Amos Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott (29 November 1799-4 March 1888), educator and philosopher, was born at Spindle Hill, Connecticut. His formal schooling ended when he was thirteen, though he continued to read on his own, and he soon became a peddler. A turning point in his life came in 1822 when, while travelling in the Carolinas, he stayed at a Quaker community. Impressed by their belief in the "inner light" of man which provided a direct spiritual contact with the divinity. Alcott felt a new sense of direction and purpose, and he returned to his first love, teaching. In 1824 he began a school at Wolcott, near his home.

Alcott taught various schools in Connecticut until 1828, when he was invited by the Boston Infant School Society to take charge of their classroom. One person who supported his assignment was Abba May and she assisted him when he took up his post. Their relationship soon turned to love and they were married in 1830. The next year the Alcotts moved to the Philadelphia area, where Alcott taught various schools. In 1834 he returned to Boston with his wife and two daughters (Anna was born in 1832 and Louisa May the following year), and began a school at the Masonic Temple.

Alcott's methods at his Temple School clearly demonstrate his educational philosophy. Contrary to the reliance upon rote education at the time, Alcott attempted to make his charges aware of the divinity within them by turning their attention inward so that, having discovered their inner power, they might use it in guiding their outward lives. Education was to Alcott a joy and not an enforced labor. His classroom was distinguished by open spaces and pleasant surroundings, with art objects and books being prominently displayed. He believed in the positive influence of the home and his schoolroom attempted to recreate a homelike atmosphere. His method was inductive and Socratic: by questioning his students, he let them discover answers instead of merely being told rules. Books were supplemental to these discussions; Alcott deplored schools where learning consisted solely of memorizing texts. There was no corporal punishment at Alcott's school; problem children were merely excluded from the group until they demonstrated a desire to return by settling down. At various times Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody assisted him with the school, and Ralph Waldo Emerson even gave cash gifts for its upkeep.

But Alcott's honest attempts to inform others of his teaching methods, as described in Peabody's Record of a School (1835) and his own Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836-1837), were attacked by press and public alike. The public was suspicious of his educational reforms, for his desire to discuss all subjects, including religion and sex, were not shared by many at that time. Many people soon withdrew their children and all but two did so when Alcott integrated the school in 1839, leaving him without a livelihood for his wife and three daughters (Elizabeth was born in 1836). Therefore, when an opportunity opened in 1840 for Alcott to move his family to Concord and support them by farming, he did so.

In Concord, Alcott quickly renewed his friendships with Emerson, who had sponsored him for membership in the Transcendental Club, and Henry David Thoreau, who called him "the best-natured man I ever met." He also briefly became involved with the Transcendentalist periodical, the Dial, which was named after the heading Alcott had given a collection of thoughts assembled from his journals. With Fuller's help, Alcott published his appropriately-named "Orphic Sayings" in the July 1840 and January 1841 numbers. The public response was disastrous--nearly every review of the Dial ridiculed Alcott's efforts. His only other contribution was a selection from his journals in the April 1842 issue.

Fortunately, Alcott was cheered in 1842 when, with Emerson's help, he sailed to England to visit a group of Transcendentalists who had founded a community based on his precepts at Ham, Surrey. The reception was a friendly one and Alcott returned to America with Henry Wright, Charles Lane, and Lane's son.

All this support encouraged Alcott and in June 1843, the Alcott family, Lane, and a few others moved to Harvard, Massachusetts, near Concord, and established the Fruitlands community. The experiment was a failure: neither Alcott nor Lane was practical enough to be a farmer and both were away too often on reform missions to properly work the place. Fruitlands collapsed in January 1844 and Alcott returned to Concord.

The failure at Fruitlands nearly broke Alcott. Although he never gave up his idealistic aspirations, he never again ventured out with such daring. The family was uprooted much over the next decade, living in Boston and Walpole, New Hampshire, before returning permanently to Concord in 1857. Since Alcott left his physical sustenance to others--even his job as superintendent of Concord's schools failed to pay enough to live on--the family survived on the gifts of friends and the earnings of Mrs. Alcott and the children as they taught, took in work, or--in Louisa's case--wrote. This long battle with poverty did not end until 1868, with the popular and financial success of Louisa's autobiographical Little Women. In the mid-1850s, Alcott began a series of "Conversations" or talks which proved financially rewarding and carried him all over the midwest. In later years, as the Transcendentalists died, Alcott became an authority on them and the unofficial keeper of the flame. Even his wife's death in 1877 did not stay his activities. The series of lectures on the Transcendental philosophy he helped organize in 1879 developed into the Concord School of Philosophy. But a stroke in 1882 paralyzed Alcott and he lived, unable to write and barely able to talk, for six more years until his death at Louisa's home in Boston.

Although Alcott's works sold respectably during his life, interest in them has waned. Alcott simply could not write well. He was incapable of writing a simple, direct sentence; all his works are oracular and, at their worse, nearly impenetrable. His style was, in Emerson's words, "All stir and no go." Alcott's poetry is pleasant but suffers from the author's lack of knowledge about versification. Since most of Alcott's contemporary fame rested upon his conversational powers, his posthumous reputation, based on his writings, has suffered. Thus, when the critic Henry A. Beers visited Concord in 1905 and asked an innkeeper about Alcott, he received this answer: "Oh, Alcott! The best thing he ever did was his daughters."