Thursday, September 8, 2011

Louisa May Alcott


Louisa May Alcott in 1852
Although one of the most famous Concord authors, Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 29, 1832. The Alcott family believed very strongly in abolitionism and women's rights as well as transcendentalism; 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 spent her childhood with her parents and three sisters in Concord and Boston. She was very much a tomboy in her youth, stating: “No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race," she claimed, "and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences ..."

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

Louisa May'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 authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and this friendship had a direct influence on her desire to be a writer.

The Wayside in Concord
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. She worked as 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. Louisa May published her first book, Flower Fables, at the age of 22.

After living at the Wayside 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.
Orchard House in Concord

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.

When the Civil War broke out Louisa May 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, Louisa May 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 Louisa May 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 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.
Amos Bronson Alcott

Abigail May
Louisa May Alcott in 1888
Sources:

New York Times; Louisa M. Alcott Dead; March 7 1888
http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1129.html

Pennsylvania Center for the Book: Louisa May Alcott
http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/bios/Alcott__Louisa_May.html

Louisa May Alcott: Learn About the Alcotts and Orchard House
http://www.louisamayalcott.org/alcottorchard.html

Louisa May Alcott: Louisa May Text
http://www.louisamayalcott.org/louisamaytext.html

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