The Childhood of Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott is famous for her children’s novels, especially Little Women. Without certain events in her childhood, however, Louisa might not have become a writer.

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was headmaster of a school there, but left when the school’s patron died. He founded another school in Boston, Massachusetts. The family moved several more times due to Bronson’s inability to support his growing family. Louisa had an older sister named Anna and two younger sisters, Elizabeth and May. After Bronson’s failure to make money from a communal living experiment in 1843, he had a nervous breakdown. Louisa’s mother Abigail took charge of the family and taught her girls to work from a young age.

As soon as young Anna and Louisa could safely hold needles, they helped their mother with her work. In addition to sewing for neighbors, Abigail also become one of Boston’s first social workers. Food was often scarce and the Alcott family ate many meals of vegetables and apples.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

Louisa May Alcott at age 20

Despite being poor, Louisa Alcott’s childhood was not entirely gloomy. As a toddler, Louisa played with her father’s books and scribbled on any blank pages she could find. Louisa said since she was little “books have been my greatest comfort, and scribbling a very profitable amusement.” When her father had a school, Louisa went there, and afterward had lessons at home. She disliked math and grammar but enjoyed reading, composition, and history. Even tasks like sewing were more enjoyable because Louisa’s mother read stories to the children as they worked.

Bronson Alcott was a friend of writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the family lived near him for a time. Louisa relished the opportunity to browse Emerson’s library. Her favorite books included Pilgrim’s Progress, fairy tales, and she read Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters. When she grew older, Louisa tutored Emerson’s daughters and made up stories for them.

Abigail Alcott encouraged her daughters to journal to express their feelings. She thought it would help them work through some of the frustrations of having little money and moving frequently. When she noticed that Louisa enjoyed writing even more than the others, she supported her daughter’s interest. On Louisa’s tenth birthday her mother wrote, “I give you the pencil-case I promised, for I observe that you are fond of writing, and wish to encourage the habit.” At age thirteen Louisa was writing stories in addition to journaling. She dreamed of becoming a famous author so her mother wouldn’t have to worry about money any more.

Some of Louisa’s early stories appeared in the Saturday Evening Gazette under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield. Louisa was encouraged by the fact that her stories made some money, even if it was a small amount. In 1854, Louisa May Alcott’s first book, Flower Fables, was published. It was a collection of short stories she wrote for Emerson’s daughters. From these small beginnings, Louisa financially supported her parents and sisters by writing books.

Sources:

The World of Louisa May Alcott by William Anderson.

Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante.

Louisa May Alcott by Ruth K. MacDonald.

2 thoughts on “The Childhood of Louisa May Alcott

  1. Interesting post, Heather. Louisa was a remarkable woman as was her mother. Louisa worked on the Underground Railroad, served as a Civil War nurse, and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord.
    Have you visited Orchard House?

    Liked by 1 person

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