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The Alcotts

July 2024
1min read

by Madelon Bedell
Clarkson N. Potter
20 illustrations
384 pages, $15.95

It is doubtful that any family has ever chronicled itself as abundantly as the Alcotts. Bronson’s diaries alone fill sixty-one fat volumes, earnestly recording his every thought. His wife, Abba May, and the four Alcott daughters also kept journals. Madelon Bedell has used this torrent of material to build a portrait of this intense, eccentric family.

Bronson, “the most transcendental of the transcendentalists,” was a passionate husband and father, and a miserable provider. It was not that he despised money, but that “he scorned the necessity to debase oneself … in the earning of it.” He was an educator/philosopher, and his first pupils were his own children. He felt that a teacher’s role was to release a child’s potential, to nourish the soul. For punishment he substituted the building of moral conscience—or what we now call, less loftily, guilt. He started school after school, each of which flourished briefly, then faded as nervous parents grew alarmed by his strange methods of teaching.

New England in the pre-Civil War period was seething with moral uplift, often expressed in terms of Utopian living experiments. Bronson started one of the most rigorously pure of the Utopian communities—Fruitlands. Its “Consociate Family” managed to hang together for only a few months.

With Bronson for a husband, it was fortunate that Abba May was practical. She was also loving and loyal, but there were times when she had to rebel. When Bronson’s partner at Fruitlands tried to impose celibacy on the community, Abba announced that she and the children were leaving—with the furniture. Bronson struggled with his soul, but love (and marital comforts) triumphed. “Mr. Alcott’s constancy to his wife and family,” the disgusted partner wrote, “and his inconstancy to the Spirit have blurred his life forever.”

Many years later, the second daughter, Louisa May, celebrated her chaotic family life in Little Women , in which Abba May was transformed into the saccharine Marmee. The four fictional sisters are pretty close to the originals. And Bronson, the confusing father figure, is disposed of by sending him off to the Civil War where he safely can be adored in absentia .

Bedell centers this absorbing biography on Bronson and Abba May. She plans a second volume on the adult lives of the four Alcott daughters—definitely a book to look forward to.

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