Finding his mission: Bronson Alcott, part 2 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

How did a remote and poor farm boy evolve into a visionary educator? This is one of the great questions regarding Bronson Alcott for which I wanted answers.  John Matteson in Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father provides some interesting insight.

In the beginning

In the first chapter Matteson traces  Bronson Alcott’s beginnings. On page 14 we find that Bronson’s family is directly descended from the two Alcotts (aka Alcock) who crossed over on the Arbella in 1630 with Governor John Winthrop who coined the phrase, “a city upon a hill” (rumor has it that my mother’s ancestor, Allen Breed (aka Bread) also came over on that ship).  Bronson’s family settled on Spindle Hill in Connecticut where they became farmers.

Anna Bronson Alcott

Bronson described his father Joseph in this way: “He gave himself to life with earnestness & simplicity of a child. He was the most diffident person I have ever known.”

Bronson’s mother Anna came from a family of some stature and he described her as kind-hearted, gracious, gentle, and affectionate.  She proved to be enormously supportive of Bronson’s pursuit of learning.

Learning from his cousin

Bronson was born with a deep desire to learn but educational prospects were meager. Fortunately he found a kindred spirit in his  second cousin William Alcott:  “The two boys shared books, exchanged ideas, and started a small library together. ” Odell Shepard author of Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott, wrote that “Indeed there is a sense in which nearly everything Alcott wrote and did is attributable to William.” (taken from Wikipedia).

Dr. William Alcott

Matteson writes, “Apart from his mother, Bronson’s only ally in this search for broader horizons was his cousin William, about sixteen months his senior. As teenagers, they exchanged stories and hand-delivered weekly letters to each other, discoursing as best they could on the books they read and their newfound ideas. They read each other’s journals and discussed their dreams. They both thought that teaching might make a good profession, and they even aspired to authorship.” (page 17)

William’s contributions
as an educator

William was successful as a teacher, pushing for more practical reforms: (from Wikipedia)  “He observed that the benches used by students were often painful and, at his own expense built backs onto the benches; these became the ancestors of the later school desks. He campaigned for better heating and ventilation in schools. He labored to improve the intellectual content of classrooms.”

Sensitive soul

Bronson was a sensitive soul who was deeply affected by cruelty. The harsh treatment of prisoners coupled with witnessing a hanging made him absolutely averse to it (pg. 22).

Selling leads to learning

Thomas Waterman Wood (American artist, 1823–1903) The Yankee Pedlar

Bronson’s experiences as a Yankee peddler greatly shaped his life. Initially he took to it well, finding the business “instantly absorbing.” (p. 23) His work often took him deep in the South where he was influenced by the manners of southern gentlemen, absorbing the “graces and good manners” of gentility.

Selling gave him the chance to hone his power of persuasion.

Being a peddler gave Bronson a chance to indulge in his love of reading and learning, taking full advantage of intellectual opportunities along the way by partaking of the libraries of his customers. That love of reading was often to the detriment of his business as he spent too much time at it.

I like to imagine Bronson meeting southern gentlemen like Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind – it makes for a nice bit of fancy. :-)

The dark side of being learned

Bronson was known throughout his life for his arrogance and the first whiff of it showed up in an early letter home where he “performs” using the new words he’s learned through his reading, and association with southern gentility – “He wanted to sound like anything but the son of a subsistence farmer.” (pg. 24)

Despite a propensity for spiritual thoughts and reflection, Bronson did have a taste for the finer things of life as well.

From mammon to God

As his peddling business began to wane, an allegory from his favorite book, The Pilgrim’s Progress (the book that would shape his life) caused Bronson to rethink mercenary work. He wrote to his cousin William, ” ‘ Peddling is a hard place to serve God, but a capital one to serve Mammon.’ Bronson now wished to amend his ways.” (pg. 25)

Thinking for oneself

Bronson was utterly impatient with orthodoxy: “To dare to think, to think for oneself, is denominated pride and arrogance. And millions of minds are in this state of slavery and tyranny.” (pg. 28)  This is an ironic statement coming from someone whose eventual downfall would come exactly from such pride and arrogance. Perhaps there is some wisdom in orthodoxy.

Turning to his life’s mission

With peddling behind him, Bronson turned to teaching and found that it immediately resonated with him. He became headmaster of a school in Cheshire, CT and began to see teaching as his mission in life. With the fervor of a minister, he sought to “imbue the youthful heart and mind with a reverence for goodness.” (pg. 26)

In the next part of this series, I will explore Bronson’s early success and growing passion for teaching, revealing how he came to become such a visionary.

If you missed Part One, you can read it here.


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6 thoughts on “Finding his mission: Bronson Alcott, part 2 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

  1. Jillian ♣ says:

    This is the first time Bronson Alcott has seemed admirable to me, both as a sensitive soul who disliked cruelty, and as an earnest soul who sought education despite the limited resources available to him. I want to read more that makes me admire him!

    Ashley would have found much to discuss with Bronson Alcott, I think. I like Ashley Wilkes a lot and believe he’d be curious about many things and would love engaging in conversation. :-)

    Great series, Susan!

  2. […] Susan: Discussion on this question posed by Jillian: If Bronson Alcott was a follower of Transcendentalism (self-reliance), why does he scold Louisa May for filling her journal with thoughts of self? / Bronson Alcott reflections: Part One / Part Two […]

  3. Shelley says:

    I only recently found a book about Louisa May Alcott’s life at the library and scanning the covers learned that in fact the Alcott’s were poor because he had loaned or given money to a friend’s ‘scheme’ that didn’t work. Yet in spite of his foolishness with money he was the ‘head’ of his household. I find all that difficult to stomach and I didn’t read the book. This sounds so like my own father, a lovely man, a dear man, who never quite grew up. I adored Alcott’s books as a child. I’m still re-reading (online) Jack and Jill, my all time favourite.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Consider reading the biography, Louisa’s life is so very rich. Yes, Bronson is a difficult character (one of the most difficult I’ve ever come across) but he has his merits as I am discovering through reading Eden’s Outcasts. I recommend that book highly, also Madeleine Stern’s Louisa May Alcott A Biography. Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women is a great read also.

      Part of the purpose of this blog was to record my journey going through her works and I’m just getting started. I’m curious as to why Jack and Jill stands out for you as for most, it’s Little Women. I’m looking forward to getting into more of Louisa’s juvenile works in the coming year.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. […] door was opening to greater opportunities. Thanks to the efforts of Bronson’s cousin William (see Part Two for details on William and his influence on Bronson), Samuel May received a report of Bronson’s accomplishments (page 29). Samuel […]

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