Advice from Louisa May Alcott

History Smiths

If you could sit down and chat with Louisa May Alcott, the best selling, nineteenth century author, what advice do you think she would give that you could apply to your business, organization, cause, or to you personally?

After all, she was a highly successful author and businesswoman, outselling Herman Melville and Henry James by a factor of ten at the peak of her literary career. She made enough money to forever raise her family out of poverty, playing the role of bread winner as her brilliant philosopher father, Bronson Alcott, could not.

Louisa May Alcott will forever be known as the author of Little Women, but she was also a staunch abolitionist and served as a nurse during the Civil War. Today, her gravestone at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, where she spent most of her childhood, bears the insignia of a Civil War veteran.

She was also a strong supporter of women’s rights, dismissing the notion of a “woman’s sphere” and championing woman suffrage, equal pay, college education, and limitless opportunities.

Alcott’s success helped others, and I believe she can offer invaluable and timeless advice. Here’s what I think she would tell us.

Figure out what you’re good at and do it
Alcott recalled playing with her father’s books as a very young girl, using them as building blocks before she could read or write. Once she could write, it was clear to her that she had found her calling. She never stopped, publishing her first story at age 16.

Don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t do something
The Boston publisher James T. Fields, editor of The Atlantic magazine, once instructed Alcott’s father, “Tell Louisa to stick to her teaching; she can never succeed as a writer.” This message … made her exclaim to her father: “Tell him I will succeed as a writer, and some day I shall write for the Atlantic!” A short time later, she was proven right – and made $50.

Be yourself
Alcott lived during a time when women had very prescribed roles. She shunned them and “did her own thing.” She had a very strong will, a drive to succeed, and enormous talent. She also had deep faith in God, and knew she had the obligation to use the gifts she had been given.

Have courage, and be a leader
It takes guts to go against the grain, but if you have to, you have to. Alcott not only made more money than most women during her time, she was also an abolitionist, suffragist, and supporter of women’s rights. Alcott was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, in the town’s election for school committee, and organized other women to follow her lead. In her own family, Alcott had to take the place of her father as bread winner. That took guts.

In low moments, just keep going

Alcott struggled with poverty, overwork, depression, and early professional rejection, even contemplating suicide at one point. But she kept going.

Do the right thing
Alcott was scrupulously honest, direct, caring, and empathetic. She had grown up in an impoverished household, and always felt particularly sympathetic to the poor. She was always generous with her time and her money. Her support of the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements were the right thing to do, as was her service as a nurse during the Civil War. She was endlessly giving and loving toward her family – mother, father, three sisters, later nephews and nieces – as well as family friends. If any of them needed her help, she was there. Examples of her generosity abound.

Use your network
Alcott had the enviable good luck to grow up in the company of (the much older) Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson let her use his library. Her father, while never able to support his family, was nonetheless highly regarded by Emerson and many others as a brilliant and progressive teacher and philosopher. She knew or was related to dozens more educated, well connected women and men. All of them supported her, encouraged her, and helped further her success.

Associate with the right people
Alcott’s association with Emerson, Thoreau and others in Concord boosted her reputation. Her friendships with such women’s rights advocates as Lucy Stone and Edna Dow Cheney did as well. Similarly, she knew all of the important Garrisonian abolitionists including Lucretia Mott, Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips, and more. All of these people lifted her up. She was in very high level company – and they with her.

Protect your image and reputation
Once you achieve success, this is important. Alcott was very concerned about what people said or wrote about her. She chose which images of her were to be used for publication. When she began to achieve a modest level of fame and people asked to write about her, she supplied what information she wished to release to the public.

Insist on being paid well, and make money
Alcott knew well the stilting pain of poverty, and one’s inability to act or help others without it. Even as a girl, she was determined to raise her family out of poverty, and especially to relieve her mother of the endless hard work that defined her life. With money, Alcott accomplished her goal. She helped her family in many other ways as well, including purchasing a home for her sister and aging mother, later, for her ailing father in Boston, and the list goes on. Alcott always insisted on being paid what a man would be paid, and she was never refused.

Establish boundaries once you are famous
Alcott detested the streams of “lion hunters,” as she called them, who invaded her home and her privacy in Concord to catch a glimpse, secure an autograph, or ask for a photograph. She once wrote to a family friend, “I wish you would write an article on the rights of authors, & try to make the public see that the books belong to them but not the peace, time, comfort and lives of the writers. It is a new kind of slavery.”

If you are a writer, keep writing until you find your niche
Some of Alcott’s earliest stories were what she called “blood and thunder” tales along the lines of Hawthorne and Poe. She wrote them to make money, and she did, but this style was not her niche. Coaches today would tell you that you can always “course correct,” but something has to be set in motion first.

Write what you know
Writers are told this all the time. Part of Alcott’s phenomenal success with Little Women was because she wrote about her own family life in Concord. Readers of all ages, but especially young people, were drawn to the story because it was, essentially, real.  She would also advise you to think about a theme around which you can publish multiple stories or books. Little Women didn’t end there. Alcott published several more books that continued the story and each one was a best seller.

Once you have found your niche, don’t stop
Biographers describe Alcott’s life as pre-Little Women and post-Little Women. Once she had found her niche, almost all of the writing she produced until the end of her life was for young people. People called her the “Children’s Friend” and the “darling of all American nurseries.” Alcott’s friend, Mary Bartol, described Alcott, a former teacher, in an article she published after her friend’s death: “She talks to girls and boys on their own plane of life, colored with the robustness of sports and strength, and while she grasps their hands, she holds before them a lofty ideal. It is no wonder that they flocked into her presence, whenever they had the opportunity.”

Enjoy your success, and be happy

This did not always come easy for Alcott, but she did travel to Europe and enjoyed the company of her family and close friends. She had known poverty, loss, and illness, and those feelings never quite left her. Her service during the Civil War resulted in a severe case of typhoid from which she never fully recovered. Nevertheless, Alcott was consistently described by her friends as witty and humorous. She would be the first to say, be grateful for your success and enjoy its rewards.

And finally…
Louisa May Alcott died in a convalescent home in Roxbury, Massachusetts, at the age of 56. Soon after, a group of women in Concord banded together to purchase her family home, restore it, and open it to the public as a museum. Children and adults from all over the country sent donations. Today, Orchard House is a thriving historic house museum and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Her last home in Boston, on Beacon Hill, is featured on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail. Alcott is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, on Author’s Ridge, with members of her family and near Emerson and Thoreau.

All of these places are well worth visiting!

Harrison Bennett, the President and CEO of History Smiths, is an expert on using history in new and innovative ways. She is a marketing, PR, event planning, and cultural tourism professional who also happens to be a respected historian (especially women’s history), author, and public speaker.