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Portrait of L.M. Alcott
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Bronson Alcott (1799-1893)
Abigail May Alcott (1800-1877)
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Anna Bronson Alcott (1831-1893)
Elizabeth Sewall Alcott (1835-1858)
Abba May Alcott (1840-1879)


Renowned for her classic novels LITTLE WOMEN and LITTLE MEN, Louisa May Alcott's passion for literature and the intellectual life were shaped in the bosom of her family. One of four daughters of the prominent Transcendentalist and pioneering educational innovator, Bronson Alcott, and his wife, Abigail May, who distinguished herself in the Abolitionist, Suffrage, and other reform causes of the period, Louisa May was born in Pennsylvania, but grew up in Boston and later in Concord, where she associated directly with her parents' circle which included the Emersons, Thoreaus, Hawthornes, and Ripleys. Accustomed to the straightened circumstances to which her father's idealism perpetually condemned the family, Louisa began to write stories at an early age to supplement the family income. Said Emerson of her genteel novels, "She is a natural source of stories... She is and is to be, the poet of children. She knows their angels." But as recent scholarship has demonstrated, the mature Louisa May also knew about the demons which people the human soul. Her tales of Gothic fiction, written behind the mask of pseudonyms, reveal a psychological depth that compares favorably with the best writers of the genre such as Poe and Hawthorne.

Before her death in 1888, her book sales had reached the one million mark and she had realized the considerable sum of $200,000 from her fiction. Unlike their daughter, Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail May ,were never to know financial ease; rather they always experienced life as a continuing struggle to maintain uncompromising moral and social ideals, while staying one step ahead of poverty.

Go Next Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott was born in 1799 in Wolcott, CT, and though he was largely self-taught, he went on to become one of America's most influential educational reformers. After supporting himself as an itinerant salesman, Bronson began a series of teaching assignments that took first him and then later his wife Abigail, whom he married in 1830, and his growing family to a series of schools in Connecticut, Boston, and Germantown, PA. Portrait of C.B. Alcott His pedagogical philosphy stressed the emotional and physical, as well as the intellectual development of a child, and he believed that learning was the result of dialogue between teacher and student. Bronson's most famous experiment was his founding of the Temple School in Boston in 1834. There he established an aesthetic environment conducive to learning and to stimulating to the imagination, and he hired the accomplished fellow Transcendentalists, Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, as assistants. From their work came Bronson's controversial publication, CONVERSATIONS WITH CHILDREN (1836), in which he recounted dialogues with his pupils on the meanings of the Bible. His free-thinking treatment of religious issues with its personalized view of Jesus shocked, as did his insistence on color-blind enrollment of students. Accepting a mulatto girl in 1839 dealt the Temple School its coup de grace, and it folded in 1840, with Bronson Alcott almost bankrupt.

Go Next Concord
In debt and jobless, Bronson and his family repaired to Concord, where he found solace in Emerson's company and practical and moral support, while Louisa and Anna would be taught by John and Henry David Thoreau at the Concord Academy. Eager to put his Transcendentalist, pacifist, and vegetarian principles into practice, Bronson joined Charles Lane in founding a communal farm, Fruitlands, in Harvard, MA, in 1843, but six months later the experiment--which stressed a mixture of
 Orchard House, the Alcott Family's Home in Concord, MA.
Orchard House, the Alcott Family's Home in Concord, MA.
farming and philosophizing--failed disastrously. The family returned to Concord to Hillside, a house purchased with funds Abigail May had inherited, and most of Louisa May's idyllic childhood memories date from this period.

Strapped again financially, Abigail May accepted a job as a social worker in Boston, where Bronson gave conversations and lectures, and Anna and Louisa began to teach school. The family's peripatetic life continued with a move to Walpole, NH, in 1855 (though Louisa remained in Boston teaching and publishing her first fiction) and then back to Concord in 1857, where they took up residence in Orchard House with the Hawthornes and Emersons as neighbors. It was here that Elizabeth Sewall Alcott died of scarlet fever and Bronson Alcott was appointed, largely through Emerson's good offices, to the honorary position of superintendent of the Concord Schools (it paid $100 annually). Delighted to have once again a platform for his theories, Bronson overhauled the curriculum, introducing singing, calisthenics, physiology, dancing, and instructing in his now-famous Socratic method of conversations and readings. Still considered too innovative, he was not reappointed after the first year.

Go Next School of
Philosophy

For the remainder of their lives Bronson and Abigail lived primarily in Concord, where Bronson published his book, CONCORD DAYS in 1872, mourned the passing of his wife in 1877, and at eighty years of age in 1879 established the Concord School of Philosophy as an adult summer intellectual retreat. He suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1882 and died in Boston on March 4, 1888.

Louisa May, whose literary earnings had become the support of her entire family, had written her two best-selling novels at Orchard House after spending time as a Civil War nurse and a traveling companion on a European jaunt: LITTLE WOMEN in 1868 and LITTLE MEN, the sequel inspired by her sister Anna's plight as a recent widow in 1871. She survived both her siblings (Elizabeth died of scarlet fever in 1858 and May succumbed to meningitis in 1878). Dividing her year between Boston and Concord, she continued to devote her life to literature (publishing anonymous Gothic tales in addition to sentimental novels) and worked tirelessly for the causes of her youth, becoming the first woman to cast a vote in Concord. On March 6, 1888, two days after Bronson's passing, Louisa May died and was laid to rest in the little poet's colony in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. In death as in life, her neighbors were the Hawthornes, Emersons, and Thoreaus.

Go Next Selections

SELECTED QUOTATIONS FROM BRONSON & LOUISA MAY ALCOTT

Bronson Alcott

"Every man is a revelation and ought to write his record."

"The human body is in itself the richest and raciest phrase book."

"It is the part of the wise instructor to tempt forth form the minds of his pupils the facts of their inmost consciousness, and make them apprehend the gifts and faculties of their own being. Education, when rightly understood, will be found to lie in the art of asking apt and fit questions, and in leading the mind by its own light to the perception of truth."

Louisa May Alcott

From LITTLE WOMEN (about Jo, Louisa May's alter-ego):

"She took to writing sensational stories; for in those dark ages even all-perfect America read rubbish. She told no one, but concocted a 'thrilling tale' and boldly carried it herself to Mr. Dashwood, editor of the WEEKLY VOLCANO."

From THE ABBOT'S GHOST (1867, published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard):

"Eight narrow Gothic windows pierced either wall of the north gallery. A full moon sent her silvery light strongly in upon the eastern side, making broad bars of brightness across the floor......As Octavia cried out, all looked, and all distinctly saw a tall, dark figure moving noiselessly across the second bar of light far down the hall."


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