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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa Alcott was born on November 29, 1832 in Germantown, which is now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the second of four daughters of transcendentalist and educator Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May.

Louisa grew up in the company of her father's friends, the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and the naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Emerson said prophetically of young Louisa Alcott's early attempts to write. "She is a natural source of stories... she is and is to be the poet of children."

Louisa could write with both her left and right hand

Her first published work was a poem Sunlight, which was published in Peterson's Magazine in 1852.

Headshot of Louisa May Alcott at age 20

Louisa served as a nurse during the American Civil War in a union hospital at Georgetown, now part of Washington DC. The letters that she wrote to her family were later published as Hospital Sketches. This was her first book which got critical recognition.

Louisa contacted typhoid pneumonia from the unsanitary conditions in the union hospital. The doctors used calomel, a drug laden with mercury, to cure her. A side effect of her treatment was losing her hair and numerous mouth sores. Louisa never fully recovered her health and after returning home to Concord, Massachusetts, she suffered mental depressions and hallucinations in which a Spaniard clad in black leaps through her bedroom window at night.

Her most famous book was Little Women. This largely autobiographical novel was penned in six weeks at home during the summer of 1868. The story about four teenage sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March growing up in a Victorian New England village was based on Louisa and her sisters coming of age.

Jo March, who was a partial self portrait, was the first American juvenile heroine to be shown acting from her own individuality.

An immediate success, Little Women instantly sold more than 2,000 copies and soon made her famous. It has since been translated into 20 languages.

Louisa wrote three sequels to Little Women- Little Women Part 2 (1869), Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886).

Louisa was a free-thinker and addressed a number of women's issues, including protesting against the corset.

Louisa never married, but in 1865, while in Europe, she met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom she nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Louisa culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris. 

When her youngest sister May died in 1879, Louisa took her two year old daughter, Louisa May Nieriker ("Lulu"), into care.

Louisa May Alcott

She originally turned to writing to support her impoverished family and earned $2,000 with her Hospital Sketches. By the time of her death her book sales had reached the one million mark. And she'd realised $200,000 from her fiction.

Louisa penned over 300 books in different genres. These included several racy pot boilers under a pseudonym A. M. Barnard, such as A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline's Passion and Punishment. These adult novels were of the type referred to in Little Women as "dangerous for little minds."

Later in life Louisa became active in the women's suffrage movement and was the first female register to vote in at home town of Concord Massachusetts in 1879.

Louisa May Alcott died March 6, 1888, at the age of 55, on the day of her father's funeral. She succumbed to the lingering after-effects of mercury poisoning, contracted during her Civil War service.

She was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at Bedford Street in Concord, Massachusetts. Henry Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau can be found at the same cemetery.

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