Building Castles in the Air: One of America's Most Beloved Authors, Louisa May Alcott Overcame Poverty and Inequality to Achieve Astounding Financial and Literary Success

Article excerpt

Raised among transcendentalists, abolitionists and some of the 19th century's most famous writers, Louisa May Alcott probably didn't surprise anyone by pursuing a literary career. But no one could have imagined how she would rise from poverty to fame and fortune despite coming of age before women even had the vote, much less the promise of meaningful and lucrative careers.

We caught up with Alcott's lively and independent spirit at Orchard House, her old family home in Concord, Mass.

Q: You flourished as a young woman during a time when there were few opportunities for women outside of marriage. Do you recall an example of your free thinking and independence as a child?

A: "No boy could be my friend till I hail beaten him in a race and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap knees, and be a tomboy.

Born in 1832 and raised in Boston and Concord, Mass., Alcott benefited from growing up among liberal and highly educated parents. Her father, Bronson Alcoa, was an educator and was well-known in the transcendentalist movement, which espoused the innate goodness of humanity and nature, believed that society and its institutions corrupted this goodness, and advocated self-reliant living. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were among its chief figures. Alcott and her three sisters were educated by their father. Her mother, Abigail, was a sometime social worker.

Alcott also benefited from her parents' close friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne, all of whom were her informal educators, and she spent many hours perusing the shelves of Emerson's library. She also went on nature excursions with Thoreau, something that undoubtedly appealed to her tomboy nature. And living among so many transcendentalists, Alcott learned from a young age the virtue of working tirelessly toward self-improvement and perfection.

Q: What did you tell yourself as a girl to give yourself courage in overcoming your circumstances?

A: "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!"

Alcott's parents, though insistent on the importance of education for their daughters, were perpetually poverty-stricken. Alcott remembered her childhood as a time of persistent financial struggle, something she was determined to alleviate. She once wrote, "I can't do much with my hands so I will make a battering-ram of my head and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world."

As a result of her family's poverty and the second-class status of women, Alcott was no stranger to challenge. As a young woman, she was fiercely hardworking, gaining employment as a teacher, seam-stress, governess and even a domestic servant in an effort to lessen her parents' financial woes.

Q: What marked the turning point for you from struggle to success?

A: "My book came out; and people began to think that topsy-turvy Louisa would amount to something after all...

Alcott was writing and publishing stories and poetry long before she became famous, working under the pen names Flora Fairfield and A.M. Barnard. She made her income, in the beginning, from writing Gothic thrillers--melodramatic and sometimes fantastical stories featuring sexual tension, violence and betrayal. …