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Alcott, Louisa May (1832-1888)

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Louisa May Alcott

Courtesy of the sculptor, Daniel Altshuler.

Louisa May Alcott was born the November 29, 1832, the second daughter of Bronson Alcott and Abigail May.  The couple met while Abigail was visiting her brother, Samuel J. May, minister of the Unitarian church in Brooklyn, Connecticut. Louisa Alcott was educated at home by her brilliant and eccentric father, founder of the innovative Temple School in Concord as well as of the Fruitlands utopian community—both of which quickly failed.

While growing up, Louisa had access to the library and friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and was acquainted with Margaret Fuller. As a very young woman she became her family’s breadwinner, writing hundreds of articles and books—both popular fiction and fact—almost one book per year, including Hospital Sketches, which depicts her experience as a Civil War nurse.  While serving as a nurse, she contracted typhoid fever and suffered continuing ill health and exhaustion for the rest of her life. When her father was dying in Boston, she visited despite her weakness and died just two days after his death. At age fifty-five she was buried beside her parents in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Alcott never joined a Unitarian church, but she made a point of listening to the great Unitarian preachers of the day, many of whom she befriended.  Her favorites included Theodore Parker, Wendall Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Cyrus Bartol, Octavius Brooks Frothingham and Henry Whitney Bellows.

While she is most remembered for her domestic fiction, she herself preferred the many thrillers and sensational works that she wrote under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard.  That these thrillers were written by the same beloved author of Little Women was largely unknown until 1945.  She said that “I think my natural ambition is for the lurid style,” and she dismissed her more well-known works as “moral pap for the young,” written only for the purposes of financial gain.

Many of her thrillers involves the conventional, English gothic plot whereby a heroine, ensnared by the plot of an evil men trying to control her mind, money, and body, seeks to free herself.  Unlike the conventional gothic, however, Alcott’s heroines are independent, literally feisty, and extremely angry.  In fact, Madeleine Stern, the scholar who was able to link the tales by A. M. Barnard to Alcott, believes that she was forced to use a pseudonym for these works not because of their sensational genre, but because of their shocking portrayals of female anger.

Read more about it:  Susan J. Ritchie, Dark and Stormy: Unitarian Theology in Gothic and Ghostly Literature 1789-1912, An Anthology and Critical Introduction (Harvard Square Library, 2022).  Available on Amazon.