Amos Bronson Alcott
(1799 - 1888) was a philosopher, educational innovator
, diarist, and ardent reformer
who founded a short-lived utopian society, Fruitlands
, and was one of the New England Transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts
. Indeed, Alcott was a founder of American Transcendentalism
, the name given to a specific type of idealism that was prevalent, particularly in New England, from about 1830 to 1860. A list of his friends, neighbors, and acquaintances reads like a Who's Who of mid-nineteenth century intellectual life. They included literary giants Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne
, Walt Whitman
, Margaret Fuller
, Henry David Thoreau
, and Ralph Waldo Emerson
--who once claimed that Alcott possessed the purest mind of anyone he had ever met. Although Alcott is currently not as well-known as some of his transcendentalist friends, during his lifetime he exercised a profound influence on each of them. He has been rightly called "the most transcendental of the Transcendentalists."
Alcott was a man with a mission, a man without bigotry, and one who flatly rejected the accumulation of material goods. Tragically, he was misunderstood. Eventually, he became a teacher without a school, a preacher without a pulpit, a family man without a way to earn a stable income.
Alcott needs no defense. His exemplary life speaks for itself. Unfortunately, the extremeness of the idealistic aspects of his life have made it all too easy for critics to fling mud at him. Nevertheless, Alcott remains a vitally important person with a vitally important message. According to Karen Iacobbo of the A. Bronson Alcott Society
, a few of his accomplishments are as follows.
Abolition of slavery: The Alcott family home in Concord, Massachusetts, was a link in the Underground Railroad.
Animal rights/environmentalism: Alcott rejected the killing of animals for food or sport. He objected to obtaining pleasure or convenience for humans at the expense of animals or the environment.
Architecture/art: Among Alcott's creations were fences, a gazebo, and a summer house fashioned from fallen branches.
Child psychology: Alcott kept detailed journals of the intellectual and spiritual growth of his daughters.
Conversation: Alcott communicated his philosophy mainly through holding informal talks which he called Conversations--a term later employed by Margaret Fuller, his friend and assistant at his Temple School.
Diary: Alcott's journals span 50 years of his life and include autobiographical scrapbooks. When compared with the journals of Emerson and Thoreau, Alcott's journals are in every way more ample.
Earth-friendly living: Alcott rejected the use of manure, preferring "green" manure or crops grown to enhance the soil. One of the reasons why he was a vegetarian was because he knew crops required less land than animal agriculture and because the latter "exhausted" both the farmer and the farm.
Innovative education: Alcott's educational methods included the use of the Socratic method and student participation in classroom government. For six years, he performed yeoman service as Superintendent of Concord Schools.
Nonviolent civil disobedience: Alcott was an organizer of the Non-Resistance Society, which opposed all forms of violence, from verbal and physical abuse to war and the killing of animals.
Philosophy: An avid cultivator of the mind, Alcott was the founder of the Concord School of Philosophy.
Transcendentalism: Alcott was the original leader of the New England Transcendentalist movement.
Vegetarianism/veganism: Alcott was a founder of Fruitlands, a transcendental vegan community, and advocated vegetarianism through lectures and writing.
Women's equality: Alcott staunchly defended women's rights and was asked to lecture at women's rights conferences. He raised his daughters to believe that they could do anything; he shared in domestic chores, including cooking and child care; and he designed a pants suit worn by men and women.
Writing: Alcott was an author and poet who wrote articles, pamphlets, poetry, and books, including The Doctrine and Discipline of Human Culture (1836), Conversations With Children on the Gospels (1836 - 1837), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1865; published 1882), Tablets (1868), Concord Days (1872), Table Talk (1877), New Connecticut (1881), and Sonnets and Canzonets (1882).
An arch-idealist, Amos Bronson Alcott
was also the one Transcendentalist who most thoroughly applied transcendental principles to his profession. In his Temple School in Boston in the 1830s, with the help of Elizabeth Peabody
and Margaret Fuller
, he advanced the cause of education in America by conducting incredibly revolutionary experiments in pedagogy, ethics, discipline, and instructional methodology.
Later, in 1843, with Charles Lane
of England, Alcott founded Fruitlands
, a vegan utopian community in Harvard, Massachusetts, which exists today as a museum. Alongside this museum are three others--one dedicated to American Indians, another to the Hudson River artists, and the third to the Shakers.
Alcott was a sought-after lecturer for women's rights conferences. Lucy Stone and Sarah Helen Whitman were among Alcott's feminist friends. It is notable that Alcott signed Stone's petition calling for women's right to vote when no other Transcendentalist leader did.
Lastly, while in his seventies, Alcott finally realized another dream and founded the Concord School of Philosophy. It was a school for adult education which still stands as a museum and is adjacent to Orchard House
, an Alcott family residence.
If Ralph Waldo Emerson
was the most popular prophet of cultural change, and Henry David Thoreau
was the most practical, Bronson Alcott was perhaps the purest. Emerson and Thoreau were geniuses whose lives and works deserve to be studied. Alcott, too, as a great man in his own right, deserves at least as much attention. Today, the causes Alcott championed--nonviolence, education, animal rights, race relations, vegetarianism, and women's equality, to name a few--are still issues. The time has come to look deeply into the life of this profound American visionary and mine the treasures the nation needs today as much as ever.