This week in 1888, Little Women author Louisa May Alcott—weakened from years of unceasing labor on behalf of others, then utterly exhausted from her bedside vigil next to her father, who had died only two days before—passed away herself, at age 55, in Boston.
But she was buried outside the city, in the town where she came to maturity and fulfilled her literary ambitions: Concord, Mass. Like fellow Concord residents Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne, she lies in a larger family plot, with her individuality marked by this stone with fading initials and dates, along with a more emphatic stone with her name—“Louisa M. Alcott”—expressed more fully close by.
The photo accompanying this post, which I took on a visit to the area 10 years ago, shows her gravesite in the largest of Concord’s three cemeteries, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. While the entire property extends nearly 100 acres, only one-third of it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Not coincidentally, this portion includes as concentrated a group of major American literary figures as you can expect to find across the country. For the loads of tourists who pass through, these authors are conveniently clustered together on Author’s Ridge. You can bet that, in this 150th year after the publication of Little Women, more than a few visitors will be paying tribute to the creator of the March sisters.
The need to avoid highway traffic beckoned me, but can you blame me for wanting to make a trip to this cemetery the last stop on my week-long visit to the Concord-Lexington-Boston area? Where else could I achieve, all at once, some sense of the kindred nonconformist spirits that abided in town with Alcott:
* Ralph Waldo Emerson,
*Henry David Thoreau,
*Nathaniel Hawthorne, and
*William Ellery Channing.
It seemed so quiet on that mid-autumn Saturday morning, with the sunlight filtering through the trees of this early example of the “rural cemetery” trend that took hold in antebellum America. But only now has it struck me that, perhaps for the first time in her life, Alcott could only come to rest at her death.
She and her sisters (immortalized, in fictionalized form, in Little Women) lived a childhood of genteel poverty occasioned by their father Bronson Alcott, an educator of invincible optimism and utopianism who could never provide enough for his own family. In adulthood, Louisa felt compelled to assist her beleaguered mother in meeting the family’s needs, so she cranked out one novel after another.
(Though her heart might have been in Little Women, much of her early output consisted of thrillers—the kind of “sensation” fiction popularized around that time by Willkie Collins in England.)
Louisa’s life may be the best example possible of her own observation in The Abbot's Ghost: A Christmas Story:
“Human minds are more full of mysteries than any written book and more changeable than the cloud shapes in the air.”