Along a ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery of Concord, MA are a cluster of three graves. A sign with an arrow points to nearby burial site of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Tourists trek from all over the world to visit the site known as Author’s Ridge, but there is no grave more sought after than that of American Civil War veteran Louisa May Alcott along with Boston’s two other famous American writers of the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The beautiful story of this woman began on November 29, 1832 when Louisa was born on her father’s birthday. She grew up as a strong abolitionist under the tutelage of her father Bronson Alcott who was not only colorblind to skin tone, but also taught children of the love of Jesus in a personal way. Her family home was even a refuge for a fugitive slave in the underground efforts of Frederick Douglass. She was also involved in the Women’s Suffrage movement and became the first woman registered to vote in Concord.
In 1862, she surrendered her life into the ministry of becoming a Civil War nurse where she contracted typhoid fever and the resulting mercury poisoning that she would ultimately survive but would plague her for the rest of her life.
Her father’s touching poem about Louisa’s time as a nurse, simply entitled “To Louisa May Alcott. From her father” highlighted how proud he was of her service of bringing joy to the lives of suffering men.
When I remember with what buoyant heart,
Midst war’s alarms and woes of civil strife,
In youthful eagerness thou didst depart,
At peril of thy safety, peace, and life,
To nurse the wounded soldier, swathe the dead,–
How piercèd soon by fever’s poisoned dart,
And brought unconscious home, with wildered head,
Thou ever since ‘mid langour and dull pain,
To conquer fortune, cherish kindred dear,
Hast with grave studies vexed a sprightly brain,
In myriad households kindled love and cheer,
Ne’er from thyself by Fame’s loud trump beguiled,
Sounding in this and the farther hemisphere,–
I press thee to my heart as Duty’s faithful child.
Louisa and her father shared such a close relationship that she died of a stroke at age 55 two days after he did on March 6, 1888. She left behind almost 300 literary works that are still beloved today, the most famous one being the widely known Little Women, a semi-biographical story of a renegade tomboy heroine and her three sisters. The world cannot get enough of Little Women with it having been remade over and over again including a memorable 1933 movie classic starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo.
So, I too, have been a lifelong fan of Little Women having read the book as a child. As an adult, I was with a gaggle of girls driving out of Nashville and we all argued about which one of us was more like Jo after taking in an adaptation for stage. I brought my son to Greta Gerwig’s recent time hop masterpiece and watched him digest the story for the first time. It was only after our second time to the theatre and his sorting out the details of the film’s timeline that I had to share with him the spoiler, “Son, every woman in that theatre already knew that Jo was going to cut her hair, Amy was going to fall through the ice, and Beth was going to die.” We all had a 30-year head start on the plot and characters.
Since the era of Alcott’s famous pen, the meaning of feminism has come to have many flavors for women from all walks of life who, no matter the degree of feminist flair, love purchasing T-shirts and mugs that announce Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous quote: “Well behaved women rarely make history.”
This, coupled with the known truth that every woman thinks that Alcott wrote Jo about her tend to make for some great discussion, romantic conversation about defying the norms of the day, and license to break free of the bondage of traditional expectations while still maintaining femininity.
I believe the reason this story is so meaningful and timeless is perhaps there is a little bit of Jo in all of us. We all want to make our own way whether it be through the manner of dress, the people we impact, or the power of the pen. Jo March did all of these things, changing the world around her for good in an unprecedented manner.
When it comes to Jo March, Louisa May Alcott wasn’t writing about me, you, your roommate, wife, or girlfriend. She was writing about herself. Yes, Alcott was writing about herself in an era where she only wanted her voice to be heard in a world gone awry. She gave her time, her thoughts, and her entire being to leave her mark. That, she did.