There was a time when the United States was ridiculed by Europe for not having its own literature. Though the United States was still a young country, it was expected to produce literature works. That all began to change in the mid-1800’s when four authors from New England emerged: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Though Alcott was female, she managed to produce literature that is now considered “classics” and still read in schools today.
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 29, 1832. It is no surprise that Alcott became an author since she grew up knowing Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and David Thoreau. Though she never went to school, her father and famous friends tutored her. Alcott grew up in a family that believed in equality; her family was part of the Underground Railroad in 1847. Troubled by her family’s poverty at the age of 15, Alcott was determined to get a job to help out. Since there was not many jobs available to women, Alcott worked for low pay as a teacher, seamstress, governess, and a house servant. When she was not working, she was writing. In 1854 at the age of 22, she published her first book Flower Fables. When the Civil War broke out, Alcott worked as a nurse at the Union Hospital at Washington, D.C., after persuading Dorothy Dix to waive the ban on admitting single women. She worked for six weeks before contracting typhoid fever. Her accounts of the hospital were quickly published, giving America a view inside the horrors of war.
When she was 35, her publisher asked her to write a book for girls. Though Alcott thought the the assignment “silly” she needed the money and wrote Little Women in a few weeks. The novel was based on Alcott and her three sisters, with the tomboy sister Jo March based on Louisa. Jo was a tomboy, breaking idealized stereotypes of girls. Finally, a book for girls about real girls existed; but not only girls enjoyed the book since women of all ages, classes, and nationalities could relate to the characters in the book. Alcott’s personal experience with poverty could be shared by the poor and immigrants in America while her experience with family and house work was shared with house wives. Alcott also supported women’s rights and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts in a school board election. In protest, the townsmen withheld their ballots. Though she never married, Alcott took in her niece after her younger sister died from child birth. At the age of 55, Alcott had a stroke and died in Boston on March 6, 1888. It is believed she either had mercury poisoning from being treated with a compound containing mercury after contracting typhoid fever. She never married or raised a family, knowing she would lose her identity by not having the time to write.
Alcott started out writing under the pen name A.M. Barnard because not all of society was not ready to read a novel by a female author. By the time she died, Alcott was the best-selling novelists of the 1800s and she able to support herself. At the age of 15, she had vowed to “be rich, and famous, and happy before I die.” Though she died financially secured and famous, Alcott spent her life working to support her family while making personal sacrifices. She, like her Little Women Jo March, is a woman that majority of women can relate to. Alcott showed that women want to be able to make their own choices on their education, career, and marriage while still keeping their own identity. Alcott proved to the world that even American women can produce great literature; after all, she is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, along with Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.