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Meet the Real-Life Family Behind “Little Women”

February 9, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Louisa May Alcott, circa 1870. (Credit: Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Louisa May Alcott had come to Europe to rest. But even in the Swiss Alps, the author couldn’t escape the thing that had exhausted her in the first place: her fans.

Her latest book, Little Women, was a runaway bestseller—and the constant barrage of fan mail, the visits and the demands on her time had wrecked her already delicate health. “Don’t send me any more letters from so cracked girls,” she begged her mother in a letter from Switzerland in 1870. “The rampant infants must wait.”

The “infants” were Louisa’s fans, and ever since the publication of Little Women, they had bombarded her with letters asking for a sequel and demanding to know how much of the book was autobiographical—a question readers still pose today. Louisa had captured the world’s imagination with her tale of the brave, beloved March family, and Little Women—a book about the Civil War–era lives of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, four sisters who struggle with life, love and friendship—has never been out of print. But Louisa’s real-life family, upon whom the book was partly based, was infinitely more complicated—and even more interesting.

Louisa May Alcott, circa 1870. (Credit: Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Born in Pennsylvania in 1832, Louisa May Alcott was one of four sisters, the daughters of Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail “Abba” Alcott. Bronson, a self-educated Romantic, left his Connecticut home as a teenager to become a Yankee peddler, a type of traveling salesman. Life on the road suited the idealistic, optimistic Bronson, but he was a bad salesman and soon found himself in debt. This began a pattern of financial mismanagement and poverty that would haunt him the rest of his life.

Even though Bronson couldn’t handle money, he was passionate and idealistic—high-minded ideals attracted the young Abigail May. Born into relative wealth and social prestige as the daughter of a prominent New England family, Abba was drawn to Bronson’s love of education and social justice. The couple married in 1830.

Where Bronson was absent-minded, Abba was practical. When her husband’s schools failed because of his controversial, student-focused teaching methods, she lent him moral support. When he infuriated parents by admitting an African-American student to his Boston school, she stood by him. And when he immersed himself in Transcendentalism—a new progressive philosophical movement that emphasized self-reliance, imagination, and …read more


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