excursions with Thoreau, something that undoubtedly appealed to her tomboy nature. And living among so many transcendentalists, Alcott learned from a young age the virtue of working tirelessly toward self-improvement and perfection.
 

Q: What did you tell yourself as a girl to give yourself courage in overcoming your circumstances?

A: “I will do something by and by. Don’t care what—teach, sew, act, write—anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!”

Alcott’s parents, though insistent on the importance of education for their daughters, were perpetually poverty-stricken. Alcott remembered her childhood as a time of persistent financial struggle, something she was determined to alleviate. She once wrote, “I can’t do much with my hands so I will make a battering-ram of my head and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

As a result of her family’s poverty and the second-class status of women, Alcott was no stranger to challenge. As a young woman, she was fiercely hardworking, gaining employment as a teacher, seamstress, governess and even a domestic servant in an effort to lessen her parents’ financial woes.

Q: What marked the turning point for you from struggle to success?

A: “My book came out; and people began to think that topsy-turvy Louisa would amount to something after all… ”

Alcott was writing and publishing stories and poetry long before she became famous, working under the pen names Flora Fairfield and A.M. Barnard. She made her income, in the beginning, from writing Gothic thrillers—melodramatic and sometimes fantastical stories featuring sexual tension, violence and betrayal. (Even after she gained recognition under her own name, she continued publishing her Gothic stories for additional income.)

In 1854, she published her first work as Louisa May Alcott, a children’s book titled Flower Fables. She began to see her stories accepted in Atlantic Monthly and Lady’s Companion, but with the start of the Civil War, she enlisted as a Union Army nurse and went to Washington, D.C., to serve. Unfortunately, exposure to typhoid and pneumonia, among other illnesses, left her with ailing health the rest of her life.

However, in 1863 she gained status as a household name when she published Hospital Sketches, a book based on her letters home from Washington.

Q: What inspired you to persist in building your career even though you had so many odds stacked against you?

A: “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

Alcott became the editor of a children’s magazine in 1867, and it was while in this role that her publisher asked her to write “a book for girls.” The result was three months of frenzied writing in 1868, which led to the publication of Little Women. The storyline was based on Alcott’s childhood with her sisters in a household that was vastly creative and incredibly poor.

The book was an instant hit and was unlike any other children’s story, particularly by a woman. The heroine, Jo March, whose character was based on Alcott herself, was individualistic, strong-willed and combative, far from the stereotypical characters of most girls’ stories. Jo March would set the stage for a host of Alcott characters who were all, like Alcott herself, intellectually curious and proudly independent. Little Women ensured Alcott’s financial well-being for the long haul and made her a best-selling author.

Q: Given the circumstances into which you were born, did you ever imagine you would gain financial independence one day?

A: “Nothing is impossible to a determined woman.”

Like her character Jo March, Alcott always believed she herself had “the key to my castle in the air” and that she could accomplish anything if she worked hard and believed in herself. She had grown up among abolitionists and was a reform-minded woman in her own right as an adult. She was the first woman in Concord to register to vote when Massachusetts granted women’s suffrage.

She was not one to rest on her laurels either. After Little Women, she went on to publish more best-selling children’s books, including Little Men, Eight Cousins and Jo's Boys. She was generous with her earnings, funding a home for orphans, sewing clothing for poor families, and reading to prisoners, hospital patients and children.

But despite her professional success, Alcott never had a very happy personal life. She did not marry and spent most of her time helping to support her ailing father, who died in 1888. She died two days after him at the age of 55.

Her novels remain popular, appealing to modern audiences who admire her spirited and determined characters. In the end, Alcott found her castle in the air. “I want to do something splendid,” she wrote as a young woman, “something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead…. I think I shall write books.”

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