Sketch of Childhood by Louisa May Alcott

This autobiographical Sketch of Childhood by Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888) is filled with memories and observations by the beloved American author. Best known as the author of Little Women and its sequels, including Jo’s Boys and Little Men, the scope of her work goes far beyond, into essays, poems, and pseudonymous thrillers.

It was first printed in Louisa May Alcott: Life, Letters, and Journals, compiled and edited by Ednah D. Cheney (1899). Here are Louisa May Alcott’s first-person recollections of her early life:


Playing with books

One of my earliest recollections is of playing with books in my father’s study—building houses and bridges of the big dictionaries and diaries, 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 remain in Bacon’s Essays, Plutarch’s Lives, and other works of a serious nature, my infant taste being for solid literature, apparently.

On one occasion we built a high tower round baby Lizzie as she sat playing with her toys on the floor, and being attracted by something out-of-doors, forgot our little prisoner. A search was made, and patient baby at last discovered curled up and fast asleep in her dungeon cell, out of which she emerged so rosy and smiling after her nap that we were forgiven for our carelessness.

 

Learning to be generous

Another memory is of my fourth birthday, which was celebrated at my father’s school-room in Masonic Temple. All the children were there. I wore a crown of flowers, and stood upon a table to dispense cakes to each child as the procession marched past.

By some oversight the cakes fell short, and I saw that if I gave away the last one I should have none. As I was queen of the revel, I felt that I ought to have it, and held on to it tightly till my mother said—”It is always better to give away than to keep the nice things; so I know my Louy will not let the little friend go without.”

The little friend received the dear plummy cake, and I a kiss and my first lesson in the sweetness of self-denial—a lesson which my dear mother beautifully illustrated all her long and noble life.

 

The delights of running away

Running away was one of the delights of my early days; and I still enjoy sudden flights out of the nest to look about this very interesting world, and then go back to report.

On one of these occasions I passed a varied day with some Irish children, who hospitably shared their cold potatoes, salt-fish, and crusts with me as we reveled in the ash-heaps which then adorned the waste lands where the Albany Depot now stands. A trip to the Common cheered the afternoon, but as dusk set in and my friends deserted me, I felt that home was a nice place after all, and tried to find it.

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Louisa May Alcott quote

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I dimly remember watching a lamp-lighter as I sat to rest on some doorsteps in Bedford Street, where a big dog welcomed me so kindly that I fell asleep with my head pillowed on his curly back, and was found there by the town-crier, whom my distracted parents had sent in search of me.

His bell and proclamation of the loss of “a little girl, six years old, in a pink frock, white hat, and new green shoes,” woke me up, and a small voice answered out of the darkness—

“Why, dat’s me!”

Being with difficulty torn from my four-footed friend, I was carried to the crier’s house, and there feasted sumptuously on bread-and-molasses in a tin plate with the alphabet round it. But my fun ended next day when I was tied to the arm of the sofa to repent at leisure.

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Louisa May Alcott quotes

10 Life Lessons from Louisa May Alcott

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A young abolitionist

I became an Abolitionist at a very early age, but have never been able to decide whether I was made so by seeing the portrait of George Thompson hidden under a bed in our house during the Garrison riot, and going to comfort “the poor man who had been good to the slaves,” or because I was saved from drowning in the Frog Pond some years later by a colored boy.

However that may be, the conversion was genuine; and my greatest pride is in the fact that I 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.

 

Never went to school

I never went to school except to my father or such governesses as from time to time came into the family. Schools then were not what they are now; so we had lessons each morning in the study. And very happy hours they were to us, for my father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child’s nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strasburg goose, with more than it could digest.

I never liked arithmetic nor grammar, and dodged those branches on all occasions; but reading, writing, composition, history, and geography I enjoyed, as well as the stories read to us with a skill peculiarly his own.

“Pilgrim’s Progress,” Krummacher’s “Parables,” Miss Edgeworth, and the best of the dear old fairy tales made the reading 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.

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louisa may alcott - life, letters, journals edited by Ednah cheney

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Walks around Boston Common, tramps in the country

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 hindrances.

 

A good seamstress

Needle-work began early, and at ten my skillful sister made a linen shirt beautifully; while at twelve I set up as a doll’s 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 neighbors’ hens, who were hotly hunted down, that I might tweak out their downiest feathers to adorn the dolls’ headgear.

 

Exercise a delight

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.

 

A sense of reverence

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.

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Orchard House - Louisa May Alcott

Visit the Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, MA

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Charming playmates; putting on plays

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 our excursions.

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 three wishes.

Pilgrims journeyed over the hill with scrip and staff and cockle-shells in their hats; fairies held their pretty revels among the whispering birches, and strawberry parties in the rustic arbor were honored by poets and philosophers, who fed us on their wit and wisdom while the little maids served more mortal food.

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Excerpted from Louisa May Alcott: Life, Letters, and Journals,
compiled and edited by Ednah D. Cheney (1899)

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