This Day In Literary History
On November 29th, 1832, the legendary American writer Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She had three sisters, Anna, Elizabeth, and Abigail, and would base her most famous novel on her experiences growing up with them in New England.
Louisa's father was Amos Bronson Alcott, who called himself Bronson. He was a famous teacher and transcendentalist philosopher who belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalist Club.
In addition to his spiritual beliefs, Bronson shared Emerson's ferocious abolitionist convictions. The Alcott family would host a runaway slave in their home. In 1840, when Louisa was eight years old, Bronson moved the family to Concord, Massachusetts.
Growing up in a liberal, intellectual family, Louisa was tutored mostly by her father's friend, the legendary writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. She also received instruction from Ralph Waldo Emerson and family friends Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller.
Louisa would write of these experiences in an early newspaper article, Transcendental Wild Oats. She would also write of the brief time her family lived in the Utopian Fruitlands commune co-founded by her father.
The commune would fail not only because of the members' philosophical extremes, but also due to the severe New England winter for which most of them were unprepared.
Economic hardship would require Louisa to go to work at a very young age, and she worked at such various jobs as governess, seamstress, domestic servant, and occasionally, as a teacher. What she really wanted to be was a writer.
Her first book, Flower Fables, was published in 1849, when she was seventeen years old. It was a collection of short stories originally written for Ralph Waldo Emerson's young daughter, Ellen. A year later, she began writing for the Atlantic Monthly magazine.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Louisa served as a Union hospital nurse, caring for wounded and sick soldiers in Georgetown, D.C. She wrote vivid detailed letters home chronicling her experiences.
These letters would be revised and published in the Commonwealth newspaper. When they appeared in book form as Hospital Sketches (1863), they brought their author to the attention of critics, who praised her talent.
While she worked to build her career as a writer of traditional fiction, Louisa also wrote sensational, passionate stories and novels strictly for money. They were published under the pseudonym of A.M. Bernard.
These early novels were torrid Gothic potboilers with titles like Behind a Mask, or A Woman's Power, A Long Fatal Love Chase, and Pauline's Passion and Punishment. One novel she published anonymously was called A Modern Mephistopheles.
When her collections of children's stories became successful, Louisa was able to devote herself to traditional fiction. In 1868, she published her most famous novel. Originally intended for young adult readers, it would prove to be not only a critical and commercial success, but also a classic work of American literature.
Little Women told the story of the four March sisters, (Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy) growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, was based on Alcott's experiences growing up with her own three sisters in Concord and Boston. Louisa modeled the character of Jo after herself.
Fifteen-year-old Jo March is the second oldest of the sisters. Intelligent, outspoken, and tomboyish, Jo longs to be a writer. An early feminist, Jo finds herself at odds with the restrictions placed on women in the late 19th century, including not being able to go to college and being pressured to marry.
Through the course of the novel, the March sisters become friends with Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, the handsome, charming, affluent boy next door. An orphan, Laurie lives with his grandfather. He becomes especially close to Jo. They get into various scrapes as Laurie joins in the March sisters' adventures.
The sisters also struggle to overcome their particular character flaws (Jo has a temper, Meg is vain, Beth is shy, and Amy selfish) in order to live up to their parents' expectations and become, well, little women.
The first part of Little Women became a huge hit with both critics and readers, and an overnight sensation, selling over 2,000 copies in 1868. Louisa May Alcott received many letters from fans (and visits from them at her home) clamoring for a sequel.
So, in 1869, Alcott published the second part, Good Wives. Although her fans were begging for Jo to get married - especially to Laurie - she initially resisted the idea, believing that Jo should remain a "literary spinster."
Louisa changed her mind, and in Good Wives, married off not only Jo, but Meg and Amy as well. However, in a surprising twist, Jo marries Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer, the poor German immigrant and professor who encouraged her to be a serious writer, while Amy eventually marries Laurie.
Louisa would later write, "Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn't dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her."
As for her own spinsterhood, in an interview with literary critic Louise Chandler Moulton, she joked that the reason she herself was a spinster was because she had "fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man."
In reality, while traveling through Europe, she'd had a passionate affair with a young man she'd met in Switzerland, a Polish freedom fighter named Ladislas "Laddie" Wisniewski.
Louisa would base the character of Laurie on Laddie. Though she had written of her affair with Laddie in her journal, she tore out those pages prior to her death. The details of their relationship remain unknown.
Little Women would be followed by two sequels: Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). Louisa also wrote other memorable novels including Eight Cousins (1875), Under The Lilacs (1878), and Jack and Jill: A Village Story (1880).
Jack and Jill, Alcott's last full length novel published under her own name, is sent in the quaint New England town of Harmony Village. Inseparable best friends and next door neighbors John "Jack" Minot and Jane Pecq are so close that the other kids call them Jack and Jill.
As the novel opens, Jack and Jill go sledding together on a steep, dangerous hill one winter day. Like their nursery rhyme namesakes, they take a nasty fall, which leaves Jack with a broken leg and Jill with a broken back.
Both kids are bedridden, and everyone fears that Jill will never walk again. Jack tries to keep her spirits up while they both recover. They exchange letters often and Jack visits Jill when he's well enough to leave his bed.
Their parents and friends also try to help Jill. As their love for each other deepens, Jack, who recovers from his injury, can't bear the idea that Jill might never walk again. Will she be crippled for life?
Louisa May Alcott suffered from chronically poor health in her later years, which she attributed to mercury poisoning from a typhoid fever treatment. She ultimately died of a stroke in March of 1888 at the age of 55.
Although her early biographers had agreed with her assessment of mercury poisoning, a more recent analysis of her chronic illness indicated that she most likely suffered from lupus.
Quote Of The Day
“Keep good company, read good books, love good things and cultivate soul and body as faithfully as you can." - Louisa May Alcott
Today's video features a complete reading of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, Jack and Jill. Enjoy!