By Lis Adams
Louisa May Alcott’s ties to Boston date back to her family’s move there from Germantown, Pennsylvania, when Louisa was two. Her Boston-born mother Abigail May, brought up by parents Colonel Joseph May and Dorothy Sewell in their home in Federal Court, married Amos Bronson Alcott in King’s Chapel, Boston. Needlepoint-covered foot warmers from the May family pew may still be seen in the parlor of Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts.
Alcott’s earliest memories of Boston, told in “Recollections of My Childhood,” published in 1888 by Youth’s Companion, include chasing her hoop, falling into the Frog Pond, and being rescued by a young African American. She also recounts a story of getting lost and later being found on a front stoop in Bedford Street, curled up fast asleep with a Newfoundland dog. Alcott’s first lesson in charity occurred on her third birthday, when she was gently instructed to give up her own “plummy cake” to another child because there weren’t enough to go around to everyone.
Boston is the place to which Alcott returned time after time, both for respite from admirers flocking to catch a glimpse of her in her Concord home, and for a safe writing haven, when the drudgeries of housekeeping and other domestic duties kept her from her work. The city afforded her both the luxury of anonymity and time to spend full days churning out the stories which kept the family coffers full.
Even before that time of plenty which followed the publishing of Little Women, Boston was the city to which Alcott turned for work of every kind. It was always her best hope for finding a job sewing, teaching, caring for children, or for peddling her stories, which she continued producing even when she was making a living elsewhere.
Alcott found inspiration in Boston, visiting the theater, the opera, and the Athenaeum, taking advantage of the lectures of great minds of the time, such as Margaret Fuller, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray, and attending Sunday night gatherings at the home of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, where she often sat quietly in a corner soaking up ideas and opinions of the day.
She and older sister Anna had a childhood dream of becoming famous actresses. In 1856 Boston Theatre manager Thomas Barry, who had expressed an interest in producing one of Louisa Alcott’s plays, The Rival Prima Donnas, offered her a free pass to performances, and, further, cast her in the role of The Widow Pottle in The Jacobite. Plans for her professional acting debut fell through, however, when Barry, who was to play the lead, broke his leg and had to cancel the performance. Nevertheless, she managed to either meet or see onstage many of the great theatrical stars of the day, including Fanny Kemble, Edwin Forrest, Junius Brutus and Edwin Booth, and Charlotte Cushman. Alcott’s farce, Nat Bachelor’s Pleasure Trip, was finally performed at the Howard Theater in 1860.
In 1862 Warren Street Chapel was the site of the kindergarten Louisa Alcott taught in the style of mentor Elizabeth Peabody. Atlantic Monthly publisher James T. Fields gave Alcott $40 to furnish her classroom, along with the stinging advice to “stick to your teaching, you can’t write.” Nine years later Louisa returned the money to Fields, with thanks for the incentive he had given her to succeed in spite of the odds that were stacked against her as a struggling young author.
Towards the end of 1867 Alcott was offered the editorship of children’s magazine Merry’s Museum, for which she wrote many of its stories during her two years’ post. She moved back to Boston from Concord, taking rooms in Hayward Place and eventually moving into the Bellevue Hotel on Beacon Street with her youngest sister May, who ran art classes from their studio apartment. In between those moves she returned to Concord, where she began work on Little Women, at the request of Boston publisher Thomas Niles, who had recognized Alcott’s talent for truthful writing in Hospital Sketches, an account of her experience as a war-time nurse. It was Niles who both realized the need for a different kind of girls’ book in the literary market and felt strongly that Alcott was the writer who could provide it. His hunch paid off, and it was largely due to his faith in her ability that Alcott even attempted to write a story that initially did not appeal to or inspire her.
With the completion of part two of Little Women, much of which was penned in her quiet rented room on Brookline Street in the South End, Alcott’s success was sealed. “I can imagine an easier life,” she wrote in her journal, “but with love, health, and work I can be happy, for these three help one to do, to be, and to endure all things.”
LIS ADAMS is Director of Education at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, where she plans and develops programs for schools, Scouts, and the public. She is currently organizing the July 2017 Summer Conversational Series for adult education, “Noble Companions and Immortal Labors: The Alcotts, Thoreaus, and the Quest for Social Justice.” Lis has published articles in the Concord Journal, is a member of the Concord Historical Collaborative, the Museum Education Roundtable, and a graduate of the Tufts Museum Studies program. She has presented for both the New England Museum Association and New England Library Association, and also served as a textile consultant and research assistant for the Arlington Historical Society’s current exhibit, “Family Ties.”
Ackerman, Jr. Alan L. The Portable Theater: American Literature & The Nineteenth Century Stage. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1999.
Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, editors. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1989.
Alcott, Louisa May. The Sketches of Louisa May Alcott. Introduction by Gregory Eiselein. Ironweed Press, Inc., New York, 2001.
Stern, Madeleine B. Louisa May Alcott: A Biography. University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.