A common rule that writers hear is: write what you know. That’s supposed to mean authors will tell their most powerful stories about events, places, and people they are familiar with. And – whether they’ll admit it or not – most writers do follow the rule to some extent. One particular American authoress based her best-selling novel on her childhood adventures, and the world has been captivated with the charming tale since the first publication.
Louisa May Alcott chose to be a professional writer in mid-19th Century America, an era when that was not a typical choice for a lady. In an ironic twist, this self-proclaimed feminist wrote one of the most well-known books about the traditional roles of girls and women. Her famous novel – Little Women – is still in publication and several movie versions have been made.
Born on November 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott grew up with loving parents and three sisters. Her father was a teacher and philosopher, but he was often out of work because of his radical ideas. The family eventually moved to Concord, Massachusetts, and were part of the Transcendentalist Utopian movement, associating with philosophers Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. The Alcott girls valued learning and invented numerous pastimes to occupy their hours.
The Alcotts supported abolition, temperance, and many other social reforms. Miss Alcott chose not to marry and worked as a teacher and writer to support herself and her parents. During the Civil War, she volunteered as a nurse in a Union Hospital. (Read more about that HERE.)
Miss Alcott’s first novel Flower Fables was published in 1849. She regularly contributed stories and articles in many genres to newspapers and magazines, sometimes using the pen name A.M. Barnard. Her most famous work of “fiction” (or semi-autobiography), Little Women, was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. The first 2,000 copies sold rapidly and more editions followed. Several sequels followed the original story and were also popular.
Miss Alcott had the pleasure of seeing her novels become best-sellers. She enjoyed spending time with her family and friends, but often worried about finances. She died on March 6, 1888, at age 55 and is buried with other literary geniuses in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.
Louisa May Alcott used her writer’s voice to explore social issues, but she was a story teller, first and foremost. Whether it was fairy stories, incidents from a wartime hospital, or the story of girls growing up in countryside America, Miss Alcott wrote to entertain.
Certainly, her ideas on abolition, feminism, and other social issues slip into her stories. Transcendentalist philosophy also features prominently in her work and should be evaluated with discernment.
In her most famous novel – Little Women – the March sisters grow up under the watchful eye and guiding hand of their mother. The writing style is simple and straight-forward. The characters are real and the “plot” consists of series of episodes – humorous, tragic, or thought-provoking – as the girls learn about life and “form their characters.”
The dialogue in Little Women is one of my favorite parts of the novel. Each character has a distinct “voice” on the page. And all the characters act consistent with their motivations, dreams, and ideals.
Miss Alcott based many of the March girls’ adventures on her own experiences with her sisters, and it is generally accepted that Jo March “is” Louisa Alcott. Because she wrote about familiar subjects, the novel was praised by girls who related to the fun and struggles of the characters.
Quotes from Little Women
I like good strong words that mean something…
Let us be elegant or die!
Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will bring few regrets, and life will become a beautiful success.
I want to do something splendid…something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all someday.
…the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy.
You don’t need scores of suitors. You need only one… if he’s the right one.
You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone.
As an independent writer and lady, Miss Alcott flooded magazines and newspapers with story and articles drafts. She pushed the norms for women writers of the 19th Century, but sometimes had to disguise her name with a pseudonym to “fit in” the literary world of city publications. She wrote about what interested her – new ideals, philosophy, strange imaginative worlds, and her own recollections of girlhood.
Louisa May Alcott’s passion for story-telling and the good sense to “write what she knew” created on of the most-beloved novels of all time. She used her pen to paint a portrait of family life as she had experienced it. Her ideas on social issues and religion are woven into the novel, but she understood the miracle of story crafting and that was always her primary goal.
P.S. Have you read Little Women? Which escapade was your favorite?