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The Philosopher’s Wife And The Wolf At The Door
“Mr. Alcott,” wrote his patient, loving wife, “cannot bring himself to work for gain; but we have not yet learned to live without money.” And in earning it herself Mrs. Bronson Alcott helped invent modern social work
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
If many of Alcott’s theories are accepted principles of education today, they were too radical for the majority of his own generation. People in Concord viewed his residence among them with consternation. Franklin B. Sanborn wrote that “he was the target for much cheap wit and for some censure, as a person who might have many kinds of sense but had not common-sense” and that “it was not unusual for Mr. Alcott’s friends to view him at that time  with a certain humorous fancy, so much had he been laughed at in the newspapers.” Referring to these early days he observed that, “Although misunderstood and unappreciated by the general society of the village, the family had warm and admiring friends in the Fmersons, the Thoreaus, Channings and Hawthornes and the children mingled on equal terms with those of other families to whom the opinions and habits of the Alcotts were puzzling.” Affection and respect for each other bound them closely together, softening the harshness which financial need imposed upon them. Each kept a diary, often reading like a confessional, and undoubtedly relieving the tensions of their daily existence.
It must have required strong ties of love to bring the Alcotts through their famous, ill-fated experiment in communal living at “Fruitlands” from June, 1844, to January, 1845. On a farm near Harvard, Massachusetts, the Alcotts joined with an Englishman, Charles Lane, his son, and a few others in this undertaking. “Alcott and Lane,” Emerson remarked, “are always feeling their shoulders, to find if their wings are sprouting.” Their theories included clothing as well as diet. Clad in ugly brown linen tunics and trousers thoroughly unsuitable to the climate, they refused to exploit nature, eliminating meat, butter, cheese, milk, and tea from their meals. They preferred “aspiring vegetables” that grew upward to roots burrowing in the ground. Abba wrote in her diary on November 29, 1843, when plans for the venture were being discussed, that she hoped “the experiment will not bereave me of my mind. … Give me one day of practical philosophy. It is worth a century of speculation and discussion.” A visit to Fruitlands today and a reading of Louisa’s amusing account, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” may give some idea of this strange adventure, but only Abba’s diary can reveal the depth of the ordeal. The family was near starvation when on a cold and snowy day they abandoned Fruitlands for a house nearby at Still River.
The next few years were grim. The burden of caring for the family fell on Mrs. Alcott, who kept the wolf at bay and somehow found food for the cupboard. “Mr. Alcott,” his wife confided to her diary, “cannot bring himself to work for gain; but we have not yet learned to live without money or means.” She noted that she “received this week from brother S. J. M. ten dollars.” Also, “Mrs. Whiting paid me twelve dollars for a cloak and Cousin M. D. M. sent ten for the silver pot, which 1 regret parting with … but several calls for money without any visible means to answer them impelled me to part with it.” She longed to see her husband “a little more interested in this matter of support,” and while she appreciated “his quiet reliance on Divine Providence,” she believed “a little more activity and industry would place us beyond most of these disagreeable dependencies on friends. They have to labor. Why should not he? It is a difficult question to answer. I leave it for time to settle. His unwillingness to be employed in the usual way produces great doubt in the minds of his friends, as to the righteousness of his life, because he partakes of the wages of others occupied in the same way. It is certainly not right to incur debts and be indifferent or inactive in the payment of the same.”
A cousin, commenting on a visit to the Alcotts about this time, wrote, “I did not dare to go to Concord without carrying tea and coffee and cayenne pepper—and a small piece of cooked meat, in case my wayward stomach should crave it. …” She had arrived in the evening and found the family “seated around their bread and water.” During her stay she saw “no meat, nor butter, nor cheese, and only coarse brown sugar, bread, potatoes, apples, squash and simple puddings. …” She brought some clothing for the children, and Mr. Alcott remarked to his wife, “I told you that you need not be anxious about clothing for the children; you see it has come as I said.” Mrs. Alcott, she soon perceived, “wanted comfort and counsel; lor, though cheerful and uncomplaining, things had got pretty low.”
This was the predicament of the family when a group of philanthropic Boston women in 1848 asked Mrs. Alcott to be their City Missionary—a forerunner of the modern social worker. Charity, hitherto unorganized, depended largely on Lady Bountifuls. A new plan had recently divided the city into districts, with churches and volunteer groups assuming the responsibility of caring for the poor. It was the South End Friendly Society which employed Mrs. Alcott. The fragmentary reports of her activities in the Houghton Library at Harvard and in the Alcott Collection in the Concord Public Library illuminate the otherwise shadowy character of a heroic woman.