In his time, one of the most admired of the Transcendentalists who hold such a prominent position in the American literary firmament of the 19th century was a man who is all but forgotten today—would in fact be forgotten but for one daughter who was in her own character far more like her mother.
What was loved about Bronson Alcott is difficult for me to see now. I have engaged the question several times in my life, beginning when I was nineteen or so and attending an experimental college in Vermont. Alcott was an experimenter with ideas, and much interested in educational reform, and thus an easy target for someone looking for an answer to the wholesale human stupidity that seemed to overwhelm the world about me at a time when my generation were being used as cannon fodder in Vietnam and nuclear annihilation was the only monitor of peace.
Who was this man who was so loved by Emerson, Thoreau, Parker, Fuller, and Channing—and at least respected by Hawthorne and the difficult Mr. Garrison?
A new biography has appeared by John Matteson: Eden’s Outcasts. Even better I thought, this was something of a dual biography of both Bronson and his daughter Louisa. Her bravery has always been a beacon to me. I got my hopes up. A life long quandary might finally be answered.
I had previously read some part of a turgid biography by B.F. Sanborn, Shepard Odell’s Pedlar’s Progress: the life of Bronson Alcott, Madelon Bedell’s The Alcott’s: Biography of a Family, Van Wyck Brooks’ Flowering of New England, and a book about Bronson Alcott, the teacher, which may be the same one by Dorothy McCuskey noted in Matteson’s bibliography.
As pleasant and well written as this book of Matteson’s is, however, I found no answers. And the failure seemed particularly severe on the day I finished Eden’s Outcasts, as it was the day that the United States Congress voted to indenture my children for the amount of a million million dollars, for all their lives–for the foreseeable future. Bronson Alcott was not fond of slavery in any form—even to the servitude of the cow for its milk, and was every bit as independent of spirit as his friend Henry David Thoreau. This I thought.
It was Alcott’s pursuit of freedom that first enchanted me, I suppose. But I cannot remember, and I have long ago lost my notes. At the experimental Mark Hopkins College in Brattleboro, Vermont I was free to pursue any intellectual question which caught my fancy. And I did. With much the same result as Alcott’s repeated failures and changes of direction. And much like Alcott, I learned very little from my mistakes because the framework of my efforts was never steady. One cannot establish a true direction without fixed points of reference.
But then I was young. I had all the time in the world—or at least until I was drafted.
What later kept my attention was the respect paid to Alcott by others. What was it that kept their admiration despite all his failures. How could his family love a man who so often endangered their health and welfare?
This particular point is made poignant by one episode in particular at Fruitlands, detailed again in the Matteson book. Fruitlands was the short lived utopian experiment established by Alcott and Charles Lane near Harvard Massachusetts in 1843. There, with the meager crop finally ready to be harvested, and winter approaching, Bronson and Lane go off for weeks in search of new recruits to their ideals, and much of the summer’s work is lost. His wife and daughters run to the fields before a storm to gather in what they can of the ripened grain. Most of the members of the small band, including his young daughters, are already weakened by foolish experiments with diet at a time when there was almost no knowledge of nutrition beyond the tried and true formulas passed down by the generations. The traditional formulas had, of course, been abandoned in favor of new ideals as well. The girls and their mother can save only a few weeks worth of harvest from the storm.
The lives of his loved ones were at stake. He had failed and altered his own ideas again and again and not learned humility enough to question his own actions before they endangered his family. What egomaniacal hubris of intellect would allow a supposedly intelligent and caring man to ignore the most blatant facts of life? Yet he went off and left his family to survive as best they could without him.
Was Bronson Alcott a monster? Are the three hundred odd congressmen who are so willfully toying with my children’s future monsters? I am sure that everyone of them has a family of their own and a rationalization for their behavior. Yet you may read the letters of Emerson, and those of Alcott’s own daughter Louisa and never get a glimmer of the madness that possessed Bronson the philosopher, the teacher, the father, the husband. You would think from reading today’s newspapers that we have never tried these insane measures before. But I am old enough to remember the 1970’s very well.
What I am thinking now is that my own hope of finding reason in the life and work of Bronson Alcott was foolish from the start. He was not an abolitionist because he believed in the freeborn liberty of each human being. He was an abolitionist because he himself could not assume any responsibility for others and thus wished to deny the right to anyone else. And Congress may hock the future of my children without restraint because they have no understanding of the responsibility of debt or the cruel cost of indebtedness. I know this keenly. They are made rich by their political whims. And to those they enslave with inflation and taxes, they can offer any relief they wish to imagine without cost to themselves—better yet, they gain votes by every promise, no matter how impossible.
Bronson Alcott was loved for his dreams and ideals by people seemingly unable to question the actual results, failure after failure. His wife supported him, cooked his meals, washed his cloths, bore his children, nursed them and him, and enabled this man to day dream his life away on wishes and hopes untethered by reality. He was insane. Just as our present Congress is insane. And every citizen of our nation who voted for these political purveyors of wishes and wants is insane—just as the black slaves who put on the uniform of the Confederacy to fight for their masters were insane—made insane by fears for their welfare and unable to understand the cost of freedom, or the responsibility.
There is no reason for Bronson Alcott’s actions. He did what he wished. There is no rational explanation for what is being done in Congress. They can do it, so they will. It is simply an observed fact.
I take a breath, and consider this, but I still do not understand Bronson Alcott.
I agree about Bronson Alcott. He was monsterous as well as mostly incomprehensible. I much prefer Jones Very.