The Life of Louisa May Alcott

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Louisa May Alcott was a writer from Concord, Massachusetts during the 19th century,

Alcott, author of the classic novel Little Women, was raised in Massachusetts but was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 29, 1832.

Louisa May Alcott’s Childhood & Early Life:

Alcott spent her childhood with her parents and three sisters in Concord and Boston where she happily explored her young tomboy ways, stating:

“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…”

The Alcott family had deep New England roots and Louisa May Alcott and her sisters were descendants of the Salem Witch Trials judge, Samuel Sewall, on her mother Abigail’s side of the family.

Louisa May Alcott circa 1857

Louisa May Alcott circa 1857

The Alcott family believed very strongly in abolitionism and women’s rights as well as transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was a literary and philosophical movement during the 1800s that declared knowledge and spirituality could be attained through one’s own intuition rather than traditional teaching methods.

Louisa May Alcott’s interest in writing began young when she would write stories and plays to help entertain her sisters. While living in Concord, the Alcotts were close friends with fellow Concord writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and this friendship had a direct influence on her desire to be a writer.

The family was plagued by poverty and moved 22 times in 30 years in search of work and cheaper housing. At the age of 15, Louisa May vowed to help her family overcome their destitution.

Louisa May worked as a seamstress, governess and teacher for many years and also became a working author in her early 20s with the publication of her poetry and short stories in various magazines. She published her first book, Flower Fables, at the age of 22.

After living at the Wayside, which was a safe house on the Underground Railroad, in Concord for seven years, the Alcotts sold the house to Nathaniel Hawthorne and moved to Boston.

Tragedy struck the family when Louisa May’s little sister, Elizabeth, contracted scarlet fever and died in 1858. Around the same time her older sister Anna announced her engagement and married a few years later. Both events had a profound effect on Louisa May and are featured in her novel Little Women.

Also around the same time, Louisa May’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, purchased Orchard house in Concord for $945. The 17th century-era house was inexpensive, lacked a foundation and had many structural problems but the family made the most of it and moved in 1858.

Louisa May Alcott, her mother Marmee, her father Amos, her older sister Anna, and Anna’s first-born son Frederick, in front of Orchard House, circa 1865

When the Civil War broke out Louisa May Alcott realized she could help serve her country as a nurse and left Orchard House to volunteer at a hospital in Washington D.C.

While serving at the hospital, Alcott contracted Typhoid Fever and suffered mercury poisoning from the medicine used to treat the illness. Her experiences at the hospital became the source of her book titled Hospital Sketches.

It was back at Orchard House that Alcott wrote her most famous book, Little Women, at the age of 35. Louisa’s publisher had asked her to “write a book for girls,” which she did from May to July of 1868.

The book was based on Louisa May and her sister’s experiences growing up in New England. Louisa May also edited a magazine titled Merry’s Museum while she worked on Little Women. With the publication of Little Women in 1868 came instant success, fame and financial independence.

Louisa May Alcott in 1888

Alcott also continued to advocate for women’s rights and other social issues and in 1880, became the first women registered to vote in Concord when she cast her ballot in a town meeting.

Alcott decided to remain unmarried and continued writing to help her family. She wrote a total of 30 books and a collection of short stories before she died of a stroke in 1888 at the age of 55 (although it was first believed that she died of meningitis and later of mercury poisoning). She is buried with her family at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

Louisa May Alcott’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass. Photo Credit: Rebecca Brooks

Louisa May Alcott: Places to Visit:

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House:
Website: www.louisamayalcott.org
Address: 399 Lexington Road, Concord, Mass
Hours: November-March: Monday-Friday: 11am-3pm, Saturday: 10am-4:30pm, Sunday: 1pm-4:30pm
April-October: Monday-Saturday:  10am-4:30pm, Sunday: 1pm-4:30pm

The Wayside:
Website: www.nps.gov
Address: 399 Lexington Rd, Concord, MA 01742

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery:
Address: 34 Bedford St, Concord, MA 01742

Sources:
“Louisa M. Alcott Dead.” New York Times, 7 March. 1888,  www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1129.html
“Learn About the Alcotts and Orchard House.” Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, n.d., www.louisamayalcott.org/alcottorchard.html
“Louisa May Alcott.” Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, n.d., www.louisamayalcott.org/louisamaytext.html

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the owner and operator of this website and all the articles are written and researched by her. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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