One day in 1857, Louisa May Alcott walked to the Mill Dam in Boston’s Back Bay, stared into the Charles River and thought about throwing herself into it. She was 24, poor, discouraged and unable to find a job to help support her family.
Looking into the river, she talked herself out of suicide. In a letter to her family, she wrote that it
…seemed so mean to turn & run away before the battle was over that I went home, set my teeth & vowed I’d make things work in spite of the world, the flesh & the devil.
She resolved ‘to take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.’
A decade later, Little Women brought her fame and fortune. But not before her beloved sister died, the Civil War broke out and she developed a debilitating chronic illness.
Louisa May Alcott was born in what is now Philadelphia on Nov. 29, 1832, her father’s 33rd birthday. Like Jo March, the main character in Little Women, she was the second of four sisters. Like Jo, she was a tomboy. “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters,” she once wrote. Her mother, Abigail May, was the model for Marmee.
Louisa May Alcott wrote her father out of Little Women, sending the Father March character off to the Civil War. She probably knew Bronson Alcott, a 19th century hippie, wasn’t quite ready for prime time.
Bronson Alcott abandoned his first career as a traveling salesman because he thought it would ruin his soul. He became a vegan and turned to teaching. He once lost all of his students after admitting a young African-American girl 25 years before slavery was abolished. Alcott also started a Transcendentalist utopia called Fruitlands in Harvard, Mass., but that, like so many of his ventures, failed.
When Louisa May Alcott was two, the family moved to Boston. Much of her life was spent in Concord, Mass., where she knew many of the household names of the 19th century. William Lloyd Garrison was a close family friend after he, her parents and a few others formed the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. She knew Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
Elizabeth Peabody boarded with the Alcotts, and John Brown’s daughter lived with them after Brown was hanged. Nathanael Hawthorne was a neighbor who didn’t get along with her father, Henry David Thoreau was her schoolteacher and Ralph Waldo Emerson lived next door. Bronson Alcott’s teaching assistants included Margaret Fuller and Dorothea Dix.
For all that proximity to fame, the Alcotts struggled to survive. Alcott believed in the ‘sweetness of self denial’ — a convenient philosophy for someone who couldn’t support his wife and four daughters. Their poverty combined with Bronson Alcott’s ideas about nutrition meant their diet consisted of unleavened bread, porridge, potatoes, squash, rice, graham meal and water. Sometimes Louisa May and her sisters went hungry. One year, they ate apple pudding for their Thanksgiving dinner.
Art Imitates Life
At an early age, Louisa May Alcott went to work to help support her family. There weren’t many jobs available to women then, and none of her jobs paid well. She worked as a companion to invalids, as a maid, as a seamstress, as a teacher, which she disliked. She later wrote a semi-autobiographical book about those jobs called Work, A Story of Experience.
In Work, Christie Devon, her main character, can’t find work and thinks about killing herself. Christie stands on a bridge, looking down at swirling black water, and says to herself, “I must go.” An old friend happens to pass by and saves her from herself.
In real life, Louisa May Alcott walked away from the Mill Dam and started going to Sunday meeting. She followed the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who preached a message of social activism. One Sunday, Parker preached a sermon called ‘Laborious Young Women’ in which he advised, Don’t be too proud to ask, and accept the humblest work till you can find the task you want.
Louisa May Alcott presented herself at his door. Parker wasn’t home, but his wife was. She put her in touch with a woman named Hannah Stevenson, who helped her find a job working four hours a day as a governess.
No More Sisterhood
The next year, her younger sister Elizabeth died and her older sister Anna got married. Louisa May felt her sisterhood was broken up, but she soldiered on. In 1860, she began writing for the Atlantic Monthly.
By 1862 she was officially a spinster. Approaching 30, she went to Washington, D.C., to work as a Civil War nurse. There she became ill with typhoid fever. She would never fully recover from what she thought was the doctor’s ministrations of mercury.
There was an upside: Her letters home about the Civil War hospital were published as Hospital Sketches and earned her critical recognition. She was then able to make a living writing novels under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard.
Back home at the age of 36 she angrily began writing Little Women at her publisher’s request. She didn’t want to write a girls’ book, but she persevered. The book was hugely successful, enabling the Alcott family to live in comfort and Louisa to write best-selling novels for the next 20 years. Of the surprising success of ‘Little Women,’ she wrote, “It reads better than I expected. Not a bit sensational but simple and true, for we really lived most of it.”
Over the course of her lifetime, Louisa May Alcott produced 200 literary works, including children’s books, serious novels, pulp fiction and suspense novels. One, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was first published in 1995 and became a best seller.
Louisa May Alcott may have remembered her low moment by the Charles River when she wrote
Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.
With thanks to American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever and Eden’s Outcasts: Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson.