Amos Bronson Alcott was an educator, philosopher, lecturer, reformer, conversationalist, poet, and essayist, but it was the enormous reputation of his daughter Louisa May Alcott that truly secured his fame. Long before he became a model for a character in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel March, he was the physically absent but still omnipresent father of four little women. The real Alcott was a member of the Transcendental Club, a contributor to The Dial, the founder of the Concord School of Philosophy, and a chronicler of the Transcendentalist movement from his home in Concord, just up the street from Emerson’s house. A self-taught Connecticut farmer’s son, Alcott was the only male Transcendentalist not formally educated or connected with Harvard. An autodidact, he proposed educational reforms that were surprisingly controversial in his time, such as providing light, airy classrooms and comfortable furnishings, using Socratic question-and-answer discussions to encourage students to bring forth knowledge from within rather than having it spoon-fed to them, and asking his pupils to keep journals. He also spoke—rather too freely for his contemporaries—about sexuality and religion and put more emphasis on the moral and spiritual growth of his charges than on practical book knowledge.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who had worked in Alcott’s Temple School in Boston, published her account of that institution as Record of a School in 1835 (revised edition 1836). Alcott decided to expand on Peabody’s work in his Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836-1837), which he hoped would go beyond the Record to set forth his educational goals and practices. Instead, its publication brought abuse upon Alcott and resulted in the withdrawal of children from his school by irate parents. (Enrollment fell even lower after he admitted an African American student). Peabody tried to warn him that the topics he discussed with students had the potential for controversy. In a puzzling decision, Alcott decided to move the potentially damaging material out of the main text and into a single series of notes at the end where they could be easily found—and picked apart by critics. One review said that the book was one-third absurd, one-third blasphemous, and one-third obscene. Emerson was so upset at the tarring of Alcott by selective quotation that he wrote a rare letter to a newspaper noting that any “reasonable man will perceive that fragments out of a new theory of Christian instruction, are not quite in the best place for examination, betwixt the price current and the shipping list.”
When the Temple School failed, Alcott moved to Concord. In 1842, helped financially by Emerson and other friends, he visited England, where a group of reformers had started a school based in large part on Alcott’s principles. He returned in October 1842, accompanied by English reformers Charles Lane and Henry Gardner Wright. Lane joined Alcott in starting a communal experiment in Harvard, Massachusetts, eighteen miles from Concord. In June 1843, the Alcotts, Lane and his son, and a few others moved into the place they called Fruitlands. The project was a failure. Alcott and Lane were poorly informed about farming and, besides, spent most of their time away from the farm lecturing, leaving Abigail Alcott to do most of the work. Their “ideals” led to such practices as not wanting to use animals to do the plowing (forcing them into involuntary servitude) or eating eggs (robbing the chicken of her young); and Lane contributed an ascetic view of life that did not mesh with Mrs. Alcott’s. The community broke up in January 1844, in part because of Lane’s attempts to convert Bronson to celibacy and Abigail Alcott’s refusal to go along. Alcott suffered a nervous collapse. Louisa May Alcott fictionalized Fruitlands in her story “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873).
After recovering from the failure of Fruitlands, Alcott concentrated on lecturing and holding “conversations” (described by most participants as monologues), and he was successful at both. Still, there would be a long interval before he published another book. His Emerson was privately printed in 1865 in an edition of fifty copies. The surprise success of Little Women (first edition 1868-1869) brought Bronson back to the public’s attention, and he turned his pen to chronicling his more famous acquaintances and the town in which they lived in a series of books: Tablets (1868), Concord Days (1872), Table Talk (1877), and Sonnets and Canzonets (1882). Peabody’s Record of a School, promoted as the precursor to Jo March’s Plumfield school, was republished in 1874 as Record of Mr. Alcott’s School, Exemplifying the Principles and Methods of Moral Culture. And after Emerson’s death in 1882, Alcott combined his earlier book on his neighbor with a poem, “Ion: A Monody,” under the title Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philosopher and Seer: An Estimate of His Character and Genius in Prose and Verse.
For half a century the premier collector of Bronson Alcott materials was—Bronson Alcott. A true pack rat, Alcott saved copies of his correspondence, letters written to him, and all sorts of ephemera—posters, broadsides, newspaper clippings, journal articles, illustrations—that pertained to his life and interests. His manuscript journals (estimated to contain over five million words) and other works were bound up on a regular basis, thus preserving their contents. These materials were kept in family hands and heavily used by a few scholars, including Madeleine Stern in her 1950 biography of Louisa. The Alcott collection of Frederic Wolsey Pratt (Bronson Alcott’s great-grandson) was for a time deposited in the Concord Free Public Library and eventually, in 1960, transferred to the Houghton Library of Harvard University, where it now occupies over twenty linear feet of shelving plus the space necessary to accommodate almost six hundred volumes from Bronson’s library.
Few people have shared Bronson’s enthusiasm for collecting Bronson, and his works have been purchased mainly by those interested in the Transcendentalist movement in general and Concord in particular. Only his 1865 volume on Emerson and the extra-illustrated edition of Sonnets and Canzonets are hard-to-find books sought by collectors today. A recent Internet search showed nearly five hundred Alcott items for sale, but only two priced at or over a thousand dollars. Those two were highly valued because of other associations: a copy of Table Talk inscribed to Mrs. Daniel Lothrop (“Margaret Sydney”) with notes by F. B. Sanborn ($1250); and a pair of calling cards signed by Bronson and Louisa ($1000).
50. Warren’s (Boston). Photographic portrait of Bronson Alcott, [187-].
51. T. Lewis (Cambridgeport, Mass.). Photographic portrait of Bronson Alcott in Orchard House study, [187-].
52. Concord School of Philosophy. The Concord Summer School of Philosophy (Concord: Concord School of Philosophy, 1881).
53. Photographic portrait of Bronson Alcott on steps of Hillside Chapel (Concord School of Philosophy building), [188-].
54. Concord School of Philosophy. The Concord School of Philosophy (Concord: Concord School of Philosophy, 1885).
55. Photograph of Bronson Alcott, William Torrey Harris, and child seated in front of Orchard House (Hillside Chapel visible in image), [188-].
56. Amos Bronson Alcott. Manuscript for the book Emerson, readied for private publication, .
57. Amos Bronson Alcott. Emerson (Cambridge: Privately Printed [University Press: Welch, Bigelow, and Co.], 1865).
58. Franklin Benjamin Sanborn. Autograph letter, signed, Concord, to “My dear Mr. Harris,” August 4, 1879.
59. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Autograph letter, signed, to “My dear Mr. Harris,” June 26, 1883.