December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
Bronson Alcott and his transcendental friends hardly ever stopped talking. It left almost no time for mundane things like food and shelter
The bereaved father was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nine-year-old girl was Louisa May Alcott, and the father who had sent her to ask was Bronson Alcott, schoolteacher, philosopher, conversationalist, erstwhile peddler and common laborer, and Emerson’s closest friend and heaviest cross for almost fifty years.
That Louisa May Alcott came to inquire about little Waldo on that tragic morning, and not her father, was a blessing. Emerson could hardly have borne elaborate expressions of sympathy, and these Bronson would almost surely have uttered. He was a man who found it impossible to keep still; in an age when many people talked too long by modem standards, Bronson talked too long even for his contemporaries. Ideas staged up in him like bubbles rising in a spring. He rarely finished a sentence; he went on from one dependent clause to another until he finally dropped the whole thing and instantly started a fresh idea. His problem of communication was not helped by the fact that he was a mystic who spent his whole life struggling to explain the inexplicable.
On many occasions he would call at Emerson’s house to go walking; by the time they were past the door-step, Alcott was in full career, pouring out his torrent, while Emerson listened quietly, a faint smile around his lips. (Odell Shepard, in his Pulitzer-prize-winning biography of Alcott, Pedlar’s Progress , remarks that “Emerson caried an envelope of silence about with him wherever he went, like the water spider’s bubble of air.”)
The walk rarely got more than a hundred yards from the house; at the first stile, or perhaps at some handy apple tree against which one could lean, Alcott would give up the unwelcome task of trying to keep his feet moving. The two would stand there, perhaps for hours, after which they would return to the house with Bronson sincerely convinced that his friend Waldo had said many interesting things, from which he had learned a lot.
Emerson called him, but not to his face, “a pail with no bottom,” and agreed with the critic who said of his writing that it resembled “a train of fifteen cars with one passenger.” Seeking to make him less windy, Emerson told him, “You are tempted to linger around the idea in the hope that what cannot be stated in a few words may yet be suggested by many.” It was all in vain. Yet Alcott’s verbosity was not accompanied by intellectual arrogance—not toward Emerson, at any rate, whom he worshipped humbly as the greatest philosopher of his time.
Nothing illustrates better the difference between the two men than their attitudes toward appearing in public; for many years both lectured for money, which was practically the village trade of Concord. Emerson rarely spoke an extemporaneous word; his lectures were written out with great care—from twenty to sixty hours of preparation for each hour on the platform. His handwritten manuscript was in his pocket whenever he appeared—or it was supposed to be. Henry James, Sr., the father of the novelist and the psychologist, has given us a wonderful picture of how an Emerson lecture actually began: His deferential entrance upon the scene, his look of inquiry at the desk and chair, his resolute rummaging among his embarrassed papers, the air of sudden recollection with which he would plunge into his pockets for what he must have known had never been put there, his uncertainty and irresolution as he rose to speak, his deep, relieved inspiration as he got well from under the burning glass of his auditors’ eyes and addressed himself at length to their docile ears instead: No maiden ever appealed more potently to your enamored and admiring sympathy.
Alcott’s attitude and technique were utterly different. He called his appearances “Conversations,” and to some extent that is what they were. The solitary Emerson insisted on staying in hotels where he could be alone; Alcott demanded hospitality in private homes so he could talk all clay. The Conversations were held in someone’s iront parlor, and rarely did more than eighteen or twenty persons attend. Members of the audience were invited to question him, but he was equally likely to question them and—unlike his behavior with Emerson—to listen eagerly to their replies. Emerson himself describes such a scene: The interlocutors were all better than he: he seemed childish and helpless, not apprehending or answering their remarks aright; they masters of their weapons. But by and by, when he got upon a thought, like an Indian seizing by the mane and mounting a wild horse of the desert, he overrode them all, and showed such mastery, and so took up Time and Nature like a boy’s marble in his hand, as to vindicate himself.
His allergy to facts made him a poor debater. Emerson once listened while he was arguing with Theodore Parker, a noted Boston clergyman, and afterward said, “Parker wound himself around Alcott like an anaconda. You could hear poor Alcott’s bones crunch.”
In his later years, Alcott had some successes in the Middle West, then a pioneer society where men of ideas were a novelty; but there were exceptions. He had been invited to St. Louis to lecture to a small group of men, and the Conversation speedily got around to Hegel. Alcott had barely heard of the German philosopher, but confidently relied on his ability to spin an iridescent web of words that would bemuse his hearers. Not at all. This group knew an enormous amount about Hegel. They had studied every syllable of his works; they were engaged in translating them for publication. Poor Alcott was promptly cut to ribbons. Back home in Concord he tried to read a little Hegel, could make nothing of it, and gave it up as a bad job.
Alcott always needed help; like a novice skater, he started to fall the moment you let go of him. He scorned money and money-makers so completely that he constantly had to borrow more of the loathsome commodity; it was not until he was sixty-nine that his daughter Louisa, thirty-six years old and shattered in health by haul work, heroically managed to write Little Women , enabling him to settle back contentedly on family bounty.
He often needed rescue spiritually as well as physically, and of this burden Emerson bore the brunt. Innocent as a babe, Alcott would say or do something that outraged the prim and conservative majority; ferociously attacked, he would fly to Emerson to have his wounds bound up.
He cherished the delusion that he was a good writer, and repeatedly submitted manuscripts to his friend for confirmation; when Emerson, the gentlest and kindest of men, summoned up courage and told him not to publish, he felt the hurt bewilderment of a child curtly dismissed by a parent. On the few occasions when Emerson thought what he had written cotdd stand public inspection, Alcott would perversely put the manuscript aside for further brooding.
Emerson, to be sure, was not infallible. When Alcott wrote a sketch of his famous friend, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly thought it good enough to use, but Emerson from sheer personal modesty forbade this crumb of public recognition. When they were both old, and Emerson’s mind was in decay, Alcott had his essay privately printed in a rich binding; Mrs. Emerson was delighted with it and the Sage of Concord looked at it silently with seeming approval.
When Alcott did finally write something that caught the public ear, it was because it shone with Emerson’s reflected glory. Concord Days , published in Alcott’s old age, went through three triumphant if modest editions.
Emerson endured Alcott partly because he loved the eccentric visionary—as far as it was in him to love anyone—and partly because it was his pattern to endure queer characters patiently. This again was partly his gentle courtesy and partly a philosophic principle. “Fools and clowns and sots,” he wrote, “make the fringe of everyone’s tapestry of life and give a certain reality to the picture. The sanity of society is the balance of a thousand insanities.” Some of his writings about friendship sound as though he were unconsciously defending himself against criticism of his patience. “I hate everything frugal and cowardly in friendship,” he wrote. “ That , at least, should be brave and generous.” Are friends sometimes unworthy? “It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space and only a small part on the reflecting planet.”
Even more eccentric than Bronson Alcott was Emerson’s Aunt Mary, who had been a strong intellectual influence on him as a child. He always remembered her remark, “Scorn trifles! The stars are nothing!”—meaning, presumably, do not be too much impressed with anything, however remote and overwhelming.
As her years advanced, Aunt Mary thriftily sewed her own shroud and put it away in a drawer; then, as her vitality showed no diminution, she impatiently dug it out again and made it over into a nightgown. Tiling of the nightgown, she transformed it once more, this time into a riding cape that streamed oft her shoulders as she galloped her horse over the hills. During all these years Emerson patiently did his best to accommodate himself to her imperious demands.
She lived to be eighty-nine, and spent the last few years in a boardinghouse, whence, one clay, came word that Aunt Mary was refusing either to pay her rent or move out. Emerson discovered that the boardinghouse keeper had tried to raise the rate for room and board from a reasonable three dollars a week to an outrageous five. Emerson may have agreed that this was excessive, but he quietly arranged to pay the difference himself without his aunt’s knowledge.
Concord saw many other odd people in those days: champions of peculiar reforms in economics, diet, dress, bathing practices, and what not. Like a homing pigeon, every zealot with a fresh revelation instantly took it to Mr. Emerson, in the fond belief that if he would put his prestige behind it, the battle would be won.
It never occurred to Emerson, who needed all his time to earn his living, to decline to see such a visitor, or to cut short an interview that invariably seemed longer to him than to the caller. He sat still, cringing inwardly not merely because of wasted hours but because he was incapable of responding with the expected enthusiasm. Rarely did he summon up courage for a crushing reply, as he once did when a religious fanatic came to him in a panic, announcing that the world was about to end. Emerson answered, “Well, let it end. I think we shall do very well without it.” (Even this was less conclusive than the reply to the same man by Dr. Theodore Parker, who said, “That means nothing to me, sir. I live in Boston.”)
If Emerson and Alcott differed utterly in character, they were equally far apart in their background and history. Emerson’s forebears were seven generations of divines; he never bent his back in manual labor except for digging in his garden or briefly joining the field workers of the nearby countryside to find out what they had to say. Alcoti was a fanner’s son; he had cleared stone from New England fields, a task full of perspiration and bruised hands, and had thinned out forests with axe and saw.
When only fifteen he had made his first trip as a peddler, a heavy tin suitcase in each hand, walking many miles daily in the thinly settled back country. At nineteen, like many another New England boy, he was a full-fledged practitioner of that arduous trade, travelling through Tidewater Virginia and adjacent areas. He was already so fond of talking that peddling appealed to him chiefly as a means of meeting people and gossiping in the unhurried tempo of the times.
He could hardly have done it for the money: a full summer of hard work rarely produced as much as a hundred dollars—especially since he meekly paid the wholesalers their exorbitant asking price. Usually he brought his earnings home to the family farm in Connecticut, but presently he began to show the fatal financial incapacity for which he later became notorious. On one trip, having done pretty well, he stopped in New York and bought a magnificent suit of clothes with extravagant accessories; he arrived at the parental home a peacock, with only pennies left. Soon his father had to sell part of the farm to repay Bronson’s debts, a staggering six hundred dollars; many years later, the lather died unrepaid.
Now and then during his life Alcott got a windlall. Once a group of friends made up a purse of about two thousand dollars, and at another time the father of his wife, Abigail, left a legacy a little larger than that. On these occasions Bronson dutifully applied the money to his debts and sank again into the morass. For more than thirty years the Alcotts were never sure of food for more than a few days ahead. Their clothing was donated by friends, and since these friends always had large families of their own, children’s garments were ordinarily kept to be handed down. Alcott learned to make over cast-off adult clothes into garments for his four girls.
Having failed at peddling he proceeded to fail at teaching. Though he had hardly any formal education and his reading, while omnivorous, was so indiscriminate that he had no deep knowledge of any subject, he had little difficulty in getting jobs in various schools in Connecticut and Pennsylvania and actually was requested to head one in Boston. This appointment resulted partly from his having written a book on the art of education, of which a few hundred copies were privately published by the author at a cost of about $250—or half a year’s income. People then, as they still do, ingenuously assumed that if you could write a book on any topic, you must know something about it.
Alcott’s ideas of education were indeed novel. He had a mystic belief in the unconscious wisdom of the child, and often, instead of talking to his pupils, he asked them questions; those who saw him in action believed that he was genuinely seeking to share the wisdom of these babes, and not to impart his own knowledge to them. When a child needed reproof, his troubles were invariably aired before the whole school; Alcott believed in sharing.
Physical punishment was universal for boys in those days, and the schoolmaster accepted the tenets of the general culture, with some modification; when blows were to be struck, it was the miscreant who swung the rod and Alcott’s shoulders that were hit. He used somewhat the same principle in disciplining his daughters; if they were very naughty they were forbidden for a day to mind the baby or to help with the housework—no doubt a desolating punishment.
It should be said, in all fairness, that main of Alcott’s educational ideas are considered quite acceptable by sonic of oui progressive educators today. Indeed, the dreadful scandal that ruined his school and banished him from the classroom forever seems mild by today’s standards. He was accused of teaching the children about the origin of babies without invoking the traditional stork or cabbage, though an inspection of his actual words shows stich poetic license that, in fact, the students must have come away with the idea that every birth results from the blessing of a potential mother by God. Another charge was that in Sunday discussions with his pupils and their parents he read and talked about certain erotic passages of the Old Testament which every good Christian knew were not (it for public comment. And finally, crime of trimes even in Boston, he took a Negro girl as a student. While a few people, including Emerson, staunchly defended him, the general uproar was great; the school dwindled to a handful of pupils, of whom Alcott s own family supplied the majority, and soon sank from sight.
Though Alcott had lived in poverty all his life, his situation now became more serious than ever, at least to his wife and friends; he himself showed little concern. There is a record of nine people from whom he “borrowed’ systematically and sometimes in large amounts; practically never did lie make any repayment. His admiration for Emerson continued to grow, and he moved to Concord to be as near him as possible. It was characteristic that he should love a man who felt only moderate altcction for him. Alcott wrote in his journal:
“‘Brother!’ That is a kindling name. I feel the sentiment of kindled quicken within me as 1 write it. He is a brother of mine and an only one. All other men seem strange to me when 1 think of him; for none other knows me so well and I value none so dearly.”
At almost the same moment, Emerson was recording in his journal, of Alcott and Margaret Fuller, his close friend and collaborator on the transcendentalist magazine, The Dial , “Cold as I am, they are almost dear.” He did not wish anyone to get too close. “I do with my friends,” he said, “as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”
Despite Alcott’s weaknesses others found him attractive. The critical Thoreau said, “He is the best-natured man I ever met. The rats and mice make their nests in him. … A thought floats as serenely and as much at home in his mind as a duck pluming herself on a far inland lake … I do not see how he can ever die. Nature cannot spare him.”
Emerson’s chilly temperament did not prevent many acts of kindness. He once offered to buy land and a house for Alcott, but the latter characteristically suggested a larger amount of land and several houses. “I cannot consent to live solely for one family. I would stand in neighborly relations to several and institute a union and communion of families.” The deal fell through. At one time, when Alcott was destitute and had nothing else to sell, Emerson bought from him several barrels of apples and set his family to stuffing themselves. He also invited the six Alcotts to come and live with him. Bronson thought this was a fine idea, but—perhaps after consultation between the two wives—the idea was dropped. When a house was finally bought for the Alcotts for $1,350, Emerson advanced $500, and the remainder came from the estate of Bronson’s late father-in-law.
The neighbors had many tales of Alcott’s monetary incorrigibility—and his generosity—to roll on their tongues. Once, when his family had only enough food in the house for a single meal, Alcott cooked it, was about to serve it, and then suddenly remembered a solitary neighbor who might be going hungry. His household at the moment consisted of eight persons, so he divided the dinner into what seemed the right number of shares and took one to the neighbor. Never very good at mathematics, he had created eight parts instead of nine and someone—probably Bronson himself—had to go hungry.
On a bitter day in late winter he gave away his last remaining firewood. While Mrs. Alcott fussed at him the house grew cold, but his only comment was that the Lord would provide. Just as the chill got unendurable, a man with a load of wood turned in at the gate, asking if they wanted it; a rising storm would prevent his reaching Boston that day. A confidence man once approached Alcott with an elaborate fiction of deserving need and asked for five dollars. Alcott promptly gave him ten—so innocently and sweetly that the confidence man, covered with shame, gave it back.
A pleasant day-steamer operated from Boston to Nantasket Beach, and on one occasion Alcott boarded the boat, where he enchanted the other passengers by a fascinating stream of comment on many subjects. When the purser asked for his ticket, a dreamy look came into his eyes. He was enjoying the voyage greatly; he had neglected to buy a ticket; he was sure “some provision would be made.” It was; his fellow passengers passed the hat.
There was, of course, an ugly side to this improvidence, to his stubborn refusal to seek a job and work like other men. If he had been a bachelor, he might have passed for an Occidental duplicate of India’s wandering holy men, who make no provision for themselves except a begging bowl; but Alcott had a family of five. Mrs. Alcott’s long ordeal has been poignantly reported in AMERICAN HERITAGE by Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger (see “The Philosopher’s Wife and the Wolf at the Door,” August, 1957). Her trials sharpened her tongue; Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived nearby, broke relations with the family, observing that nobody could be a friend to Abigail Alcott.
Louisa May as a half-grown girl dearly loved to tramp the woods and meadows, but much of the time her clothing was so poor that she was ashamed to be seen in it. When she was a little older, several of the sisters had to earn money as best they could. Two of them worked as domestics, toiling for callous mistresses at two dollars a week. Louisa May taught school for a time, and got work as a seamstress. When she began to sell some of her writings for a few dollars, the money vanished into the family like water into sand. Only rarely did Alcott show any signs of contrition.
Yet his was an affectionate family, as Little Women bears witness. A memorable picture of one scene was presented by Louisa May in her journal. Alcott had attempted to make some money by giving Conversations in several western cities. He had been gone from home about four months when, in the middle of a stormy February night, he rang the bell. All the five females, in floor-length flannel nightgowns, let him in. Five white figures embraced the half-frozen wanderer who came in hungry, tired, cold and disappointed, but smiling bravely, and as serene as ever. We fed and warmed and brooded over him, longing to ask if he had made any money; but no one did ‘til little May said, after he had told all the pleasant things, “Well, did people pay you?” Then, with a queer look, he opened his pocketbook and showed one dollar, saying with a smile that made our eyes fill, “Only that. My overcoat was stolen and I had to buy a shawl. Many promises were not kept, and traveling is costly; but I have opened a way and another year shall do better.” I shall never forget how beautifully Mother answered him, though the dear hopeful soul had built much on his success; with a beaming face she kissed him, saying, “I call that doing very well .”
At one of the lowest moments of his life, a few years after the Boston debacle, he was transported to the heights by a letter from England. A copy of his little privately printed book on education had found its way across the Atlantic and fallen into receptive hands; a group of Englishmen had actually founded a combined school and lay monastery and named it Alcott House! Bronson was in heaven. Nothing would do but that he must go and visit these half-dozen people who composed a majority of all his admirers in the world.
Since the Alcotts of course had no money, Emerson loyally journeyed to New York, a formidable enterprise, gave a lecture, and turned over the proceeds. He even wrote letters to valued correspondents in England for Alcott, though in some of them he warned that the bearer was not reliable about money. Bronson cheerfully presented these letters. To Carlyle, Emerson pleaded, “If you have heard his name before, forget what you have heard.”
The English admirers turned out to be nonconformists on a grand scale. They believed in practically all the cranky ideas in circulation, expected to convert everyone soon, and happily looked forward to the millennium within a decade or two. Removed from Emerson’s restraining hand, Alcott’s ego now began to swell. The Englishmen told him he was wonderful, and for once he showed no inclination to argue. Soon he was writing to America to say that on his return he must have a new magazine of his own; he had even thought of a title: Janus . “An organ I must have,” he wrote, “an instrument wherein my thoughts shall not be lost amidst the confusing discords and witlessnesses of popular letters.” (What author, struggling to herd his flock of ideas past the editorial gate, has not had this dream?) His friends, who knew they would have to put up all the money, were not amused, and nothing came of the project.
When Alcott came home he brought three of his English admirers, Charles Lane and his son and Henry Gardiner Wright. They had a plan: To establish in America a farm colony where advanced thinkers would put into practice the millennial ideas they had been discussing. They were influenced, of course, by Brook Farm, the famous transcendentalist experiment in communal living that had started two years earlier, though they sniffed at what they considered the conservatism of its residents. They intended to go farther. Much farther.
The group came first to Concord, and Alcott, given his way, would have established the farm there, within daily reach of Emerson; but Charles Lane would not have it. He was jealous of Emerson’s influence over Bronson and disapproved of his comfortable way of life. Not only was Lane the stronger character, but he had all the money—though he was reluctant to part with any. He paid off Alcott’s debts; afterward he said they were $300, but Alcott characteristically could only remember $175. Presently a suitable farm of ninety acres was discovered a few miles away, and Lane, after trying to persuade someone to purchase and donate the property, bought it for $1,800, naming it Fruitlands. Emerson acidly observed that anybody could be tranquil when endowed. “The schemers assumed that their whole doctrine was spiritual, whereas they always ended with saying, Give us land and money.”
At Fruitlands, the colonists proposed to live near to Nature, though not so near that they would trouble to plant their fields on her timetable. They would eat no meat, fish, or refined flour, no sugar but maple, no bread made with yeast. Milk and milk products were taboo, since they involved deprivation of the calf. Eating eggs prevented baby chicks. Wool was needed by sheep; leather involved slaughter. Rice and cotton came from parts of the world where slavery was practiced, and so did tea. It was not true, however, as gossip said, that they would eat only vegetables that “aspired” (grew above ground); they graciously exempted potatoes. They would not use animal manure on their fields, first because it was “filthy,” and second because it was “too stimulating to the soil,” presumably threatening the pasture with a nervous breakdown.
Their principles forbade the use of draft animals, which was slavery, but they wavered at first; they did some plowing with a horse, later with a team made up of a cow and an ox. Remorse overtook them and they shifted to the spade, though not very energetically; it was much more fun to stand under a tree and talk philosophy. Sent by her mother to see whether the men had stopped conversing and might be persuaded to come to dinner, an Alcott daughter reported dolefully, “Mama, they’ve begun again!” Luckily, their negligence in the field was not fatal. Lane still had a little money and could buy food when necessary.
Emerson resisted the pressure (which, we may be sure, did not come from Lane) to stay at Fruitlands, as he had previously resisted Brook Farm. Visiting briefly in July, when they were just getting under way, he promised only to come back later for another look.
While the men idled away the sunny hours, Abigail had to keep up an establishment of twelve people—six Alcotts, three Englishmen, two new recruits, and a hired man. Louisa May remarked acutely that “there is only one beast of burden here—my mother.” One of the recruits had demonstrated his fitness for the colony by living for a whole year on nothing but crackers and water; intoxicated with success, he had then lived another whole year on apples. A second recruit was a Miss Anna Page, but she did not last long; she was dismissed by Lane, reportedly for having gone to the house of a neighbor and there eaten the tail of a fish. Her protestations that “it was only a little one” were ignored. Miss Page, however, was an important influence while she lasted; she confirmed Mrs. Alcott in her long-standing, ever-growing belief that women in this world are put upon. Wherever I turn [Abigail wrote in her journal] I see the yoke on women in some form or other. … A woman may perform the most disinterested duties. She may “die daily” in the cause of truth and righteousness. She lives neglected, and dies forgotten.
But a man! But a man who never performs in his whole life one self-denying act, but who has accidental gifts of genius, is celebrated by his contemporaries while his name and his works live on from age to age.
Miss Page couldn’t have agreed with her more. “A woman,” she observed, “may live a whole life of sacrifice and at her death meekly say, ‘I die a woman.’ A man passes a few years in experiments in self-denial and simple life and he says, ‘Behold a God!’”
It is safe to guess that she was thinking of Charles Lane. Having jealously removed Bronson from Emerson at Concord, he now began to show signs of planning to remove him from his wife and daughters. The Englishman had once believed in marriage to the extent of fathering a flock of children, but he now advised that celibacy was the only proper state. There was a colony of Shakers nearby, and he would point out the strict separation of the sexes among them, with a reproachful eye fixed on the guilty Bronson. When Lane went off to Boston for a few days, the Alcotts held a midnight conference on the problem; it ended inconclusively with everyone bathed in tears.
Mrs. Alcott had finally had enough; she announced that she was leaving and taking the children and the Alcott furniture with her. Lane would willingly have seen her go, but he had wit enough to recognize that there was no one else to cook and clean, and her threat brought an end to the venture in celibacy.
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.
Alcott continued to attend the sessions of the School of Philosophy, a mute listener. He now lived an almost vegetable existence, as Emerson had done toward the end. At the age of eighty-nine he died, and Louisa May followed him only two days later. She had been faithful to the last in her almost lifelong task of taking care of him.