American writer Louisa May Alcott wrote semi-autobiographical books that became classics of children’s literature. Best known for her novel, Little Women (1868-1869), Alcott provided compelling descriptions of 19th-century family life.
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), American author, considered one of the major writers of children’s fiction. Alcott’s best-known book is the novel Little Women (1868-1869), which portrays the trials and triumphs of four sisters growing up in New England in the 19th century. Little Women and its sequels center around family relationships and promote virtues such as perseverance and unselfishness.
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was the second of four daughters of American educator Bronson Alcott and his wife Abigail May Alcott. When Louisa was two years old, the family moved to Boston, Massachusetts. There her father founded the Temple School, which minimized punishment and included organized play, gymnastics, and an honor system (system in which people are trusted without direct supervision). The program urged respect for the intelligence of children and for their potential for personal growth.
In 1839 the Temple School closed, and the next year the Alcott family moved to nearby Concord, Massachusetts, where Bronson became known as a lecturer. He eventually served as superintendent of Concord’s schools, and Abba worked in Boston as a social worker. When Louisa started receiving payments for her fiction, however, she became the main breadwinner for her family. In her writings she indicated that she wrote some of her books, even her admired children’s fiction, primarily for money.
Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables, was published in 1854. The work is a collection of fairy tales. In the late 1850s Alcott began writing Gothic stories for magazines. These dramatic tales emphasized mystery, adventure, and horror. In all, Alcott wrote more than 150 short stories, many of them in the Gothic vein. However, she did not confine herself to one type of writing. Her flexibility as an author showed in her volume Hospital Sketches (1863). Written for an adult audience, this work wryly and vividly describes her experiences as a volunteer nurse for the Union during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Her next book, Moods (1864), also for adults, describes women’s struggles in marriage.
LITTLE WOMEN AND ITS SEQUELS
This 1918 poster advertises a second silent-film version of 19th-century American writer Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Numerous motion-picture versions of this story, which was written between 1868 and 1869, have been made. The version advertised here was produced by William A. Brady, a prominent Broadway producer, and released by Paramount Pictures.
In 1867 Alcott began working as an editor for Merry’s Museum, a children’s magazine. Soon after, she began to write mainly for young readers. Little Women, published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, became her best-known book written for children. The novel focuses on the four sisters of the March family. The characters are based on Louisa and her sisters, and each of these “little women” wrestles with an inner flaw: Meg (Anna Alcott in real life) with vanity, Beth (Elizabeth) with excessive gentleness and timidity, Jo (Louisa) with a hot temper, and Amy (May) with selfishness.
Jo March, the central character of Little Women, is considered the most intriguing personality in the book. Attracted to boyish activities from an early age and brimming with creativity, she represents the independent and rebellious streak found in Alcott herself. In the course of the novel, Jo softens, and she eventually marries an older man. Jo and her husband agree that theirs will be a two-career marriage partly supported by her earnings as the headmistress of a boys’ academy.
Capitalizing on the popularity of Little Women, Alcott produced sequels to the book: Little Men (1871), in which Jo and her husband pattern their academy after Bronson Alcott’s Temple School; and Jo’s Boys (1886), tracing the lives of Jo’s nephews and nieces. Alcott’s other popular books for children include An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870) and Under the Lilacs (1878).
In Alcott’s time, American social reformers such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought to achieve social and political equality for women, particularly through the right for women to vote. Alcott did not formally join the women’s rights movement, but she endorsed its goals.
At the same time, Alcott supported some traditional ideas. Although she herself never married, her novels promoted the ideals of married life, summed up by her statement in Little Women that “a woman’s happiest kingdom is her home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother.” Work (1873), a novel for adults, dramatized a woman’s quest for fulfillment in various jobs that Alcott herself had tried, including governess, seamstress, and domestic servant. Alcott devoted the last years of her life to her writing, to caring for one of her nieces, and to the temperance movement, which worked to prohibit the drinking of alcohol.
In 1995 a previously unpublished suspense story by Alcott, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was released. In 1996 her first work, the novel The Inheritance, which she wrote in 1849, was sold for publication for the first time. These two events, along with the 1994 release of a motion-picture adaptation of Little Women, sparked interest in Alcott’s work in the mid-1990s. Editions of her writings include The Journals of Louisa May Alcott (1989), Louisa May Alcott: Selected Fiction (1990), The Best of Louisa May Alcott (1994), and Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers (1995).
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