Alcott was the daughter of noted Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail May the third, and though of New England parentage and residence, was born in Germantown, now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The family moved to Boston in 1844, where her father established an experimental school and joined the Transcendentalist Club with Emerson, Thoreau, etc.
During her girlhood and early womanhood, she shared in her family's poverty and Transcendentalist ideals. In 1840, after several setbacks with the school, her family moved to a cottage on two acres along the Concord River in Concord, Massachusetts. They moved to the Utopian Fruitlands community for a brief interval in 1843-1844, and then after its collapse to rented rooms, and subsequently a house in Concord purchased with her mother's inheritence and help from Emerson. Alcott's early education had included lessons from the naturalist Henry David Thoreau but had chiefly been in the hands of her father. She later described these early years in a newspaper sketch entitled "Silver Pitchers (1876), which relates the experiences of her family during their experiment in "plain living and high thinking" at Fruitlands.
As she grew older, she developed as both an abolitionist and a feminist. In 1847 the family housed a fugitive slave for one week, and in 1848 Alcott read and admired the "Declaration of Sentiments" published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights. Due to the family's poverty, she began Work at an early age as an occasional teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic help, and writer, her first book was Flower Fables (1854), Tales originally written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1860, Alcott 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 Moods (1864), was also considered promising.
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 Little Women. 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 works achieved immediate commercial success and remain highly readable today.
In contrast, Alcott also produced moralistic and wholesome stories for children, and, with the exceptions of the semi-autobiographical tale A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), which attracted suspicion that it was authored by Julian Hawthorne, she did not return to creating works for adults.
Louisa May Alcott's overwhelming success dated from the appearance of the first part of Little Women, remaining popular with her large and loyal public.
Although the Jo character in Little Women was based on Louisa May Alcott, Alcott, unlike Jo, never married. In 1879 her younger sister, May, died, and Louisa May took in May's daughter, Louisa May Nieriker ("Lulu"), who was two years old.
In her later life, Alcott became an advocate of women's suffrage, and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.
Despite worsening health, Alcott wrote through the rest of her life, finally succumbing to the aftereffects of mercury poisoning contracted during her Civil War service (she had received calomel treatments for the effects of typhoid). She died in Boston on March 6, 1888, two days after visiting her father on his deathbed.
The story of her life and career was initially told in Ednah D. Cheney's Louisa May Alcott (University of Oklahoma Press, 1950).