She was the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail May, and though of New England parentage and residence, was born in Germantown, now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She began work at an early age as an occasional teacher, seamstress, governess, and writer — her first book was Flower Fables (1854), tales originally written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1860 she began writing for the Atlantic Monthly, and she was nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C, for six weeks in 1862-1863. Her letters home, revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863, republished with additions in 1869), displayed keen power of observation and record with a healthy dose of the humor of retrospection, and garnered her the first critical recognition. Despite its uncertainty of method and of touch, Moods, a novel (1864), also showed considerable promise.
A lesser-known part of her work are the passionate, fiery novels and stories she wrote, usually under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. These works, such as A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline's Passion and Punishment, are of the type referred to in Little Women as "dangerous for little minds" and were called "potboilers" or "blood-and-thunder tales" by Victorians. Their protagonists are willful and relentless in their pursuit of their own aims, which often include revenge on those who have humiliated or thwarted them. These well-written works with an uncommon point of view achieved immediate commercial success and are highly readable today.
She also produced moralistic and wholesome stories for children, and, with the exceptions of the semi-autobiographical tale Work (1873), and the anonymous novelette A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), which attracted suspicion that it was authored by Julian Hawthorne, she did not return to creating works for adults.
Her overwhelming success dated from the appearance of the first part of Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868), in which, with unfailing humour, freshness and realism, she put into story form many of the sayings and doings of herself and sisters. Little Men (1871) similarly treated the character and ways of her nephews who lived with her at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, in which Alcott's industry had now established her parents and other members of the Alcott family. Jo's Boys (1886) completed the "March Family Saga." Most of her later volumes, An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag (6 vols., 1871-1879), Rose in Bloom (1876), and others, followed in the line of Little Women, of which the author's large and loyal public never wearied.
Her natural love of labor, her wide-reaching generosity, her quick perception, and her fondness for sharing with her many readers that cheery humor that radiated from her personality and her books, led her to continue to produce stories despite worsening health. At last she succumbed to the lingering aftereffects of mercury poisoning, contracted during her Civil War service, dying in Boston on March 6, 1888, two days after visiting her father on his deathbed.
Alcott's early education had included lessons from the naturalist Henry David Thoreau but had chiefly been in the hands of her father, and in her girlhood and early womanhood she had fully shared the trials and poverty incident to the life of a peripatetic idealist.
In a newspaper sketch entitled "Transcendental Wild Oats", afterwards reprinted in the volume Silver Pitchers (1876), she narrated, with a delicate wit and humour, the experiences of her family during an experiment towards Utopian "plain living and high thinking" at "Fruitlands" in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts in 1843.
The story of her life and career was initially competently told in Ednah D. Cheney's Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals (Boston, 1889) and then in Madeleine B. Stern's seminal biography Louisa May Alcott (University of Oklahoma Press, 1950).