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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
Wives of prominent men are often overlooked, Their contributions, however vital to the domestic circle, shrink in comparison with those of their husbands outside the home. So it was with Abba May Alcott. While the names of Bronson, her husband, and of Louisa May, their daughter, are well known, who today is familiar with the unsung woman who helped to bring their careers to fruition? For years she has remained a shadowy figure, perhaps recalled as the “Marmee” of Little Women . Actually she was a heroic woman, of whom her friend Lydia Maria Child has quite rightly written, “her fortitude, her energy, her conscientious discharge of duty, her daily and hourly self sacrifice can never be duly appreciated.” Her husband’s biographer, Franklin B. Sanborn, called her the most talented writer in the family.
Sixty-four years have passed since the last member of the family died, and yet even today the name of Bronson Alcott can stir up a lively discussion in Concord and elsewhere. The talk would probably center on him as a person and not as a philosopher, for many of his ideas remain as nebulous today as they seemed to his own generation. The books of Louisa, popular almost a hundred years ago with the young around the world, continue to attract the modern child.
Bronson Alcott, born in Wolcott, Connecticut, in 1799, grew up with a meager education which he supplemented by reading everything he could lay his hands on. He became a peddler in the South lor a tew years, returning to New England to teach. It was during this period of his life that he met Abigail May, the daughter of a prominent Boston merchant, at the home of her brother Samuel J. May, later to be a distinguished minister and abolitionist.
The May home on Federal Court, off Federal Street, was large and comfortable. Of the twelve children born to the family, only six were alive to welcome little Abigail in 1800. The cultivated and liberal atmosphere of this household had a profound effect upon her character, making it a bulwark against the adverse winds which blew tempestuously throughout much of her life. She learned how important one’s principles were when she saw her father stalk out of Old South Church, where her mother’s grandfather had preached for many years, to take a pew in the broader-minded King’s Chapel. When he lost his prosperous business through his partner’s speculations, she saw the frightening specter of debt hovering over the family. Possibly this experience accounted for some of her anguish when the shadow of debt appeared so often in her married life.
Books were valued possessions to be discussed and read over and over again. Her lather often quoted from Pope and Goldsmith. While only boys had a systematic education in these years, the elder May saw that Abigail received what was available to her. She attended schools conducted by neighborhood women and fortunately was able to live a year in the home of a minister in Duxbury, where she studied French, Latin, botany, and history. During the illness and death of her mother she took charge of the home. When her lather remarried, however, she felt uncomfortable there and spent many weeks visiting her brother Sam, whom she loved dearly. She was afi when she met Bronson Alcott. Although they were mutually attracted, several years elapsed before they married in 1830.
During their courtship Abba, as she was always called, wrote this definition of love, to which she never ceased to cling despite the harassments of wedded life: “When I speak of Love, I do not mean that flippant little God to whom the votaries of fashion address their prayers, whose wings they sometimes borrow and flutter through the bowers of ideal roses and lilies; not those more careless pursuers who kneel at every shrine, and lay their hearts on none. No,—I mean that clear though deep current of affection which, stealing silently, unobserved, into all the recesses of the heart, issues thence only in the pure healthy rills of kindness, tenderness, good will, devotion. This is what I feel for the only being whom I have ever loved as companionable, or with whom I could associate in the heavenly tie of matrimony.”
After their marriage they moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania, where Bronson taught in the Germantown Academy. Abba’s letters to her father detailed their happy life. Unfortunately the school fell upon bad times, causing the family to return to Boston. Here, in 1834, Alcott opened an unusual school which appealed to the imagination of important Bostonians until his teaching of religion and the mysteries of childbirth scandali/ed them. When he enrolled a Negro child, parents speedily withdrew their offspring. The school closed in 1839, its failure inflicting a scar upon both Bronson and Abba that the years could never efface.
At the suggestion of their friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, they moved to Concord the next year with their family, consisting of Anna, Louisa, and Elizabeth. For the rest of their lives they shuttled back and forth between Boston and Concord except for several years in Walpole, New Hampshire, Abba wrote in her diary in 1856, “This is the twenty-fourth time of moving. We have been married twenty-six years.” Bronson, walking with his head in the clouds, lived on manna from heaven, untroubled by the cold and hungry path which in real life his family had to tread.