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“Mama, They’ve Begun Again!”
Bronson Alcott and his transcendental friends hardly ever stopped talking. It left almost no time for mundane things like food and shelter
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
His allergy to facts made him a poor debater. Emerson once listened while he was arguing with Theodore Parker, a noted Boston clergyman, and afterward said, “Parker wound himself around Alcott like an anaconda. You could hear poor Alcott’s bones crunch.”
In his later years, Alcott had some successes in the Middle West, then a pioneer society where men of ideas were a novelty; but there were exceptions. He had been invited to St. Louis to lecture to a small group of men, and the Conversation speedily got around to Hegel. Alcott had barely heard of the German philosopher, but confidently relied on his ability to spin an iridescent web of words that would bemuse his hearers. Not at all. This group knew an enormous amount about Hegel. They had studied every syllable of his works; they were engaged in translating them for publication. Poor Alcott was promptly cut to ribbons. Back home in Concord he tried to read a little Hegel, could make nothing of it, and gave it up as a bad job.
Alcott always needed help; like a novice skater, he started to fall the moment you let go of him. He scorned money and money-makers so completely that he constantly had to borrow more of the loathsome commodity; it was not until he was sixty-nine that his daughter Louisa, thirty-six years old and shattered in health by haul work, heroically managed to write Little Women , enabling him to settle back contentedly on family bounty.
He often needed rescue spiritually as well as physically, and of this burden Emerson bore the brunt. Innocent as a babe, Alcott would say or do something that outraged the prim and conservative majority; ferociously attacked, he would fly to Emerson to have his wounds bound up.
He cherished the delusion that he was a good writer, and repeatedly submitted manuscripts to his friend for confirmation; when Emerson, the gentlest and kindest of men, summoned up courage and told him not to publish, he felt the hurt bewilderment of a child curtly dismissed by a parent. On the few occasions when Emerson thought what he had written cotdd stand public inspection, Alcott would perversely put the manuscript aside for further brooding.
Emerson, to be sure, was not infallible. When Alcott wrote a sketch of his famous friend, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly thought it good enough to use, but Emerson from sheer personal modesty forbade this crumb of public recognition. When they were both old, and Emerson’s mind was in decay, Alcott had his essay privately printed in a rich binding; Mrs. Emerson was delighted with it and the Sage of Concord looked at it silently with seeming approval.
When Alcott did finally write something that caught the public ear, it was because it shone with Emerson’s reflected glory. Concord Days , published in Alcott’s old age, went through three triumphant if modest editions.
Emerson endured Alcott partly because he loved the eccentric visionary—as far as it was in him to love anyone—and partly because it was his pattern to endure queer characters patiently. This again was partly his gentle courtesy and partly a philosophic principle. “Fools and clowns and sots,” he wrote, “make the fringe of everyone’s tapestry of life and give a certain reality to the picture. The sanity of society is the balance of a thousand insanities.” Some of his writings about friendship sound as though he were unconsciously defending himself against criticism of his patience. “I hate everything frugal and cowardly in friendship,” he wrote. “ That , at least, should be brave and generous.” Are friends sometimes unworthy? “It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space and only a small part on the reflecting planet.”
Even more eccentric than Bronson Alcott was Emerson’s Aunt Mary, who had been a strong intellectual influence on him as a child. He always remembered her remark, “Scorn trifles! The stars are nothing!”—meaning, presumably, do not be too much impressed with anything, however remote and overwhelming.
As her years advanced, Aunt Mary thriftily sewed her own shroud and put it away in a drawer; then, as her vitality showed no diminution, she impatiently dug it out again and made it over into a nightgown. Tiling of the nightgown, she transformed it once more, this time into a riding cape that streamed oft her shoulders as she galloped her horse over the hills. During all these years Emerson patiently did his best to accommodate himself to her imperious demands.
She lived to be eighty-nine, and spent the last few years in a boardinghouse, whence, one clay, came word that Aunt Mary was refusing either to pay her rent or move out. Emerson discovered that the boardinghouse keeper had tried to raise the rate for room and board from a reasonable three dollars a week to an outrageous five. Emerson may have agreed that this was excessive, but he quietly arranged to pay the difference himself without his aunt’s knowledge.