Reviews and Evaluations
In general, Amos Bronson Alcott
was highly praised by the New England Transcendentalists. Even those who criticized the Transcendental movement or other aspects of Alcott's life stood in awe of his probity, courage, and unflinching commitment to spiritual values.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
and Henry David Thoreau
, despite being brilliant original thinkers, were influenced greatly by Alcott. They were his closest friends and were among his strongest admirers. In his book Nature
, Emerson deemed Alcott "Orphic poet." In Walden
, Thoreau crowned Alcott "A true friend of man; almost the only friend of human progress," and "the sanest man" he knew. Neither writer identified Alcott by name. Alcott's relationship to Emerson and Thoreau is especially important because, today, these two men are esteemed the most significant of the Transcendentalists. Yet in Alcott's time, he
was esteemed the most significant of the Transcendentalists--at least as significant, in the transcendental sense, as Emerson, and much more so, in any sense, than Thoreau, whose genius did not even begin to be recognized until decades after his death. Further, Alcott's probing intellect anticipated the Transcendental movement; Odell Shepard points out that Alcott was a man who was an idealist before he read Plato
and a Transcendentalist before he read Emerson. Alcott provided a living example of Emerson's self-reliant man who, in the manner of Thoreau, gave the material side of existence as little time as possible.
The American philosopher William Torrey Harris
was profoundly impressed and influenced by Alcott. In addition, Alcott was a friend of Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science. He took a great interest in her lifework, and she in turn once referred to his character as "of holiest sort, bravest to endure, firmest to suffer. . . ." Alcott's family, too, highly respected and esteemed him. Theirs was a deep and lasting love reinforced by values steeped in Alcott's transcendentalism.
Alcott has been dubbed an "American Saint" by one author and "America's Socrates" by another. He was also known as the "American Orpheus." In 1856, the prominent Unitarian leader Henry W. Bellows called Alcott the "father of transcendentalism" and the "Plato of our time." In 1857, Daniel Ricketson
declared that "Father Alcott" had the noblest character of anyone he had ever met--which is saying something, because Ricketson was familiar with Thoreau and Emerson as well. In 1877, George Ripley
accurately noted that Alcott's role was essentially that of a seer. Ripley observed that Alcott's power was spiritual, inspirational, and aesthetic in nature: "If he breathes an atmosphere too attenuated for the common purposes of life, he lends a powerful aid to our aspirations after the highest, and supplies a refreshing cordial amidst the cares and perturbations of this working day world."
Alcott did receive a great deal of unfavorable criticism, however. Many people did not understand his motivations, were ignorant of the basis of his educational methods, or were blinded by their own sectarianism. His ideas were often labeled "ridiculous," and thereby dismissed before Alcott even had a chance to defend them.
Some of the charges leveled against Alcott are true enough but are not wholly applicable. For example, it is true that Alcott often held "ridiculous" beliefs, but the problem is not ridiculousness per se. It must be observed that all people hold "ridiculous" beliefs. Most often these beliefs are not noticed, however, because they are commonly accepted. The very acceptance of our implicit assumptions blinds us to their fundamental ridiculousness and prevents us from even noticing, much less questioning, them. Yet Alcott did dare to question them. Overall, in number, Alcott's ridiculousness varied little from the ridiculousness of his peers--who believed the Bible was the complete and exclusive revelation of a theistic God, that women did not deserve to vote or own property or hold public office, that slavery was an acceptable institution, and so on. The problem, rather, was that such truly ridiculous views were overwhelmingly accepted at the time, while Alcott's more correct views were not. Thus, it seems simply that Alcott rejected a number of accepted ridiculousnesses and acquired a number of unaccepted ridiculousnesses in their place, so that, in balance, Alcott had no more or no fewer ridiculousnesses than anybody else. Therefore, to call Alcott ridiculous is to miss the point.
Additionally, it has been said that at times Alcott failed to follow his views to their logical conclusion. This is true, but it should also be observed that the same criticism holds for the Unitarian churchmen of his time, who claimed to believe in the infinite power of human beings to improve their world yet placed uncompromisingly strict limits on this so-called "infinite" power. Even the other Transcendentalists, who with him rebelled against the Unitarian system, were not prepared to go as far as Alcott did. In truth, failure to pursue one's views to their logical conclusion is a charge which applies to every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. Alcott succumbed to this failure less than many other people. Alcott, in fact, on the contrary, typically pursued his views further than any others. For this very reason, of course, he was frequently deemed ridiculous (see above).
Perhaps the greatest hindrance to Alcott was not his ideas but his impracticality. Indeed, his ideas themselves, with few exceptions, had enormous merit. The problem, rather, was that Alcott himself tended to be unable to properly implement them. This shortcoming is illustrated by the fact that other people who employed Alcott's same ideas--but in a practical manner--often met with astonishing success. When young educator Hiram Fuller
, in Providence, Rhode Island, took up Alcott's educational philosophy verbatim--even to the point of establishing Record of a School
as the central textbook of his curriculum--his school flourished. Parents were so pleased that enrollment in Fuller's school increased from 20 to 65.
Much of Alcott's greatness--or even genius--owes to his unique ability to go against the religious mentality of nineteenth-century America. His lasting contribution to American Transcendentalism
lies in the fact that he was totally uncommitted to church (or state) and was thus completely free to fully think on his own. In contrast, the other Transcendentalists--Clarke more than Hedge, Hedge more than Ripley, Ripley more than Emerson--all, in varying degrees, nonetheless, still held on in some degree to traditional convention or dogma. Ultimately, with the notable exception of Thoreau, as far as they went, they never quite let go entirely of the underpinnings of the central belief system of New England. Alcott, on the other hand--though it must be admitted that he held on slightly too--as the unschooled farmer's boy, offered a much-needed perspective of absolute freedom in this transcendental community composed mainly of Unitarian ministers and ex-ministers. Alcott embraced ideas that, though strictly his own, truly embodied the logical conclusion of the Unitarian revolt.
Emerson and Thoreau on Amos Bronson Alcott
Very sad, indeed, it was to see this half-god driven to the wall, reproaching men, and hesitating whether he should not reproach the gods. The world was not, on trial, a possible element for him to live in. A lover of law had tried whether law could be kept in this world, and all things answered, "No." He had entertained the thought of leaving it, and going where freedom and an element could be found. And if he should be found tomorrow at the roadside, it would be the act of the world.
We pleaded guilty to perceiving the inconvenience and the inequality of property, and he said, "I will not be a convict." Very tedious and prosing and egotistical and narrow he is, but a profound insight, a Power, a majestical man, looking easily along the centuries to explore his "contemporaries," with a painful sense of being an orphan and a hermit here. I feel his statement to be partial and to have fatal omissions, but I think I shall never attempt to set him right any more. It is not for me to answer him: though I feel the limitations and exaggeration of his picture, and the wearisome personalities.
His statement proves too much: it is a reductio ad absurdum. But I was quite ashamed to have just revised and printed last week the old paper denying the existence of tragedy, when this modern Prometheus was in the heat of his quarrel with the gods. . . .
--Emerson, Journals, April 1844
I think that he should keep a caravansary on the world's highway, where philosophers of all nations might put up, and on his sign should be printed, "Entertainment for man, but not for his beast. Enter ye that have leisure and a quiet mind, who earnestly seek the right road."
--Thoreau, Walden, August 1854
Works on Alcott
Bedell, Madelon. The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1980.
Bennett, Fordyce R. "Sources for Alcott's Fruitlands." American Transcendental Quarterly (ATQ) 32 (1976): 19 - 20.
Biddle, Arthur W. "Bronson and Chatfield Alcott in Virginia: New Evidence." ATQ 17 (1973): 3 - 9.
Blanding, Thomas. "Julius Ward's Day in Concord in 1878." Concord Saunterer 19.2 (1987): 54 - 61.
Boller, Paul F., Jr. American Transcendentalism, 1830 - 1860: An Intellectual Inquiry. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974.
Cameron, Kenneth W. "Thoreau's Walden and Alcott's Vegetarianism." ATQ 2 (1969): 27 - 28.
Cameron, Kenneth W. "Some Alcott Conversations in 1863." ATQ 17 (1973): 25 - 29, 31.
Cameron, Kenneth W. Young Reporter of Concord: A Checklist of F. B. Sanborn's Letters to Benjamin Smith Lyman, 1853 - 1867, With Extracts Emphasizing Life and Literary Events in the World of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1978.
Cameron, Kenneth W. Transcendental Curriculum or Bronson Alcott's Library; Inventory of 1858 - 1860 With Addenda to 1888, Incl. Lib. at Fruitlands (1842 - 1843), to Which is Added Sheaf of Ungathered Alcott Letters. Hartford, CT: Transcendental Books, 1984.
Cameron, Kenneth W. "'Those pure pages of yours': Bronson Alcott's Conversations With Children on the Gospels." American Literature 60.3 (Oct 1988): 451 - 460.
Carson, Barbara H. "Bronson Alcott and the New England Mysteries." Studia Mystica 2.2 (1979): 56 - 69.
Caruthers, J. Wade. "The Transcendentalist as Mystic: Amos Bronson Alcott." Connecticut Review 9.2 (1976): 90 - 99.
Dahlstrand, Frederick C. Amos Bronson Alcott: An Intellectual Biography. East Brunswick, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1982.
Dahlstrand, Frederick C. "Amos Bronson Alcott." The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism. Ed. Joel Myerson. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1984.
De Puy, Harry. "Amos Bronson Alcott: Natural Resource, or 'Consecrated Crank'?" ATQ 1.1 (1987): 49 - 68.
Deese, Helen R. "Alcott's Conversations on the Transcendentalists: The Record of Caroline Dall." American Literature 60.1 (March 1988): 17 - 25.
Francis, Richard. "Circumstances and Salvation: The Ideology of the Fruitlands Utopia." American Quarterly 25 (1973): 202 - 234 (?).
Gay, Carol. "The Philosopher and His Daughter: Amos Bronson Alcott and Louisa." Essays in Literature 2 (1975): 181 - 191.
Hesford, Walter. "Alcott's Criticism of A Week." Resources for American Literary Study 6 (1976): 81 - 84.
Hoeltje, Hubert H. Sheltering Tree: A Story of the Friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Amos Bronson Alcott. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1943.
Hollis, C. Carroll. "A New England Outpost, as Revealed in Some Unpublished Letters of Emerson, Parker, and Alcott to Ainsworth Spofford." New England Quarterly 38 (1965): 65 - 85.
Kennedy, William S. "Concord Recollections: Some Fresh Reminiscences of Emerson, Alcott and Thoreau." ATQ 36 (1977): 43 - 45.
Lyons, Nathan. "Alcott and Rudolf Steiner: Educators of the Whole Man." ESQ 57 (1969): 12 - 16.
Myerson, Joel. "'In the Transcendental Emporium': Bronson Alcott's 'Orphic Sayings' in the Dial." English Language Notes 10 (September 1972): 31 - 38.
Myerson, Joel. "William Harry Harland's 'Bronson Alcott's English Friends'." Resources for American Literary Study 8 (1978): 24 - 60.
Myerson, Joel. "'Our Children are Our Best Works': Bronson and Louisa May Alcott." Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Hall, 1984.
Pannill, H. Burnell. "Bronson Alcott: Emerson's 'Tedious Archangel'." A Miscellany of American Christianity: Essays in Honor of H. Shelton Smith. Ed. Stuart C. Henry. Durham: Duke University Press, 1963.
Rosa, Alfred F. "Alcott and Montessori." Connecticut Review 3.1 (1969): 98 - 103.
Schmidt, Bernard. "Bronson Alcott's Developing Personalism and the Argument With Emerson." ATQ 8.4 (1994): 311 - 327.
Sommer, Robert F. "A Firsthand Report of the Operation of Alcott's Temple School." Resources for American Literary Study 9 (1979): 200 - 205.
Stern, Madeleine B. "Mrs. Alcott of Concord to Mrs. Adams of Dubuque." New England Quarterly 50 (1977): 331 - 340.
Stoehr, Taylor. Nay Saying in Concord: Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau. Hamden, Connecticut: Shoe String (Archon), 1979.
Strickland, Charles. "A Transcendentalist Father: The Child Rearing Practices of Bronson Alcott." Perspectives in American History (1969): 3, 5, 73 (?).
Thurston, Michael. "Alcott's Doctrine of Human Culture." Concord Saunterer 19.2 (1987): 47 - 54.
Versluis, Arthur. "Bronson Alcott and Jacob Bohme." Studies in the American Renaissance (1993): 153 - 159.
Woodall, Guy R. "Early Worcester Literary Days: Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott Regarded as Just Freaks." Concord Saunterer 17.2 (August 1984): 3 - 6.
Woodall, Guy R. "Convers Francis and the Concordians: Emerson, Alcott, and Others." Concord Saunterer 1.1 (Fall 1993): 22 - 58.