Cultural Background

The most remarkable events of Amos Bronson Alcott's life took place during the 1830s to 1860s, a period of great intellectual activity in New England.  Ralph Waldo Emerson published his first series of Essays in 1841, his second in 1844, and his Poems in 1846.  Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse appeared in 1846, and The Scarlet Letter in 1850.  Henry David Thoreau came out with A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1849 and Walden in 1854.  In Boston and Cambridge, the new ideas of the American Renaissance were stirring the minds of thinkers, reformers, and Transcendentalists.  Throughout the New England states, which were advancing rapidly in material prosperity by the establishment of manufacturing interests and the buildup of rich trade with the East Indies, the intellectual life of the people was feeling the stimulus of its own energy in a remarkable degree.
A new awakening began with the spread of the Unitarian movement over New England during the early years of the nineteenth century.  Although opposition to the Calvinistic doctrines of the Presbyterian and other orthodox denominations had existed in the colonies even in Revolutionary times, it was not until near the end of the eighteenth century that this opposition assumed the aspect of an important religious controversy.  The arena in which John Cotton, Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, and many lesser controversialists of the colonial period had waged their theological battles was again the scene of intellectual and religious agitation.  The effects of the Unitarian movement, led by scholars and ministers such as Joseph Stevens Buckminster, were more far-reaching even than those of the celebrated (First) Great Awakening of 1734 - 1744.  Another movement, Universalism, was similar to Unitarianism in that both were skeptical of enthusiastic revivalism and charismatic preachers.  Universalists like Charles Chauncy relied instead on a more sober use of reason to undercut the assumptions of the revivalists, who intentionally frightened people with the prospect of going to hell as sinners to face the wrath of an angry God.
In 1805, Harvard College--the fountain-head of New England literature--elected a Unitarian as professor of Divinity.  By the end of the first decade, nearly every prominent Congregational pulpit in eastern Massachusetts was held by a preacher of Unitarian doctrine.  The orthodox did respond.  To oppose the new teaching, the theological seminary at Andover was founded in 1807.  Here, Moses Stuart (1780 - 1852) and Leonard Woods (1774 - 1854) became famous as teachers in this institution and as defenders of the orthodox creed.  Lyman Beecher (1775 - 1863), the father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the ablest and best-known champion of orthodoxy in New England.  In 1826, he was called from his church in Litchfield, Connecticut, to a prominent Boston pulpit that he might have a better chance to combat the growing "infidelity" of the times.
The recognized leader of the Unitarians was William Ellery Channing, who was born at Newport, Rhode Island, and received his education at Harvard.  He became the minister of a Boston parish in 1803.  He was a cultured, eloquent, and a persuasive writer who became famous throughout New England for his oratorical gifts and as a theologian.  In seriousness of purpose and in purity of character, Channing represented the strength and virtue of the old Puritan stock.  His portrait, presenting him in the conventional black gown of the clergyman with the white bands at the neck, shows a face highly intellectual and refined, with features delicate, spiritual, almost ascetic in their type.  The influence of Dr. Channing was strongly felt.  A sermon preached by him at an ordination in Baltimore, in 1819, is especially famous as a rallying-cry of Unitarianism.  "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good," was his text; the sacredness of the individual conscience and the freedom of individual thought was his theme.  While his writings were largely controversial, he was also a graceful essayist, and his literary influence was deeply felt by contemporary writers who were stirred by his thought and passion.  From his first hearing of Channing in April 1828, Alcott perceived what he called the "features of greatness" in Channing and began to admire Channing's ability to fill his listeners with "energy and purpose" based on a positive spirituality.  Unlike Beecher, whose mind, according to Alcott, was filled with "fear, depravity, doubt, and misery," Channing offered a dynamic spiritual path based on possibility, self-culture, and the ability to engage oneself for the betterment of humanity through the divine aspects of education (Frederick C. Dahlstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott: An Intellectual Biography [East Brunswick, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1982], pp. 62 - 63).
Unitarianism led to the development of American Transcendentalism.  Closely allied with the religious movement just described and including many prominent Unitarians within its circle, Transcendentalism, nevertheless, was not Unitarianism.  The latter was a religious movement; it grew into the liberal denominations of the present day.  Transcendentalism designates a school of abstract thought, a philosophy general in its application to life and conduct but fairly local in its development.
This new school of abstract ideas arose among the intellectual leaders of Boston and Cambridge during the 1810s and 1820s.  The teaching of German and French philosophy, the influence of Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle had a part in its origin.  The Transcendentalists were idealists and opposed materialism in every form.  They regarded matter as an appearance and thought as the reality.  The philosophical systems of Socrates and Plato, especially the doctrine of ideas, provided the essential basis of their belief.  Further, they emphasized the necessity of the individual and the free expression of the individual mind.  They chose to be led by the "inner light."  "The highest revelation is that God is in every man," wrote Emerson in his Journal in 1833.  "I believe in this life.  I believe it continues.  As long as I am here, I plainly read my duties as writ with pencil of fire."  They thought and talked and wrote upon truths which cannot be demonstrated, which lie beyond the sphere of the established, which transcend human experience and ordinary knowledge.  They were deeply intent upon reform--social, civil, and religious.  They were philanthropic in purpose, and members of the group were often associated in schemes for the improvement of society, which unfortunately usually proved utopian dreams.
In July 1840, the Transcendentalists, frustrated with the poor reception of their ideas in the conventional popular periodicals, established their own periodical as the organ of their views.  The name of this periodical, the Dial, came from Alcott.  At first it was edited by Margaret Fuller, a talented and visionary woman whose name is prominently associated with the movement, and later by Emerson.  The Dial remained in publication for four years, and then was discontinued due to lack of financial support.  To this famous magazine, Emerson contributed essays and poems, while others of the Transcendental coterie--Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke, Caroline Sturgis, and Henry David Thoreau--were among its best-known writers.  One of the more notable features of this remarkable periodical was its inclusion of "Ethnical Scriptures," which were excerpts from translations of Hindu, Confucian, Buddhist, Sufi, and other ancient texts.  True to their transcendental vision, the editors of the Dial saw accurately the affinity of their thought with the world view of such Eastern teachers as Confucius, Mencius, and Menu.  Orientalism is more important to Transcendentalism than many people have recognized.
Carlyle, however, considered the contributors to the Dial to have gone too far in their transcendental rapture.  Carlyle's comment upon the early numbers of the Dial is probably suggestive of the general attitude of those outside the circle toward these enthusiastic idealists: "But it is all good and very good as a soul; wants only a body, which want means a great deal."  Many of the new views were far from clear, and hapless failures resulted from these utopian experiments, such as Fruitlands.  At the same time, however, practical progress was made, and through this campaign of debate, in more than one direction was built the road to reform.
In 1841, an ideal community (one of several such experiments) was established by some of these enthusiasts at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, nine miles from Boston.  George Ripley was the promoter and leader of the movement.  It attracted some whose names were to be well known in later days.  The young George William Curtis was an interested member, and so was Charles A. Dana, afterward the distinguished editor of the New York Sun. For a time, also, Nathaniel Hawthorne was a member of the colony; and, ten years later, he utilized some phases of his experience in his Blithedale Romance.  Emerson was interested and an occasional visitor, although not an active Brook Farmer himself.  The experiment was not altogether a failure.  There were difficulties all along, but for five years the community flourished, demonstrating the possibilities of a simple, rational method of living, until, in 1846, there came a disastrous fire, and soon afterward the farm was sold.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a distinguished representative of the Transcendentalists as well as a leader among these students of ideas.  He was a preacher of moral and intellectual truths, a poet, a philosopher, a prophet, and a teacher.  His influence upon the intellectual life of New England was stimulating in the extreme, while the effect of his writings on American thought and literature can hardly be reckoned.
Henry David Thoreau, too, held a vitally important place among the Transcendentalists as a doer, experimenter, and implementer.
Amos Bronson Alcott exerted tremendous influence on the Transcendentalists.  During the time when Emerson was writing Nature, Alcott had gladly shared his journals with his friend Emerson--journals full of transcendental insights.  Moreover, one scholar has mused that Alcott was the model for Emerson's American Scholar.  Undoubtedly that was the case.
Amos Bronson Alcott's name is not well-known, but his legacy is felt around the world.  He was an influence on Thoreau, especially on the issue of nonviolent civil disobedience.  Three years before his young friend Thoreau refused to pay a tax and was jailed in Concord, Alcott had been arrested for rejecting the same tax.  At first, Thoreau thought Alcott's action was admirable but later he found it odd when Alcott suggested that it was "revolutionary."  Emerson found Alcott's act of conscience in bad taste.  Alcott had chosen to undergo arrest rather than pay the $1 tax because he was protesting his country's acceptance of slavery and its participation in war.  Professor James Gould, former director of the Peace Corps in Malaysia and an expert on world peace leaders, calls Alcott the "grandfather of nonviolence."
Among the other authors in this interesting group was George Ripley (1802 - 1880).  Ripley graduated from Harvard, and in 1826 became minister of a Unitarian Society in Boston.  He became conspicuous as a leader among the Transcendentalists with the founding of the Brook Farm community, was active as a writer, and together with Charles A. Dana edited the New American Cyclopædia (1857 - 1863).  Like others of the Brook Farm colonists, Ripley enjoyed the helpful friendship of Horace Greeley, and wrote, under Greeley's patronage, scholarly reviews for the New York Tribune.  In the 1860s the "second-generation Transcendentalists" emerged, among them David Atwood Wasson and Edward C. Towne.  By questioning all authority, they extended transcendentalism according to its own principles by challenging even the higher reason, the existence of God, and the assurance of immortality.
The general influence of the Transcendentalist philosophy was stimulating in high degree to the intellectual and moral growth of the period.  It stirred the minds of men and women who worked for culture and for philanthropic and progressive measures.  It enlisted the eager enthusiasm of young James Lowell in temperance reform and, for a brief period, in the agitation for women's suffrage; it labored with Whittier and Garrison and Phillips in the cause of abolition; it galvanized Walt Whitman and fired his extraordinarily unconventional poetry.  Samuel Johnson and Samuel Longfellow were personally identified with the cult, and their ideas were directly colored by the influence of Transcendentalism.  It provided a vitally important current in New England culture and is significant of what Barrett Wendell has appropriately called "the Renaissance of New England."