Louisa May Alcott was one of the most successful and bestselling authors of her day, earning more than any of her male contemporaries. Her classic Little Women has been a mainstay of American literature since its release nearly 150 years ago, as Jo March and her calm, beloved “Marmee” have shaped and inspired generations of young women. Biographers have consistently attributed Louisa’s uncommon success to her father, Bronson Alcott, assuming that this outspoken idealist was the source of his daughter’s progressive thinking and remarkable independence.
But in this riveting dual biography, award-winning biographer Eve LaPlante explodes these myths, drawing from a trove of surprising new documents to show that it was Louisa’s actual “Marmee,” Abigail May Alcott, who formed the intellectual and emotional center of her world. Abigail, whose difficult life both inspired and served as a warning to her devoted daughters, pushed Louisa to excel at writing and to chase her unconventional dreams in a male-dominated world.
In Marmee & Louisa, LaPlante, Abigail’s great-niece and Louisa’s cousin, re-creates their shared story from diaries, letters, and personal papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and many others that were thought to have been destroyed. Here at last Abigail is revealed in her full complexity—long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure, she comes to life as a fascinating writer and thinker in her own right. A politically active feminist firebrand, she was a highly opinionated, passionate, ambitious woman who fought for universal civil rights, publicly advocating for abolition, women’s suffrage, and other defin-ing moral struggles of her era.
In this groundbreaking work, LaPlante paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of a woman decades ahead of her time, and the fiercely independent daughter whose life was deeply entwined with her mother’s dreams of freedom. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women is guaranteed to transform our view of one of America’s most beloved authors.
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A Good Child, but Willful
On Wednesday, October 8, 1800, in a large frame house on Milk Street overlooking Boston Harbor, Dorothy Sewall May delivered her fourth living daughter, whom she named Abigail, after her husband’s mother.19 “[I was] a sickly child, nursed by a sickly mother,” Abigail recalled, linked from the start to her own “Marmee.”
Dorothy Sewall May’s “most striking trait” was “her affectionate disposition,” according to Abigail.22 “She adored her husband and children.”20 This natural tendency was intensified because Dorothy had been orphaned at twelve when her father died of a stroke, a year after the death of her forty-year-old mother.21 Thereafter Dorothy had lived with her eldest sister, Elizabeth Sewall Salisbury. Elizabeth’s husband, Samuel, was a merchant whose apprentice, Joseph May, Dorothy married in 1784.
By the time of Abigail’s birth sixteen years later, the Mays had three boys—ages twelve, five, and three—and four girls: thirteen-year-old Catherine; Louisa, who was eleven; two-year-old Elizabeth, whom they called Eliza; and the new baby. Dorothy had no formal education and her husband had abandoned Boston Latin School in his early teens to work for Dorothy’s brother-in-law. Nevertheless, she determined to send their boys at age five to dame, or ma’am, schools run by women and then to “man schools” to prepare for Harvard College, from which her brother, father, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers had graduated. As for her daughters, Dorothy encouraged them to follow a year or two of dame school with reading, singing, and sewing at home, where she provided tutors in dancing and music. The girls could read freely, for the Mays had house servants and a library stocked with the classic historians, philosophical works of Priestley and Paley, and the poetry of Pope, Addison, and Shakespeare.23
The year after Abigail’s birth, the family moved three blocks south to a “plain but comfortable” wood house with a large garden and orchards at No. 1 Federal Court, a “sunny and cheerful spot” off Federal Street that is less than a block from South Station in modern Boston.24 Around that time, Abigail’s frail, forty-three-year-old mother suffered a miscarriage that ended her thirteenth and final pregnancy.
At midday on Thursday, April 29, 1802, when Abigail was eighteen months old, her six-year-old brother Edward arrived home from ma’am school “full of glee” and eager to play, according to her four-year-old brother, Samuel Joseph, who was known in the family as Sam Jo. The brothers were close, Sam Jo said later: “We slept together, ate together, and he taught me all the sports. I every day awaited his return” from school.
Following the family’s midday meal, the two boys ran out to the garden, leaving their sisters inside with their mother. Edward climbed to the roof of a barn and pretended to be a chimney sweep. Minutes later, having concluded his sweeping, he prepared to descend from the barn by stepping onto the post of an old wooden chair.25 The chair post splintered beneath him, a broken spindle pierced his side, and he dropped to the ground. Screams from servants alerted Dorothy, who raced from the house, carried her six-year-old inside, and called for a bath. Servants rushed to the well and the stove. Not until Dorothy removed Edward’s shirt did anyone see the fatal wound.
Dorothy fainted, Sam Jo recalled, and all around the dying boy was “confusion and dismay.” Servants ran to summon the doctor and Joseph May, who raced home from his marine insurance office near Long Wharf. Amid the chaos Edward’s body was cleaned, dressed, and laid out in the best room.
“Some strange awful change had come over my beloved Edward,” Sam Jo said. “Eyes shut, body cold,” he gave “no replies to the tender things said to him” and took “no notice of all that was being done to him.” But Sam Jo would not abandon his brother’s body. He begged his parents to let him sleep with Edward one last time. That night in bed he kissed his brother’s “cold cheek and lips, pulled open his eyelids, begged him to speak to me, and cried myself to sleep because he would not.”
The next morning the children watched their father place Edward into his coffin “in order that it might be laid away in the ground.” The parents and older sisters continually assured the younger children that “Edward is still living; he has become an angel and gone to heaven.”
Throngs of relatives and friends and Joseph May’s colleagues in shipping and insurance attended the funeral. James Freeman, America’s first Unitarian preacher and one of Joseph’s closest friends, performed the funeral service at home. Pallbearers carried the little coffin out to a carriage. Black-clad mourners followed the carriage on foot up the hill to the burial ground beside King’s Chapel, where Joseph was warden and coauthor of the new hymnal. Young men bore the coffin into the burying ground beside the stone church, while Sam Jo pleaded to see what they were doing to his brother.
His uncle Samuel May, his father’s younger brother, carried the boy into the graveyard and down the steps to the family burial vault. From the safety of his uncle’s arms Sam Jo surveyed the coffins of his brother Edward, his other deceased siblings, and his paternal grandfather, who had died in 1794. “Our kind uncle,” Sam Jo said later, “opened one of the coffins and let me see how decayed the body had become.” Uncle Sam allowed him to kiss his brother one last time. “Edward’s body is going to decay and become like the dust of the earth,” his uncle reassured him, while “his soul has gone to live in heaven with God and Christ and the angels.”
Over the years Sam Jo would recount this experience for Abigail, who was too young to recall the details. The night after the funeral, alone in bed for the first time without his brother, Sam Jo had a vivid dream. The ceiling of his room seemed to open, revealing a bright light. From “the midst of it came our lost brother, attended by a troop of little angels. He lay by me as he used to do, his head on my arm,” and said, “How happy I am in heaven.”
This dream recurred nightly until “by degrees” Sam Jo’s grief abated. “But I have never forgotten my almost twin brother” and the “heavenly vision” that provided “the deepest religious impression that my soul ever received.” That vision, he told Abigail, motivated him to devote his life to God.
Edward’s death caused other revolutions. Joseph and Dorothy May, who had lost five babies, were devastated. Dorothy drew even closer to her two surviving sons and four daughters. Meanwhile, their oldest son, Charles, an indifferent scholar, determined in his teens to go to sea. Charles’s departure when Abigail was small reduced the siblings at home to four girls and a single boy. This fundamental May quintet, as described decades later by Abigail to her daughters, would become a model for Little Women’s central characters, the four “March” sisters who share their remarkable Marmee with “Laurie,” the privileged boy next door.
Edward’s death forged an unexpected bond between little Abigail and her sole brother at home. A year after Edward’s death, when Sam Jo began attending school, two-and-a-half-year-old Abba, as she was known in the family, begged him to take her along. He and their sisters persuaded their parents to allow Abba to join them at school.26 By the time she was four she was learning to read and write under the tutelage of her seven-year-old brother, who delighted in walking his “darling little sister” up the cobbled road from home to Mrs.27 Walcutt’s Dame School on High Street.
This bond was unusual in Boston and the wider society, which assigned boys and girls to separate realms. Privileged boys were trained at school to excel in the public sphere, while their sisters were prepared at home to manage a family. Sons, expected to succeed in the world, were prepared with the finest education available, while daughters were prepared to marry well, a task that required no outside education.
These different modes of education, the Mays and their peers believed, suited the genders’ inherently distinct natures. Women were considered emotional, nurturing, and intellectually inferior to men, who were all “rational, selfish, and intellectually superior,” according to the historian Eve Kornfeld.28 Middle-class boys “studied the classics, mathematics, natural science, history, and theology” and learned “an aggressive language suitable for debate,” while their female peers studied “literature, art, languages, dance, and music” so as to speak “a docile language intended to soothe and to smooth over controversy.” This cultivation at school and at home of boys’ and girls’ apparently distinct interests and talents seemed to provide “further proof of the natural gulf between the male and female worlds.”
Sam Jo and Abba May departed from this pattern. Beginning soon after Edward’s death, they were each other’s best companion and ally. Sam Jo dutifully followed the male path by attending a private academy for boys, Harvard College, and Harvard Divinity School. “My generous father,” he recalled later, “thought the best patrimony he could give his children was a good education, so we [boys] were sent to the private schools in Boston that enjoyed the highest reputation.” Unlike many of his peers, however, Sam Jo also developed in the wake of his brother’s death a passion to rectify the world’s wrongs. Among those wrongs was his clever little sister’s inability to secure an education like the one that his gender granted him. As a result, he set out to share his man’s education with Abba, who concluded in early adolescence that a girl’s education was “deficient.”29 Her brother encouraged her to read his books, improve her writing, and think for herself. By the time they were young adults, due to a series of family tragedies Abigail and Samuel Joseph were the only May siblings still living save Charles, who remained away from New England for decades to come. Abigail’s remarkable bond with Samuel Joseph contributed to her lifelong determination that women should not only be educated but also have a voice in running the world.
The setting of Abigail May’s early life was still in many respects the town from which Paul Revere and William Dawes had ridden just a quarter century before. Dawes, in fact, was Abigail’s uncle.30 In 1800 Boston was still a “pretty country town” with fewer than twenty-five thousand inhabitants, most of them descendants of English settlers, occupying detached houses surrounded by gardens and orchards on a peninsula of roughly one square mile and several adjoining villages.31 Many Bostonians farmed. Some still shepherded their milk cows to graze on the Common, which descended to a marshy bay along the Charles River. The town had not yet begun its great nineteenth-century transformation, in which cows were banished, pastures and hills smoothed, marshes and bays filled, and brownstones built. In this “handsome” Boston of Abigail May’s youth, according to a visitor, “Town and Country seem married.”32
Growing up on the peninsula’s less populous south side, the May children could step into the sea at high tide hardly two minutes from home. Clipper ships passed to and fro. In the evening “the sea dashed under the windows,” Abigail’s friend Lydia Maria Child recalled, and was “often sparkling with moon-beams when we went to bed.”33 To the southeast the Mays could see from their windows the town’s wharves, Gallows Bay, the mud flats of Dorchester, and the harbor islands, most prominently Castle Island with its star-shaped fortification. Looking north their view was of numerous steeples and the town’s four great hills. Atop the tallest, Beacon Hill, were the new State House, designed and built in 1798 by Charles Bulfinch, and the elegant home of the late John Hancock, the revolutionary hero and first governor. Hancock, too, was Abigail’s uncle, the late husband of her “Aunt Q,” Dorothy Quincy Hancock. During Abigail’s early years, her Aunt Q still lived in that grand mansion replete with books, paintings, silver, and mahogany furniture, where she had hosted John Adams and General Lafayette.34 The old woman often invited Abigail and her sisters in for treats. Decades later, in her great-niece Louisa’s Old-Fashioned Girl, Aunt Q would be immortalized as Grandma Shaw’s late aunt, Governor Hancock’s widow, with her red-velvet-lined carriage, her “great garden,” and her memories of feeding General Lafayette and his troops during the revolution.35 In fact, Aunt Q’s poignant recollections of her only son and daughter, both of whom had died early, may have enhanced her fondness for her nieces and nephews. Aunt Q, like Abigail, had been the youngest, “most petted” of her family.36 Each year on Abigail’s birthday, her aunt reminded her that October 8 was also the day on which “My Mr. Hancock” had died, seven years before Abigail was born.
A revolutionary spirit imbued Abigail’s childhood. Many Bostonians had opposed the American Revolution when it happened, but not the Mays. When Abigail was small, her father recounted for her the resolute response of his “strong” mother to a British soldier’s petty robbery.37 Passing by the May house, the soldier had reached into an open kitchen window and grabbed food from the table. “Your grandmother quickly shut the window down upon his arm and held it as in a vise,” Joseph May said. Not until a British officer arrived to arrest the offender did Madam Abigail Williams May loosen her grip on the sash. Like other Bostonians opposed to British rule, the Mays left during the Siege of Boston. They boarded with cousins in Pomfret, Connecticut, and did not return to Boston until the British evacuation in the spring of 1776. Joseph was too young to participate in the New England portion of the Revolutionary War, but in his twenties he joined the Independent Corps of Cadets, rose through its ranks, and always desired to be called “Colonel” rather than “Mister” May.
Colonel Joseph May was proud of his heritage. His ancestors, English Puritans with Spanish, Portuguese, and Jewish forebears, arrived in Plymouth in 1640 and settled on the mainland just west of Boston, in Roxbury.38 An early-eighteenth-century May acquired a large lot on Boston’s south side along the slender neck connecting Boston to the mainland except at extreme high tide, when the town briefly became an island.39 Joseph May was the third child of the carpenter Samuel May’s second marriage, to a farmer’s daughter named Abigail Williams. Joseph grew up in “Squire May’s great house” on the neck at the corner of Orange (now Washington) and Davis streets. Joseph’s father, who left the house each morning with a tool bag over his shoulder, was a skilled architect and designer who became a “considerable” dealer in lumber, which he received at a wharf below the house.40
Joseph’s parents raised nine children, all girls except Joseph and the youngest, Sam, who did not arrive until Joseph was sixteen. A “merry, active” boy accustomed to female company, Joseph was chastised for talking in class. “Sewing being tried” as a cure “proved a failure,” so the teacher had him memorize the psalms, the music of a devout Puritan life. This led to his lifelong love of poetry and song, which he passed on to his children. Joseph’s youthful gift for singing psalms by heart “drew the attention of the neighbors,” who “would stand him up on a folded window shutter before a shop” near his house and call for him to recite “one psalm after another.”41 As his “closing achievement,” the boy would sing all 176 verses of the 119th psalm “without an error,” prompting applause. In 1770, after the Boston Massacre, Joseph’s parents left their church because its minister ridiculed the patriots’ cause.42 They soon joined Old South Church, where their son Joseph found a musical home: “He sat in the singers’ seats and sang [psalms] with them when but twelve years old.” From age nine Joseph attended Boston Latin School until the British military occupation in 1775 prompted the family’s yearlong exile in Connecticut, which ended his schooling after only a few years.
Upon his family’s return to Boston in 1776, sixteen-year-old Joseph began a career in business. He was apprenticed to Stephen Salisbury, a prosperous Worcester, Massachusetts, merchant who owned a waterfront store in Boston. Joseph spent four years working for Salisbury and his brother Samuel, whose wife, Elizabeth Sewall Salisbury, had taken in her younger sister Dorothy Quincy Sewall after their parents’ deaths. Despite Dorothy’s higher social status and her age two years his senior, Joseph May courted his employer’s charming young sister-in-law.
At twenty-one Joseph went into business for himself. He opened a store, Patten & May Company, selling flour and produce at No. 3 Long Wharf. His partner, Thomas Patten, was a distant relative who traded flour and other goods in Baltimore, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia.43 Patten & May prospered, enabling Joseph to pledge himself to the young lady he had admired for nearly a decade. On December 28, 1784, at King’s Chapel, the ambitious young businessman married the twenty-six-year-old “daughter of [the late merchant] Samuel Sewall, [deacon] of the Old South Church,” and his late wife, Elizabeth Quincy.45
Dorothy Quincy Sewall came from an illustrious family. She and her future children, as she would remind them, were “thrice related to the Quincys.”44 A direct descendant of the first Edmund Quincy, progenitor of the clan, Dorothy was a cousin of Abigail Adams and of numerous justices of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the oldest independent judiciary in the Western Hemisphere. Dorothy’s paternal grandfather, the renowned eighteenth-century pastor Joseph Sewall, whom she had known in her childhood, served Old South Church for half a century and made it “a shrine of the American cause.” Her older brother Samuel Sewall was a member of the United States Congress and chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Many male cousins were judges. According to a historian, during “the 122 years from 1692 to 1814, eighty-four [years] saw some member of the Sewall family in the highest court of Massachusetts.”46
For the first fourteen years of Dorothy and Joseph May’s marriage, their family and his business grew. However, in 1798, when they had five living children and she was pregnant with Abigail’s next older sister, Elizabeth, disaster struck. Without Joseph’s knowledge, his partner had speculated on land in what is now the state of Mississippi, using Patten & May as collateral. Thomas Patten had invested $22,000 (equivalent to $310,000 in the year 2000) in huge tracts of land sold by Georgia politicians for roughly a penny an acre in a massive fraudulent scheme known as the Yazoo land scandal.47 Public outrage across the South prompted lawsuits, which nullified the deals. Patten & May became bankrupt. To repay the huge debt he had unknowingly incurred, “Mr. May gave up everything he possessed, even offering the gold ring on his finger.”48
Following this loss, Abigail’s father experienced “a very serious and protracted illness” in which his “mental suffering was great.” By the time of Abigail’s birth in the fall of 1800, Joseph’s health was restored, but his worldview was forever changed. Conservative by nature, having courted a young relative of his well-to-do employer and determined to make money by advancing in the mercantile world, he now considered material wealth harmful to spiritual health. “The sufferings which this disaster caused revealed to him that he had become more eager for property than was creditable to his understanding or good for his heart,” his friend the Reverend Dr. Greenwood observed.49 “After some days of deep depression, [Joseph May] formed the resolution never [again] to be a rich man . . . [and] to withstand all temptations to engage again in the pursuit of wealth.” To the dismay of some of his children, “he adhered to this determination” in the future by resisting “very advantageous offers of partnership in lucrative concerns.”
Abigail knew her father only after his business failure. But her oldest siblings, like the elder sisters in Little Women, “could remember better times.” In the novel one sister asks another, “Don’t you wish we had the money Papa lost when we were little?”
Like the virtuous Marches invented by his granddaughter, Joseph May responded to loss by beginning again with a new emphasis on duty. “Life was not given to be all used up in the pursuit of what we leave behind us when we die,” he often told Abigail. This idealism was enabled by his fortunate choices, particularly his choice of a well-connected wife. In their privileged, insular postrevolutionary world, Dorothy May’s wealthy cousins and family friends rallied around them. The Marine Insurance Company, a firm created in 1799 by members of the Cabot and Sargent families, offered Joseph May a lifetime job as its first and only secretary. This sinecure, which he held for decades, provided a relatively modest “competence only for his family” that “never exceeded fifteen hundred dollars a year,” equivalent to $25,000 at the turn of the twenty-first century. Various kin, notably Dorothy’s younger brother Joseph Sewall, a dry-goods importer significantly more prosperous than his brother-in-law, purchased a new house for the May family.
That house, on the “sunny” spot on Federal Court into which they moved not long after Abigail’s birth, is where she was raised and later brought her daughters Anna and Louisa to visit. “Of necessity simple and without show,” the house “lacked no comforts, and was full of hospitable and kindly feeling and deed,” according to a family recollection. During Abigail’s childhood her father was “most attractive in conversation, with . . . a ready wit, giving hours of every day to reading and retaining the fruits of it for the advantage and entertainment of others, ready to participate in the occupations and amusements of those about him, and joining in their music,” singing psalms, hymns, and songs. Joseph read aloud to his children and led them in daily prayer and reading of the Bible, in the King James translation.
Dorothy shared “fully with her husband in the hospitable spirit of the house.” Even more than her husband, she was “keenly alive to all the joys and trials of her children and of their young friends.”50 In 1819, when Sam Jo’s college friend from Maine, George Barrell Emerson, was “seriously ill,” Abigail recalled, “my mother had him brought to Federal Court where he remained very sick 5 months.”51 Throughout college Emerson dined every Saturday with the Mays. “I never enjoyed music more entirely than I did then and there in the rich harmony of this exquisite family-choir,” he remembered.52 “Dear Louisa [Abigail’s sister] and S[am] J[o] made sweet music for us,” Abigail wrote to her daughters, “and the beloved presence of my mother and father and Eliza filled our house with glee, when we all joined in the chorus of the ‘Woodland Hallow’ or ‘Auld Lang Syne’ or ‘Home Sweet Home.’53 . . . I have never seen more contentment and happiness—we had music, health, love, and good will.”
Amid the cheer were rules regarding appropriate behavior. For Abigail and her sisters, one model of female acquiescence was their Aunt Q, who lived until Abigail was nearly thirty. In 1810 Dorothy Quincy Hancock returned, after a brief second marriage in New Hampshire, to the Hancock mansion beside the State House. The property, built in 1737 by John Hancock’s superbly wealthy uncle Thomas Hancock, extended from Mount Vernon to Joy streets. It encompassed walled gardens of flowers, rare trees, and shrubs. Aunt Q later moved to 4 Federal Street, nearer the Mays, where she regaled her nieces with stories of the War for Independence, whose first shots she had heard.
“Shall I tell you the story of the Lexington Alarm?” Aunt Q asked Abigail and her sister Eliza as the girls leaned into her cushioned chair. Late at night on April 18, 1775, twenty-six-year-old Dorothy Quincy had been trying to sleep on the second floor of the Lexington parsonage while her fiancé, John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, and Samuel Adams paced in the parlor below. Dorothy had been introduced to Hancock by his aunt Lydia, who raised him as the sole heir to her and her late husband’s massive estate. Aunt Lydia had recently invited Dorothy to live in the Hancock mansion. Dorothy was of good family and, according to John Singleton Copley, who painted her portrait, displayed “unusual attractions.”54
In Boston in early April 1775, General Thomas Gage had ordered British regulars to arrest Hancock and Adams for treason on account of their vocal opposition to the Stamp Act, tea tax, the British blockade of the port of Boston, and the Boston Massacre.55 King George III’s troops also sought a stock of munitions hidden in Concord, the next town. But armed members of the Lexington militia had encircled the parsonage, protecting Hancock and Adams.
Roused by the chaos, Dorothy Quincy donned her cloak and bonnet and descended to the parlor. Before dawn Paul Revere arrived. He advised Hancock and Adams to depart quickly, before British troops surrounded the house. “It was not till break of day that Mr. Hancock could be persuaded” to leave, Aunt Q recalled. “He was all the night cleaning his gun and sword, determined to go where the battle was.”
Around daybreak a British soldier, unaware of Hancock’s and Adams’s presence, knocked on the door, seeking directions to Concord. Upon his departure Dorothy and the Lexington minister stuffed valuables in the cellar and garret. Hancock, Adams, and Revere fled in Hancock’s coach, which later returned to retrieve Dorothy Quincy and Aunt Lydia. During their flight Dorothy’s first thought was of her widowed father, Judge Edmund Quincy, still in Boston, which was occupied by British troops. “I told Mr. Hancock that I wished to go to my father,” Aunt Q recalled. “He said to me, ‘No, madam, you shall not return as long as there is a British bayonet left in Boston.’ To which I replied, ‘Recollect, Mr. Hancock, I am not under your control yet.’ ”
But she soon would be under his control, as her nieces Abigail and Eliza were well aware. On August 28 of that year, during a recess of the Second Continental Congress, she married Mr. Hancock in Fairfield, Connecticut. The couple traveled to Philadelphia, where he continued leading Congress and became the first signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
Aunt Q’s life with Mr. Hancock exemplified the model marriage of her class and time. In law and in fact, the husband controlled his wife, children, assets, and property. The virtuous femininity displayed by Dorothy Hancock in Philadelphia, where she was the only woman sharing a disorderly boardinghouse with scores of male Continental Congressmen, impressed John Adams. In a November 4, 1775, letter to his wife, Abigail Adams, John described Dorothy Hancock’s “modest decency, dignity and discretion.56 . . . She avoids talking upon politics. . . . She is unusually silent, as a lady ought to be.” Aunt Q exemplified the conventional female role of household manager and hostess: she had no education, no career, and no public voice.
Abigail’s mother’s marital arrangement was marginally different, due to her superior connections and her choice of a mate less privileged and less educated than her male relatives. Dorothy’s lineage gave the Mays the status of “Boston Brahmins,” a people, according to Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who possessed “houses by Bulfinch, . . . ancestral portraits and Chinese porcelains, . . . humanitarianism, Unitarian faith in the march of the mind, Yankee shrewdness, and New England exclusiveness.”57 Brahmins arose, the historian George Fredrickson explained, from a “union of new wealth and old learning” caused by the “extensive intermarriage . . . of rising merchant families with other families known not for their worldly success but for their long lines of clergymen and Harvard graduates.”58
Dorothy Sewall May’s lineage did not prevent her growing feeble during Abigail’s childhood, while her confident, ebullient husband remained active into his seventies.59 Joseph May was known widely for his efforts “to relieve the needy and the sick, and minister to the dying.” In 1811 he was one of the men who founded Massachusetts General Hospital to treat the city’s poor. (Private doctors cared for the wealthy.) Dorothy was doubtless as clever as her husband, and as eager to improve the world, but the restrictions on female behavior, exacerbated by her physical decline, prevented her passions from flowering anywhere outside the home. Years later, Abigail remembered that her mother, whose “own education had been a limited one . . . was constantly solicitous that her daughters should be educated as fit companions for man.”
Abigail’s desire was to be educated, full stop. She did not relish a marriage like her aunt’s or her mother’s. Alone among her female relatives, Abigail determined to be different. Although she adored her mother and sisters and considered women’s work essential, from childhood she longed for the experiences of her brother Sam Jo. She wished to read history and literature, to learn Latin and Greek, and to use her mind to improve the world, as he was encouraged to do. Her society did not value these goals in a girl, but her brother and mother honored her ambition and encouraged her to educate herself.
In the fall of 1810, when Abigail was ten, she received a gift of a blank journal and the suggestion that she write therein. The donor was likely her mother, a proud great-granddaughter of colonial America’s most famous diarist, Judge Samuel Sewall, whose portrait had always hung in her house.60 The toothless old man in the painting, Dorothy told her daughter, kept journals of his thoughts and experiences for more than sixty years starting in 1667, when he arrived at Harvard College. He became chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in 1715, the year in which his grandson, Dorothy’s father, was born.
The judge was impressive in other ways, Dorothy said as she and Abigail walked in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, where she pointed out his grave. In Salem in 1692 he sat on the court that convicted and executed twenty innocent people as witches. Alone among the eight judges of that court, Sewall realized his judgments were wrong, publicly repented for them, and devoted the rest of his life to trying to reform the world. In colonial New England, where slavery was commonplace, he composed and published America’s first abolitionist tract, The Selling of Joseph. Sewall also supported the right of Native Americans to be educated, Dorothy told Abigail, and promoted “the right of women.”61 In his diaries, which Dorothy’s older brother Samuel had inherited from their father, the judge gave his wife control of his money because she had “a better faculty than I at managing Affairs.62 . . . She shall now keep the cash; if I want I will borrow of her.” Most remarkable, according to Abigail’s mother, Sewall concluded late in life that women are fundamentally equal to men.63
This was a novel concept. Abigail knew her mother and father were not equal. Nor was she equal to her brother. Sam Jo and other boys were allowed to play freely in the garret, the garden, and the Common; girls were not. She and her sisters accompanied their brother to school for a few years, but only he was prepared for college.
When Abigail was eight or nine, Sam Jo left dame school to attend an exclusive private boys’ school, Chauncy Hall.64 The school was created by Joseph May and other fathers of teenage boys to compete with Boston Latin, established in 1635.65 For several years Sam Jo studied Latin, Greek, rhetoric, and mathematics with the Reverend Elisha Clapp at an annual cost of a hundred dollars, the equivalent of $1,500 in 2000. A “very puny” boy surrounded at home by sisters, Sam Jo had abhorred the occasional whippings he had received at the hands of previous male teachers.66
One morning in late August of 1813, when Abigail was twelve, Sam Jo left home before dawn in a stagecoach to cross the Charles River for Harvard. At fifteen, he was the fifth generation of the family to attend the college. He, his cousin and chum Samuel E. Sewall, and sixty other young men gathered on Harvard Yard before filing into University Hall, itself still under construction, to take written and oral examinations in Latin, Greek, mathematics, and the physical sciences.6768
While her brother read the classics and philosophy at college, Abigail remained at home with her mother and sisters.69 Though she was determined to learn all she could, she was a sickly child: “Illness much interrupted” her home schooling.70 Later, recalling her childhood for her daughters, Abigail remembered lying sick in bed watching her mother’s and sisters’ anxious faces hovering above her. Roughly one in two children did not survive past age five. Dorothy May, who could not forget the pain of losing Edward, sometimes read to Abigail the Old Testament story of the prophet Elisha’s encounter with a dead boy:
And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed. He went in therefore, and shut the door upon them twain, and prayed unto the LORD. And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm . . . the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. . . . And when [the child’s mother] was come in unto him, he said, Take up thy son. Then she went in, and fell at his feet, and bowed herself to the ground, and took up her son.
Abigail’s mother spoiled her, Abigail felt. “Owing to my delicate health, I was much indulged. . . . I was allowed to read a good deal, fed on nice food, and had many indulgences not given my sisters and brothers.” Perhaps as a result, “I was rather a good child, but willful.” A favorite childhood activity was reading aloud “to my mother and sisters when they were employed” with household chores. She learned to sing hymns and songs but could not play the piano because her right hand had been badly burned when she was six months old.72 Abigail rarely socialized outside her family: “I never cared much for society. Parties I disliked.” In her early teens, though, she “danced well” at Mr. Turner’s Dancing School, she confided to her journal, and had “for partners some boys who afterward became eminent Divines.”73
When Abigail was twelve her parents employed for her a private tutor. Eliza Robbins, the author of children’s textbooks, allowed “no drone or loafer near,” Abigail recalled. “She made each girl use the talents she had, to the best advantage.”
But this instruction too was insufficient to Abigail’s intellectual ambition. At fourteen she began corresponding with her brother at college about philosophy and the humanities. She read John Locke on the origin of ideas—whether ideas are innate or products of experience—and was impressed by his theory of the mind as a blank slate. “What you say relative to [the need for universal] education is certainly true,” Sam Jo wrote to her. “Nothing is of unimportance in the formation of the mind.”74 Besides guiding Abigail’s studies, he tutored schoolboys in Concord, Hingham, Nahant, and Beverly during summers and for a year after college, becoming one of the first instructors ever to employ a new device called a blackboard.75 Teaching was to be a central part of his life’s work, as it had been for countless earlier ministers, whose duties often included the education of young men.
Abigail’s much older sister Louisa, who was abroad in Canada in 1816, coached her in spelling, grammar, and writing, useful skills even for a woman. In a letter that year, Louisa exhorted her teenage sisters Eliza and Abigail, “Endeavor to accomplish a little reading every day, and at night write me what you have read.76 Give me your opinion of the Style, etc., of the book you are engaged in. . . . I feel anxious to have your minds well studied with everything useful, and as highly cultivated as any woman in the country. I do not wish to confine you to one kind of reading. . . . Devote most of your time to history and biography; blend with it poetry, the drama; and sometimes a well chosen novel will not be amiss. . . . A great deal may be gained from the Tales of Miss Edgeworth . . . [whose morals] are pure . . . [and style is] delightful.”
Meanwhile, their eighteen-year-old brother had to decide on a career. In choosing the ministry, he followed the path laid out by his maternal great-grandfather, the Reverend Joseph Sewall. More significantly, preaching provided a pulpit from which to improve the world, to do for others what he had always done for Abigail. Then a slender young man of average height with a sweet temper, dark hair, glistening hazel eyes, and “a beaming face” that, according to acquaintances, radiated “kindness and cheer,” Samuel Joseph “had but to perceive a social wrong to go about righting it.”7778 All his life he had a gift for acting upon his passion for radical causes without ever seeming self-righteous or strident. A “very happy, joyous child,” by his own account, he had been “rather a favorite among” his “many friends.”79 Mr. May, as he was known as an adult, seemed to be, like Mr. March in Little Women, “a minister by nature as by grace.”80
His and Abigail’s desire for reform arose not only from their Christian faith but also from their Puritan ancestors, who founded America with the hope of creating a purer society. The Mays and their peers abandoned Puritan doctrine but maintained the Puritan view of religion as central to the community and the individual. Anyone seen driving out of Boston “on Sunday, either in the morning or in the afternoon, would have lost credit.”81 Dorothy and Joseph May had “a deep interest in religious thought and inquiry.”82 Twice each Sunday they attended services at King’s Chapel, where Abigail’s early “love of sacred music was intensified . . . by the grand harmonies of the organ and my father’s fine bass voice.” The Mays had switched to King’s Chapel from Old South after the American Revolution because they preferred its minister, James Freeman, who rejected the Creed, the Trinity, the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, and the prehuman existence of Jesus Christ. They were early Unitarians, a liberal sect of Protestantism only a few decades old. The Puritans’ Congregational Church, founded on John Calvin’s theology, had taught that God is all-powerful, humanity is depraved, and individuals are predestined for salvation or damnation. Unitarians rejected these beliefs, praying instead to a kindly God who promotes the welfare of humans, each one virtuous and worthy of salvation. They believed humans could make themselves perfect. “I must reverence human nature,” the Reverend Dr. William Ellery Channing, who mentored the young Sam Jo, wrote. “I cannot but pity the man who recognizes nothing godlike in his own nature.”83
In many ways, though, Unitarians still experienced the world as Puritans.84 Abigail and her siblings inherited from their parents and ancestors a commitment to morality and the belief that more was expected of them than of others. Their progressive politics were a liberal, rational extension of the Puritan impulse toward salvation. Boston Brahmins were a model people, they felt, and theirs should be a model city. They had, in addition to Dr. Channing’s sermons on the “perfectibility of human nature,” according to Abigail’s contemporary Edward Everett Hale, the Unitarian “Dr. Joseph Tuckerman determined that the gospel of Jesus Christ should work its miracles among all sorts and conditions of men; they had a system of public education which they meant to press to its very best; and they had all the money which was needed for anything good.85 These men subscribed their money with the greatest promptness for any enterprise which promised the elevation of human society.” Convinced that “if people only knew what was right they would do what was right,” Joseph May and his peers founded the Massachusetts General Hospital, its “annex for the insane,” and institutions to train the deaf and the blind—much as their seventeenth-century ancestors had established Boston Latin and Harvard College.
Harvard Divinity School, which Samuel Joseph May entered in 1818 when Abigail was seventeen, was the ideal training ground for a Unitarian divine. Founded only two years earlier, the divinity school was dominated by professors of theology who rejected orthodox Calvinism in favor of “Liberal Christianity,” which “dictated nothing, except personal purity and righteousness . . . [and] fidelity to our highest sense of the true and the right,” as Samuel Joseph recalled later.86 He studied the Bible, Scottish Common Sense philosophy, and John Locke. When he came home in 1820 with his doctorate, he handed his father the final receipt for his Harvard education, at just under two hundred dollars a year. Joseph May folded the receipt with “an emphatic pressure of his hand” and said, “My son, I am rejoiced that you have gotten through, and that I have been able to afford you the advantages you have enjoyed.87 If you have been faithful, you have now been possessed of an education that will enable you to go anywhere.”
Joseph May advised his son, “Stand up among your fellow-men, and by serving them in one department of usefulness or another, make yourself worthy of a comfortable livelihood, if no more.” He added a warning: “If you have not improved your advantages, or should be hereafter slothful, I thank God that I have not property to leave you that will hold you up in a place among men, where you will not deserve to stand.”
Abigail never heard such a message from her father. It never occurred to him to secure for her any formal schooling. Her husband, not she, needed an education. Her duty, her father explained when she was ten and “inexperienced in the ways of the world,” was to be good and therefore happy, quoting the old maxim, “To be good is to be happy.”88 Goodness in a woman entailed “attention, kindness, gentleness, good nature, and a desire to please,” which would “procure friends [and] diffuse pleasure all around.” She should demonstrate “industry, patience, perseverance, fidelity . . . moral virtue, piety, and resignation.” Nowhere in Joseph May’s list for Abigail were his admonitions to a son: Stand up among your fellow men . . . Improve your advantages . . . Go anywhere . . .
Soon after Abigail’s seventeenth birthday her father advised her to marry a first cousin, Samuel May Frothingham, the twenty-eight-year-old son of Joseph May’s closest sister, Martha, and her husband, a prosperous Portland, Maine, judge named John Frothingham. Joseph May believed that his nephew, who lived and worked in Boston, would be a good match for his youngest daughter. It was not uncommon for first cousins to marry, sometimes to maintain family fortunes, but even Abigail’s ancestor the repentant witch judge had questioned the lawfulness of the custom.89
Abigail liked her cousin, but she had never considered marrying him. Nor had she seriously considered marrying anyone. She felt that marriage might not suit her. She knew of no woman whose marriage she wished to emulate, although two of her three older sisters had married—Catherine in 1808, when she was twenty-one, and Eliza, at age seventeen, in 1817. Catherine had died, probably in childbirth, in 1815. She had left a husband and a five-year-old son, Charles Windship, for whom Abigail sometimes cared.90
Bending to paternal pressure, Abigail consented to her cousin’s frequent visits. Soon after her eighteenth birthday, she and Samuel May Frothingham were, she told her daughters later, “virtually betrothed.”91 But she continued to doubt the wisdom of the union. Years of watching her mother’s poor health and stifled passions prompted in Abigail a desire to avoid a commitment based on duty. Marriage should be based on love, she felt, not obedience. It should make one happy. Her conception of marriage exemplified a broad social change throughout the Western world. Only around 1800 did people begin to adopt the “radical new idea” of marrying based on love rather than on economic or social factors, and allowing young adults “to choose their marriage partners on the basis of love.”92 It is also possible that Abigail resisted the idea of marrying within her family. “Marry her cousin!” a young woman exclaims in a story that Louisa wrote decades later: “That has been the bane of our family in times past.93 Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics begin to appear.” It would be better to choose “the freshest, sturdiest flower . . . to transplant into our exhausted soil.”
“I do not love my dear cousin,” Abigail finally told her parents. Therefore, he could not make her happy, and she could not marry him.
Abigail’s mother accepted her decision not to marry her cousin, but her more conventional father could not. “To be good is to be happy,” he reminded his willful daughter. Samuel Frothingham was worthy and capable of supporting her, so she should marry him. Abigail and her father battled quietly over the matter for months. To defuse the conflict, Samuel Joseph suggested she leave home for a year to study on the South Shore with his friend John Allyn, a Harvard-educated minister, and his schoolteacher sister, Abby. Samuel Joseph thought Abigail would benefit not only from time apart from her father but also from the Allyns’ attentions. Confident in her brother’s judgment, Abigail traveled thirty miles to the coastal town of Duxbury to live and study with the Allyns.
For most of that year eighteen-year-old Abigail learned Latin, French, geometry, astronomy, chemistry, botany, American and world history, moral philosophy, and natural theology under the “most valuable” supervision of Abby Allyn.94 In imitation of her brother and his classmates, she “read History” in a manner “very enterprising,” she reported, “making notes of many” scholarly books, with an emphasis on the Scottish Enlightenment. Among the books she studied were David Hume’s History of England, Edward Gibbon’s six-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the just-published View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages by Henry Hallam, William Robertson’s History of Charles V, Oliver Goldsmith’s four-volume History of England, Charles Rollin’s Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians and Grecians, and The Golden Sayings of Pythagoras.95 She “did not love study,” she observed, “but books were always attractive.”
Her brother sent her bundles of books and suggested she read one article from the Rambler Journal each morning “until you can remember the train of thought and the leading ideas.”96 Lest her zeal cause her excessive exertion, he advised caution. “Do not be alarmed by the number of Books which it is desirable you should read; nor be induced to read with too great rapidity. . . . Haste in reading is a great waste of mind as well as time: of mind because it weakens the power of observation; of time because nothing is in fact accomplished.” Finally, “Do not think that all knowledge is to be obtained from books, and that you are . . . only learning when sitting in your little chamber. Let your mind be constantly employed upon something. . . . Indulge your curiosity.”
Looking to the future, Abigail could envision herself as a teacher, like her brother and Miss Allyn. While her brother’s path to the ministry was closed to her, Miss Allyn proved to be “a model worthy of imitation.97 By her character I form my own, and the very improbability of being like her incites me to constant exertion. . . . I may yet earn my bread by the knowledge this year has afforded me and spend . . . [my] life in teaching a school.”98 Abigail loved to write, too, and was praised for her “flowing, full pen.”99 In her heart of hearts, writing—which she called her “old passion”—was what she wished to do.100101
Although still nominally engaged to her cousin, Abigail felt no strong tie to Boston, except to her sisters and mother, whose health continued to decline. More and more Abigail felt the tug of scholarly and professional pursuits. That year she set herself the goal of translating portions of the Gospel of John from the Latin Vulgate into English, as she had seen her brother do at Harvard. “If I should not succeed I should be mortified to have you know it,” she confessed to her parents. “I wish my pride was subdued as regards this.” Nonetheless, working two hours every Sunday for several months, she accomplished the task she had set for herself.
An ambitious young woman, Abigail did not want to be thought inferior to a man. In fact, she said, “I am not willing to be found incapable of anything.”102
Table of Contents
1 A Good Child, but Willful 7
2 Drawing Toward Some Ideal Friend 28
3 Humiliating Dependence 50
4 Sacrifices Must Be Made 63
5 This Sharp Sorrow 87
6 Looking to My Daughter's Labors 100
7 To Drag Life's Lengthening Chain 112
8 The Best Woman in the World 133
9 Mother, Is It You? 146
10 A Dead, Decaying Thing 162
11 Left to Dig or Die 174
12 Paddle My Own Canoe 189
13 The Bitter Drop in This Cup 205
14 From May to March 217
15 Welcome to My Fortune 236
16 Thou Excellest Them All 251
17 Stay By, Louie 262
Conclusion: I Believe in Dreams 280
Exploring the America of Abigail & Louisa May Alcott 283
What People are Saying About This
"A most original love story, taut and tender." -Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life
“[An] involving mother-daughter portrait ... Although bitter ironies mark each woman’s story, vividly set within the social upheavals of the Civil War era, their profound love, intellect, and courage shine.”
Booklist, starred review on Marmee & Louisa
“An important book about an important relationship. Writing engagingly and with precision, Eve LaPlante sheds new light on the Alcott story, a story that is in some ways the story of America.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother includes an introduction and discussion questions. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Hailed by NPR as one of the best books of the year, Marmee & Louisa paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, the real “Marmee.” In this dual biography award-winning author Eve LaPlante mines the Alcotts’ intimate diaries and other private papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and others thought to have been destroyed, to resuscitate this remarkable mother and daughter. Abigail May Alcott—long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure—comes to life in Marmee & Louisa as a gifted writer and thinker. An activist feminist firebrand, she fought for universal civil rights, an end to slavery, and female suffrage. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women transforms our view and deepens our understanding of one of America’s most beloved authors.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Having read Marmee & Louisa, do you believe that the March family created by Louisa in Little Women was in fact autobiographical? If so, in what ways? Who was the model for Mr. March, a character unlike Louisa’s actual father? Is “Marmee,” the mother in the novel, an accurate portrayal of Abigail?
2. Why was the adult Louisa, despite her extraordinary success as an entrepreneur and writer, never really able to separate from her first family?
3. The real-life Marmee, unlike the homely retiring housewife we tend to envision, was a strong and complex person with dreams familiar to women today. From girlhood Abigail desired things she could not have: an education, public power, and a voice in the world. How did she succeed realizing her goals, both in her own life and also vicariously, through her daughters?
4. Abigail was Louisa’s mentor, muse, and inspiration. Not only did she encourage Louisa to write from an early age, but also she provided material for Louisa’s fiction. She encouraged her daughter to read her private journals, which contained detailed descriptions of Abigail’s marital troubles, dreams, and frustrations. Discuss the ways in which aspects of Abigail’s inner life reappear in Louisa’s adult novel, sensational stories, and juvenile fiction.
5. The Alcott family biographer Madelon Bedell claimed that Abigail was “in some ways… a better writer than her more famous daughter.” Do you agree?
6. Considering both Marmee & Louisa and its companion volume, My Heart Is Boundless: Writing of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother, compare the writing styles of Abigail and Louisa.
7. Based on their writings, what sort of women were Abigail and Louisa? Consider their differences and similarities.
8. It seems incredible that Abigail has so long been ignored. Her husband’s and daughter’s journals and letters have been in print for generations, but Abigail’s papers are only now being published and discussed, even though hundreds of pages of them existed in university archives. How do you explain this long neglect of Abigail?
9. How do the stories of these nineteenth-century women, Abigail and Louisa, resonate for you as a modern reader? In what ways can you identify with one or both of them? In what ways do you face the same challenges the Alcott women faced?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
LaPlante's discovering some family papers has enabled her to give readers a much more extensive view of Louisa May Alcott's Marmee than I've found elsewhere. Heretofore, Alcott's mother was a too-shadowy background figure in the family tapestry. No more. LaPlante gives an enticing view of the parent who can now be understood to have profoundly influenced not merely the classic children's books written by her daughter but also her forthright personality and independent nature. While I agree to some extent with reviewers elsewhere who've said Bronson Alcott is too harshly portrayed, the facts are that the man was highly irresponsible when it came to providing the least bit adequately for his family. LaPlante does give him some credit for having realized very much too late how woefully neglectful he had been. Sadly, he was a dreamer and never a doer, inhabiting castles in the air while those he professed to love suffered from poverty and emotional neglect. An absolute must for those interested in the model for the beloved although idealized Marmee of Little Women.
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