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The Woman Behind Little Women  



Louisa May Alcott’s Boston relatives were wealthy, yet she and her three sisters grew up poor. Their father, educator-philosopher Bronson Alcott, was not a lazy man, but his beliefs were never compatible with earning a living, When Bronson’s Utopian farm experiment, Fruitlands, left the Alcotts starving and freezing, Louisa, age 11, vowed to rescue the family from poverty.

The Alcotts, leaving debts in their wake, made some 30 moves before they settled at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Louisa wrote and set Little Women in Orchard House and based heroine Jo March upon herself, but the book is about Louisa’s childhood as she wished it to be, not how it was.

The Alcott family was materially impoverished, but led a rich intellectual life. Louisa’s father’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, directed her reading; on excursions to Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau taught her about nature. Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller stood as models of female achievement for her to emulate. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s family lived next door.

When slavery threatened to tear the nation apart, the Alcott home was an Underground Railroad stop for fugitives. Louisa was proud that she knew the great antislavery activists, among them William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, and Harriet Tubman. The Alcotts acted upon their principles, more than once risking their lives for their ideals.

A free woman in the Nineteenth Century could not vote or own property, and any wealth she had was controlled by her husband after she married. If she had no family money and did not marry, she could barely live at a poverty level through the only respectable jobs available to her: sewing, domestic employment, and teaching. With every breath and every step, voluminous and corseted clothing hampered the middle-class woman of the Nineteenth Century, and reminded her that women were not supposed to move as freely as men did.

An enslaved woman in the Nineteenth Century did not own even the rags on her back. She was forbidden to learn to read or write, or to marry. Her master could whip her, rape her, and sell her children. Louisa May Alcott was furious about social injustice; as a teenager she taught free black women enough reading and arithmetic to write bills and count their wages. As an adult she taught black soldiers to read as they trained for war. She wrote stories about race relations, risked her life to end slavery, and called herself a “fanatic” believer in absolute racial equality.

Louisa May Alcott wanted to fight in the Civil War, but as a woman she could enlist only as a nurse. She was sent to the Union Hotel Hospital in the nation’s beleaguered capital to care for some of the thousands of wounded soldiers from the Battle of Fredericksburg. Within days, and without training, Louisa was assisting at assembly-line amputations. “Ether was not thought necessary,” she commented in a letter home. Later her letters were adapted for publication as a serial, and then as Hospital Sketches, her first literary success.

“I’ve often longed to see a war,” Louisa had said, and although the work was hard, she liked it. She was good at nursing, and as she had for her dying sister Beth, she impersonated Dickens’ comical nurse, Sairy Gamp, to cheer up the convalescents. She was especially moved by one soldier, and held his hand as he died.

At age 35, Louisa May Alcott took 10 weeks to write Little Women, struck it rich with its publication, and later amassed a fortune with a series of novels for young adult readers. With her money, she coddled her mother, outfitted her father, paid tuition for her nephews, helped buy a house for her older sister, and sent her younger sister to study art in Paris. She traveled first-class to Europe, sojourned in New York, dressed in silk, and went to the theatre as often as she wanted.

In her last 20 years Louisa May Alcott earned $200,000-millions in present-day terms. Her contemporary, Henry James, earned only $25,000 in his lifetime; Walt Whitman earned less than $10,000 in his. Once a domestic servant herself, at the end of her life Louisa employed 10 servants. Once a hungry child, she made donations to groups who fed them.

Louisa May Alcott’s books for young adults have never been out of print and they have been translated into more than 50 languages. For 140 years Alcott has empowered her readers to forge their own lives and to insist upon equality. As one reader said, “You don’t grow up to walk two steps behind your husband if you’ve met Jo March.”


Text Credits: American Library Association
Program coordination: American Library Association Public Programs Office
Brochure writer: Harriet Reisen
Brochure design: Heather Dellenbach