My Childhood by Louisa M. Alcott
One of my earliest memories is of playing
with books in my father's study,--building
towers and bridges of the big dictionaries,
looking at pictures, pretending to read, and
scribbling on blank pages whenever pen or
pencil could be found. Many of these first
attempts at authorship still exist; and I often
wonder if these childish plays did not influence
my after-life, since books have been my greatest
comfort, castle-building a never-failing delight,
and scribbling a very profitable amusement.
Another very vivid recollection is of the day
when running after my hoop I fell into the Frog
Pond and was rescued by a black boy, becoming
a friend to the colored race then and there,
though my mother always declared that I was
an abolitionist at the age of three.
During the Garrison riot in Boston the
portrait of George Thompson was hidden under a
bed in our house for safekeeping; and I am
told that I used to go and comfort "the good
man who helped poor slaves" in his captivity.
However that may be, the conversion was
genuine; and my greatest pride is in the fact that I
have lived to know the brave men and women
who did so much for the cause, and that I had
a very small share in the war which put an end
to a great wrong.
Being born on the birthday of Columbus, I
seem to have something of my patron saint's
spirit of adventure, and running away was one
of the delights of my childhood. Many a social
lunch have I shared with hospitable Irish beggar
children, as we ate our crusts, cold potatoes,
and salt fish on voyages of discovery among
the ash heaps of the waste land that then lay
where the Albany station now stands.
Many an impromptu picnic have I had on
the dear old Common, with strange boys, pretty
babies, and friendly dogs, who always seemed
to feel that this reckless young person needed looking after.
On one occasion the town-crier found me fast
asleep at nine o'clock at night, on a doorstep
in Bedford Street, with my head pillowed on
the curly breast of a big Newfoundland, who
was with difficulty persuaded to release the
weary little wanderer who had sobbed herself
to sleep there.
I often smile as I pass that door, and never
forget to give a grateful pat to every big dog I
meet, for never have I slept more soundly than
on that dusty step, nor found a better friend
than the noble animal who watched over the
lost baby so faithfully.
My father's school was the only one I ever
went to; and when this was broken up because
he introduced methods now all the fashion, our
lessons went on at home, for he was always sure
of four little pupils who firmly believed in their
teacher, though they have not done him all the
credit he deserved.
I never liked arithmetic or grammar, and
dodged these branches on all occasions; but
reading, composition, history, and geography
I enjoyed, as well as the stories read to us with
a skill which made the dullest charming and useful.
"Pilgrim's Progress," Krummacher's "Parables,"
Miss Edgeworth, and the best of the
dear old fairy tales made that hour the
pleasantest of our day. On Sundays we had a simple
service of Bible stories, hymns, and conversation
about the state of our little consciences and
the conduct of our childish lives which never
will be forgotten.
Walks each morning round the Common
while in the city, and long tramps over hill and
dale when our home was in the country, were a
part of our education, as well as every sort of
housework, for which I have always been very
grateful, since such knowledge makes one
independent in these days of domestic
tribulation with the help who are too often only
Needle-work began early; and at ten my skilful
sister made a linen shirt beautifully, while at
twelve I set up as a dolls' dressmaker, with
my sign out, and wonderful models in my
window. All the children employed me; and my
turbans were the rage at one time, to the great
dismay of the neighbor's hens, who were hotly
hunted down that I might tweak out their
downiest feathers to adorn the dolls' head-gear.
Active exercise was my delight from the time
when a child of six I drove my hoop round the
Common without stopping, to the days when I
did my twenty miles in five hours and went to
a party in the evening.
I always thought I must have been a deer or
a horse in some former state, because it was
such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend
till I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if
she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy.
My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong
body to support a lively brain, turned me loose
in the country and let me run wild, learning of
Nature what no books can teach, and being led,
as those who truly love her seldom fail to be,
"Through Nature up to Nature's God."
I remember running over the hills just at
dawn one summer morning, and pausing to rest
in the silent woods, saw, through an arch of
trees, the sun rise over river, hill, and wide green
meadows as I never saw it before.
Something born of the lovely hour, a happy
mood, and the unfolding aspirations of a child's
soul seemed to bring me very near to God; and
in the hush of that morning hour I always felt
that I "got religion," as the phrase goes. A
new and vital sense of His presence, tender and
sustaining as a father's arms, came to me then,
never to change through forty years of life's
vicissitudes, but to grow stronger for the sharp
discipline of poverty and pain, sorrow and success.
Those Concord days were the happiest of
my life, for we had charming playmates in the
little Emersons, Channings, Hawthornes, and
Goodwins, with the illustrious parents and
their friends to enjoy our pranks and share
Plays in the barn were a favorite amusement,
and we dramatized the fairy tales in great style.
Our giant came tumbling off a loft when Jack
cut down the squash-vine running up a ladder
to represent the immortal bean. Cinderella
rolled away in a vast pumpkin; and a long black
pudding was lowered by invisible hands to fasten
itself on the nose of the woman who wasted her
Little pilgrims journeyed over the hills with
scrip and staff, and cockle-shells in their hats;
elves held their pretty revels among the pines,
and "Peter Wilkins'" flying ladies came
swinging down on the birch tree-tops. Lords and
ladies haunted the garden, and mermaids
splashed in the bath-house of woven willows
over the brook.
People wondered at our frolics, but enjoyed
them; and droll stories are still told of the
adventures of those days. Mr. Emerson and
Margaret Fuller were visiting my parents one
afternoon; and the conversation having turned
to the ever-interesting subject of education, Miss
"Well, Mr. Alcott, you have been able to
carry out your methods in your own family, and
I should like to see your model children."
She did in a few moments,--for as the
guests stood on the doorsteps a wild uproar
approached, and round the corner of the house
came a wheelbarrow holding baby May arrayed
as a queen; I was the horse, bitted and bridled,
and driven by my elder sister Anna, while
Lizzie played dog and barked as loud as her
gentle voice permitted.
All were shouting, and wild with fun, which,
however, came to a sudden end as we espied
the stately group before us, for my foot tripped,
and down we all went in a laughing heap, while
my mother put a climax to the joke by saying
with a dramatic wave of the hand,--
"Here are the model children, Miss Fuller!"
My sentimental period began at fifteen, when
I fell to writing romances, poems, a "heart
journal," and dreaming dreams of a splendid
Browsing over Mr. Emerson's library, I found
"Goethe's Correspondence with a Child," and
was at once fired with the desire to be a second
Bettine, making my father's friend my Goethe.
So I wrote letters to him, but was wise enough
never to send them, left wild flowers on the
doorsteps of my "Master," sung Mignon's
song in very bad German under his window, and
was fond of wandering by moonlight, or sitting
in a cherry-tree at midnight till the owls scared
me to bed.
The girlish folly did not last long, and the
letters were burned years ago; but Goethe is still
my favorite author, and Emerson remained my
beloved "Master" while he lived, doing more
for me, as for many another young soul, than
he ever knew, by the simple beauty of his life,
the truth and wisdom of his books, the example
of a good great man untempted and unspoiled
by the world which he made nobler while in it,
and left the richer when he went.
The trials of life began about this time, and
my happy childhood ended. Money is never
plentiful in a philosopher's house; and even
the maternal pelican could not supply all our
wants on the small income which was freely
shared with every needy soul who asked for help.
Fugitive slaves were sheltered under our roof;
and my first pupil was a very black George
Washington whom I taught to write on the
hearth with charcoal, his big fingers finding
pen and pencil unmanageable.
Motherless girls seeking protection were
guarded among us; hungry travellers sent on
to our door to be fed and warmed; and if the
philosopher happened to own two coats, the best
went to a needy brother, for these were practical
Christians who had the most perfect faith in
Providence, and never found it betrayed.
In those days the prophets were not honored
in their own land, and Concord had not yet
discovered her great men. It was a sort of refuge
for reformers of all sorts, whom the good natives
regarded as lunatics, harmless but amusing.
My father went away to hold his classes and
conversations, and we women folk began to feel
that we also might do something. So one
gloomy November day we decided to move to
Boston and try our fate again after some years
in the wilderness.
My father's prospect was as promising as a
philosopher's ever is in a money-making world;
my mother's friends offered her a good salary
as their missionary to the poor; and my sister
and I hoped to teach. It was an anxious
council; and always preferring action to discussion,
I took a brisk run over the hill and then
settled down for "a good think" in my favorite retreat.
It was an old cart-wheel, half hidden in grass
under the locusts where I used to sit to wrestle
with my sums, and usually forget them scribbling
verses or fairy tales on my slate instead.
Perched on the hub, I surveyed the prospect and
found it rather gloomy, with leafless trees, sere
grass, leaden sky, and frosty air; but the hopeful
heart of fifteen beat warmly under the old red
shawl, visions of success gave the gray clouds a
silver lining, and I said defiantly, as I shook my
fist at fate embodied in a crow cawing dismally
on a fence near by,--
"I will do something by-and-by. Don't care
what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help
the family; and I'll be rich and famous and
happy before I die, see if I won't!"
Startled by this audacious outburst, the crow
flew away; but the old wheel creaked as if it
began to turn at that moment, stirred by the
intense desire of an ambitious girl to work for
those she loved and find some reward when the
duty was done.
I did not mind the omen then, and returned
to the house cold but resolute. I think I began
to shoulder my burden then and there, for when
the free country life ended, the wild colt soon
learned to tug in harness, only breaking loose
now and then for a taste of beloved liberty.
My sisters and I had cherished fine dreams of
a home in the city; but when we found ourselves
in a small house at the South End with not a
tree in sight, only a back yard to play in, and
no money to buy any of the splendors before
us, we all rebelled and longed for the country again.
Anna soon found little pupils, and trudged
away each morning to her daily task, pausing at
the corner to wave her hand to me in answer
to my salute with the duster. My father went to
his classes at his room down town, mother to
her all-absorbing poor, the little girls to school,
and I was left to keep house, feeling like a
caged sea-gull as I washed dishes and cooked
in the basement kitchen, where my prospect was
limited to a procession of muddy boots.
Good drill, but very hard; and my only
consolation was the evening reunion when all met
with such varied reports of the day's adventures,
we could not fail to find both amusement and
Father brought news from the upper world,
and the wise, good people who adorned it;
mother, usually much dilapidated because she
would give away her clothes, with sad tales of
suffering and sin from the darker side of life;
gentle Anna a modest account of her success as
teacher, for even at seventeen her sweet nature
won all who knew her, and her patience quelled
the most rebellious pupil.
My reports were usually a mixture of the
tragic and the comic; and the children poured
their small joys and woes into the family bosom,
where comfort and sympathy were always to be found.
Then we youngsters adjourned to the kitchen
for our fun, which usually consisted of writing,
dressing, and acting a series of remarkable plays.
In one I remember I took five parts and Anna
four, with lightning changes of costume, and
characters varying from a Greek prince in silver
armor to a murderer in chains.
It was good training for memory and fingers,
for we recited pages without a fault, and made
every sort of property from a harp to a fairy's
spangled wings. Later we acted Shakespeare;
and Hamlet was my favorite hero, played with
a gloomy glare and a tragic stalk which I have
never seen surpassed.
But we were now beginning to play our parts
on a real stage, and to know something of the
pathetic side of life, with its hard facts, irksome
duties, many temptations, and the daily sacrifice
of self. Fortunately we had the truest,
tenderest of guides and guards, and so learned the
sweet uses of adversity, the value of honest
work, the beautiful law of compensation which
gives more than it takes, and the real significance
At sixteen I began to teach twenty pupils,
and for ten years learned to know and love
children. The story-writing went on all the
while with the usual trials of beginners. Fairy
tales told the Emersons made the first printed
book, and "Hospital Sketches" the first
Every experience went into the caldron to
come out as froth, or evaporate in smoke, till
time and suffering strengthened and clarified
the mixture of truth and fancy, and a
wholesome draught for children began to flow
pleasantly and profitably.
So the omen proved a true one, and the wheel
of fortune turned slowly, till the girl of fifteen
found herself a woman of fifty, with her
prophetic dream beautifully realized, her duty done,
her reward far greater than she deserved.