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Chapter Two: The Alcotts Arrive for the First Time
If human nature was amenable to teaching, Louisa May Alcott would have been the perfect daughter. Her father, Bronson Alcott, believed that with the right kind of direction children could be brought into a state of peaceful harmony -- as long as that direction came from a high-minded thinker like himself. It was in pursuit of this kind of perfection that Bronson Alcott decided to bring his family to live in Concord, Massachusetts, where he could find intellectual companionship in general, and the admiration of Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular -- that and the fact that Emerson had offered to pay the rent.
The horse-drawn stage rumbled into Concord down the turnpike from Boston at the end of a spring afternoon in 1840. The wooden cab with a family inside and bags tied onto the top was pulled into town past Walden Pond and the marshes around it, and then past the First Parish Church and through Monument Square by an exhausted team of horses. After the more than three-hour trip, the stage drew up in front of the long porch of the Middlesex Hotel. The driver tied the reins to a hitching post under a huge elm. The family that climbed down, stretched, and looked around at their new surroundings was unusual even for a New England town in the 1840s.
The father was a tall man with a sweep of blond hair and a pronounced aquiline nose under the shade of a broad-brimmed tan-colored hat. Dressed simply in worn black clothing, and swinging a gleaming walking stick, he carried himself as if he was used to being listened to, and he stooped to hear the questions his three chattering daughters asked as if he were a great teacher and they his willing students. This was Bronson Alcott, the founder of the Temple School in Boston, which had recently caused a series of local scandals and finally gone bankrupt.
Alcott's "Conversations" in Boston, public forums in which he lectured and answered questions on subjects such as "Human Culture," "Man," and "Character" had attracted Emerson, who assured Alcott that in Concord he would find men with interests like his own, and a serious audience for his lectures. Emerson loved and supported Alcott, whose impractical, boyish presence always cheered him up. "I must think very ill of my age and country, if they cannot discover his extraordinary soul," he wrote. He had written furious letters in Alcott's defense when the press had attacked his writing, and he ascribed the loss of the Temple School to the stupidity of modern culture. Boston was a city in a kind of intellectual fever, Emerson believed. It was in the quieter precincts of Concord, calmed by the rhythms of village life, that men could think important thoughts uninterrupted by others' opinions and obligations.
Emerson would soon lure Nathaniel Hawthorne away from the nearby experimental Utopian community of Brook Farm in Roxbury and help install Hawthorne and his new wife Sophia Peabody in another Emerson house, the Old Manse on the other side of town near the Old North Bridge over the Concord River. That house, built by Emerson's grandfather William, had been lived in for almost sixty years by the Reverend Ezra Ripley, who died in 1839, leaving ownership of the house to his son Samuel, a minister in Waltham. Emerson had often stayed there, and he had written his famous essay Nature in its upstairs study. To welcome the newlyweds, Emerson would send his friend Henry David Thoreau to plant a flower and vegetable garden so that it would be flourishing on their arrival.
In the meantime, Emerson was entertaining Sophia Peabody -- not yet married to Hawthorne -- whose sister Elizabeth's bookshop on West Street in Boston had become a center of intellectual buzz. Sophia, who was an accomplished artist, had done a bas-relief of Emerson's beloved brother Charles, who had died in 1836. After that, Emerson had invited her to stay with his family in Concord. When Sophia had written that she looked forward to long conversations with Emerson when she moved to Concord, he had written back keeping her at a distance and instead offering up Bronson Alcott. "Mr. Alcott, the prince of conversers, lives little more than a mile from our house, and we will call on his aid as we often do," he wrote.
Lizzie Peabody's bookshop was also the setting for Margaret Fuller's first "Conversations," set up by Fuller with the intention of compensating for the lack of education for women in a world where they were not admitted to college, not allowed to vote, and not often permitted to own property. Fuller's first series on Greek mythology, including discussions of Prometheus, Bacchus, and Venus as the "paradigm of instinctive womanhood," had been a huge success. She planned a second series, on the fine arts. Margaret Fuller was also in the midst of publishing the first issue of The Dial, a magazine with lilac covers that would become the mouthpiece for Emerson and his friends for its two years of existence.
Emerson and Alcott, Fuller and their neighbor Henry David Thoreau, who lived in town with his family, were all part of a movement that was beginning to be called Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism officially began with meetings organized by Frederic Henry Hedge, whose father was a Harvard professor and whose essay on Coleridge had delighted Emerson.
Hedge, a minister, had moved to Bangor, Maine, but he missed Concord. To keep himself in touch with his old community, he organized a series of meetings beginning in 1836 in Cambridge. Hedge's Club, as it was originally called, included James Freeman Clarke, Emerson, and Bronson Alcott among others and was later joined by Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody. The Transcendentalists who met in Hedge's Club were the original hippies -- young, smart, and dedicated to the overthrow of the stuffy existing authorities.
These authorities included the old Calvinism of the Puritans and the practical humanism of New England Unitarianism. Transcendentalism deified nature and dealt in the kinds of marvels and wonders that sometimes even transcended things like having enough to eat or making a living. It replaced the literalness of Locke with the moral imperatives of Kant. "A wonderless age is Godless," Alcott had written with his typical contempt for clarity. He sometimes called Transcendentalism "the newness." Alcott embraced the idea of Concord, which he insisted on calling Concordia.
The Concord group of Transcendentalists was part of a wave of liberalism and a passion for freedom that seemed to be sweeping through the new United States. After decades of Puritan striving and dour farmers rising at dawn to tend to the necessities of crops and barns, after new governments creating hierarchies of necessary rules and regulatory structures, the battle for survival had been won.
The wilderness had once been a dangerous place that had to be tamed; now nature was a friendly environment to be enjoyed. The world was shifting. It was time to kick up our heels. In many ways, the period of the late 1830s and '40s was a time like the 1960s when individual adventure was prized and all the old rules suddenly seemed corrupt. "The new mood spread like the flowers of May," Van Wyck Brooks has written in his account of this in The Flowering of New England. "One heard the flute in the fields. Farmers and village tailors stopped to watch the birds building their nests. They went on woodland walks. They recorded the days when the wildflowers opened. They observed the little tragedies of nature that no one had noticed before.... They gathered the first hepaticas, the trailing arbutus that had bled unseen under the boots of their fathers."
Even the dour, handsome Nathaniel Hawthorne was not immune to this exuberant mood. "I want my place, my own place, my true place in the world," he wrote; "I want my proper sphere, my thing."
Suddenly, poetry, once a frivolous conceit, took center stage with its literary importance. Houses once built as simply as possible against the elements bloomed with the porticoes and columns of Greek Revival. In many villages, groups assembled in awe to watch the night-blooming cereus -- a nocturnal flower recently imported from Mexico -- slowly open its magical, languid petals.
The new energy generated by the escape from the Puritan dicta and the hard facts of New England life encouraged a reaching abroad for ideas and writing unprecedented in this country. Germany, as well as Greece, was raided by Emerson and his colleagues for new and exciting ideas. The great Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish writer living in London, was as much an inspiration as if he had been living in nearby Lexington.
Enchanted by Carlyle and his orphic questions -- "Did the upholsterers make this universe? Were you created by the tailor?" -- the new generation of Concord intellectuals was intoxicated with freedom, with leisure, and with the possibilities of a life devoted to thought and pleasure. In rejecting Unitarianism, the Transcendentalists were also trying to introduce a revolutionary new populism into the already hierarchical American democratic system. Emerson in particular hoped to help overthrow the existing intellectual elite, as represented by the Harvard community, and open the doors of American thought to anyone who had the largeness of heart and intellect required. "Man has encumbered himself with aged errors," Emerson wrote, "with usages and ceremonies, with law, property, church, customs, and books until he is almost smothered under his own institutions."
Influenced by Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, and their followers believed in the power of intuition. They thought every man and even some women harbored a divine spark -- every man including the poor and the rich, the hermit and the railroad worker and the landowner. They called this divine spark "reason." Sometimes this was an inner light; sometimes it was the voice of God. For others it was more direct -- Thoreau's friend Jones Very thought that he himself was the new Messiah. "The all is in each particle," Emerson wrote. In a lecture in 1842, he explained Kant's belief that "there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired: that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms...whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought is popularly called at the present day Transcendental."
All this new freedom didn't go unnoticed by the Old Guard. John Quincy Adams and Andrews Norton at Harvard agreed with their colleague Edward Everett, who found Emerson's fresh writing "conceited, laborious nonsense."
Copyright © 2006 by Susan Cheever
Chapter Three: Louisa, Girl Interrupted
Chapter Three: Louisa, Girl Interrupted
Mrs. Bronson Alcott, who stepped down from the stage after her husband and children that spring afternoon, was an aristocratic woman whose fine bearing and light step had been worn down by life with a great man. In June, she would give birth to the Alcotts' fourth daughter. She wore an old-fashioned bonnet with a flaring wide brim, and a long muslin dress. As a young girl, Abigail May, known as Abba, had been the earnest daughter of a romantic, erratic father. Colonel Joseph May had won his rank in the Revolution. Abba's Boston upbringing had offered no attractive suitors, and she fell in love with Bronson Alcott, a visiting teacher, months before he returned her passion. At first, Alcott didn't seem to be the marrying kind. He had been a peddler before he was a teacher, and there was something about him that suggested the lightness of wandering, the ability to sleep on a stranger's floor or in the hay in an alien barn, and the quiet willingness to do without domestic comforts.
Nevertheless, after a long courtship, often veiled in plans for the education of the young or the relieving of the suffering of the poor, Abba and Bronson had been married in 1830 in a world where a woman's deference to her domestic duties and to her husband's wishes went unquestioned. Even the idea that women were more than possessions or able to think for themselves was heresy. There were already some rogue political voices questioning the morality of men owning slaves, but no one had yet thought to question the morality of men owning their wives. Although Bronson would dominate his family for a few more years, Abba Alcott already found herself making up for his deficiencies, always excused by high-mindedness, both in practical ways and with money borrowed from her family.
On that afternoon in 1840, she got down wearily from the stage with their three daughters -- Anna, the eldest, whose behavior was the subject of some of her father's most positive essays on education; Lizzie, the youngest sister, whose sweetness had also captured her father's attention, and the eight-year-old Louy, or Louisa May, who had always been the rebel in the family, the least pretty sister, and the one whose energy and imagination sometimes seemed untamable. Bronson Alcott actually believed that a blond, blue-eyed complexion like his own went with a pureness of heart and goodness of soul, while dark hair and dark eyes often reflected an inner darkness.
Of the three sisters, Louisa was the dark one, and she had a "deep-seated obstinacy of temper," her father wrote in his long-winded and thorough Observations on the Spiritual Nurture of My Children, one of his many Transcendentalist tracts on the education of children. "She is still the undisciplined subject of her own instincts." At the time, she was one year old. This particular essay was written when the infant Louisa slapped the two-year-old Anna, leaving, as Bronson wrote with horror, "the mark of her sister's hand...on her cheek." As she grew older, Louisa was so boisterous that she believed she had been a horse in a previous life, a conviction that was not popular with her father. By the time she was ten, her role as the bad girl in the family was already set. "I have tried to be contented and I think I have been more so," she wrote to her mother in a mortified tone, nevertheless complaining about sharing a room with her sisters. "I have been thinking about my little room which I suppose I shall never have." She signed it "from your trying daughter, Louy."
Louisa's journals, kept daily, became a room of her own in a way -- both her parents read them and commented on their contents. Naturally, in the journals Louisa is always failing and her parents are forgiving and utterly perfect. "Did my lessons, and in the P.M. mother read Kenilworth to us while we sewed," reads one typical entry. "It is splendid! I got angry and called Anna mean. Father told me to look out the word in the Dic., and it meant 'base', 'contemptible.' I was so ashamed to have called my dear sister that, and I cried over my bad tongue and temper." In a list of vices she wants to get rid of, Louisa lists idleness, willfulness, impudence, pride, and love of cats.
But it was springtime in Concord, the lilacs perfumed the air, and grapevines dripped from the broad white porches on Main Street, where a row of shops had been built along the Milldam, a bridge over the Mill Brook where it joined the Sudbury River. The apples were in bloom, and the slow curves of the river flowed between soft grassy banks spattered with jewelweed and purple loosestrife where willows leaned down to make delightful watery hiding places. In the woods under the pines, there were carpets of needles, striped with lichens and tiny red mushrooms. Hedges of berries lined the paths, and great shady elms stood in rows along the dirt streets. White picket fences bordered Main Street where the town's two main roads forked: one toward the Old North Bridge, where the colonial militia had halted the British redcoats on an April morning in 1775, and the other toward Boston. Concord, Massachusetts, was already at the center of American history. The first democratic constitution had been written by the Concord town fathers in the eighteenth century, and it was to Concord that Paul Revere was headed on his famous ride.
The next day, the Alcotts unpacked their trunks and settled into Dovecote Cottage, owned by Emerson's friends the Hosmer family, a long white house facing a picket fence with a gate that separated it from the road. The Alcott family began the day as their father deemed healthy with a breakfast of unleavened bread, water, and porridge. Poverty and Bronson Alcott's ideas about nutrition led the Alcotts to a severely restricted diet that included rice and graham meal, boiled squash and potatoes -- all usually grown in a carefully tended plot in the back of the house. Alcott believed that manual labor and its resulting connection with nature was a way of building character.
In Concord, he immediately took a job as a woodcutter, work for which he was spectacularly unsuited. Not a strong man, his genius was in fanciful gardens and buildings, not in the necessary basics. He didn't cut much wood, but he reaped a harvest of good opinion in acting out what others saw as the role of philosopher and farmer, citizen and woodsman. Sixty-year-old William Ellery Channing, the Unitarian minister whose sons both became part of the Concord community, wrote to Elizabeth Peabody that "Alcott's combination of manual labor and intellectual energy made him the most interesting object in our Commonwealth."
Sometimes at dinner at the Alcott table, there was apple pudding with brown sugar for dessert. When the girls misbehaved, their father sent them to bed without dinner; when their misbehavior was more severe, he punished them by going without dinner himself.
At first, Bronson taught his girls a basic curriculum enhanced by large doses of Transcendental theory. "Vain is the hope of confirming a child in good habits," Alcott wrote, "while he is the subject of various influences over which the parent has no control."
Soon it was summertime. Louisa awoke to the sounds of a small New England village coming through the wide-open windows, a dog barking, the ping of the blacksmith's hammer, the clipping of horse's hooves as a carriage drove past, men's voices. We were fighting the Indians in Florida, and President Van Buren had sent troops to Maine to defend the frontier against the Aroostook Indians and the Canadians.
One morning, the bugles, drums, and fifes of the Townsend Light Infantry marched through Concord Center after a twenty-six-gun salute for the Fourth of July. Louisa watched the parade with her sisters, shouting as a log cabin drawn by oxen came rolling through Monument Square and along the Milldam, past Shattuck's store, which is now the Colonial Inn, and past banker Samuel Hoar's house and the store where J. W. Walcott sold coffee, tea, and sugar from the West Indies, past the dry-goods store and the bank and the Concord Gun Manufactory, where you could get everything from fowling pieces to six-barreled pistols. Banners and "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" flags waved for the Whig Party candidacy of William Henry Harrison, called Old Tippecanoe for a battle he had won as a soldier fighting the Indians, and his vice president, John Tyler. Harrison and Tyler would win the election in November of 1840, but Harrison would be dead of pneumonia before he had served two months of his term, leaving Tyler to fill out his presidency.
Copyright © 2006 by Susan Cheever