Fruitlands

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On the first day of June 1843, Bronson Alcott drove a large wagon up to his house in Concord, Massachusetts. Onto it he loaded his wife, Abby, three of his four little girls, his books, and enough belongings to sustain them in a new home. Ahead of the wagon walked a sour-faced Englishman, Charles Lane, and the oldest Alcott girl, May. Lane’s son, William, aged ten, found a place on the wagon, where he was entrusted with a bust of Socrates.

Through spells of sun and showers the little party made its way fourteen miles west to the town of Harvard. Their destination was a red farmhouse set upon ninety acres of rolling meadow and woodland, a property that Lane had paid for since Alcott, as always, had no money. There were only ten old apple trees in sight, but as Louisa May Alcott, the second daughter, later wrote, “in the firm belief that plenteous orchards were soon to be evoked from their inner consciousness, these sanguine founders had christened their domain Truitlands.’ ”

This was to be the site of a Utopian community where Alcott and a select band of fellow spirits would put into practice the vague but lofty principles of transcendentalism. Their purpose was to build a refuge against the gathering forces of industrial society and to live according to nature. Or, as their skeptical English acquaintance, Thomas Carlyle put it, “to save the world by a return to acorns and the golden age.”

Amos Bronson Alcott, at forty-three, was almost at the midpoint of a long life devoted in large part to talking. Even when his great friend Ralph Waldo Emerson took him for a walk in the fields, Alcott’s first impulse was to sit down on the nearest stone wall and talk. In all the fifty thick volumes that contain his written journals—mostly unpublished and unread—there is little to suggest the magic of Alcott’s conversation. But from his hearers there is ample testimony that he held them spellbound. Emerson, who had met the best minds in America, judged him the “most extraordinary man and the greatest genius of his time.”

Bronson Alcott had one failing, however, that distressed his wife and caused his neighbors to shake their heads. He never made a living. As a young man he had been a peddler but had ended up in debt to his father. He had taught school, brilliantly, but had lost every teaching job he held. In Concord he had worked as a handyman, but only when he felt he could spare the time from teaching and preaching. “I am of the race of the prophets,” he said. “I cannot but think that my action will make an era in the history of man.”

Alcott’s true gift, it seems clear, was that of a teacher of small children. His own education owed little to the schools he attended in rural Connecticut but much to his wide reading in literature and philosophy. Through his novel methods of teaching, first practiced in remote elementary schools, he came to the attention of educational reformers, including the Reverend Samuel May. He married May’s sister, Abby, and, partly through her social connections in Boston, was invited to start a school for the young children of Boston’s first families.

The central tenet of Alcott’s educational theory—and a cornerstone of transcendental thought—was that a child is born with an inner light, that is, with intuitive ideas that transcend the experience of the senses and the powers of reason. The teacher’s mission was not to fill the child’s mind with facts but to uncover and nurture and apply the truths that were already there. To this end Alcott adopted methods that in later times would be called progressive education. The classroom was a place of pleasure and challenge, not of discipline. He sought to draw forth the child’s own thoughts and to follow them wherever they led, even onto dangerous territory.

One of the topics he explored with the children was the miracle of birth. Ever so delicately he told them how “love begets love … the seed of the human being is placed in the midst of matter which nourishes it, and it grows and becomes perfected.... Is not a baby love made flesh?” Little Josiah Quincy, the class prodigy, aged six, offered another interpretation. The birth of a baby, he thought, had something to do with the “naughtiness of other people.”

 

If Alcott had kept these discussions within the classroom, he might have had no trouble. But in hopes of spreading his educational theory, he transcribed them in the book Conversations with Children on the Gospels. Then, while proper Boston parents were still reeling from the shock, he made matters worse by admitting a little black girl to his school. Enrollment dropped from nearly forty to ten, and the school had to close. The Alcotts moved to Concord, the most hospitable place for independent thinkers.