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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
Concord saw many other odd people in those days: champions of peculiar reforms in economics, diet, dress, bathing practices, and what not. Like a homing pigeon, every zealot with a fresh revelation instantly took it to Mr. Emerson, in the fond belief that if he would put his prestige behind it, the battle would be won.
It never occurred to Emerson, who needed all his time to earn his living, to decline to see such a visitor, or to cut short an interview that invariably seemed longer to him than to the caller. He sat still, cringing inwardly not merely because of wasted hours but because he was incapable of responding with the expected enthusiasm. Rarely did he summon up courage for a crushing reply, as he once did when a religious fanatic came to him in a panic, announcing that the world was about to end. Emerson answered, “Well, let it end. I think we shall do very well without it.” (Even this was less conclusive than the reply to the same man by Dr. Theodore Parker, who said, “That means nothing to me, sir. I live in Boston.”)
If Emerson and Alcott differed utterly in character, they were equally far apart in their background and history. Emerson’s forebears were seven generations of divines; he never bent his back in manual labor except for digging in his garden or briefly joining the field workers of the nearby countryside to find out what they had to say. Alcoti was a fanner’s son; he had cleared stone from New England fields, a task full of perspiration and bruised hands, and had thinned out forests with axe and saw.
When only fifteen he had made his first trip as a peddler, a heavy tin suitcase in each hand, walking many miles daily in the thinly settled back country. At nineteen, like many another New England boy, he was a full-fledged practitioner of that arduous trade, travelling through Tidewater Virginia and adjacent areas. He was already so fond of talking that peddling appealed to him chiefly as a means of meeting people and gossiping in the unhurried tempo of the times.
He could hardly have done it for the money: a full summer of hard work rarely produced as much as a hundred dollars—especially since he meekly paid the wholesalers their exorbitant asking price. Usually he brought his earnings home to the family farm in Connecticut, but presently he began to show the fatal financial incapacity for which he later became notorious. On one trip, having done pretty well, he stopped in New York and bought a magnificent suit of clothes with extravagant accessories; he arrived at the parental home a peacock, with only pennies left. Soon his father had to sell part of the farm to repay Bronson’s debts, a staggering six hundred dollars; many years later, the lather died unrepaid.
Now and then during his life Alcott got a windlall. Once a group of friends made up a purse of about two thousand dollars, and at another time the father of his wife, Abigail, left a legacy a little larger than that. On these occasions Bronson dutifully applied the money to his debts and sank again into the morass. For more than thirty years the Alcotts were never sure of food for more than a few days ahead. Their clothing was donated by friends, and since these friends always had large families of their own, children’s garments were ordinarily kept to be handed down. Alcott learned to make over cast-off adult clothes into garments for his four girls.
Having failed at peddling he proceeded to fail at teaching. Though he had hardly any formal education and his reading, while omnivorous, was so indiscriminate that he had no deep knowledge of any subject, he had little difficulty in getting jobs in various schools in Connecticut and Pennsylvania and actually was requested to head one in Boston. This appointment resulted partly from his having written a book on the art of education, of which a few hundred copies were privately published by the author at a cost of about $250—or half a year’s income. People then, as they still do, ingenuously assumed that if you could write a book on any topic, you must know something about it.
Alcott’s ideas of education were indeed novel. He had a mystic belief in the unconscious wisdom of the child, and often, instead of talking to his pupils, he asked them questions; those who saw him in action believed that he was genuinely seeking to share the wisdom of these babes, and not to impart his own knowledge to them. When a child needed reproof, his troubles were invariably aired before the whole school; Alcott believed in sharing.
Physical punishment was universal for boys in those days, and the schoolmaster accepted the tenets of the general culture, with some modification; when blows were to be struck, it was the miscreant who swung the rod and Alcott’s shoulders that were hit. He used somewhat the same principle in disciplining his daughters; if they were very naughty they were forbidden for a day to mind the baby or to help with the housework—no doubt a desolating punishment.