Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Louisa Alcott

NAME Louisa Alcott

WHAT FAMOUS FOR Author of Children's classic Little Woman.

BIRTH Germantown nr Philadelphia 1832

FAMILY BACKGROUND Louise's father, Amos Alcott, was a transcendentalist, philosopher and educator. His staunch adherence to his educational theories brought much disappointment and little money, as he couldn't establish a successful school. So Louisa had to work.
Amos Alcott once said "Sloth is the tempter that beguiles and expels from paradise." Also "Debate is angular, conversation circular and radiant of the underlying unity." Er yes... and "To be ignorant of one's ignorance is the melody of the ignorant." I bet he was a hit at dinner parties. Amos Alcott's educational theories were a mish mash of Socrates and Jesus. He established a series of schools aimed at stimulating thought and awakening the soul. One way of doing this was teachers receiving punishment from offending pupils. This apparently resulted in a sense of shame being installed in the errant children. Not surprisingly these innovations were not widely accepted.
After this he had spells working as a handyman. In between of which he had a failed Utopian community, Fruitlands, until Louisa's success brought him financial security. His writings were considered by most as yawnerama city.
Louisa's mother, Abigail May (Abba) was often the breadwinner as a social worker in Boston.
Louisa had one older sister, Anna and two younger, Lizzie and May.

CHILDHOOD Louisa spent her childhood in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, where she was prone to periods of hyperactivity followed by days of depression and listlessness. A tomboy, Louisa liked climbing trees and leaping fences.
She grew up in the company of her father's friends, the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and the naturalist Henry David Thoreau. The future writer liked visiting Emerson's library, excursions into nature with Henry David Thoreau and theatricals in the barn at Hillside.
Emerson said prophetically of young Louisa Alcott's early attempts to write. "She is a natural source of stories... she is and is to be the poet of children."

EDUCATION Louisa was educated until the age of 16 by means of informal schooling from her father with the occasional help of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Her father's controversial conversational method of teaching was successful with Louisa.

CAREER RECORD 1849 Began taking on small jobs to support her impoverished family such as teaching small children and mending and washing laundry.
1852 Louisa Alcott's first poem Sunlight was published in Peterson's Magazine.
1855 Her first book was published, Flower Fables.
1860 Her verses and stories appear in the Atlantic Monthly.
1862-3 Works as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War at Georgetown Hospital
1867 Editor of young girl's magazine- Merrys Museum.

APPEARANCE Louisa had straight short hair with a v parting on her forehead.

FASHION Having been bought up in such a progressive household, it was no surprise that Louisa became a free-thinker herself. She addressed as number of women's issues, including protesting against the corset.

CHARACTER The heroine of Little Women, Jo, was a partial self portrait.
A natural love of labour, wide-reaching generosity, quick perception, and a fondness for sharing with her many readers the cheery humour that radiated from her personality.

SENSE OF HUMOUR Well, though her father wasn't exactly a bundle of laughs, Louisa showed a sense of humour in her writing.

RELATIONSHIPS Louisa never married. When her youngest sister May died in 1879, Louisa took her two year old daughter, Louisa May Nieriker ("Lulu"), into care.

MONEY AND FAME Louisa wrote when young, "I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream. " She originally turned to writing to support her impoverished family and earned $2,000 with her Hospital Sketches. By 1869 Louisa was able to write in her journal "Paid up all the debts thank the Lord." By the time of her death her book sales had reached the one million mark. And she'd realised $200,000 from her fiction.

INTERESTS FOOD AND DRINK Louisa's father was a pioneering vegan. His diet excluded meat, eggs, and all milk products and he drank only well water. The transcendentalist philosopher exchanged vegetarian recipes with Emerson and Thoreau.

MUSIC AND ARTS At the age of 15 Louisa was writing and producing amateur theatricals, which they performed in the barn at Hillside. After they'd moved to Orchard House in Concord, the family performed the plays, using the dining room as their stage while guests watched from the adjoining parlor. Later some of her melodramas were produced in Boston.

LITERATURE Louisa, who could write with both her left and right hand, penned over 300 books in different genres. These included several racy pot boilers under a pseudonym A. M. Barnard, such as A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline's Passion and Punishment. These adult novels were of the type referred to in Little Women as "dangerous for little minds," so many decided to skip Lou's racy works.
Amongst her best known books are:
1854 Flowers Fables These were fairy stories Louisa made up to tell the pupils that she was teaching. She wrote a year later: "My book came out and people began to think that topsy-turvy Louisa would amount to something after all."
1863 Hospital Sketches. While serving as an army nurse during the American Civil War, Louisa wrote letters to her family that were later published as Hospital Sketches. This was her first book which got critical recognition.
1868 Little Women Louisa was urged by her publishers to write a book for girls. This largely autobiographical novel was penned in 6 weeks at Orchard House during the summer of 1868. The story about four teenage sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March growing up in a Victorian New England village was based on Louisa and her sisters coming of age. Jo March, who was a partial self portrait, was the first American juvenile heroine to be shown acting from her own individuality. An immediate success, the book instantly sold more than 2,000 copies and soon made her famous. It has since been translated into 20 languages.
1869 Little Women Part 2 The catchy titled sequel, which showed what happened to the March sisters when they reached adulthood (and weren't little women any longer). In Britain it was more logically titled Good Wives.
"Girls are so queer you never know what they mean. They say no when they mean yes and drive a man out of his wits for the fun of it." Little Women Part 2
1871 Little Men This book, which Louisa wrote in three weeks, whilst on vacation in Rome, continues the story of Jo.
1886 Jo's Boys. This completed the saga of the March girls.
1995 A Long Fatal Love Chase One of Louisa's more adult offerings, which I mentioned earlier, it was rejected by her publishers for being too racy. The manuscript lay undiscovered for a century only to be rediscovered and published in 1995.

NATURE The Alcott family took part in an experimental communal village known as Fruitlands. Here Louisa's father wanted to bring his daughters a greater understanding of nature.

PHILOSOPHY & THEOLOGY Louisa devoted herself to social reform, temperance and women's suffrage movements.
The American poet and humorist Richard Armour quipped in American Lit Relit that, "The Transcendentalists were a group of New Englanders who looked upon themselves as mystics and were looked upon by others as queer."

SCANDAL Some critics of Louisa who were put out by her progressive views claimed that she didn't want to write Little Women. Others maintained that the authoress despised young girls and wrote the best seller for the money.

MILITARY RECORD Louisa served as a nurse during the civil war in a union hospital at Georgetown, now part of Washington DC.

HOMES Louisa spent her childhood in Boston. She spent much of her life in Orchard House, Concord (not the plane but the place in Massachusetts). In her later years Louisa suffered ill health and she rented a room away from family home in order to be able to sleep without the use of drugs. Orchard House was made a memorial in 1911.
1834 Moved to Massachusetts
1840 Moved to Concord where Ralph Emerson helped the Alcott family set up residence.
1843 Her father set up experimental communal village called Fruitlands in Harvard Massachusetts.
1845 Fruitlands failed. The Alcott family returned to Concord taking up residence at Hillside.
1849 Moved to Boston
1857 Returned to Concord. Her father had purchased Orchard House (now 399 Lexington Road, Concord). The plot included two early eighteenth century houses on 12 acres of apple trees.
1862 Headed to union hospital at Georgetown, Washington DC to serve as nurse.
1863 Returned to Concord
1880 Moved to Boston with Lulu.
1885 Moved with what remained of her family to elegant Louisberg Square, Boston.

TRAVEL In 1865 Louisa used the proceeds of Hospital Sketches to pay for a trip to Europe. She travelled with a wealthy invalid. By 1870, after the success of Little Women, she was now wealthy enough to make a longer trip to Europe along with her sister, May.

HEALTH AND PHYSICAL FITNESS Louisa served as a military nurse during the civil war and contacted typhoid pneumonia from the unsanitary conditions in the union hospital. The doctors used calomel, a drug laden with mercury to cure her. A side effect of her treatment was losing her hair and numerous mouth sores. Louisa never fully recovered her health and after returning home to Concord, Massachusetts, she suffered mental depressions and hallucinations in which a Spaniard clad in black leaps through her bedroom window at night. For the rest of her life, she was consistently tired and in constant pain caused at least partially by the demands of her family.

DEATH Louisa died March 6, 1888, at the age of 55, on the day of her father's funeral. She succumbed to the lingering after-effects of mercury poisoning, contracted during her Civil War service. Louisa was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at Bedford Street in Concord, Massachusetts. Henry Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau can be found at the same cemetery.

APPEARANCES IN MEDIA There have been a number of major film versions of Little Women, including two silent, a 1949 bore and two goodies, 1933 with Katherine Hepburn as Jo and 1995 with Winona Ryder as Jo. Ryder was Oscar nominated for her performance.

ACHIEVEMENTS 1. Little Women and its sequels, Good Wives, Jo's Boys and Little Men were precursors of the Jackie Collins/Barbara Taylor Bradford's mini sagas.
2. Louisa has a crater on Venus named after her.

Sources Cassells Book of Humorous Quotations (1969), Table Talk by Derek Nimmo, The Independent March 16, 1995, and of course Wikipedia (

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