- Historic Sites
“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
It should be said, in all fairness, that main of Alcott’s educational ideas are considered quite acceptable by sonic of oui progressive educators today. Indeed, the dreadful scandal that ruined his school and banished him from the classroom forever seems mild by today’s standards. He was accused of teaching the children about the origin of babies without invoking the traditional stork or cabbage, though an inspection of his actual words shows stich poetic license that, in fact, the students must have come away with the idea that every birth results from the blessing of a potential mother by God. Another charge was that in Sunday discussions with his pupils and their parents he read and talked about certain erotic passages of the Old Testament which every good Christian knew were not (it for public comment. And finally, crime of trimes even in Boston, he took a Negro girl as a student. While a few people, including Emerson, staunchly defended him, the general uproar was great; the school dwindled to a handful of pupils, of whom Alcott s own family supplied the majority, and soon sank from sight.
Though Alcott had lived in poverty all his life, his situation now became more serious than ever, at least to his wife and friends; he himself showed little concern. There is a record of nine people from whom he “borrowed’ systematically and sometimes in large amounts; practically never did lie make any repayment. His admiration for Emerson continued to grow, and he moved to Concord to be as near him as possible. It was characteristic that he should love a man who felt only moderate altcction for him. Alcott wrote in his journal:
“‘Brother!’ That is a kindling name. I feel the sentiment of kindled quicken within me as 1 write it. He is a brother of mine and an only one. All other men seem strange to me when 1 think of him; for none other knows me so well and I value none so dearly.”
At almost the same moment, Emerson was recording in his journal, of Alcott and Margaret Fuller, his close friend and collaborator on the transcendentalist magazine, The Dial , “Cold as I am, they are almost dear.” He did not wish anyone to get too close. “I do with my friends,” he said, “as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”
Despite Alcott’s weaknesses others found him attractive. The critical Thoreau said, “He is the best-natured man I ever met. The rats and mice make their nests in him. … A thought floats as serenely and as much at home in his mind as a duck pluming herself on a far inland lake … I do not see how he can ever die. Nature cannot spare him.”
Emerson’s chilly temperament did not prevent many acts of kindness. He once offered to buy land and a house for Alcott, but the latter characteristically suggested a larger amount of land and several houses. “I cannot consent to live solely for one family. I would stand in neighborly relations to several and institute a union and communion of families.” The deal fell through. At one time, when Alcott was destitute and had nothing else to sell, Emerson bought from him several barrels of apples and set his family to stuffing themselves. He also invited the six Alcotts to come and live with him. Bronson thought this was a fine idea, but—perhaps after consultation between the two wives—the idea was dropped. When a house was finally bought for the Alcotts for $1,350, Emerson advanced $500, and the remainder came from the estate of Bronson’s late father-in-law.
The neighbors had many tales of Alcott’s monetary incorrigibility—and his generosity—to roll on their tongues. Once, when his family had only enough food in the house for a single meal, Alcott cooked it, was about to serve it, and then suddenly remembered a solitary neighbor who might be going hungry. His household at the moment consisted of eight persons, so he divided the dinner into what seemed the right number of shares and took one to the neighbor. Never very good at mathematics, he had created eight parts instead of nine and someone—probably Bronson himself—had to go hungry.
On a bitter day in late winter he gave away his last remaining firewood. While Mrs. Alcott fussed at him the house grew cold, but his only comment was that the Lord would provide. Just as the chill got unendurable, a man with a load of wood turned in at the gate, asking if they wanted it; a rising storm would prevent his reaching Boston that day. A confidence man once approached Alcott with an elaborate fiction of deserving need and asked for five dollars. Alcott promptly gave him ten—so innocently and sweetly that the confidence man, covered with shame, gave it back.
A pleasant day-steamer operated from Boston to Nantasket Beach, and on one occasion Alcott boarded the boat, where he enchanted the other passengers by a fascinating stream of comment on many subjects. When the purser asked for his ticket, a dreamy look came into his eyes. He was enjoying the voyage greatly; he had neglected to buy a ticket; he was sure “some provision would be made.” It was; his fellow passengers passed the hat.