The Alcotts

Louisa May Alcott was the second of four daughters of Abigail May Alcott, the product of a distinguished Boston family, and philosopher Bronson Alcott, a self-educated farmer’s son. The Alcotts were the inner circle of the Transcendentalist movement; Bronson Alcotts closest friends were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The two great thinkers would be the objects of teenage Louisa’s intense romantic yearnings. Her childhood would be peopled with the most important activists of the abolition movement as well as the era’s leading intellectuals.

Bronson Alcott worked hard, but never with the mundane objective of earning a living, and brought his young family to the verge of homelessness and starvation. Alcott’s childhood poverty was tempered by family unity and intellectual riches. Under some 30 temporary Alcott roofs, she was taught to cultivate an open mind and a social conscience, and to revere nature as God’s best work. From the age of eight she would keep a journal, recording her passions, her moods, and her difficulty controlling her temper, and would continue to express her feelings throughout her lifetime in hundreds of works in a wide variety of literary forms.

When Louisa was 10, Bronson enlisted the family in an experiment in communal living on a tract he named Fruitlands in honor of its wizened orchard. Six months of Transcendental agriculture left the Alcotts destitute, Bronson suicidal, and the Alcott marriage on the verge of dissolution. A distressed Louisa reported it all in her childhood diary. The Fruitlands fiasco fueled Louisa’s fierce ambition to make the family rich. She wanted to be famous, too.

Her first and favorite plan was to attain wealth and renown by becoming a great actress. From her teenage years she wrote, costumed, produced, directed, and starred in plays. Off the stage, her life was not without drama. The Alcotts were staunch abolitionists, supporting complete racial equality, including intermarriage. As part of the Underground Railroad, they risked their own freedom hiding fugitive slaves. (Seven year-old Louisa once opened an unused oven to discover a frightened fugitive inside. She taught him to write letters.) As an adult she would know the orator Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Editor of The Liberator, the fiery antislavery newspaper; Mrs. John Brown, widow of the hanged leader of the raid on Harper’s Ferry; Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and Reverend Theodore Parker. In Boston and Concord, the Alcotts were intimates of the great transcendentalist thinkers and writers of the day. Emerson encouraged Louisa to spend hours in his library. On excursions at Walden Pond, she studied botany with Thoreau. The Hawthornes lived next door.

Young Louisa tried her hand at poetry as well as drama, and at the age of 17 wrote her first novel, The Inheritance, heavily influenced by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. (The manuscript would languish for 130 years before it was discovered and published.)

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