Life of Amos Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott was born on November 29, 1799, in Wolcott, Connecticut, and died on March 4, 1888.  He was an author, teacher, conversationalist, philosopher, and outspoken advocate of educational and social reform.

Photo of A. B. Alcott

The son of a flax farmer, Alcott taught himself to read by forming letters in charcoal on a wooden floor.  Through sheer willpower and dedication to the ideal he educated himself and guided his genius to expression as a progressive educator and leader of the New England Transcendentalists.  His meager formal education was supplemented by omnivorous reading, while he gained a living from farming, working in a clock factory, and as a peddler in the American South.
He set out at fifteen as a peddler.  With the design of adding to the family income he traveled through a part of the South, but returned with an empty pack and four hundred dollars in debt.  This experience was typical of later ones; he was nothing if not unpractical.
Bronson Alcott was unique in the way he embodied and lived out his transcendentalist ideas, passionately embracing his various causes.  At age 26, he tried schoolteaching in Cheshire, Connecticut.  As an educator he believed that all knowledge and moral guidance spring from inner sources, and it is the teacher's role to help these unfold in a beneficial way.  He introduced art, music, nature study, and physical education to his classes at a time when these subjects were not taught.  He founded a series of schools in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, based in part on Socrates' conversational technique, whose aim was to inspire children to think and "to awaken the soul."  His daughter Louisa, one of his most faithful pupils, wrote, "My father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child's nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strasbourg goose, with more than it could digest."
Unfortunately, his insightful and forward-looking ideas were instead considered peculiar.  Too often, unfavorable reactions to his advanced and liberal theories forced him to close his schools.  Many parents did not understand Alcott's innovative methods and withdrew their children.  His dedication to these ideas, however impractical their implementation might have been at the time, kept him moving from place to place.  Because of this situation, the Alcott family moved over 20 times in 30 years.
He taught in several places before he opened his most famous school, the Temple School, in Boston in 1834.  His own records, as well as those made by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Margaret Fuller, his assistants, show his concern with the integrated mental, physical, and spiritual development of the children.  Unfortunately, the school lasted less than five years.  Unsuccessful in his lifetime, his last school, the Temple School, closed before he was 40.
It is only fair to add that many of Alcott's original methods are established principles in the school systems of today.  In time, almost all his theories, in one form or another, made their way into mainstream education.  His disappointment was lessened when he learned of the success of Alcott House, a school founded by his disciples in England.
Alcott was much attracted by Ralph Waldo Emerson's presence in Concord, Massachusetts.  In debt and jobless, Alcott and his family repaired to Concord, where he found solace in Emerson's company as well as practical and moral support.  Other sources of support and encouragement were friends and admirers such as Anna Quincy Thaxter.  His daughters Anna and Louisa were taught by John and Henry David Thoreau at the Concord Academy.
One of the leading exponents of American Transcendentalism, he wrote for the transcendental periodical, the Dial.  He was famous for his eccentricities and for the unintelligibility of his mystical utterances, such as "Orphic Sayings."
Eager to put his Transcendentalist, pacifist, and vegetarian principles into practice (and also with not much other choice, now that his schools had failed), in 1843 Bronson Alcott joined Englishman Charles Lane in founding a communal farm, "Fruitlands," in Harvard, Massachusetts.  Although he was a nonresident member of Brook Farm, Alcott sought to improve upon the Brook Farm experiment.  In this endeavor, however, the most extreme notions of the Transcendental brotherhood were pushed by him beyond the extreme.  His idealism was so strong that he would not permit canker-worms to be disturbed, and forbade the planting of such vegetables and roots as grow downward instead of upward into the air.  Yet the members of Fruitlands honestly sought to live a spiritual life--to live in peace, to commune with God and nature, to elevate their minds, and to avoid all forms of oppression of human beings and animals.  Instead of using cotton, a product of slavery, Alcott designed pants suits from linen that were worn by both the males and females at Fruitlands.  He baked bread for the little group and promoted the use of raw vegetarian foods to help free the women from the drudgery of the kitchen.
Six months later the experiment--which stressed a mixture of farming and philosophizing--failed disastrously.  Fruitlands was finally abandoned in January 1844.  In a gentle satire on her father's idealism called "Transcendental Wild Oats," Louisa May Alcott, a year of whose childhood was spent at this short-lived commune, suggested that a better name for it would have been "Apple Slump."
After the failure of this communistic experiment, he focused more on holding "Conversations," which became a settled institution in Concord.  These were open talks, largely presented in parlors, but also in halls and churches, on topics ranging from Plato, God, and education, to vegetarianism and animal rights.  Sometimes he was paid a handsome amount for sharing his thoughts, but usually he received very little.  He could have been called a preacher without a permanent parish.
The family returned to Concord to Hillside, a house purchased with funds Alcott's wife, Abigail May, had inherited, and most of Louisa May's idyllic childhood memories date from this period.
Consistent in his beliefs, Alcott held that animals deserved to live in peace.  He was a staunch vegetarian, and agreed with health crusader Sylvester Graham that animal flesh was an unnatural food for human beings.  On the issue of the vegetarian ethic, as presented in the "Higher Laws" chapter of Walden, Thoreau surely looked to neighbor Alcott's example.  Alcott was not only a neighbor; he was a frequent visitor to Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin.
Alcott also advocated equality for Black people; his home in Concord was a stop on the Underground railroad.  Once, when a runaway slave was to be transported from Boston to the South, a mob gathered to protest outside the city hall.  Alcott stepped forward from the crowd to protest the move as a lawman's bullet whizzed past his shoulder.
The Alcott family had significant financial burdens.  Not that Bronson Alcott didn't work hard: he chopped wood, he built his friend Emerson a summer house, he shared his intellect with his friends and through the books and articles he wrote, he grew an apple orchard, and throughout his life he ventured near and far delivering his Conversations to anyone who would listen.  At one point, Mrs. Alcott accepted a job as a social worker (perhaps the country's first) when the family resided in Boston.  Here Bronson gave Conversations and lectures, and Anna and Louisa began to teach school.  The family's peripatetic life continued with a move to Walpole, New Hampshire, in 1855 (though Louisa remained in Boston teaching and publishing her first fiction) and then back to Concord in 1857, where they took up residence in Orchard House with the Hawthornes and Emersons as neighbors.  Eventually, Louisa achieved enough literary success to become the family's financial savior.
Bronson Alcott was dedicated, in the words of Christopher A. Greene, to "truth not profit"--which explains why he and his family were continuously confronted with poverty.  Alcott refused to hold a job which would endanger the absolute "soul liberty" of his "new faith."  Even when he did work for a living, it disturbed him that such actions would earn the favor of "merchants and brokers"--a class of persons he certainly did not wish to please.  It should be noted here that Thoreau, too, had deep problems with vocation.  Nevertheless, despite the virtual assurance of financial destitution, Alcott's family supported him in his endeavors.  His wife, in fact, claimed that she would rather live on acorns than compromise matters of principle, and that no amount of money could divert them from their purpose.
Poverty continually plagued the life of the Alcotts until the writings of Louisa relieved the family of financial worry.  Although Alcott was an ardent advocate of prohibition and the abolition of slavery, his causes did not extend to practical matters.  While strongly defending women's rights, he supported his wife and four daughters (poorly) as a handyman or by accepting handouts until Louisa took on responsibility for supporting the family.
In 1859, with support from Emerson, A. Bronson Alcott was appointed to the position of Superintendent of the Concord School system.  Alcott eagerly took on the task even though the job paid only $100 per year.  Delighted to have once again a platform for his theories, he overhauled the curriculum--introducing singing, calisthenics, physiology, dancing, as well as instructing in his now-famous Socratic method of conversations and readings.  This reformation he described in his Reports.  Alcott remained superintendent for six years.
Alcott's ideas gained in popular acceptance in the 1870s and 1880s.  He became active in the Radical Club and the Free Religious Association, promoting the New Church and the "New Divinity" with such men as Francis E. Abbot, Sidney H. Morse, David A. Wasson, and John Weiss.  Like Emerson, he traveled to some extent in the western part of the United States, holding Conversations and expounding the ideas and ideals of American Transcendentalism.  In his later years he went on lecture tours in the Midwest where his enthusiastic talks on education and transcendentalism brought much recognition to himself and to fellow friends and Concordians, Emerson and Thoreau.
For the remainder of their lives Bronson and Abigail lived primarily in Concord, where Bronson published his book Concord Days in 1872, mourned the passing of his wife in 1877, and at eighty years of age established the Concord School of Philosophy.  From 1879 he was dean of this adult summer intellectual retreat, which annually gathered disciples to hear him and many other speakers.  The School of Philosophy was probably the first adult education center in the nation.  The School and its philosopher, "Dean" Alcott, received a great deal of positive publicity in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles.
Alcott suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1882 and died in Boston on March 4, 1888.  One of the first biographies of Alcott was written by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn.