Two Alcotts, and the Concord transcendentalists – November 29


April is the cruelest month, and November the most disagreeable.

Students of literature might recognize something in that sentence.

English: Headshot of Louisa May Alcott (Novemb...

Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888), American novelist, at age 20 – image from Wikipedia

Interesting coincidence:  Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832; her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was born on November 29, 33 years earlier.

Do high school literature students find them interesting, even? Or do the students learn about transcendentalism only because they know “it’s on the test?”

American Memory at the Library of Congress holds history for each day of the year.  The entry for November 29 notes and chronicles the dual births of the Alcotts, and discusses the transcendentalist movement — with a lot of good links for teachers or students.

My hope is that more teachers of history will use more literature in their courses.  While Texas standards on history say little about transcendentalism, the reality is that it is difficult to understand America and its development from 1800 to the Civil War, without understanding transcendentalism.  Would America have gone to war over slavery and states rights, but for this movement in literature and social theory?

What can students learn about life in America from reading the Alcotts’ books?

Cribbed entirely from the American Memory LOC site, this is a self-contained literature and history unit by itself [links in the text all from the good people at the Library of Congress]:

English: Photograph of American educator and p...

American educator and philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), father of the literary Alcott girls. From the NYPL Digital Gallery via Wikipedia

Daughter of the Transcendentalists

“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.

“That’s the reason I was born in it,” observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.

“If something very pleasant should happen now, we should think it a delightful month,” said Beth, who took a hopeful view of everything, even November.

“I dare say, but nothing pleasant ever does happen in this family,” said Meg, who was out of sorts….

“My patience, how blue we are!” cried Jo…. “Oh, don’t I wish I could manage things for you as I do for my heroines!…I’d have some rich relation leave you a fortune unexpectedly….”

“Jo and I are going to make fortunes for you all. Just wait ten years, and see if we don’t,” said Amy, who sat in a corner making mud pies, as Hannah called her little clay models of birds, fruit, and faces.   Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Chapter 15

Louisa May Alcott, the second daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, teacher and transcendentalist philosopher, and Abigail May, social worker and reformer, was born in the “disagreeable month” of November, just like her literary creation Jo March, the rambunctious heroine of Little Women.

On November 29, 1832, Amos Bronson Alcott wrote his mother of his joy in “the birth of a second daughter on my own birth-day.” Convinced of the importance of early childhood, Bronson Alcott continued to keep a regular journal of each of his four daughters’ growth and activities. Shortly before her second birthday, Louisa’s father wrote of her:

Louisa…manifests uncommon activity and force of mind at present…by force of will and practical talent, [she] realizes all that she conceives.…Bronson Alcott, November 5, 1834.
The Journals of Bronson Alcott, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1938), page 47.

During Louisa’s early years, her father’s innovative Temple School in Boston failed, as did the family’s experiment with communal living with a group of transcendentalist mystics at Fruitlands, an early eighteenth-century farmhouse.

A happier time began after the family settled at Hillside House, later Nathaniel Hawthorne’s residence, which he renamed the Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts. There, the Alcotts found a sympathetic community and like-minded friends. Louisa and her sisters were always welcome to participate in the conversations of the poets, philosophers, and reformers that made up their parents’ circle.

Bridge surrounded by trees
The Old Bridge, Concord, Massachusetts, 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

The Alcott girls enjoyed the natural beauty of Concord, boating on the river, ice skating on Walden Pond, and running free in the surrounding fields and woods. Henry David Thoreau was one of Louisa’s instructors when she was a young girl. In one of his fanciful lessons, he taught her that a cobweb was a “handkerchief dropped by a fairy.” As a teenager, Louisa enjoyed borrowing books from Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s collection and delighted in conversing with the “sage of Concord.”

For the most part, the Alcotts taught their daughters at home. Daily journal-keeping formed a significant part of the home curriculum. Louisa and her sisters each wrote a weekly journal in which they recorded family events and published their literary and artistic endeavors. The girls and their neighbors formed a dramatic society, and the Hillside barn became the local theater where they performed the Louisa’s melodramatic plays.

Although their home and community life was rich, the family remained financially impoverished. Of necessity, all family members pitched in to support the family, with the daughters working as teachers, companions, and domestics. Besides their paid labors, they contributed their time and talents to the abolition movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and to the relief of those poorer than themselves.

Louisa resolved early on to earn money to relieve the hardship of her mother’s life. Gradually, she began earning a reliable income from stories and sketches published in and from dime-novel thrillers, including published under the pseudonym “A. M. Barnard.” Her first book of stories, , was published in 1855.

View of a hospital ward
Patients in Ward K of Armory Square Hospital,
Washington, D.C.,
August, 1865.
Selected Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865

During the Civil War, Louisa served as a nurse at a Union Army hospital in Washington, D.C. There, she kept careful journals which she published later as Hospital Sketches. A severe bout of typhoid fever brought her home to Concord an invalid. It is thought that she was treated with mercury for her fever, as were many others who became ill during this period. Mercury poisoning was apparently the cause of the slow debilitation that led to her death twenty years later.

In 1868, at the suggestion of her publisher, Louisa wrote a “story for girls” that was to bring her lasting fame, Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, based on the experiences of her own family. Little Women was an immediate success. It was followed the next year by a second volume with the same title, subtitled, “Part Second,” and in subsequent years, by two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

During the 1870s, Alcott and her mother were deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement, canvassing door-to-door encouraging women to register to vote. In 1879, Louisa registered as the first woman to vote in the Concord school committee election.

Suffragette in a group of men
Help Us to Win the Vote, 1914.
By Popular Demand: “Votes for Women” Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920

Louisa’s later years were financially secure and her family was able to live comfortably and pursue their many intellectual and artistic interests at their second home in Concord, Orchard House. Her last years, however, were shadowed by the deaths of two of her sisters and her brother-in-law. As the sole support of her parents, sisters, and her nephews and niece, she became overburdened with work and ill health. Louisa May Alcott died, two days after her father, on March 6, 1888, at the age of fifty-six.

House nestled in an orchard
The Orchard House, Concord, Home of the Alcotts,
Concord, Massachusetts, 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Father of the “Little Women”

Woman…is helping herself to secure her place in a better spirit and manner than any we [men] can suggest or devise,…it becomes us to take, rather than proffer Consels [sic], readily waiting to learn her wishes and aims, as she has so long and so patiently deferred to us.Letter from A. Bronson Alcott to Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Concord, Massachusetts, May 4, 1869.
The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1969), p. 471.

On November 29, 1799, Amos Bronson Alcott, educator, philosopher of American Transcendentalism, and father of the original “Little Women”—Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May Alcott—was born in Wolcott, Connecticut. The son of a poor flax farmer, Alcott was almost completely self-educated. As a young man, Alcott worked as a peddler, handyman, and gardener, pursuing a self-selected course of readings in English and German literature and philosophy.

In 1830, Alcott journeyed to Boston to attend a series of lectures on abolition. There he met Samuel Joseph May, Unitarian minister, and his sister Abigail “Abba” May, a teacher and social worker. On May 23, 1830, Alcott and Abba May were married. During the next several years, the Alcotts were forced to move several times, as Bronson’s experimental schools were abandoned as financially unsuccessful.

During this period, the couple’s four daughters were born and Alcott continued to develop his lifelong habit of journal-writing, chronicling the daily events in the development of his children. At the basis of his educational theory was his belief that “early education is the enduring power” in the formation of the imagination and moral life of the human being.

Exterior of Tremont Temple
Tremont Temple,
Boston, Massachusetts,
c 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

On September 22, 1834, Alcott opened his famous Temple School, located in the Masonic Temple on Tremont Street in Boston, where he put into effect many of his innovative educational theories. His assistant, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who went on to found the first kindergarten in the United States, published the plan of the school the next year in her book Record of a School.

Alcott believed that learning should be a pleasant experience for children, and that the classroom environment should be beautiful. He built the classroom furniture himself and allowed the children to decorate the room with pictures and plants and to arrange their desks in a manner pleasing to themselves.

Alcott emphasized the cultivation of the virtues of self-discipline, self-expression, and charity. A form of democratic classroom government was instituted. His curriculum included physical education, dance, art, music, nature study, and daily journal-writing. He acquired a juvenile library and also encouraged the children to read classic adult works such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

The school was, at first, very successful, and attracted a number of well-connected students. However, Alcott’s inability to compromise on his ideals eventually led to its failure as well. In 1835, the last remaining pupils were withdrawn from the school due to Alcott’s insistence on permitting the attendance of a black child.

Exterior of a house
Wayside, the Home of Hawthorne, Concord, Massachusetts, [formerly Hillside, home of the Alcotts], c1901.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

With the financial assistance of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Alcotts moved to Hillside House in Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson also paid for Alcott’s trip to England to visit a school founded upon his theories. Alcott returned with a new friend, Charles Lane, a mystic transcendentalist, with whom he embarked on a new experiment, that of communal living at the farm they purchased, Fruitlands, an early eighteenth-century farmhouse.

The experiment in communal living was Alcott’s least successful adventure and proved a great hardship to his wife and children. The experience was later satirized by his daughter Louisa in her story, “Transcendental Wild Oats.” After the farm’s complete failure, the Alcotts returned to Concord, where the family renewed congenial friendships and developed a happy family life, in spite of their constant struggle with poverty.

I have had some faithful readings, during these January days—all of Carlyle including his translations—all of Goethe that came within my reach…. I have found refreshment, too, in Conversing with some little Children who pass the day in my study.… there is begotten in me the liveliest sense of my…duty of Teaching again.A. Bronson Alcott, Letter to Charles Lane, January 1846,
The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1969), 124.

A path into a grove of trees
Path to School of Philosophy,
Concord, Massachusetts,
c[between 1910-20].
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Always notable for his humility, modesty, and his serene and happy spirit, Alcott continued to develop his educational ideas, teaching his children at home, and giving occasional “conversations.” These talks were directed parlor seminars in which he led a Socratic form of dialogue, in return for a small stipend. Eventually, Alcott’s seminars gained a popular following. They were especially well-attended on his tours in the West.

Exterior of the School of Philosophy
School of Philosophy,
Concord, Massachusetts,
c[between 1910-20].
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

In his later years, Alcott’s daughter Louisa’s financial success as a writer enabled the family to purchase not only necessities, but a few luxuries as well. The family moved to Orchard House where Alcott established the Concord Summer School of Philosophy in a converted barn on the property. Alcott’s School of Philosophy was a gathering center for the Transcendentalists and flourished until shortly after his death in 1888.

Discover more about Alcott and the Concord Transcendentalists in American Memory:

More:

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