Louisa May Alcott
Raised in Boston and Concord by transcendentalist parents, Louisa May Alcott sold her first story, The Rival Painters. A Tale of Rome, in 1853 for $5.00. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Alcott wrote short stories and thrillers under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard; her work sold well, and she was able to bring in much-needed money for her family. It was the success of Little Women (1868-1869) that made Alcott both famous and financially secure. Alcott continued to write best-selling novels for young people, including Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886) while writing for children’s magazines, but she never became comfortable with the fame that Little Women had brought her.
Written when Alcott was 16, Flower Fables, a compilation of fanciful stories, was the author’s first book. She first wrote the tales for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.
Alcott served very briefly as a Union nurse in 1862 and soon after published her experiences in Hospital Sketches. Her treatment of heavy subject matter, such as tending for the war-wounded, earned her a reputation as a serious writer.
Loosely based on the lives of Alcott and her sisters, who were taught to value virtue over wealth, Little Women was the literary hit of its season. Today, the novel is one of the most widely-read books of the 19th century.
As did so many writers, Alcott learned from her own life experiences and turned them into best-selling fiction.
At 21 I took my little earnings ($20) & a few clothes, & went to seek my fortune tho I might have sat still & been supported by rich friends. All those hard years were teaching me what I afterward put into books, & so I made my fortune out of my seeming mis fortunes. I speak of myself because what one has lived one really knows & so can speak honestly.
Maggie Lukens published a magazine called the Young Folks’ Journal (Little Things) from 1871 to 1874. In this letter, Alcott responds to Lukens’ request for a story and her writing fee:
You ask about little stories... the Companion pays $50 apiece for them. Much more than they are worth of course, but he says that he pays for the name & seems satisfied with his bargain. I write for nothing else except a tale for Independent now & then, which brings $100. This winter I shall write for Scribner at their request… For you I will, if I have time, write a tale or sketch… for love not money, & if the name is of any use, you are very welcome to it.
Sophia Ripley (1803-1861) was the wife of transcendentalist George Ripley, who founded the utopian community of Brook Farm. Ripley converted to Catholicism in 1848 after the farm’s failure. In Alcott’s eyes, she was the epitome of womanhood.
Mrs. Ripley used to rock her baby’s cradle, shell peas, or sew, & fit a class of young men for college at the same time. One can discuss Greek poetry and chop meat as I saw her doing once with Mr. Emerson & Margaret Fuller & the one task ennobled the other because it was duty.