“Mama, They’ve Begun Again!”

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There was, of course, an ugly side to this improvidence, to his stubborn refusal to seek a job and work like other men. If he had been a bachelor, he might have passed for an Occidental duplicate of India’s wandering holy men, who make no provision for themselves except a begging bowl; but Alcott had a family of five. Mrs. Alcott’s long ordeal has been poignantly reported in AMERICAN HERITAGE by Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger (see “The Philosopher’s Wife and the Wolf at the Door,” August, 1957). Her trials sharpened her tongue; Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived nearby, broke relations with the family, observing that nobody could be a friend to Abigail Alcott.

Louisa May as a half-grown girl dearly loved to tramp the woods and meadows, but much of the time her clothing was so poor that she was ashamed to be seen in it. When she was a little older, several of the sisters had to earn money as best they could. Two of them worked as domestics, toiling for callous mistresses at two dollars a week. Louisa May taught school for a time, and got work as a seamstress. When she began to sell some of her writings for a few dollars, the money vanished into the family like water into sand. Only rarely did Alcott show any signs of contrition.

Yet his was an affectionate family, as Little Women bears witness. A memorable picture of one scene was presented by Louisa May in her journal. Alcott had attempted to make some money by giving Conversations in several western cities. He had been gone from home about four months when, in the middle of a stormy February night, he rang the bell. All the five females, in floor-length flannel nightgowns, let him in. Five white figures embraced the half-frozen wanderer who came in hungry, tired, cold and disappointed, but smiling bravely, and as serene as ever. We fed and warmed and brooded over him, longing to ask if he had made any money; but no one did ‘til little May said, after he had told all the pleasant things, “Well, did people pay you?” Then, with a queer look, he opened his pocketbook and showed one dollar, saying with a smile that made our eyes fill, “Only that. My overcoat was stolen and I had to buy a shawl. Many promises were not kept, and traveling is costly; but I have opened a way and another year shall do better.” I shall never forget how beautifully Mother answered him, though the dear hopeful soul had built much on his success; with a beaming face she kissed him, saying, “I call that doing very well .”

At one of the lowest moments of his life, a few years after the Boston debacle, he was transported to the heights by a letter from England. A copy of his little privately printed book on education had found its way across the Atlantic and fallen into receptive hands; a group of Englishmen had actually founded a combined school and lay monastery and named it Alcott House! Bronson was in heaven. Nothing would do but that he must go and visit these half-dozen people who composed a majority of all his admirers in the world.

Since the Alcotts of course had no money, Emerson loyally journeyed to New York, a formidable enterprise, gave a lecture, and turned over the proceeds. He even wrote letters to valued correspondents in England for Alcott, though in some of them he warned that the bearer was not reliable about money. Bronson cheerfully presented these letters. To Carlyle, Emerson pleaded, “If you have heard his name before, forget what you have heard.”

The English admirers turned out to be nonconformists on a grand scale. They believed in practically all the cranky ideas in circulation, expected to convert everyone soon, and happily looked forward to the millennium within a decade or two. Removed from Emerson’s restraining hand, Alcott’s ego now began to swell. The Englishmen told him he was wonderful, and for once he showed no inclination to argue. Soon he was writing to America to say that on his return he must have a new magazine of his own; he had even thought of a title: Janus . “An organ I must have,” he wrote, “an instrument wherein my thoughts shall not be lost amidst the confusing discords and witlessnesses of popular letters.” (What author, struggling to herd his flock of ideas past the editorial gate, has not had this dream?) His friends, who knew they would have to put up all the money, were not amused, and nothing came of the project.

When Alcott came home he brought three of his English admirers, Charles Lane and his son and Henry Gardiner Wright. They had a plan: To establish in America a farm colony where advanced thinkers would put into practice the millennial ideas they had been discussing. They were influenced, of course, by Brook Farm, the famous transcendentalist experiment in communal living that had started two years earlier, though they sniffed at what they considered the conservatism of its residents. They intended to go farther. Much farther.