Thursday, November 29, 2012

Happy birthday, Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott
It is the birthday of writer Louisa May Alcott (1832), who is best remembered for her novels Little Women (1868), Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886), a trilogy set in Concord, Massachusetts, in the late 19th century. The books were loosely based on Alcott's life with her three sisters. Alcott never set out to write a trilogy but the books are linked by characters who appear in all three.

Alcott's family struggled financially throughout her childhood. She was educated primarily by her father as well as family friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. To help support the family, Alcott worked as a teacher, governess, seamstress, and domestic helper. Writing became an emotional outlet to relieve the stress of her life.

Alcott's first published work, Flower Fables (1854) was a collection of stories she wrote for Emerson's daughter Ellen. She received about $35 after it was published. In her late 20s, Alcott's work was published in the Atlantic Monthly. She volunteered as a nurse at a Union hospital at the beginning of the Civil War. Her letters home were published in an abolitionist newspaper in Boston and later collected as Hospital Sketches (1863). Alcott wrote impassioned political pieces under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard.

Little Women chronicles the lives of the four March sisters in their family home in Concord. It was based on Alcott's home, Orchard House. The initial book was such a success that she wrote a second volume titled Good Wives that also was well received. Later the two books were combined under the Little Women title. The book gave Alcott financial independence.

Little Men follows the main character, Jo, as she teaches at the unorthodox Plumfield Estate School. The school is mentioned at the end of Little Women. It is financed by Jo's inheritance. The youngsters are taught lesson by running their own businesses and tending their own gardens. For fun, they have pillow fights on Saturdays.

Jo's Boys carries the subtitle How They Turned Out: A Sequel to Little Men. The boys at the school are now grown up and they face the challenges of adulthood. They enter various professions, fall in love and travel in Europe.

Alcott died in 1888 at age 55. Scholars think she died of lupus, though her earliest biographers attributed her death to mercury poisoning received in treatment for typhoid fever during the Civil War.

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