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A. Bronson Alcott (1799-1888)

A. Bronson Alcott

A. Bronson Alcott

In Transcendentalism in New England, Octavius Brooks Frothingham affirms: “If among the representatives of spiritual philosophy, the first place belongs to Emerson, the second must be assigned to Mr. Amos Bronson Alcott”-whom he calls “the Mystic.”

Born on a rocky farm near Wolcott, Connecticut, Alcott essentially educated himself, developing a unique philosophy of self-culture. His Concord friend Thoreau declared that this frequently failing utopian educator was “the wisest man I ever knew.” Waldo Emerson invited him to join the Transcendental Club of New England intellectuals.

Married to Abigail May-the sister of a Unitarian minister-Alcott was the father of four daughters. Louisa May Alcott, author not only of Little Women but of many published manuscripts, provided necessary family support beyond the meager income from her father’s lecture tours and innovative short-lived school ventures. Temple School, “America’s first open school,” was founded jointly by him and Elizabeth Peabody. Margaret Fuller was a part-time teacher in this school, which introduced games, gym, stories, and creative writing. His self-declared divine mission was education and social transformation.

In addition to friends such as William Ellery Channing, Alcott’s abundant correspondents were Mary Baker Eddy, Julia Ward Howe, Frederic Henry Hedge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry James, Sr., and Walt Whitman. In addition to the fifty-four volumes of his Journal, 1826-1882, his literary legacy includes “Orphic Sayings” in The Dial, Concord Days, “An Autobiographical Poem”, and Sonnets and Canzonets, as well as his early disputed reports on educating children.

Alcott’s advocacy of the abolition of slavery, as well as the advancement of women’s liberation, vegetarianism, and pacifism, were supplemented by his establishment in 1843 of Fruitlands, a Utopia on a ninety-acre farm near Harvard, Massachusetts. It failed after seven months. Nonetheless, from 1859 to 1865 Alcott-“the American Pestalozzi”-functioned as superintendent of schools in Concord. In 1879 he established the Concord Summer School of Philosophy and Literature.

Bronson Alcott grew increasingly conservative as he aged, opposing for example Darwinian evolution. After a stroke in 1882, he died. His exhausted daughter, Louisa, summoned her strength to visit him just before his death. She died two days later.

In 1893 the first extended biography, by F. B. Sanborn and W. T. Harris, was published: A. Bronson Alcott: His Life and Philosophy in two volumes.

Misfortune to have lived not knowing thee!
‘T were not high living, nor to noblest end,
Who, dwelling near, learned not sincerity,
Rich friendship’s ornament that still doth lend
To life its consequence and propriety.
Thy fellowship was my culture, noble friend:
By the hand thou took’st me, and did’st condescend
To bring me straightway into thy fair guild;
And life-long hath it been high compliment
By that to have been known, and thy friend styled,
Given to rare thought and to good learning bent:
Whilst in my straits an angel on me smiled.
Permit me, then, thus honored, still to be
A scholar in thy university.

Who nearer Nature’s life would truly come
Must nearest come to him of whom I speak;
He all kinds knew,-the vocal and the dumb;
Masterful in genius was he, and unique,
Patient, sagacious, tender, frolicsome.
This Concord Pan would oft his whistle take,
And forth from wood and fen, field, hill, and lake,
Trooping around him in their several guise,
The shy inhabitants their haunts forsake:
Then he, like Aesop, man would satirize,
Hold up the image wild to clearest view
Of undiscerning manhood’s puzzled eyes,
And mocking say, “Lo! mirrors here for you:
Be true as these, if ye would be more wise.”

Click here to view supplemental reading to A. Bronson Alcott on Amazon.

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