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Featured Books

Little Women (Norton Critical Editions)Summary and Reviews of Little Women (Norton Critical Editions)
Work: a Story of ExperienceSummary and Reviews of Work: a Story of Experience
Moods: A NovelSummary and Reviews of Moods: A Novel
Hospital Sketches - An Army Nurses's True Account of her Experience During the Civil WarSummary and Reviews of Hospital Sketches - An Army Nurses's True Account of her Experience During the Civil War
A Modern MephistophelesSummary and Reviews of A Modern Mephistopheles
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Louisa May Alcott

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Louisa May Alcott (1868-69). was born in Germantown (now part of Philadelphia), the second of four daughters of Abigail May Alcott and Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), a full-fledged member of the New England Transcendentalist circle.  Louisa, under Bronson's guidance and utilizing his expertise and access as a teacher, was unusually educated during her childhood.  Theodore Parker, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were, of course, a part of Alcott's life, and Alcott drew on their influence and her father's in her stories.  Bronson himself wrote poems, but Louisa is the Alcott who is revered for her writing, and for good reason.

Emerson gave Louisa Goethe's Correspondence with a Child, and she was inspired.  She even wrote letters to Emerson, playing the role of the child to Emerson's Goethe.  She never sent the letters, but the experience launched her love for writing and philosophy.  Alcott's first book, Flower Fables (1854), a collection of tales, was originally written for Emerson's daughter Ellen. The failure of her father's utopian community Fruitlands distracted her since she had to take a leadership role in the family after Bronson turned despondent over his failure.  Bronson did write a sonnet that praised Louisa May as "duty's faithful child". After the family had moved back to Boston, Louisa became a domestic servant and later was able to use the experience as the setting for a novel called Work: A Story of Experience (1873).  The novel was about the unhappiness of being a domestic servant but also her commitment to social reform.  Alcott may not have adopted the Emersonian brand of Transcendentalism, but she did adopt the reform-minded, Thoreau-like philosophy.  She even signed many of her letters "Yours for reform of all kinds."

By 1860, the Atlantic Monthly (now The Atlantic) was publishing some of Alcott's short stories and poems.  As another sign of her reformist side-she was a staunch abolitionist--from 1862 to 1863 Alcott served at the Union Hospital in Georgetown, D.C. unfortunately, she contracted typhoid and was forced to return home. In 1863 Alcott published HOSPITAL SKETCHES, a collection of her wartime letters. Although some objected to the "the tone of levity," Hospital Sketches was popular.  This success encouraged her enough that she tried her hand at a novel.  A Long Fatal Love Chase was serialized in a magazine, but her publisher considered the novel "too sensational" to be published in book form.  It was not published as a book until 1995.

In 1867 Alcott became editor of a children's magazine, Merry Museum. Alcott was soon in financial need so she wrote Little Women.  As has often happened in literary history, Alcott gained enormous fame as a writer through this "throw away" project.

Little Women was published in two parts in 1868 and 1869 - the second part under the title Good Wives. Originally written as a "girls' story" for Thomas Niles, a partner in the Boston firm of Roberts Brothers, Alcott wrote during her writing in her journal: "I plod away, though I don't really enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it." In 1880, Little Women was published in a somewhat sugarcoated form from the original.  This version has been the basis for the subsequent editions.  This is probably the American reader's loss.

Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886) followed, along with others, in which she followed the lives of the March family girls.  During Alcott's final years, her mother and her sister May, who left behind a little daughter, Louisa May Nieriker.  For her namesake, Alcott wrote the story 'Lu Sing, later published in the St. Nicholas magazine in 1902. She did not complete any more literary work.  Louisa May Alcott died from intestinal cancer in Boston on March 6, 1888, a few days after her father had died. She never married. Once Alcott said of herself, "I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman's body".

Though Alcott has always been considered a children's writer, she also wrote melodramas and thrillers.  One thriller, was A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), which she published anonymously.  Another of her darker stories, A Whisper in the Dark (1889), was published posthumously with A Modern Mephistopheles under her real name.  Finally the novella Behind a Mask, which originally appeared anonymously in The Flag of Our Union (1866), portrays a deceitful governess, who uses her skills as a former actress to find a rich husband.  Alcott's revengeful heroines and themes from mind control and madness, hashish experimentation and opium addiction, differ radically from the domestic atmosphere of her best-known works.  However, they only add to her appeal to modern readers and to modern scholars' opinion of Alcott as a literary giant.


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