- 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
Fruitlands lasted about seven months; then Lane went off to stay awhile with the Shakers. As for Alcott, he was in despair. He went to bed, turned his face to the wall, refused all nourishment, and was apparently determined to die. Finally, however, he remembered his duty to his wife and children, got up quietly in the night, and took some food and water. Louisa May recorded the scene that took place next morning: In the early dawn, when that sad wife crept fearfully to see what change had come to the patient face on the pillow, she found it smiling at her, saw a wasted hand outstretched to her, and heard a feeble voice cry bravely, “Hopel”
Not long after the collapse of the Fruitlands venture, Alcott took his family back to Concord, where neighborly help was available when required. They often needed to recite their private motto: “Poor as poverty but serene as Heaven.” Though Alcott still resolutely refused to seek steady work, he was not lazy; when conditions got bad enough, he picked up his axe and went out to chop trees for a dollar a day.
Emerson, as his contribution, had Alcott build a summerhouse for him; Bronson took three months and created a highly elaborate affair, with nine upright joists in honor of the nine Muses. It had curved rafters, dependent brackets under the cornices, and a steep gabled roof projecting in three directions. The roof leaked and the edifice was a convention hall for mosquitoes, but it served its purpose. Mrs. Emerson invariably called it “the Ruin,” and other people said it was “odd,” “a whirligig,” and “the strangest thing I ever saw.” Alcott replied that the finest work of Michelangelo, set in the market place, would doubtless provoke similar remarks. Anticipating the nonrepresentational painters and sculptors of a hundred years later, he observed that “it needs acquaintance with the state of mind from which a work of art is produced, on the part of the observer, in order to appreciate it and criticise it.”
Eventually an old house was bought for Bronson and he spent many months rebuilding it with his own hands; his carpentry was good. With Lane and Wright no longer present to offer irresistible chances to talk, he buckled down and presently had the best garden in Concord. His philosophy forbade the taking of life, and he was troubled by an epidemic of potato bugs; he carefully gathered them up in a jar and tenderly dumped them over the fence into the garden of his neighbor. It was not his fault that this neighbor was the deputy sheriff who had tormented him so long about paying his poll tax.
Presently he developed a great interest in his own genealogy and hinted strongly that his friends should make up a purse to send him back to England where he could study the family origin; but now Emerson put his foot down. There was to be no such trip, he ruled, and furthermore, any money accumulated for Alcott was to be held and doled out a little at a time.
Such humiliations were not to last forever. When he was sixty-nine, as already noted, Louisa May published Little Women , and the family’s financial troubles were over. He was to live twenty years longer, and his old age was by far the happiest and most successful time of his life. Emerson’s mental powers began to fail some years before his death in 1882, and as the master went into eclipse, the disciple shone more brightly.
The Middle West was used to Alcott by now, and his Conversation journeys became a mild success. He was a striking, familiar presence in many raw communities beyond the Alleghenies; in all, he made ten tours and spoke in a hundred towns. At this stage he was an unmistakable figure, with his black morning coat, a black cape, his silk hat, and ebony cane. The top of his head was bald, but silvery locks cascaded down on either side to his coat collar, concealing his ears. He had heavy, jutting eyebrows, a large firm nose, and a tight-lipped mouth, suggesting a man of determination and action, which he certainly was not. He had finally lived long enough to survive his detractors; people who did not know either of them now began to speak of him as Emerson’s teacher. He surrounded himself with youth and especially with pretty girls, for whom he had always had a fond, appraising eye.
He wrote more books, mostly about the great dead who had been his friends, and these sold fairly well. When he was eighty he established the Concord School of Philosophy, which, despite its grandiose title, was a summer lecture series like that set up a few years earlier at Chautauqua, New York. Alcott and several others gave courses, and culture-hungry New Englanders flocked to hear them.
The school lasted nine summers, but Alcott was active in it for only the first three; when he was eighty-three he had an apoplectic stroke, and the golden torrent of oratory at last came to a halt. Painfully he learned to speak again, but only for minimal household purposes; Louisa May, his nurse, thought it characteristic that the first word he now mastered was “Up!” Abigail had died when her husband was seventy-eight, after luxuriating for nine years in not worrying about tomorrow’s food.