Biography of Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, to Abigail “Abba” May Alcott and Amos Bronson Alcott. She was born in Pennsylvania, but she largely grew up near Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Louisa had three sisters: Anna, who was older, Lizzie, who was younger, and May, the youngest.

Louisa’s father was a strident philosopher in the Transcendentalist movement who tried to live by his beliefs. For one six-month period, he moved his family to a collective, experimental farm named Fruitlands where they wore only linen, since cotton was associated with slavery. The experiment, like many of Mr. Alcott’s pursuits, ended with the family impoverished and moving to a new residence. Mr. Alcott opened several schools, but his controversial teaching methods, such as the Socratic Method and avoidance of corporal punishment unless the class unanimously agreed it was necessary, led parents to withdraw their students. His educational methods went on to inform modern pedagogical philosophy. Louisa often felt frustrated by her father’s idealism and the strains it put on her mother and family. Louisa worked in many jobs to help keep her family afloat.

Louisa loved to write and hoped that it would one day help her support her family. She published stories in the Saturday Evening Gazette as a teenager. When she was 22, Flower Fables was published, a book of stories she wrote at 16. Her writing is often autobiographical, as in the gentle satire of her family’s “Transcendental Wild Oats” or her book Work describing her own hardships working, published in 1873. Eager to support the war effort, Louisa served as an army nurse in 1862 and published descriptions of her experience in Hospital Sketches in 1863. This book had small success, enough to bring her to the attention of Thomas Niles, Jr., the editor who asked her to write the girls’ novel. In response, Louisa wrote Little Women, her most famous work, drawing explicitly from her family’s life. The character Jo’s experience publishing her first novel reflected Louisa’s struggle with Moods, published in 1865. Under pseudonyms, Louisa also published “sensation stories” in newspapers, which she wrote largely for money. Louisa was thrilled when the success of Little Women allowed her to pay off her family’s debt.

Louisa was often frustrated with her father’s idealism, but through him, she befriended the families of great thinkers and writers of the time, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Influenced by their ideas and those of her parents, she supported equality of all people and fought for abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, in addition to being part of the temperance movement advocating abstinence from alcohol. Like the character Jo, Louisa was very independent. She never married, but did care for her niece Lulu after Lulu’s mother May died. Unlike Jo, Louisa was able to travel to Europe twice, once in 1865-1866 and again in 1870-1871. She returned the day of publication of Little Men.

Louisa May Alcott was a prolific author, publishing over 30 books and collections of short stories. She died two days after her father, on March 6, 1888.


Study Guides on Works by Louisa May Alcott