June 13, 2010

The Alcott Sisters

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor,"
sighed Meg looking down at her old dress.
"I don't think it's so fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
"We've got father, mother and each other,"
said Beth contentedly, from her corner.

Amos Bronson Alcott, son of John Chatfield Alcott and Anna Bronson, was born 29 Nov 1799 in Wolcott, CT and died 4 Mar 1888 at the family’s “Orchard House” in Concord, MA. He married Abigail “Abba” May, daughter of Joseph May and Dorothy Sewall, 23 May 1830 in Boston, MA.

Abigail, the beloved Marmee of Little Women, was born 8 Oct 1800 in Boston, MA. She was descended from the distinguished Quincy and Seawall families of New England: Her great aunt was Dorothy Quincy, the revolutionary belle who married John Hancock, the first governor of Massachusetts. Abigail devoted herself to her four daughters, encouraging them in their talents and giving them practical rules to live by: Rule yourself, love your neighbor, hope and keep busy. She died at the home of her daughter Anna, on 25 Nov 1877.

In 1834 the family moved to Boston where Amos established an experimental school and joined the Transcendental Club with friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He was well known for his controversial teaching methods which relied more on student involvement and a belief that children should enjoy learning.

"My father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child's nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed in, like a Strasbourg goose, with more than it could digest." --Louisa May Alcott

The Alcotts were staunch abolitionists, supporting complete racial equality. As part of the Underground Railroad, they risked their own freedom hiding fugitive slaves. Their acquaintances included the orator Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Mrs. John Brown (widow of the hanged leader of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Julia Ward Howe (who wrote Battle Hymn of the Republic), and Rev. Theodore Parker.

Children of Amos and Abigail Alcott:

Anna Bronson Alcott was born 16 Mar 1831 in Germantown, PA. From an early age, Anna was stage-struck and longed to “shine before the world as a great actress.” After the family moved to Orchard House, she and Louisa helped form the Concord Dramatic Union.

Another member of the group was John Bridge Pratt. John and Anna fell in love while playing opposite each other in a play called The Loan of a Lover and married in the parlor of Orchard House on 23 May 1860. Anna is Meg in Little Women and the description of Meg’s wedding in the book is an actual description of Anna’s wedding. Of her wedding, Anna wrote:

"I was in a dream, the lovely day, the bright May sunshine streaking in upon the sweet flowers and loving faces, the influence of the kind hearts around me. All seemed so beautiful that although my heart beat fast and the tears came to my eyes. I did not feel like Annie. John looked like an angel, fair, innocent, with such loving eyes that I could not look at them but only held his hand and thought, 'He is my husband.'"

John died in 1870 leaving Anna with their two young sons, Frederick and John. With Louisa’s help in 1877, Anna purchased the Thoreau House (now called the Thoreau-Alcott House) on Main Street in Concord. Anna died there in July 1893 and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Louisa May Alcott, the second daughter of Amos and Abigail, was born in Germantown, PA on 29 Nov 1832. Like her character Jo in Little Women, Louisa was a tomboy. "No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race," she claimed, "and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences…"

Her passion for writing began at an early passion and her stories often became melodramas that she and her sisters would act out for friends. Her career as an author began with poetry and short stories that appeared in popular magazines.

When she was 35 years old, her publisher asked her to write a book for girls: Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868) was based on Louisa and her sisters’ coming of age and is set in Civil War New England. Jo March was the first American juvenile heroine to act from her own individuality; a living, breathing person rather than the idealized stereotype then prevalent in children’s fiction; Part two, or Part Second, also known as Good Wives (1869) followed the March sisters into adulthood and their respective marriages; Little Men (1871) detailed Jo’s life at the Plumfield School that she founded at the conclusion of part two; and Jo’s Boys (1886) completed the March family saga. Whereas Jo marries Professor Bhaer at the conclusion of Little Women, Louisa remained single throughout her life.

Louisa suffered chronic health problems in her later years and attributed her illness to mercury poisoning: During her Civil War service, she contracted typhoid fever and was treated with calomel, a compound containing mercury. But a recent analysis of her illness suggests that her health problems were associated with an autoimmune disease, not acute mercury exposure: A late portrait shows rashes on her cheeks that are characteristic of lupus. She died in her sleep in Roxbury, MA on 6 Mar 1888 … just two days after the death of her father and was buried on Authors Ridge of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA near her family and friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau.

Elizabeth Sewall Alcott was 24 Jun 1835 in Boston. Like Beth, her literary counterpart in Little Women, Lizzie caught scarlet fever from a poor family after whom her mother was caring. She recovered, but died two years later on 14 Mar 1858 of a wasting illness that was probably contracted in her weakened state.

"My dear Beth died at three in the morning after two years of patient pain," wrote Louisa. "Last week she put her work away, saying the needle was too heavy ... Saturday she slept, and at midnight became unconscious, quietly breathing her life away till three; then, with one last look of her beautiful eyes, she was gone."

Abigail May Alcott was born 26 Jul 1840 at the “Hosmer Cottage” in Concord. Like Amy in Little Women, she was a blue-eyed golden girl who possessed an intense love of beauty and all things artistic and elegant. Artistically gifted from an early age, May painted decorative figures and faces through the family’s home. It was Louisa’s success with Little Women (which May illustrated) that provided an opportunity for May to study art in Europe.

She married Ernest Niereker, a Swiss businessman and violinist, in 1878. The couple settled in Meudon, Paris, France where their daughter Louisa May "Lulu" was born 8 Nov 1879. Six weeks later, on Dec 29, May died of what was probably childbed fever. By her wish, Lulu was brought up by Louisa May. Louisa’s last story was a parable written about Lulu. The story is included in a modern book The Uncollected Works of Louisa May Alcott which is illustrated by May’s paintings and drawings.

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