English, Department of

 

Date of this Version

2007

Citation

In Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, edited by Bonnie G. Smith, et al., p. 96 (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Comments

Copyright 2007, Oxford University Press. Used by permission.

Abstract

American fiction writer best known as the author of the girls’ novel Little Women (1868-1869). Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to Abigail May Alcott and the progressive educator Bronson Alcott. The March family of Little Women was an idealized version of her own family, which was far less stable and more mobile. Alcott’s father’s idealistic education, and reform ventures regularly failed, necessitating the family’s frequent moves, and she and her mother increasingly provided the family’s economic support. Her childhood and adolescence were split primarily between Concord and Boston, Massachusetts, where she was deeply influenced by members of her father’s transcendentalist circle, including reform-minded writers and thinkers such as Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.

Alcott’s high rate of productivity and the extraordinary variety of literary forms in which she wrote, as well as the range of audiences she addressed, have challenged and intrigued scholars and leisure readers alike. Her first published story appeared in 1852 in the Olive Branch, a Boston story paper (an inexpensive weekly magazine published in newspaper format), and she continued to publish anonymous and pseudonymous tales in story papers intermittently throughout her career. These sensational melodramas featuring subversive heroines—”blood and thunder” tales, as Alcott called them—have kept twentieth-century scholars busy locating and reprinting them. Her first book, published in 1854 under her own name, was Flower Fables, a collection of fairy stories. She also published short fiction in elite venues such as the Atlantic Monthly magazine, plays, autobiographical Civil War sketches based on her wartime nursing experiences, and an adult novel, Moods (1864), all before Little Women, a novel that has become a worldwide icon of American girlhood. In Japan, Little Women was a perennial favorite for teaching good behavior, although occasionally young women admired Jo’s individualism and rebelliousness.