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The 1800s were a time where women had very few choices and many obligations in their lives. Smith, Historical Brief-Lives of Women in Early 1800s. Among those many obligations and most important was marriage. Louisa May Alcott was born in a time where it was unfashionable to be unwed; however, she stayed independent and single throughout her entire life (Cheever, Preface). Although her lifestyle was uncommon for her time, that lifestyle led to her writings that many admire and look upon favorably upon today.
From birth, Louisa May Alcott was a strong willed and creative child. Alcott was born on November 29, 1832. She was born in the town of Germantown, which is now Philadelphia, and in the state of Pennsylvania. Louisa May Alcott was the second of four very different girls. Her parents were Abigail and Amos Bronson Alcott. Abigail May and Amos Bronson Alcott met while Abigail May was visiting a brother. When they were to be wed, her family had a fear that the radical boy that their daughter fell in love with didn't know how to run a family and would run into money problems in the future. However, they were wed in the May's family church on May 30, 1980.
Louisa May Alcott was a large tomboy from the time she was born. Everyone noticed it, and even her parents knew. Louisa herself even stated it. "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 Louisa May Alcott Memorial Foundation, Louisa May Alcott). Her friends would race together and she would always beat the older children, having her friends cheer on. Her mother tried to make her into a girly child, but it never really worked. She was always boyish. Alcott was poor for most of her life. Her family moved from place to place trying to settle down in a stable home. Despite the fact they were poor and moved often, this did not affect how close her family was to one another. In fact, it strengthened their bonds. They would share stories, explore various places, and act out Louisa May Alcott's poems and plays. The Alcott's viewed family as one of the most important things in life. This inspired the quote from Little Women,
""Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
"We've got Father and Mother, and each other," said Beth contentedly from her corner.""(Alcott, Little Women 5)
This passage shows the true value of family that Louisa May Alcott had when she was alive, and how it affected her stories and her characters.
When Louisa May Alcott was younger, she almost drowned to death. She was walking by a pond one day, and slipped in. Fortunately a mysterious boy was walking by and saved her. Looking up to thank her rescuer, he was gone before she could say a word. She apparently never saw the boy again, but never forgot him either. (Moore, 187)
Louisa May Alcott's family was not like most at that age. This is especially true when it came to education. From a young age, Louisa May Alcott was taught by her father. Amos Bronson Alcott was a big educator and philosopher, so this carried over into his children's education. Her fathers' philosophy on education was not highly thought of in that time. He tried to start schools, but often there were not enough students to keep them open. He also had many different jobs, but few worked out for him. Even so, he taught his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, until 1848. At that time, she stopped studying with him, and started to study informally with friends and family. At one point, she even attended a school on their farm called Still River Village. Alcott also studied at another family friend's library- it belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other fellow transcendentalists of her father: Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, helped her father and her with her studies as a child. (A&E Networks Television, Louisa May Alcott Biography).
Louisa May Alcott's family fell into poverty at an early age. Her father was a very smart man, but was not qualified to do most things that made money at that time. He tried to start various schools and farms in an effort to try and stabilize the family but all of his attempts failed him. To try and help her family, at the age fifteen, Louisa May Alcott started working doing various jobs at different places. These jobs included being a teacher, a servant, a seamstress, a nurse, and many other jobs, but none of them suited her. She had always had a love of writing, and that is what she was good at.
Even though her family was poor, they were still always willing to give. On two various occasions, the Alcotts gave more than they had to help those in need. One time, they were running out of firewood. The family was only going off of that for warmth and fearing that they would have to stay in a cold house. Soon, a poor man came up to the door and asked if they had any extra, because he didn't have any firewood to warm his family. Amos Alcott didn't give it a second thought before giving all the firewood that they had to the beggar. One the house was getting colder and fears seemed to rise, a knock came from the door. A neighbor just so happened to have extra firewood and gave the Alcotts a full load of firewood. Another occasion was when they were having breakfast. They only could afford bread and milk, but they heard of a poor family that didn't have any breakfast at all. So the Alcotts gave their breakfast to the poor family. Even though they walked home hungry, they were happy and the poor family had gotten at least something to eat. Those are just two of the occasions that the Alcotts gave up something for someone else who had it worse. The family was poor, but was happy from giving to others. (Moore, 189-190)
In the 1800s, a woman writer was largely frowned upon. This did not stop Louisa May Alcott however. From a very young age, Alcott was writing poetry, short stories and plays. At a very early age, she started to keep a journal to write down her plays, and her family would act them out for her (Merriman, Louisa May Alcott). Alcott's family and friends greatly encouraged her to write her stories for them. Beginning in 1951, she was publishing various poems, short stories, and juvenile stories under the name of Flora Fairfield. A few years later she also started going by the name A.M. Bernard (A&E Networks Television, Louisa May Alcott Biography). Louisa May Alcott published her first book under her true name at the age of 21. The book was a short collection of fairytales and was named Flower Fables. It was dedicated to Ellen Emerson because she so loved Louisa May Alcott's writings. This book sold very well and marked the start of a bright future for Alcott (Reisen, 155). Finally, the family had an income.
Her family played a large role in her writings, and affected what she wrote and who she wrote about. For instance, several of her stories were from events that happened when she was growing up. Her family moved into "The Orchard House" on Lexington Road in Concord, and the Orchard House was the setting she wrote about in many of her stories including: Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo's Boys. Another occasion was when she lived on a farm and it was failing. Winter weather had left nothing but a tree that led to her writing of "Transcendental Wild Oats". Although Alcott was becoming famous for her various childhood literatures, she yearned to write serious literature. When Alcott was around 35, she was asked to write a story that was written for girls. In an effort to do so she wrote Little Women. "The novel is based on Louisa and her sisters' coming of age and is set in Civil War New England." (Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, Louisa May Alcott). For two and a half months she thought of her family and past stories to help fabricate the story line. The story is about a girl, Jo (based on herself) and her sisters: Meg (after her oldest sister Anna), Amy (After her other sister Abba May), and Beth (Kept the same name). This story followed the same problems that the Alcott's faced in their lifetime, from being poor to the death of a sister (Beth). Also Jo followed most of Louisa May Alcott's characteristics: strong willed a quick temper, and an independent personality. After publishing the story in 1868, within the first few month she had sold over 2,000 copies.
Once she started writing however, her family was benefited because of the newfound income. She felt very strongly about money since she hadn't grown up with a lot of it, as described in this passage from Little Women, "Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens of thrones, without self-respect and peace." (Alcott, Little Women 111)
Louisa May Alcott's father was a radical man. He encouraged Louisa May Alcott to be a strong will woman. This led to her being a strong feminist, which carried over into her writings about women being strong and independent. As seen in her books, like Little Women, Jo is very strong willed and non-dependent on a man. She took charge of her life and didn't focus on marriage and other petty things that most girls at that time were consumed with. (Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society, Louisa May Alcott)
Louisa May Alcott never married. Writings show that she had one love interest. She was attracted to a Mr. Emerson. Alcott wrote many letters to him, but never sent them. Over time she finally got up the courage to tell him, and he laughed begging to see the letters. Mr. Emerson said that he was honored that she was attracted but they never pursued the romance.
In 1878, Louisa May Alcott's Sister May was married. She was wed with a European named Ernest Nieriker. They met in Europe because May was a talented artist, and studied over there. Together they had a child in 1879. The two named her Luisa "Lulu" May Nieriker, after May's beloved sister, Louisa May Alcott. Sadly, six weeks later, May Nieriker fell ill and died. Her last wish was for Alcott to take care of Lulu. May knew that Alcott would love Lulu just as much as she had and she would have if she had gotten the chance. Louisa May Alcott was brought with so much joy by Lulu that she wrote a book for her named Lulu's Library between the times of 1886-1888. (Merriman, Louisa May Alcott)
Louisa May Alcott's mother died on November 25, 1877. She died just a year after May's wedding. A little over 11 years later, her husband died on March 4, 1888 after suffering from a sever stroke just a few years before. Just a few days later on March 6, 1888, on her father's funeral day, she died. She had died from Mercury poising. This was because she had volunteered in the Civil War and so it had affected her health severely. She had been 56 years old when she died, and she was buried in Concord next to a few friends. Her grave can be visited to this day.
Louisa May Alcott is undoubtedly one of the best authors of all time. In this passage, she makes a statement that can relate to all of her writings,
""These stories were written for my own amusement during a period of enforced seclusion. The flowers which were my solace and pleasure suggested titles for the tales and gave an interest to the work.
If my girls find a little beauty or sunshine in these common blossoms, their old friend will not have made her Garland in vain." "(Alcott, a Garland for Girls, preface)
This passage can be related to all of her works. She wanted them to matter. And they did. Along with her gravesite being open to visitors, The Orchard House is now a historical landmark that can be visited today.
In the 1800s, women were struggling for many different things. Louisa May Alcott was a feminist that changed the way people thought of women forever. From her feminism, to her quick temper, to her kindness of heart, people loved her then and will continue to for years to come.