Louisa May Alcott was a fascinating woman. Besides being the author of Little Women, she was also an abolitionist, a feminist, and a suffragette. I wish it were possible somehow to talk to her today, particularly about the lasting impact of her work and about how family life has evolved in the last 150 years. Since that’s not happening anytime soon, the next best thing we can do is take the time to get to know her a little better.
With that in mind, here are 10 fascinating facts about Alcott:
She grew up among many of the well-known American intellectuals of the mid-19th century, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. Her family even lived, for a short time, in an unsuccessful transcendentalist utopian community called Fruitlands. I bet was an interesting story.
Early in her career, Alcott used the pen name A.M. Barnard, under which she wrote Gothic pulp novels for young adults.
Alcott was the second of four daughters, just like Jo March, and based the character on herself. May Alcott, Alcott’s mother, was the inspiration for Marmee. She was one of the first social workers in Boston to be salaried.
Alcott’s first book was called Flower Fables. It was written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1849.
In 1847, Alcott and her family served as station masters on the Underground Railroad.
When the Civil War broke out, Alcott served as a nurse in the Union Hospital for six weeks in 1862–1863. Her writing based on this experience was published and well received.
Alcott wrote both parts of Little Women very quickly, at the request of her publisher. Her family had long struggled with serious poverty, even going hungry at times, so they needed the funds provided by Alcott's writing. In fact, her publisher told Alcott's father they would only publish his book on philosophy if he could convince his daughter to write a novel for girls. So she did it. Alcott wasn’t sure she could write a successful book for girls, and claimed not to enjoy even trying. Despite these doubts, her early young readers loved early chapters of Little Women, and the book was an immediate commercial success--thanks in part to its realism. In fact, the publisher had trouble keeping up with demand for additional printings after it was released. Impressive!
Alcott was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts, when it was made legal for women to do so, in a school board election in 1879. Alcott wrote in her diary at the time about how frustrating it was to convince other females in the community to vote: “Trying to stir up the women about Suffrage. So timid & slow…Drove about & drummed up women to my Suffrage meeting. So hard to move people out of the old ruts.”
Alcott never married, saying of the choice: “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul put by some freak of nature into a woman's body ... because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man." Despite this extremely interesting proclamation, Alcott did have a romance in Europe with "Laddie" Wisniewski, who was a model for Laurie.
Alcott received many letters from readers who called her “Miss March,” or “Jo,” and she didn’t correct them. Today, at 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, fans can visit Orchard House, a designated National Historic Landmark and the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women.
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