Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, where her father, Bronson Alcott-a transcendentalist philosopher and an educator-directed a school for small children. Bronson later founded the Temple School in Boston, but public opposition to his radical methods and a declining enrollment forced him to close the school and incur a large debt. Suffering financially, the Alcotts eventually moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where Bronson tried to support the family by farming a small piece of land. This endeavor, too, failed. When Bronson became ill and suffered a nervous breakdown, Alcott assumed various domestic jobs, took in sewing, and ran a small school to provide financial support for her mother, Abigail, and the rest of the family. An advocate of women’s rights, Alcott remained unmarried in an age when marriage and motherhood were considered the central events of a woman’s life, and achieved such a degree of literary success that she was able to pay off the family’s huge debt with royalties from her writing.
Her first book, Flower Fables, was a collection of fairy tales that Alcott originally narrated for a young neighbor: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Ellen. Into these stories of fairies, elves, and small animals, Alcott wove observations about patience, duty, honor, and the power of love-themes that would recur in her subsequent writings. During the 1860s Louisa wrote both sentimental stories and lurid, sensational thrillers, the latter genre proving particularly successful.
In 1867 Thomas Niles, an editor at the Roberts Brothers publishing house, suggested that Alcott write a novel for girls. With her father’s encouragement, she began to write Little Women the following year. Part I of the novel, first published on October 1, 1868, portrays a year in the life of the March family but is essentially the story of Alcott’s own family and its domestic adventures. Meg in the novel is Louisa’s older sister Anna; Jo is Louisa herself; Beth and Amy are her younger sisters Elizabeth and May; Marmee is Louisa’s mother, Abigail May; and Mr. March is Louisa’s father, Bronson. She also memorializes her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson as the kind and beneficent Mr. Laurence.
The book was so popular that readers demanded more. Alcott began writing Part II of Little Women at the beginning of November, delivered the completed manuscript to her publishers on January 1, 1869, and saw it published on April 14, 1869. Entirely fictional, Part II relates the girls’ experiences as they attend college, go abroad, and-with the exception of Beth, who dies-get married. Later published together in one volume, the two parts are read today as one continuous novel.
Alcott published several collections of short stories and two sequels to Little Women during the 1870s and 1880s. When she died in Boston on March 6, 1888, two days after her father’s death, she left behind a rich legacy for generations of readers to enjoy.