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The stories of world's artists re-told for the digital age

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott – Featured Artist

lma-profile-7Louisa May Alcott, the 19th century American writer, is usually introduced as the author of Little Women since that’s the work that made her famous and changed her life. Because Little Women is based on real events and people, that kind of introduction misleads one into thinking Louisa’s life was as simple and wholesome as the one described in the book and makes it difficult to appreciate how hard it was for her to become the success story most people know.

Louisa’s life was complicated. Chaotic almost. It had many uncommon advantages but also many frustrations and hardships, and even seasoned biographers find it challenging to write about her in a way that does justice to her character without confusing the reader.

She had the beautiful experience of growing up around and being friends with some of the most famous American minds:

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson was her neighbor, a good friend and mentor, her teenage crush and lifelong “god of her idolatry;”
  • Henry David Thoreau, another neighbor and person she looked up to, often walked with young Louisa around Walden pond and helped her see the magic in the ordinary;
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Daniel Chester French, and Timothy Parker were also her neighbors, friends, and frequent visitors.

The children of these famous people were Louisa’s playmates. The young ones often acted in plays for their parents, made them take part in their games, and even played pranks on them. That part of Louisa’s childhood was almost magical.

She also grew up poor. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, never provided for the family. For most of Louisa’s life the Alcotts were in heavy debt. They moved about thirty times in as many years because they couldn’t pay their rent. They borrowed and begged for money from friends and relatives to buy food and afford heat in winter.

From a very young age, Louisa became obsessed with money. She was ten years old when she wrote in her journal, “I wish I were rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family.” Soon after that, she started working and took any job that came her way: sewing, housekeeping, doing laundry, cleaning, teaching, and, later on, writing and editing.

She kept meticulous track of all money she earned. Her journals are packed with entries about how much she was paid for each job and each story, and how the money was spent. Her work and determination paid off when she was thirty-five. In 1868, she published Little Women and became the best-selling author of her time.

Louisa May Alcott is also talked about as an abolitionist and feminist. Those facts are true and do acknowledge her strong beliefs in equal rights for all races and genders, but the efforts she put into those pursuits pale in comparison to how hard she worked for the thing that mattered most in her life: her family.

So, even if she wrote one of the most popular children’s books and was a supporter of equal rights in times when such support was unpopular and even dangerous, a better introduction for Louisa May Alcott is: she was a woman who promised herself to “take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her,” and worked incredibly hard to fulfill that promise. She gave herself no other choice.

Condensed Timeline

  • germantown1832: Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29th, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in what’s today part of Philadelphia. She was the second of four daughters. Her sisters were Anna Bronson, Elizabeth Sewall, and Abigail May.

Louisa shared her birthday with her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, a philosopher, teacher, and writer, who grew up on a farm in Connecticut and had little formal education. Bronson was a charismatic man who made a great first impression with his beautiful ideas about education and meaningful living, but disappointed with his actions:

      • he refused most jobs because they didn’t “perfect the human spirit”;
      • he borrowed and took money from friends and relatives without guilt nor effort to pay it back;
      • he followed his dreams of utopian living and was ready to “abandon at any moment his home, job, wife and children, and put into practice any new dream which had bubbled up in his effervescent mind,” leaving his family hungry, in unheated rooms, and with no stable home.

Even those who admired him could not help criticizing his belief that his “own genius excused him from having to work like anyone else to provide for his family.”

the-alcotts-5Louisa’s mother was the grounded and loyal Abigail Alcott, known as Abba or Marmee. Abigail came from a highly respected, wealthy Boston family who took pride in their strong connections to the American War of Independence. Abigail’s great-aunt was Dorothy Quincy Hancock Scott, the wife of founding father John Hancock.

When Bronson and Abigail married, Bronson was already almost $2,000 in debt, more than he could earn in ten years. Things only got worse after and Abigail soon learned that marriage to an idealist meant poverty, embarrassing letters to family asking for money, and humiliating times of running out of credit with the local stores and being unable to buy food for her children.

  • 1834: Louisa was one-year-old when Bronson moved his family from Germantown to Boston, closer to his wife’s relatives and their money. That was just one in a series of almost thirty times the Alcotts moved, mainly between different parts of Boston and nearby Concord, with one short-lived stay near the town of Harvard, and another one in Walpole, New Hampshire. They were constantly in search of cheaper rent and some form of income. For a brief period of time, the Alcotts didn’t even bother to unpack their trunks anymore.

frog-pond-edited-2While in Boston, when she was around three years old, Louisa almost drowned in Frog Pond and was saved by a black young boy. She often joked that it was then that she became an abolitionist.

  • 1840: When Louisa was seven-years-old, the Alcotts moved to Concord, twenty miles west of Boston, in a rented house Bronson named the Dove Cottage, after William Wordsworth’s summer home. Bronson wanted to live near Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of his few lifelong supporters.

That fall, Louisa wrote her first poem, The Robin, which made her mother say, “You’ll grow up a Shakespeare.” Encouraged by the praise, Louisa kept writing verses, fairy tales, and even plays.

Louisa didn’t go to school. She was taught mainly at home, by her father, in an unstructured way. There was no plan on which topics to study, nor a method of study. Louisa herself described her education as a combination of:

      • reading philosophy, poetry, novels, and “the best of the dear old fairy tales”,
      • writing,
      • walking, and
      • chores.

The works of Plutarch, Plato, Socrates, Francis Bacon, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Michel de Montaigne, Thomas Carlyle, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens were on Louisa’s reading list. That was how she learned about history and geography.

Writing and composition were learned by keeping journals and writing letters. Hardly any time was spent on the rules of grammar, a subject Louisa called “the vile invention of Satan”, and even less effort was spent on mathematics.

  • fruitlands-edited1843: When Louisa was ten, her father decided to create a utopian community. He teamed up with Charles Lane, an English philosopher and teacher he had met less than a year before. Using Charles Lane’s money, the two bought an old farm in the town of Harvard. They called the house Fruitlands and set up rules for its inhabitants:
      • a plain vegan diet without any spices,
      • simple clothing made of linen,
      • farming done strictly by hand, without the use of animals so as not to exploit them.

The two philosophers brought hundreds of books with them when they moved in, but no tools to work the land and raise the crops they needed for food. Utopia failed seven months later, in December, leaving the Alcotts humiliated, poorer than even before, and in danger of dying from lack of food and the harsh New England winter.

Charles Lane moved back to England shortly after, Bronson refused to eat or drink anything and wanted to die, and Abigail began to think her husband was insane. With money from Abigail’s brother, the Alcotts moved out of Fruitlands in January and rented very cheap rooms in a neighbor’s house.

Years later, Louisa used wit and humor to talk about the failed utopian experiment in the short story Transcendental Wild Oats. Her own journal though gives a somber account of those times. In it she wrote that Fruitlands was when “little Louisa began to feel the family cares and peculiar trials. She never forgot that experience, and her little cross began to grow heavier from that hour.”

The rest of the Alcotts didn’t forget the experience either. Nor could they think of it without bitterness and disappointment. Bronson went so far as to destroy journal pages and letters that Anna, Abigail, and he wrote during that time.

  • 1845: When Louisa was twelve-years-old, her parents bought their first house with money Abigail inherited from her father and a $500 money gift from Ralph Waldo Emerson. They called it Hillside.

In her journals, Louisa spoke of the Hillside years as the happiest time of her life:

      • she became friends with her famous neighbors’ kids (the Emersons, Hawthorns, and Channings) and had lots of fun acting with them in fairy tales and made up plays. Anna, her oldest sister, played the sentimental parts. Louisa choose the parts with most dialogue and action, and loved playing the villains;
      • she had a teenage crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson when she was fifteen. She sang songs at night in bad German under his window, wrote him love poems, and left flowers on his doorstep;
      • she took walks with Henri David Thoreau around Walden Pond. Those walks became lifelong cherished memories. “Arrowheads and Indian fireplaces sprang from the ground,” Louisa recalled. “Wild birds perched on his shoulder. His fingers seemed to have more wisdom in them than many a scholar’s head.”

famous-concord-2Louisa and her sisters were happy but their mother was desperate. One day, one of Abigail’s friends was passing though Concord and stopped to visit. Abigail broke down crying and told her about how they couldn’t even afford food. The friend promised to find her a job if she moved to Boston. So …

  • 1848: The Alcotts put Hillside up for rent and moved to Boston. Louisa was very upset about leaving Concord. Without blaming her father or anyone else for the family’s poverty, she became even more determined to be the one who earned the money they needed. She vowed to herself, “I will do something by-and-by. Don’t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t.”
  • 1850: At seventeen, Louisa was struck by “stage mania.” She had always loved acting for family and friends but now she wanted to become the next Sarah Siddons or Fanny Kemble. She believed that not only would she have a job she loved but also one that would bring her fame and lots of money.

Abba didn’t ask Louisa to give up that dream but she encouraged her daughter to wait. In Abba’s eyes, Louisa had the passion and enthusiasm to be a good actress, yet lacked the natural talent to become a great one. Years later, Louisa came to the same conclusion.

  • 1851: At eighteen, Louisa published her first work, the poem Sunlight, printed in a small local paper under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield. She received $5 for it.

Her second published work, the short story The Rival Painters, came one year later and brought her another $5. From then on she “churned stories of blood and thunder, murder and revenge, love triangles and abuse as fast as her brain could make them up” and earned between $5 and $10 for each.

Writing didn’t pay the bills so she continued to teach, sew, and, on occasion, work as a “second girl” – a domestic servant.
It was around this time that Louisa started recording in her journal all her income and how she spent it. That habit stayed with her for the rest of her life.

The Alcotts’ relatives were worried about how hard Louisa and her sisters worked, and stopped hiding their disappointment with the parents. In a letter to her son, Lucretia, Louisa’s aunt, wrote about Anna: “I wish the poor child could raise a little more of her own earnings to at least have a good supply of meat under clothing, but her family contrive to use almost all. She has already anticipated her wage and sent her mother $25. Your Aunt Abba as usual was full of debts and in want of money.”

Louisa and Anna’s earnings were not enough to keep the family out of debt. The Alcotts kept moving. At times, they were completely apart: Abigail and Elizabeth lived in Walpole, Bronson was out West giving talks, Anna was in Syracuse teaching, Louisa in Boston to write and do any other jobs that came her way, and May was in Roxbury to study art.

Louisa described the chaos best when she told her father, “I wanted to write to you, but didn’t know where you were.” Even the Alcotts couldn’t keep track anymore of their whereabouts.

  • orchard-house-edited1857: At twenty-four, Louisa and her family moved back to Concord. Abba was embarrassed about facing the local creditors who had never been paid. With help from Ralph Waldo Emerson – again – the Alcotts bought another house. It was Orchard House, the place known today as the Little Women house.

Louisa was happy for her “wandering family who was anchored at last” and for her “old people who deserved an abiding place.” For herself, she couldn’t stand Orchard House and lived there as little as possible. She continued to move between Concord and different locations in Boston for the rest of her life

  • 1858: In March, Louisa’s younger sister, Elizabeth died at the age at twenty-three after a two-year long illness that had started as scarlett fever. Among the Alcotts, Elizabeth had been the only constant source of serenity and gentle spirit.

In her journal, Louisa wrote: “For the last time we dressed her in her usual cap and gown, and laid her on her bed, — at rest at last. What she had suffered was seen in the face; for at twenty-three she looked like a woman of forty, so worn was she, and all her pretty hair gone. On Monday Dr. Huntington read the Chapel service, and we sang her favorite hymn. Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, F.B. Sanborn, and John Pratt, carried her to her grave at Sleepy Hollow chosen by herself. So the first break comes, and I know what death means, — a liberator for her, a teacher for us.”

One month later, Anna, the oldest sister, announced her engagement to John Pratt.

The loss of her two sisters and the constant money worries pushed Louisa into an uncharacteristic episode of depression. In October, a month before turning twenty-six, she was in Boston, at the edge of Mill Dam and its cold, dirty waters, wondering if she should jump and be done with all struggles. Moments later, she pushed away the idea of suicide because “it seemed so cowardly to run away before the battle was over.” She turned away from the river and made the famous promise to “take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.”

  • 1862: In December, thirty-year old Louisa became a Civil War nurse in Washington. Soldiers, other nurses, and even doctors quickly fell in love with her. She was compassionate and caring without letting suffering overwhelm her. She worked hard, cried at times, then dried her tears and used her quick wit and acting skills to made “her boys” forget their pain and laugh again. Nobody could resist her funny impersonations of Mrs. Jarley, a character from Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, displaying her waxwork.

hospital-sketches-1Soldiers who had to have painful surgeries wanted her at their bedside. “I’d rather laugh than cry,” one of them told her, “when I must sing anyhow, so just say that bit from Dickens again, please, and I’ll stand it like a man.” He did, Louisa later wrote.

Her assignment was supposed to last three months. She became very sick with typhoid fever and was sent back home after six weeks despite her protests. The experience changed her forever, both for better and worse.

Being close to war and its victims, gave her a much deeper understanding of life, purpose, human resilience and character. Her writing became richer and more authentic because of it.

Unfortunately, the mercury treatment she received for the typhoid fever permanently damaged her health. In her journal she wrote, “I’d never been sick before being a nurse, and never been healthy after.”

Louisa had always loved physical activity. She could easily walk twenty miles of hilly trails in five hours then spend her whole evening dancing. Typhoid fever changed that. From then on, she had to deal with increasingly stronger headaches and leg pain, insomnia, indigestion, vertigo, and “weak nerves.” Years later, she started taking strong, addicting drugs like opium. Without them she couldn’t sleep or get relief from pain.

  • 1863: At thirty, Louisa published anonymously the poem Thoreau’s Flute in the popular The Atlantic magazine. Many readers, including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow believed it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who had penned those “fine verses.”

“Being a mercenary creature,” Louisa wrote in her journal, “I liked the $10 I received for Thoreau’s Flute nearly as well as the honor of being ‘a new star’ and ‘a literary celebrity.’”

The same year, Louisa published Hospital Sketches, a short book which tells the story of her Civil War nursing days. It was an instant success. In her usual style, Louisa chose to write about the “comic side of her experience. The serious one was too hard to describe.”

Most readers appreciated her ability to maintain humor and a positive attitude in the middle of war’s horrors and suffering. Some didn’t. To them, Louisa replied, “Certainly, nothing was set down in malice, and to the serious-minded party who objected to a tone of levity in some portions of the Sketches, I can only say that it is a part of my religion to look well after the cheerfulness of life, and let the dismals shift for themselves; believing, with good Sir Thomas More, that it is wise to be merry in God.”

The success of Hospital Sketches made Louisa believe that she “may yet pay all debts”, the way she had solemnly yet hopelessly promised herself as a child. Unfortunately, that dream still had to wait. For the following five years, nothing she wrote came close to earning enough for herself and her family. The Alcotts kept borrowing money.

  • 1865: At thirty-two, Louisa travelled to Europe as the paid companion of a sick friend. Her independent nature rebelled at being tied to someone else’s wishes and plans. As usual, she made an effort to look at the bright side of her situation and enjoy the trip.

lake-genevaSeveral months into the journey, Louisa and her friend arrived at Vevey, a resort on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where she met Ladislas Wisinewski, a Polish man twelve years younger than her, who became the inspiration for Laurie, the golden boy of Little Women. It was a time of innocent flirting and fun, sharing boat rides, poetry, and lessons in French.

After Europe, Louisa and Ladislas wrote to each other. He even visited her once in America with his wife and two daughters. There was no big romance though. The age difference made Louisa see herself more of a mother to him than a love interest.

  • 1867: At thirty-four, making money was still Louisa’s main concern. Her headaches were getting worse and she often became “sick from too much work” but she couldn’t stop writing. She took a two-week vacation on the Atlantic coast, at Clark’s Island, then returned to her stories because “bills accumulate and worry me. I dread debt more than the devil.”

That September, Louisa received two offers:

      1. become the editor of the small magazine Merry’s Museum for $500/year;
      2. write a girls’ book for the well-known publisher Thomas Niles.

She didn’t like either offer, but wanted the money and said yes to both. She started the editing job right away so she could pay her family’s recent debts. The more she thought of the book idea, the less she liked it. She felt she didn’t know enough about little girls to write a good story, so she abandoned the project.

  • 1868: A few months after Thomas Niles first contacted her about the girls’ book, Louisa offered him a collection of fairy tales instead. Thomas Niles refused. He wanted his book. Something to match the popularity and success of Horatio Alger’s many novels for young boys.

Out of options, Louisa retreated to her room and went into one of her “writing vortexes”, when all she did was write, eat apples, drink tea brought by her mother, and hardly sleep, until the story that “possessed” her was out on reams of paper scattered all around her. The youngest sister, May, called that kind of creative outburst Louisa’s way of “living for eternity.”

little-women-illustration-1Six weeks later, Little Women was done. After reading the first few chapters, Thomas Niles found it boring. Louisa agreed. Fortunately, the publisher gave the book to his young niece to read. The little girl couldn’t put it down and Thomas Niles decided to publish it.

Little Women was released in October and its first print was sold out in the first two weeks.

Right away, Louisa began writing a sequel and finished it just a few months later. Three thousand copies were sold before publication. Soon, Louisa became the best-selling and best-earning author of her time. She was rich. She paid off the debts, even the outlawed ones, the medical bills from eight years before when Elizabeth was dying, and had enough to save and start investing. In her journal she wrote that she could finally die in peace.

Financial success came at the expense of her health. The pace at which she had written the two parts of Little Women left her very tired, with extreme headaches, loss of voice, stomach pain, sore legs and hands, and swollen feet. She felt “quite used up.”

From then on, Louisa tried many treatments, both from traditional medicine and alternative one. Herbal remedies, homeopathy, magnetic therapy, medical baths and massage helped only for brief periods of time. Soon she became dependent on opium and morphine for pain and insomnia.

Her writing changed too:

    1. First, she stopped writing the thrillers and sensational tales which had paid the bills before. No more stories about The Bandit’s Bride, The Captive of Castile, The Moorish Maiden’s Vow, or Mark Field’s Mistake. Instead, with very few exceptions, she wrote for children.

Little Women was followed by two sequels: Little Men (1871) and, much later, Jo’s Boys (1886).

Other popular books she wrote were: An Old Fashioned Girl (1870), Eight Cousins (1875) and its sequel Rose in Bloom (1876), and Under the Lilacs (1878). Though well-liked, none of them matched the success and fan frenzy of Little Women.

    1. Second, she wrote less. Her fourteen-hour writing days were over. “Vortexes” left her with debilitating pain and vertigo. Towards the end of her life, she could only manage half an hour to two hours of writing a day.
    2. Third, she started recycling her stories. Older ones were being published again in new collections, or in newspapers and magazine with larger readerships and better pay.

One thing that hadn’t changed was her motivation for writing: making money. She was earning thousands of dollars each year in royalties from Little Women, yet still wrote short stories and poems, and recorded faithfully in her journal the $50, $75, or $100 each of them brought.

Her father never started acting as the financial provider for his family. Louisa never stopped. Years after the publication of Little Women, she wrote to her sister that she couldn’t forget the many “weary years, the work, the waiting and disappointment, and feeling as if the hounds were after her.” So she continued “spinning her brains for money.”

Part of her earnings was spent to make Orchard House comfortable for her parents. No more cold or drafty winters for Abigail. Part was used to cover an increasingly expensive lifestyle. What used to be luxury before, was now a necessity: long term stays at expensive hotels, renting apartments in the best neighborhoods of Boston, carriages and servants. Part went to charity and the rest was invested.

  • 1870: At thirty-seven, Louisa went back Europe with her sister, May, and a friend. This time she had the money to go wherever she wanted, but her health was bad enough to take away some of the joy of the trip.

Also, part of Europe’s charm was gone because she missed “her boy, Ladislas, with his fun, music, and the frank, fresh affection he gave his ‘ little mamma,’ as he insisted on calling the lofty spinster, who loved him like half-a-dozen grandmothers rolled into one.”

george-healy-louisa-may-alcottIn Rome, she had a portrait painted by George Healy, whose last commission before that had been Pope Pius IX. George Healy didn’t want money for his painting. Instead, he asked Louisa to give writing and publishing advice to his young daughter who was a young aspiring novelist.

Louisa’s father disliked the portrait because “the flesh was haggard and the features too elongated for a true lifelike likeness.” Louisa didn’t like it either. Years later, when talking about photographs and portraits of her, she wrote “”When I don’t look like the tragic muse, I look like a smoky relic of the Boston fire.”

When she returned to America, her lifestyle remained chaotic. She still moved often. There was a constant push and pull between wanting to feel needed, and wanting to rest or be on her own. Her journal entries reflect her constantly changing moods. “Work is my salvation,” she wrote many times. Soon after and just as often, a completely different entry would follow: “Rest is my salvation.” Or, “I never want to leave mother again.” Followed by “I can’t do the things I want to because duty chains me to my galley.” She kept most of her inner struggles to herself and her diary and continued to write.

  • 1874: At forty-one, Louisa had another bad health experience. She used impression paper to write the novel Work so she could have three identical copies to send to three different publishers. This led to the permanent paralysis of her thumb, something she later warned young writers about.
  • lulu-may-nieriker1877: When Louisa was forty-four, her mother, Abigail, died. Two years later, May, her youngest sister died also, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl, Louisa May Nieriker or Lulu.

Louisa struggled with May’s death the most. She couldn’t accept that someone so young and full of life and laughter died before she did.

Almost one year later, Lulu came to live with Louisa. That had been May’s deathbed wish. By then, Louisa was sick most of the time. She was also less willing to devote herself to someone else’s care. She didn’t like admitting that so she often made excuses, to herself, in her diary, that she had work to do or was needed elsewhere.

“[I had to] take care of Lulu,” Louisa wrote in her journal, “as we can find no good woman to walk and dress and play with her. The ladies are incapable or proud; the girls vulgar or rough; so my poor baby has a bad time with her little temper and active mind and body. Could do it myself if I had the nerves and strength, but am needed elsewhere, and must leave the child to someone. Long to go away with her and do as I like. Shall never lead my own life.” (Journal, May.— 1883)

She hired nurses and servants to raise Lulu, and often asked Anna for help. Louisa herself spent very little time with her young niece.

  • 1882: Bronson Alcott had a stroke. To Louisa, that was a sign that he had pushed himself too hard, writing too much and giving too many lectures for a man his age, and was paying the penalty for “breaking the laws of health.” In her journal, Louisa wrote, “I have done the same: may I be spared this end.”
  • 1884: At fifty-one, Louisa sold Orchard House. She was “glad to be done with it, though after living in it for twenty-five years, it was full of memories.” She rented a large house in Boston where she moved in with Lulu and Bronson, had Anna and her two boys for long visits, and hired nine servants.

She still wrote, mostly short stories, and recorded the money each story brought, no matter how small the amount. She tried to write longer pieces, but her headaches were strong enough to make her fear a stroke.

“I wish,” she wrote in her journal, “I might be inspired to do those dreadful boys [Jo’s Boys]; but rest is more needed than money. Perhaps during August, my month at home, I may take a grind at the old mill.”

That summer, she sorted her old letters and burned many of them because it was “not wise to keep them for curious eyes to read and gossip-lovers to print by and by.” She threw out pages of her journals and crossed out some of the entries. She wanted to be remembered with love and respect, the way people remembered George Eliot after reading the stories and letters her husband chose to publish after her death, instead of “spoiling the fans’ admiration the way James Anthony Froude had done for Thomas Carlyle.”

  • 1886: At fifty-three, Louisa published Jo’s Boys, the last story in the Little Women series, and also her last novel. Despite her publisher’s protests, the only illustration in the book was a bas-relief of her head.

louisa-may-alcott-bas-relief“Sorry you don’t like the bas-relief,” she wrote to her publisher. “I do. A portrait, if bright and comely, wouldn’t be me, and if like me, would disappoint the children; so we had better let them imagine ‘Aunt Jo young and beautiful, with her hair in two tails down her back’; as the little girl said.” The little girl she referred to was a young Southern reader who visited Louisa soon after the publication of Little Women. Her little fan had “waited breathlessly for her idol, but burst out into tears of disappointment, and would not be comforted after seeing her.”

After Jo’s Boys, Louisa started plotting new stories because it felt good to “live in the mind and forget about the sick body.” Plus, she wanted “a great deal of money for many things.”

“Every poor soul I ever knew comes for help,” Louisa wrote, “and expenses increase. I am the only money maker, and must turn the mill for others, though my own grist is ground and in the barn.”

There was no need for her to “turn the mill” anymore. More than one biographer noted that by then it was Louisa’s own “nervous condition” that made her worry about money.

That same nervous condition made it hard for her to tolerate noise and other people. Even the presence of her family became too tiresome. She retreated to the rest home of homeopath Dr. Rhoda Lawrence on Dunreath Place in the Roxbury section of Boston where, with a few short exceptions, she remained for the rest of her life and chose to visit her loved ones instead of living with them.

  • 1887: At fifty-four, Louisa adopted John Sewall Pratt, the younger of her two nephews. She wanted someone in the family to carry on the Alcott name.

She also made a new will. She had earned almost two million dollars (in today’s money) from royalties alone since the publication of Little Women. Her estate was to be divided between John, his brother Frederic, Lulu, and Louisa’s only other still living sister, Anna. John also became the owner of the copyrights for her books.

  • 1888: On March 2nd, Louisa visited her father. Friends who hadn’t seen her in a while were shocked at how thin she was. She had lost thirty pounds since fall and looked hopelessly sick.

“What are you thinking of, dear?” Louisa asked her bedridden father.
“Up there,” Bronson replied looking upward. “You come too.”
“I wish I could go,” she said, bowed her head as in prayer, and kissed her father for the last time.

Later that day, she sent a letter to a friend. “I have another year to stay in my doctor’s home,” she wrote, “and then I am promised twenty years of health. I don’t want so many, and have no idea I shall see them. But as I don’t live for myself, I hold on for others, and shall find time to die someday, I hope.”

“Someday” came sooner than anyone had expected.

On March 4th, Bronson Alcott died. Just hours later, before the news had a chance to reach her, Louisa started complaining of an excruciating headache. She became unconscious and died on March 6th, at the age of fifty-five, most likely from a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage.

That morning, the friends who came to Bronson’s funeral were greeted by the news of Louisa’s death. The New York Times published her obituary on March 7th and wrote it was a “noteworthy fact in connection with her life and death that Miss Alcott and her father were born on the same day of the month, and that they died within 24 hours of one another.”

Louisa was buried at Sleepy Hollow cemetery, next to her mother, father, and two younger sisters. Her grave is still visited each year by thousands of fans who leave pencils and flowers at her funeral stone. In that same area, within a distance no bigger than twenty yards, there are also the graves of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and all their families, giving that part of Sleepy Hollow the name of Authors’ Ridge.

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