The lives of Bronson Alcott and his second daughter Louisa May were so entwined that it is not surprising to learn they shared a birthday. Bronson was born November 29, 1799 in Wolcott, Connecticut. Louisa was born during the family’s brief stay in Germantown, Pennsylvania the same day in 1832.
Bronson’s parents were struggling farmers. He received scant formal education even by the standards of the day. He rebelled at the rote learning and freely applied corporal punishment of the local academies he briefly attended. He and a cousin largely self-educated themselves, reading and discussing any books they could lay their hands on. At 15 he went to work at the Seth Thomas Clock factory and two years later passed an exam to qualify as a school master but found no employment. Instead he borrowed money from relatives to become a Yankee peddler in the South, where he was horrified by exposure to the peculiar institution. After two years he gave up the occupation still owing his father for a loan to pay off his debt on unsold stock because “service to mammon” injured his soul.
He turned back to teaching and secured a position in Cheshire, Connecticut. He immediately began reforms inspired by writings of the Swiss education reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi which he had somehow stumbled upon. He made the school house more comfortable by building backs to the scholar’s benches, adding more lanterns for illumination, keeping the fire in the stove roaring sufficiently to keep water from freezing on New England mornings, and providing each scholar with an individual slate. He avoided rote learning and refused to discipline the students with force. It wasn’t long before his methods were receiving favorable notice by a few, and strong denunciation by most. Parents began to withdraw their children. The same fate awaited him the following year in another Connecticut town.
But his efforts got the support of the Rev. Samuel May, the only Unitarian minister in staunchly orthodox Connecticut. May would go on to a long career as a leading minister, writer and editor, and an unflinching abolitionist. The extended May family was among the most influential in Unitarianism. May introduced Bronson to his sister Abigail. Abby was smitten by the handsome, idealistic teacher. The rest of her family was not—they did not believe he could ever support a wife and family.
Bronson moved to Boston in 1828 to start his Salem Street Infant School. Less than two years later without her parents’ approval Samuel married the couple in a ceremony at King’s Chapel. Predictably, Alcott’s school was soon failing.
Alcott attracted the attention of a wealthy Quaker who invited him to establish a school in Germantown. At first, things went well. The Quaker benefactor provided a house rent free and helped recruit students, even paying the tuition of some who could not afford it. But he soon fretted that rural Germantown was too backward for his advanced ideas and went to Philadelphia to try his ideas out there. Unable to get a school started there, he returned to the Germantown school, but without the use of the house. The Alcott’s first daughter Anna was born there and Louisa followed in 1832.
By the time Louisa was born, the family was in dire straits again. Their benefactor died and with him both the conduit into the Quaker community for students and financial aid. In 1832 Alcott returned to Philadelphia and started another school which attracted public scorn for his unconventional methods.
Deciding that Boston was more fertile ground for liberal education, Alcott wrote the pre-eminent Unitarian clergyman William Ellery Channing and convinced him to support his efforts. Channing agreed to use his influence to attract students and agreed to allow his own daughter to attend. With high hopes, Alcott opened the Temple School with 20 pupils from some of Boston’s most influential families.
In a relaxed atmosphere in a room with comfortable furniture and decorated with paintings and busts of inspiring figures from Plato to Channing Alcott conducted classes as “conversations” between teacher and pupils and encouraged original thought and expression by his pupils. In addition to encouraging original writing by his students instead of copying grammar drills, Alcott included conversations on “spiritual matters” in his curriculum. He engaged Elizabeth Peabody as his assistant and she was soon taking notes on his instruction methods which she published in a well received book, Record of a School: Exemplifying the General Principles of Spiritual Culture, in 1835. Peabody was so close to the family that when another daughter was born she was named Elizabeth Peabody Alcott.
Alcott and Elizabeth had a falling out during the preparation for a follow-up book and her sister Sophia took over the duties of transcribing some of the class room conversations for the 1836 book Conversations with Children on the Gospels. The book contained excerpts of Alcott asking the children whether they thought they should accept the accounts of medicals in the Bible as literally true, questioning the virgin birth of Jesus, frankly discussing circumcision with his co-educational students, and, perhaps most shocking of all, telling them that they each were a part of God. The public uproar was enormous. Alcott was denounced in the press. An irate lawyer brought up 500 copies of the book for “scrap.” Parents withdrew their children. Channing abandoned him. His only public defender was another Unitarian minister James Freeman Clark. Abby Alcott was so angry with the Peabody sisters that she dropped her daughter’s middle name and substituted Sewall.
Still, Alcott tried to keep the school open with the help of Margaret Fuller as his assistant. But she moved to Providence, Rhode Island and the student body dwindled to 11 before he had to close the school in 1841.
But Alcott’s time in Boston drew him into the circle of the most advanced thinkers, poets, preachers, and writers. Introduced by Elizabeth Peabody to the circle around Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alcott became a member of the Transcendental Club at its second meeting and was the host of the third. Emerson became very fond of the eccentric teacher who returned almost worshipful regard. In 1840 Emerson convinced the family to move near him in Concord. With loans from Emerson and Samuel May, the family rented Dove Cottage near Emerson’s home. Shortly after settling in the family’s fourth daughter Abby May Alcott was born. She would later simply use the name May.
Alcott divided his time between trying to write a philosophical treatise, with encouragement and editorial assistance from his mentor, and educating his daughters in daily lessons which Louisa fondly remembered for their warmth, encouragement, and her father’s wonderful evocative oral reading. In many ways, despite constant financial worry, it was an idyllic life. But Alcott’s writings were too cryptic even for Emerson to whip into shape for publication as a book. Largely as favor, Margaret Fuller, by then editor of the Transcendental journal The Dial published extracts from his Orphic Sayings that left even its sophisticated readers scratching their heads.
In 1841 Emerson sponsored Alcott on a trip to England where he met to admirers who had opened an Alcott House, a school using his methods. Charles Lane and Henry C. Wright tried to convince Alcott to stay in England, instead he convinced them to accompany them back to the United States.
Alcott thought he had founded a soul mate in Lane, who he brought into the Alcott home, ostensibly to help with the chores but mostly to spend time together in the kitchen exchanging philosophical observations and hatching plans. Lane, an ardent abolitionist like Alcott, encouraged him to refuse to pay the Concord poll tax in protest to plans to annex Texas as a slave state. Alcott was gleefully anticipating arrest when he learned that a benefactor—probably Emerson at Abby plea—had paid the tax for him. The symbolic gesture, however, encouraged his young friend Henry David Thoreau to make the same protest a year later resulting in his being jailed overnight and inspiring the writing of On Civil Disobedience.
Together Lane and Alcott plotted the establishment of a utopian community. Lane was wealthy enough to pay for almost the entire purchase price of a few acres of scrub land and depleted orchard in Harvard, Massachusetts that they hopefully named Fruitlands. Alcott was set to make payments on the last $300 of the purchase price in two installments over the next two years. Plans for the farm included creation of a consociate family which would be as much as possible completely self-sufficient and independent of the corrupt influence of the world. Members would agree to follow a strict vegetarian diet and to till the land without the use of “enslaved” animal labor.
The Alcotts and Lane moved into a house on the land in the summer of 1843. None really understood the labor of farming, much less the backbreaking work necessary to break the ground without horses or oxen. They soon relented and rented some enslaved animals, but still found little time to actually work the land themselves between flights of philosophical fancy. Few recruits joined the consociate family and Alcott left in the middle of the meager harvest to try to recruit new members at meetings across New England. Only 11 others tried to join and most soon left. By winter the family was literally starving. Lane resented Abby and the children and tried to convince Alcott to abandon them to undertake a pure, abstentious life. They quarreled and Lane left to live with the Shakers. By January 1844 the experiment was over. Alcott could not make the scheduled payment on the land and his brother in law, obviously at Abby’s insistence, refused for once to loan him the money to continue.
Young Louisa was 10 years old that year, but the hard winter made a deep impression on her. Years later she would satirize the experience in Transcendental Wild Oats published in 1873.
The family moved back to Concord where Emerson and Samuel May again secured a house for them, The Hillside, directly across the street from Emerson. The years spent there were recalled by Louisa as the happiest of her life. Many of the incidents recounted in Little Women, including the family theatricals that she orchestrated, were drawn from this period. Her mother received an inheritance which Samuel May set up in a trust fund so that Bronson could not use it on another scheme, providing some tiny financial security to the family for the first time.
While her father spent his time improving the property and puttering on the six acre garden plot, Louisa spent much of her time at the Emersons, where she quietly worshiped the Sage of Concord or The Master as she frequently called him. He allowed her free reign of his large library and took time to engage her in conversation. Secretly smitten, she began writing Emerson letters modeled on Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child. She never gave them to him and later burned them out of embracement. But years later she shared the secret of their existence with Emerson, who was flattered. When she was twelve years old, Louisa was at Emerson’s door to receive his heartbroken news that his beloved son and her playmate Waldo had died. Louisa began writing stories for her sisters and had her own transcendental moment of epiphany walking in the nearby fields.
Bronson made his home available to runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad and was increasingly active with the most radical abolitionists. He also enjoyed the informal salon that Emerson kept in his parlor. Abby, however, felt isolated. She made few friends. Even Emerson’s wife was distant. She yearned for Boston so in 1847 the family put the house up for rent and moved next door to Elizabeth Peabody’s influential Boston bookstore. It was just the first of a series of boarding house addresses in the city. Anna and Louisa began to work as teachers, tutors, governesses, and took in sewing to help support the family.
Louisa determined to help her family with her income as a writer in the popular press. In 1849 a Flower Fables collection of stories she wrote for Emerson’s daughter Ellen years earlier was published to moderate success, although the publisher only paid his inexperienced writer $35. Her first popular romance story, The Rival Painters, A Tale of Rome was written the same year but not published until 1852. Despite her elevated education, she was not writing genteel poetry or religious essays, the respectable options for women of the time. Instead she was allowing her romantic imagination run wild and producing heart pounding thrillers for a female audience.
Louisa began to attend services by Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker, an associate of her father’s. Parker welcomed her into his home and greatly influenced her. She also became attracted the women’s movement that began with the Seneca Falls declaration.
By 1853 the family was back in Concord in a house they named Orchard House. The Hillside House was taken over by Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife the former Sophia Peabody. All became members of the Alcott social circle. In 1860 Bronson was appointed superintendent of the Concord Schools. With a steady income for the first time in years and support from Louisa’s writing, the family was reasonably secure.
These were eventful years. Elizabeth, the youngest daughter, died in 1854, a blow to all immortalized in the death of Beth in Little Women. The same year Anna married John Pratt. Louisa divided her time between Concord and rooms in Boston where she found occasional employment and spent her time writing for publication, all the while sending most of her income home. Her potboilers written as A. M. Barnard were finding homes in increasingly important periodicals. By 1863 she had won a $100 prize and had her first story published in the nation’s leading magazine, Frank Leslie’s illustrated. She also worked on the manuscripts for “serious” novels including one based on her own experience as a youthful breadwinner called Success, published over a decade later after she became famous as Work.
The Civil War mobilized the family. Bronson lectured in support of Union efforts and the Lincoln administration on the Lyceum circuit. All of the women contributed to home side efforts to aid soldiers and their families through the work of the Sanitary Commission. During the winter of 1862-63 Louisa volunteered as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, Virginia. After only three month, she was taken by typhoid and nearly died. Her father went to Washington to bring her home where she was nursed back to a semblance of health, although she was never again “robust.” Later her treatment mercurous chloride for the illness was blamed for her continuing ill health.
Louis published Hospital Sketches about her experiences in the Boston Commonwealth which were so well received that the memoirs were published as a book in August 1863. This brought Louisa her first public acclaim under her own name. Within a year she published two more books, The Rose Family: A Fairy Tale and the semi-autobiographical Moods (revised and reissued twenty years later.)
At the end of the War, Louisa finally got her long dreamed of trip to Europe as a genteel traveling companion for Anna Ward. While in Paris she met 21 year old Ladislas Wisniewski, a handsome Polish exile. Despite their language difficulties they engaged in a passionate affair—at least on the pages of Louisa’s letters. She called him Laddie. The two met again in London but for whatever reason this romance the only one ever documented between Louisa and a man, ended when she returned to the States.
Photographs show that as a young woman Louisa was attractive with large, dark eyes. And she was certainly witty and articulate. She could have attracted any number of suitors, but evidently staved them all off, determined to dedicate herself to the support of her dependent family. Later in an interview she would say, “I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” Despite this there is also no evidence of any romantic relationship with any women. All of her romance, she poured into the thrillers that she continued to write as A. M. Bernard.
Upon her return to the States, Bronson, acting as Louisa’s agent, contacted publisher Thomas Niles to propose a book of short stories instead, impressed with her recent work as the editor and principle contributor to the children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum, asked for a novel for girls. At first reluctant, Louisa began work in 1868 under a tight deadline. The first part of Little Women was published that fall and was a huge success. The publisher demanded a follow up and Part Two, The Good Wives was published the next year. Subsequently both parts were issued together. The material was largely autobiographical, set in familiar Concord, but moved up in time to the Civil War. Perhaps to explain the family’s struggles with poverty while maintaining the father as a noble character, Louisa made him and Army officer away at war. Instead the novel lauded the resolute Marmy and her brood. Louisa herself was tom boy Joe. Mr. Lawrence, the kind hearted wealthy neighbor who took an interest in the family was partially drawn from Emerson while his grandson Laurie was inspired by her lost love Laddie. The German Professor Fritz Bhaer was a stand in for Goethe and the German Romantics that inspired the Transcendentalists.
With the huge success of Little Women, Louisa went to work with more episodes of the March family saga to meet the insatiable public demand. Little Men, in which Jo and her Professor run a progressive school for boys, Louisa got to vindicate her beloved father’s teaching methods and philosophy.
Between episodes of the March chronicles, Louisa published thrillers as Bernard including Behind a Mask, or a Woman's Power and The Abbot's Ghost, or Maurice Treherne's Temptation. She actually preferred these books to the children’s books that made her famous. She felt trapped by the genre.
Meanwhile Bronson, taking advantage of his daughter’s new found fame, finally found a publisher for some of his own work—some of which was heavily edited by her to be readable. Tablets (1868), Concord Days (1872), New Connecticut (1881), and Sonnets and Canzonets (1882) were moderate successes, but the family still relied on Louisa for support.
Just before Abby Alcott’s death in 1877, Louisa bought Henry David Thoreau’s last home for her sister Anna and her parents. Bronson never returned to Orchard House. He was devastated by the loss. Louisa tried to help him with memoirs of his life with Abby, but the two could not continue and Louisa burned most of her mother’s letters. She divided her time between the Concord house and Boston.
The same year Louisa anonymously published her last “adult” serious novel, A Modern Mephistopheles and was surprised when critics suggested that it was written by the son of Nathanial and Sophia Hawthorne. Later that year she accompanied her sister May to Europe where the younger woman was able to establish herself as an artist. May stayed in Europe where she met and married fellow artist Ernest Nieriker. Weeks after giving birth to a daughter she named Louisa, May died 1879. In September the girl arrived in Boston to be raised by her aunt. Nick named Lulu, the child became the center of Louisa’s life. She later published a collection of the bedtime tales she made up for the girl.
Bronson managed to begin one last school, the Concord School of Philosophy, in 1879. It was an adult education school where students could enroll for brief periods for serious conversations on philosophy. It attracted several noted persons. The school lasted for nine years, outliving its founder. In 1882 he was one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s final visitors and helped plan the funeral for him. It was a blow to both father and daughter, now in increasingly fragile health themselves. Bronson suffered a stroke soon after.
Louisa established a home in Boston for her father, widowed sister Anna, her two sons, and little Lulu. She legally adopted Anna’s adult son John Pratt so that he could be the executor of her estate and manage her royalties for the benefit of her family.
Although Louisa’s failing health was long attributed to mercury poisoning, examination of locks of her hair have disproved that. It is now thought that she likely had the autoimmune disorder Lupus. After trying various spas for “the cure” Louisa settled into a Roxbury nursing home.
On March 1, 1888 Louis visited her father in the Boston house for the last time. Both knew he was dying. “I am going up,” he said. “Come with me.” “Oh, I wish I could, she told him. On March 4 he died. Three days later Louisa died in Roxbury. She evidently decided to go along.