Louisa May Alcott, born November 29, 1832, was the second oldest of four girls born to Amos Bronson and Abby May Alcott. For the early part of her life, the family moved several times, but by 1845, with Abby’s inheritance and a little help from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the family settled into a home in Concord, Massachusetts that they called “Hillside.” Louisa’s parents were part of the transcendental movement and along with her father, many of their friends provided education for the girls, including Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Only the youngest girl, Abigail May, was able to attend public school.
Life was difficult for the family financially, so their mother did social work among immigrant communities and the girls all contributed as they became old enough by working as seamstresses, governesses and domestic help. Louisa also began to write. Her first book, Flower Fables (1849) was a collection of stories originally written for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen. By 1860, she was also writing for the Atlantic Monthly. During the Civil War, Louisa worked as a nurse in a Union hospital, writing home frequently about her experiences. After the war, these letters were revised and the stories published as Hospital Sketches.
In the years following the war, Louisa wrote several novels for adults under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard and began to write stories for children which were very positively received. This is when the work she is best known for was published, Little Women in 1868, followed by Good Wives (1869) and Little Men (1871). Jo’s Boys was the last of the books about the March family, published in 1886.
Although the March family in many ways mirrored Louisa’s own family, there were some differences. Unlike Jo in the books, Louisa never married. After the death of her sister May, however, she took in May’s daughter as her own. Louisa continued to write until her death in 1888. Her health had been deteriorating, some say from mercury poisoning, but more recent research indicates that she may have had an autoimmune disease such as lupus. Regardless of the cause, she died from a stroke on March 6 in Boston at the age of 55.
Find out what else happened on November 29 in Women’s History.