Author Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832, though when she was young the family moved to Concord, Massachusetts. Louisa was the second of four sisters; her mother, Abigail ("Abba") May, was descended from the witch-burning judge Samuel Sewall and the noted abolitionist Joseph May. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a transcendalist, philosopher, and teacher, whose eminent friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorn. Unfortunately, these gentlemen were more successful than Alcott, whose intermittent utopian projects seemed destined for failure; his feckless ways ensured that Louisa and her sisters grew up in poverty, and Louisa would later say that her entire career was motivated by a desire to compensate for the deprivations of her childhood.
Bronson had radical ideas about education reform, believing that children should enjoy learning and be involved in their own schooling. He founded several schools, all of which failed, and took part in several communes which likewise fell apart. Nevertheless, he taught his daughters well, and the girls were lucky also to have lessons from Thoreau and access to the impressive library of Emerson. From her parents and their friends - who included neighbours Margaret Fuller and Julia Ward - Louisa was exposed to other radical views, such as those espoused by the suffragettes, and would later promote such ideas in her books.
The family moved to Boston in 1849, and Louisa began to work to support the family; indeed, Abba and her daughters had to provide for the destitute family, and all the girls worked from an early age. Louisa took a number of jobs, including teacher, seamstress, and servant, but was most passionate about writing. She began in childhood with melodramatic plays which she and her sisters performed, and had her first poem published in 1851 under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield. Though that didn't net much money, over the next few years she published, under a number of names, lurid sensational serials which were popular and lucrative. These short stories often feature a vengeful heroine bent on destruction, as well as ghosts, opium eaters, and mercenaries - a far cry from the sanitized sweetness Alcott is famous for having penned.
In 1855 Louisa's first book, Flower Fables, was published; the Alcotts moved to Walpole, New Hampshire, but the ambitious Louisa stayed on in Boston in order to further her career. In 1856 the third daughter, Lizzie, contracted scarlet fever; the family was forced back to Concord, where Emerson bought them a house, and Lizzie soon succumbed to her illness. Then the eldest, Anna, announced her engagement, and Louisa returned to Concord to help her mother cope with the loss of two daughters. In 1862 Louisa went to Washington, D.C. to work as a nurse, but within a month had caught a malady common among American civil war nurses: typhoid. The treatment of the time involved the use of a medicine called calomel, which was laden with mercury, and Louisa would suffer the effects of her illness and of mercury poisoning all her life.
From her nursing experiences she wrote Hospital Sketches in 1863; Moods followed soon after. In 1865, she traveled to Europe as a companion to a wealthy invalid; while abroad, she wrote for periodicals, and was offered the editorship of "Merry's Museum", an American journal for juveniles. She accepted, and became the journal's chief contributor. Finally, in 1868 her fortunes changed. Her publisher had suggested she write a "girls' story", and so her most famous novel, Little Women, was written and published. It was an instant success, and was quickly followed by Good Wives (these days published as Book II of Little Women, under the same cover), then several other sequels and unrelated works. Little Women is an enduring classic that has never been out of print since it was first published.
Readers of Little Women will recognize that the Marches were modeled on the Alcotts, with Louisa portrayed in the book as Jo March, the tomboyish second daughter who has a passion for the pen and a tempestuous nature. But you may be surprised to learn that Louisa herself hated this book and its sequels, calling it "moral pap for children". She was disgusted that literary conventions required the "little women" to transform themselves into "good little wives" - even the rebellious Jo married in the end, unlike Louisa herself. (In her afterword to my edition of the book, Nina Auerbach refers to this as "a destiny that has depressed readers from Alcott's day to our own".) Indeed, the March family are an altogether idealized version of the Alcotts, the largely absent father a perfected version of Louisa's own dominant and opinionated pater, and the pious and wise mother too perfect to be real. Louisa was vexed that people mistook her for Jo, for she poured into Jo's family all that she imagined her own family could have been, but was not. And she made Jo into what she could not be, for it seems most likely that Louisa was a lesbian (if a thoroughly closeted and likely "inactive" one); in the case of the manly Jo this orientation was not just repressed, but renounced, as society declared it should be.
Louisa and her youngest sister May did another tour of Europe in 1870, and Louisa's fame grew as she continued to publish. She was also active in the women's suffrage movement; she published and canvassed door to door to encourage women to register to vote, and she herself was the first woman in Concord to so register in 1879.
Abba died in 1877, and the next year May was married to a wealthy European. She gave birth to Louisa May 1878, but died soon after her child was born; she asked Louisa to care for the girl, and so this spinster spent a decade caring for her niece. But she was not well, and first her father, and then two days later Louisa herself, passed away in 1888.
Books by Louisa May Alcott
Flower Fables (1855)
Hospital Sketches (1863)
Little Women (1868)
Camp and Fireside Stories (1869)
An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870)
Little Men (1871)
Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag (1872)
Work: A Story of Experience (1873)
Eight Cousins (1875)
Rose in Bloom (1876)
Silver Pitchers (1876)
A Modern Mephistopholes (1877)
Under the Lilacs (1878)
Jack and Jill (1880)
Proverb Stories (1882)
Spinning-Wheel Stories (1884)
Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out (1886)
Lulu's Library (1886)
A Garland for Girls (1888)
Behind a Mask: the Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (1975) and Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers (1976), both edited by Madeleine Stern, are collections of her early sensationalist fiction.
My version of Little Women, with afterword by Nina Auerbach