“Mama, They’ve Begun Again!”

PrintPrintEmailEmailOn the twenty-seventh of January, 1812, a five-year-old boy lay desperately ill of scarlet lever in a house on the outskirts of a New England village. The next morning, a neighbor sent his nine-year-old daughter to inquire how he was. Her knock at the door was answered by the lather of the child; the girl, wise beyond her years, took one glance at his stricken face and turned away without speaking. She did not need his few mumbled words to know what had happened.

The bereaved father was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nine-year-old girl was Louisa May Alcott, and the father who had sent her to ask was Bronson Alcott, schoolteacher, philosopher, conversationalist, erstwhile peddler and common laborer, and Emerson’s closest friend and heaviest cross for almost fifty years.

That Louisa May Alcott came to inquire about little Waldo on that tragic morning, and not her father, was a blessing. Emerson could hardly have borne elaborate expressions of sympathy, and these Bronson would almost surely have uttered. He was a man who found it impossible to keep still; in an age when many people talked too long by modem standards, Bronson talked too long even for his contemporaries. Ideas staged up in him like bubbles rising in a spring. He rarely finished a sentence; he went on from one dependent clause to another until he finally dropped the whole thing and instantly started a fresh idea. His problem of communication was not helped by the fact that he was a mystic who spent his whole life struggling to explain the inexplicable.

On many occasions he would call at Emerson’s house to go walking; by the time they were past the door-step, Alcott was in full career, pouring out his torrent, while Emerson listened quietly, a faint smile around his lips. (Odell Shepard, in his Pulitzer-prize-winning biography of Alcott, Pedlar’s Progress , remarks that “Emerson caried an envelope of silence about with him wherever he went, like the water spider’s bubble of air.”)

The walk rarely got more than a hundred yards from the house; at the first stile, or perhaps at some handy apple tree against which one could lean, Alcott would give up the unwelcome task of trying to keep his feet moving. The two would stand there, perhaps for hours, after which they would return to the house with Bronson sincerely convinced that his friend Waldo had said many interesting things, from which he had learned a lot.

Emerson called him, but not to his face, “a pail with no bottom,” and agreed with the critic who said of his writing that it resembled “a train of fifteen cars with one passenger.” Seeking to make him less windy, Emerson told him, “You are tempted to linger around the idea in the hope that what cannot be stated in a few words may yet be suggested by many.” It was all in vain. Yet Alcott’s verbosity was not accompanied by intellectual arrogance—not toward Emerson, at any rate, whom he worshipped humbly as the greatest philosopher of his time.

Nothing illustrates better the difference between the two men than their attitudes toward appearing in public; for many years both lectured for money, which was practically the village trade of Concord. Emerson rarely spoke an extemporaneous word; his lectures were written out with great care—from twenty to sixty hours of preparation for each hour on the platform. His handwritten manuscript was in his pocket whenever he appeared—or it was supposed to be. Henry James, Sr., the father of the novelist and the psychologist, has given us a wonderful picture of how an Emerson lecture actually began: His deferential entrance upon the scene, his look of inquiry at the desk and chair, his resolute rummaging among his embarrassed papers, the air of sudden recollection with which he would plunge into his pockets for what he must have known had never been put there, his uncertainty and irresolution as he rose to speak, his deep, relieved inspiration as he got well from under the burning glass of his auditors’ eyes and addressed himself at length to their docile ears instead: No maiden ever appealed more potently to your enamored and admiring sympathy.

Alcott’s attitude and technique were utterly different. He called his appearances “Conversations,” and to some extent that is what they were. The solitary Emerson insisted on staying in hotels where he could be alone; Alcott demanded hospitality in private homes so he could talk all clay. The Conversations were held in someone’s iront parlor, and rarely did more than eighteen or twenty persons attend. Members of the audience were invited to question him, but he was equally likely to question them and—unlike his behavior with Emerson—to listen eagerly to their replies. Emerson himself describes such a scene: The interlocutors were all better than he: he seemed childish and helpless, not apprehending or answering their remarks aright; they masters of their weapons. But by and by, when he got upon a thought, like an Indian seizing by the mane and mounting a wild horse of the desert, he overrode them all, and showed such mastery, and so took up Time and Nature like a boy’s marble in his hand, as to vindicate himself.