Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, the second daughter of Amos Bronson and Abigail “Abba” May Alcott. She was raised in Concord, Massachusetts, a small town to the north of Boston that was home to many great writers of the day. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau were neighbors to the Alcotts. All of these writers were part of the transcendentalist movement during the New England Renaissance. Transcendentalists believed that one could find spirituality through nature and reason. They were an optimistic group who believed humans were capable of great thoughts, and they advocated nonconformity and being true to one’s inner self.
Amos Bronson Alcott was not a particularly responsible father or husband, although he was an enthusiastic transcendentalist philosopher, abolitionist, and teacher. He failed to provide enough money to support his family, and their poverty was so dire that in twenty years, they moved twenty times. Louisa’s mother acted as head of the household, and when Louisa grew older, she also took on much of the burden.
Louisa May Alcott had an older sister, Anna, and two younger sisters, Lizzie and Abba May. These names are noticeably similar to the names Alcott gives her characters in Little Women (Meg, Beth, and Amy). Her sister Lizzie died at age twenty-two after a bout of scarlet fever. Alcott also had a brother, Dapper, who died in infancy.
Alcott was educated at home by her father. She loved to read and write and enjoyed borrowing books from Emerson’s large library. As a child, Alcott struggled with the ladylike behavior that was expected of girls in the nineteenth century. Though she was required to be calm and stay at home, Alcott was a tomboy whose favorite childhood activity was running wild through the fields of Concord. She had an unladylike temper that she struggled to control.
Like Jo March in Little Women, Alcott could not get over her disappointment in not being a boy, since opportunities for women were limited. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Alcott had an urge to go and fight in it. Like most transcendentalists, she supported the Northern side of the conflict because she was against slavery. But since she was female and thus could not join the military, she signed up to be a Union nurse and was stationed in Washington, D.C. Later in life, Alcott became active in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, whose supporters sought to extend the right to vote to women. Alcott’s feminist sympathies are expressed through the character of Jo March in Little Women.
Though she never married or had a family of her own, Alcott was devoted to her parents and her sisters. She understood that for women, having a family meant professional loss, and having a profession meant personal loss. Little Women dramatizes this struggle between the desire to help one’s family and the desire to help oneself.
Alcott caught pneumonia while working as a nurse in the Civil War. She was treated with calomel, a mercury compound, and this treatment gave her mercury poisoning. For twenty years Alcott was weak, suffered intense pain, and was plagued by hallucinations that could only be controlled with opium. Her right hand hurt her so badly that she had to learn how to write with her left hand. She also lost her hair because of the illness. Alcott died on March 6, 1888, and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, alongside her father, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.
Alcott is most famous for her domestic tales for children, which brought her fame and fortune during her lifetime. Alcott also wrote sensationalist gothic novels, such as A Long Fatal Love Chase, and serious adult novels, such as Moods and Work, which received middling reviews. Little Women and Alcott’s other domestic novels have enjoyed more popularity than her novels of other genres. Alcott did not particularly like Little Women; she wrote it at the request of her publisher, and upon its great success, worried that she was doing nothing more than writing “moral pap” fit for children.
Little Women possesses many qualities of the didactic genre, a class of works that have a moral lesson. Little Women does not preach directly to the reader, however, as did much didactic fiction of its time. The narrator refrains from too much explicit moralizing, allowing us to draw our own lessons from the outcome of the story.
Because Jo learns to behave and becomes a lady at the end of the novel, it is possible to assume that Alcott wants to teach her readers that conformity is good. Interestingly, however, Little Women has been championed by feminists for more than a century because untamed Jo is so compellingly portrayed. Also, in the novel’s characterization of the March sisters, rebellion is often valued over conformity. So while Little Women can be called a didactic novel, the question of what it teaches remains open.