How Louisa May Alcott won the hearts of generations to come
The famed author, suffragist, and abolitionist is remembered on what would have been her 184th birthday.
One hundred and eighty-four years ago today, a literary giant was born to a small, struggling family in Pennsylvania. Yet within just a few decades, Louisa May Alcott won herself both a reputation and the hearts and minds of generations with her prose.
Google Doodle creator Sophia Diao decided to depict Ms. Alcott with her three sisters in commemoration of her birthday and her most beloved work, "Little Women."
Alcott was born in 1832, the daughter of prominent (but impecunious) Transcendentalist intellectual Amos Bronson Alcott. Mr. Alcott moved his family around frequently, finally settling in Concord, Mass., in 1840 when Louisa was eight years old.
In Concord, the Alcotts found, if not earthly wealth, then a bounty of friends and intellectual sparring partners. Prominent Transcendentalists and New England intellectuals Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau also lived in town, as did Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In the midst of this intellectual bounty, however, the Alcotts continued to struggle financially, forcing Louisa to take jobs as a school teacher and a seamstress.
As abolitionists and New Englanders, the Alcotts supported the North during the American Civil War, and Louisa took her commitment to the cause a step further when she served as a nurse in Union hospitals.
Her experiences during the Civil War inspired her first book, "Hospital Sketches," which won her some small notice in the literary world. "Hospital Sketches," although rarely read today, served to highlight Louisa’s writing talent, and attracted the notice of a publisher.
That publisher met with her father, and the two men struck a deal, urging Louisa to write a book for young girls. Contingent on Louisa’s writing was a book contract for her father.
At first, Louisa was reluctant to write the book, saying that it was not her preferred type of writing. Yet her manuscript, called "Little Women," which drew on her own experiences with her three sisters, quickly became a massive success, finally lifting the Alcotts out of their longstanding poverty.
After "Little Women," Louisa published a series of books for children. While these books are often criticized today for their moralizing and their overly sanitized depictions of 19th-century life, they remain beloved by readers young and old, who seem to recognize themselves in the comforting portrait of family life that the novels convey.
"It is perhaps no surprise, then, that a few days after the polls, I saw 'Little Women' appear in a list of titles to read 'for comfort' amid the post-election recrimination," write Rafia Zakaria for the Guardian of "Little Women" following the recent presidential election. "The book’s fictive construction of a girlhood idyll, its retreat from a harsh world into the cosiness of hearth and home, can serve up solace, even succour, against political quagmires past and present."
Despite the invariably happy-ending romances she penned for her heroines, however, Louisa never married, saying that she simply never "fell in love." Instead, she remained married to her work.
Alcott, who died at the age of 55, is today considered a literary giant who opened the doors for women in the realm of popular fiction. Her spunky, grouchy, lovable girls ushered in an era in which fictional women were true to real life, a gift that women and girls around the world continue to appreciate today.