On November 29, 1832, famed author Louisa May Alcott was born in Philadelphia. She was born to two transcendentalist parents who filled her youth with idealism, books, and political activism. Alcott was taught by famed thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. With such an upbringing, it is hardly a surprise that Alcott grew into an intelligent woman with strong beliefs about women’s rights and abolition. Her fierce independence and wit is written into her female characters, providing inspiration for generations of girls and women, encouraging them to read, create, and be unfailingly themselves.
Lousia May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, was a transcendentalist philosopher with a particular interest in education reform. During Alcott’s childhood, he started an experimental school in Boston and a utopian community in Harvard. Due to the nature of her father’s work, Alcott, her mother, and her three sisters lived in poverty, relying on charity and help from friends (including Emerson) to live. It was her family’s need that led Alcott to submit her writing to magazines. She wrote under a pseudonym, A.M. Barnard, which was not discovered to be Alcott until the 1950s. Under this name, Alcott wrote gothic thrillers and earned a small living to support her mother and sisters.
Alcott’s beliefs as an abolitionist led to her volunteering as a nurse during the Civil War. While working in a hospital, she contracted typhoid fever and was forced to return home. Her experiences as a nurse inspired Hospital Sketches, published in 1863. This work was immediately popular, and so, shortly after, Alcott was offered a job writing for a children’s magazine called Merry’s Museum. It was the editor of this magazine, Thomas Niles, who asked Alcott to write a novel for girls. While Alcott was not particularly interested in this project, her family needed the money, so she began in earnest.
Little Women is an autobiographical novel following Jo March (based on Alcott herself) and her three sisters: Meg, Beth, and Amy (based on Alcott’s sisters Anna, Lizzie, and Abby). The book follows these sisters and their long-suffering mother, Marmie, as they navigate life with their father gone at war, much as Alcott and her sisters would have done as their father was off philosophizing. The book was one of the first to feature educated, independent heroines and thus became an inspiration for many. Female writers in every generation since have acknowledged Alcott and her March sisters as guideposts for their own works. These writers include Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Atwood, Susan Sontag, and Anne Tyler. The novel has been adapted into plays, movies, radio shows, and television series too many times to count. The novel has sold over 10 million copies. The grip Little Women has on us all has not diminished over the years. With any luck, it never will.
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