The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. Transcendentalism

§ 9. Alcott

Of the members of the Club it was Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, who was particularly singled out as a target for the shafts of jesting and unsympathetic public. The stories told of him, to be sure, were often outright inventions or gross exaggerations. But we do not need to go beyond the testimony of his daughter to discover considerable basis for the popular conception of his character. Alcott, in fact, becomes an especially significant figure as embodying in excessive degree the mystical tendency of the transcendentalists together with those extravagances and eccentricities which often accompany the mystic’s habit of wrapping himself up in the clouds of his own speculation and aspiration.

Alcott was born in Connecticut in 1799. After a fragmentary education he went to Virginia planning to teach but was compelled to earn his living by peddling. For four or five years this was his chief vocation, and it is interesting to note that toward the end of this period he came in contact with North Carolina Quakers, whose religious views seem to have influenced his thinking. Following this he returned to New England and for nearly fifteen years devoted himself in the main to school-teaching, putting into practice with considerable success, especially in his last and most famous school at the Masonic Temple in Boston, radical educational theories, some of which seem to have anticipated kindergarten methods now in vogue and which earned for Alcott the title of the American Pestalozzi.

Alcott’s fundmental educational conceptions were Platonic, and he exhibited an astonishing but entirely characteristic consistency in carrying out his most radical ideas. He believed in the plenary inspiration of childhood, and his method may be described as an attempt to realize in practice the thought of Wordsworth’s ode on the Intimations of Immortality.

The publication of some of his conversations with his pupils, owing to their references to the phenomena of birth, brought adverse criticism and tended to impair the prosperity of the school. Finally, on his refusal to dismiss a coloured child whom he had received as a pupil, patronage was withdrawn and he had received as pupil, patronage was withdrawn and he was compelled to give up the enterprise.

After the failure of his school Alcott first tried his scheme of public “conversations,” with little financial success, however. In these years, too, he showed an interest in many of the reform movements of the day, the temperance cause, woman’s rights, the anti-slavery agitation. Moving with his family to Concord in 1840, he tried for a time to stick to farm work, but his taste for transcendental thought was too strong and he again began holding conversations and giving lectures. Shortly after this he removed to a farm in the town of Harvard, where, with two English friends, he instituted the community of Fruitlands.

The ideals of this miniature Utopia were extreme. The diet was strictly vegetarian, even milk and eggs being tabooed. Water was the only beverage. The “aspiring” vegetables, those which grow into the air like the fruits, were allowed, but the baser ones, like potatoes and beets, which grow downward, were forbidden. When cold weather came the experiment had proved itself, materially at least, a complete failure. This was too much for Alcott, who, losing for once his perennial serenity and turning his face to the wall, asked only to be allowed to die. He had a brave wife, however, who eventually brought him to his senses.

Following the failure of Fruitlands, the Alcotts had a long struggle against poverty first in Concord and later in Boston, Mrs. Alcott apparently being the financial mainstay of the family, her husband contributing what little he could earn from his conversations. The journal of Louisa May Alcott covering this period gives us many intimate glimpses into the life of “the pathetic family,” and while the father is revealed as a man of extreme impracticality and even of unwitting selfishness, his extraordinary gentleness of temper and his unfailing optimism under adversity are not less conspicuous. When, a few years later, Miss Alcott gained literary distinction, the family was freed from financial embarrassment. The latter part of Alcott’s life brought the Concord School of Philosophy and the realization of his long-cherished dream to see himself the American Plato surrounded by a group of admiring disciples.

It is singularly difficult to arrive at a just estimate of Alcott. The whole affinity of his mind was mystical, Neo-Platonic and Oriental writers being his favourite authors. The rarified nature of his subject-matter combined with a certain deficiency in power of literary expression makes his published works inadequately representative of the man, and the critic pauses between the belief that admiring contemporaries grossly overrated the ability of an active and elevated but withal rather ordinary mind, and the opposite view that Alcott had a touch or real genius in him, a kinship in due degree with the inspired talkers of literary history. Carlyle’s famous description of him gives us part of the truth:

  • The good Alcott: with his long, lean face and figure, with his grey worn temples and mild radiant eyes; all bent on saving the world by a return to acorns and the golden age; he comes before one like a kind of venerable Don Quixote, whom nobody can even laugh at without loving.
  • But Emerson probably came nearer than anyone else to doing justice to both sides of Alcott’s nature when he called his friend a “tedious archangel.”

    If Alcott embodied the extreme mystical and esoteric side of transcendentalism, the Brook Farm Association represents its social and experimental aspect.