LOUISA MAY ALCOTT was born on November 29, 1832, the second daughter of Abigail May and Amos Bronson Alcott, with whom she shared a birthday. The Alcotts were living in Germantown, Pennsylvania, where Bronson was trying to realize his Transcendentalist vision and educational methods in a small school. This project failed after a year and proved to be one of many of his unsuccessful attempts to translate his philosophical views into even slightly profitable practices, failed attempts that would take the family from Pennsylvania to various parts of Massachusetts and would exact an enormous toll upon the family's—and especially Abigail May's—well-being. Abigail was frequently required to support the family by sewing, a task that would be shared by Louisa and her older sister, Anna; Louisa vowed in her journal to help keep the family afloat.
All the Alcott daughters (two more girls were born after Louisa) were encouraged to keep journals from the time they could write. Their journals, however, were not private, but open to the scrutiny and morally improving commentary of their parents. The discipline of writing for Louisa was thus a conflicting exercise—at once a stage for expression and yet also a confessional in which to exorcise desire and achieve moral self-restraint. Although Louisa's upbringing was starkly spartan, one bright element was the frequent presence of authors Emerson and Thoreau in the Alcott home. Emerson not only encouraged Louisa's writing but helped her set up a little school in which she taught, among others, his children. It was for his daughter Ellen that Louisa wrote what were to be her first published tales: Flower Fables.
In 1848 Alcott started to make money by publishing stories and poems in newspapers and journals. She published her first poem in Peterson's magazine under a pseudonym; her Flower Fables came out in 1855. From this time on, Alcott wrote to support her family; her most lucrative projects in this period were what she called her "blood and thunder" romances and thrillers, published under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. The pressure to produce was intensified by the staggering debts the Alcotts incurred in medical bills for their younger daughter, Beth, who died after much suffering in 1858.
During the Civil War, Alcott volunteered at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington as a nurse. Although she later published Hospital Sketches about her experiences, her work there was brief, for