The Philosopher’s Wife And The Wolf At The Door

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The Relief Room for Ward 11 moved the next year, 1850, to Washington Street where Mrs. Alcott announced that from three until six o’clock she would there dispense help and find employment for those in need. In addition she proposed a sewing group and started an evening class where Negro adults could learn to read and write and make out their washing bills. These citizens, she reminded her committee, had been neglected by society. “To me,” she admitted, “they are far more interesting than the God-invoking Irish . … Our coloured People, their very skin a Cross , bear quietly the oppression which Prejudice heaps upon them. Occasionally you hear of them through the notoriety of a Quincy or a Sumner , who dares to plead their rights in a court of Justice. Yes! Law must decide if they may sit on a bench under the same roof with our children, to learn their Primer or their Bible . Our religion has turned them from our Altars, but we dare not defy the Laws of Man, though we disobey the commands of God.”

One may well wonder what Bronson Alcott did in Boston while his wife was working. His diary reveals his daily schedule: “I have my early morning walk and into breakfast and manuscripts till the afternoon when comes Miss Littlehale, and we walk Commonward and in the Mall for a good while.” He enjoyed the society of women and in his diary for January, 1850, he wrote, “The best of Emerson’s intellect comes out in its feminine traits and were he not as stimulating to me as a woman and as racy, I should not care to see him and to know him intimately nor often.” He spent much time in helping to organize the Town and Country Club, preparing for his “Conversations,” thinking, writing, and talking to his disciples. He infrequently mentions his family and their dire financial straits. In April, however, he noted, “Paid four bills from monies received from ‘South Friendly Society’ which has given my wife fifty dollars the month for her services during the autumn and winter.” And again, the next year in February, he noted that Samuel May has “sent my wife a cheque for twenty-five dollars with pledge of the like sum quarterly. … It takes very little to feed and clothe and shelter us. We have learned to live on less than most families, and eke out the scanty subsistence that we get from alms that never come amiss with us. What with my wife’s and Anna’s earnings, my own tithe and charities from a few friends, we survive as a family, and fall but little into debt.”

Occasional twinges of conscience, however, appear in his diary. On May 6, 1850, he mused over the fact “that time and purpose overtake and avail themselves of the so-called visionary thinker’s ideas at last, to compensate him for long neglect. … But to the thinker’s family, if he has one, it is no small matter, but a serious one; and for the wrongs it suffers there is nor can be, no recompense.” Friends and relatives discussed the plight of the Alcotts and often the talk reached Abba’s ears. Bronson admitted that his wife told him of the “gossip about my permitting her to delve for the family, and my implied indifference to its welfare … no explanation can take the place of deeds in their eyes, and I must stand, for the time, as a thriftless, if not a heartless and insufferable fellow. So let it seem; but let it not be so.”

He blamed the state of civilization for the “discomforts which fall to the philosopher’s lot. … The wrongs of society fall heaviest on women, and they of all others feel them the deepest and describe them the most eloquently,” he scribbled on. “Men can dodge and in some ways escape, but women can only bear and forbear, protest and submit with what courage and fortitude.” Quite smug about the importance of his thoughts, he was satisfied that while they “feed not my own family,” they will serve as “an exchequer from whose drafts coming generations are to be fed and nourished.”

Mrs. Alcott’s patience often gave way, her temper frayed. Bronson’s diary records that she quarreled with him “as a noble wife and proud mother may with a husband and father in her exasperated and wounded Spirit, because the gold I persisted in coining day by day, shaping and making bright, brought neither food nor shelter nor raiment, nor schooling for the children.…”

Her work as a City Missionary ended about 1850. The Alcott fortunes were still low and soon afterward the family moved to Walpole, New Hampshire, where a relative lent them a house. Mr. Alcott was lecturing in the West, an agreeable work which he continued intermittently from 1853 until the end of his life. Letters from the lonesome family are touching. In one, Abba wrote on October 8, 1856, “My dear Husband: Lying before me are your three precious letters, precious on matters of history, precious as affectionate demonstrations of sympathy in our welfare and domestic conditions.” Another time, April 6, 1857, she said, “I suppose you are collecting facts to help us to a new spring-life of hope and progress. Well, come on my brave! I can wait, and learn to believe in the unseen as well as the tangible. Indeed I am thinking that the unseen gives us the least pain, the most hope.” In January, 1857, her diary reveals the pleasure at his return, which “increases the desire to have all things comfortable and cosy. We must have warmer fires, meals more punctual, his presence seems to annihilate the selfishness and increase and intensify all winter comforts, The bread is lighter, the muffins warmer; there is a rainbow of simple joy flicking about our meanest occupations.”