Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator and philosopher, and Abigail May, the energetic, philanthropist. Louisa grew up in Concord and Boston, suffering from poverty as a result of her selfish idealist father's inability to support his family. Bronson Alcott habitually sacrificed his wife and daughters by refusing to compromise with a venal world, most conspicuously when he subjected them to an experiment in ascetic communal living at Fruitlands farm in 1843. However, the Alcotts' intellectual environment was rich and stimulating: Louisa's parents assidously encouraged her writing, and her friends included leaders in abolition and women's rights, including the Transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa took nature walks with Thoreau and had the run of Emerson's library.
By the time she had reached her teens, she felt a responsibility to help her mother and older sister provide for the family. She taught, sewed, worked as a domestic and a companion, and wrote fairy tales and romantic thrillers. When the Civil War broke out, she was eager to participate, animated by her dislike of female passivity as well as her hatred of slavery. She enlisted as a nurse ans served for three weeks in an army hospital in Washington, D.C., until she contracted typhoid fever. She was treated with mercury, which permanently undermined her health. The experience did, however, provide material for her Hospital Sketches, which vividly combines heartbreaking pathos in death of a gental, stoical blacksmith, indignation at male official callousness and mismanagement, and humorous self-portrayal as the warmhearted, hot- tempered, down-to-earth Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle. In that year, she proudly recorded in her journal, she earned almost $600 "by my writing alone," of which she "spent less than a hundred" for herself. From then on, she provided the major financial support for her family, while remaining obligated to help them with the heavy housework and nurse them when ill. She never married.
Later on, a publisher approached Louisa to do a girls' book, she accepted the offer only because she needed the money. The result was Little Women , one of the bestsellers of all time. Within four years it had sold 82,0...
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... her characters who rebel against conventionally defined female goodness. Alcott, however, did not let her resentment surface in behavior: she constantly sacrificed her personal comfort and the artistic quality of her works to the demands of her family. She "plunged into a vortex" to write Work but had to stop to nurse her sister Anna through pneumonia; when she finished the book, it was "Not what it should be,-too many interruptions. Should like to do one book in peace, and see if it wouldn't be good." When her father was dying, she regularly dragged herself out to see him, although very ill herself; two days after his death, free at last of family obligations, she died in Boston.
Alcott will always be remembered for Little Women , the classic American story of girls growing up. In her own time, it established her reputation as a purveyor of perceptive and sympathetic, but always morally uplifting, literature for young people. The subversive, feminist element in her books has only recently been clearly recognized. We now see not so much "the Children's Friend" as a deeply conflicted woman whose work richly expresses the tensions of female lives in nineteenth-century America.
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