Henry David Thoreau declared him: “A true friend of man; almost the only friend of human progress.” In his quest for human ascendency, he was more Emersonian than Ralph Waldo Emerson himself. Today we recall one of the nineteenth century’s great unsung heroes: Amos Bronson Alcott. Utopian, mystic, social reformer, visionary educator, Alcott – along with Emerson, Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne – was part of the 19th-century “Concord Quartet” that “freed the American mind,” and arguably the most transcendental of the American Transcendentalists. But today, this bold and original thinker is remembered chiefly as the father of Louisa May Alcott, whose semi-autobiographical Little Women captured the world’s imagination with its aspirational themes of self-sacrifice and self-reliance. That very imagination that Louisa May so artfully harnessed, however, was in fact a by-product of her brilliant, quixotic and wholly impractical father. Indeed, while the Transcendentalists were often accused of being too visionary and impractical in their writings, Bronson Alcott was the group’s chief practitioner of transcendentalism at its most visionary and fanciful extremes. His mystic philosophy permeated into his everyday with such idealistic zeal that the results were often calamitous. His short-lived Utopian community, Fruitlands, was so high reaching that the self-grown vegetarian diet excluded carrots and potatoes because their roots grew down into the earth instead of aspiring upwards towards heaven. Such resolute idealism brought his family and the rest of the community to the brink of starvation – and Fruitlands, like nearly all of Alcott’s ventures, was a spectacular failure. His lifelong habit of taking innovative ideas to ruinous extremes kept his family in perpetual, rootless poverty (they moved home over twenty times) and frequently reliant on the good will and charity of Emerson. Nevertheless, Alcott enjoyed the occasional success – most notably the establishment of America’s first progressive school. Assisted by Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller, Alcott developed an experimental and highly advanced educational programme that sought to teach not by the traditional method of rote, but instead to develop the child from within. He introduced pioneering methods such as organised play, imagination, gymnastics, the honour system and minimal corporal punishment – all now widely accepted and practiced but, at the time, so unorthodox as to be scandalous. Despite criticism from the press and public, the Temple School in Boston lasted some seven years until Alcott – a staunch abolitionist – enrolled a Negro girl. Faced by a mob demanding the withdrawal of the child, Alcott refused to compromise his principles. The school was forced to close and yet another Alcott dream was shattered.
If we choose to judge Bronson Alcott conventionally, he will only be found wanting. His critics lambaste his inability to provide for his family (their financial plight was relieved only when Louisa published Little Women), he formulated no system of philosophy, was unable to translate the luminosity of his conversation to the printed page, and what he did commit to paper – in particular, his “Orphic Sayings” published in the Transcendentalists’ journal, The Dial – has been derided as pretentious and incoherent. But why should we choose to conventionally judge one so unconventional? One who soared above rational distinctions in the true mystic manner? There’s a fine line between crackpot and visionary, but Henry David Thoreau deemed Alcott the “sanest man” he ever knew. And Alcott himself anticipated his future critics when he declared:
“It is life, not scripture; character, not biography, that renovates mankind. The letter of life vitiates its spirit. Virtue and genius refuse to be written.”
Indeed, the influences that many of his contemporaries transmitted in their writings, Alcott translated into his everyday life. His eighty-nine years were filled with daring, original and unwavering attempts to restore the ascendancy of man’s spiritual nature, and his examples and advanced ideas can be found at the root of many social and education reforms that would come much, much later.
He was one of our great and noble eccentrics.