“Loves Mankind, Hard on People” – Bronson Alcott, Mr. Keating, and the Dangers of Putting Ideals before Students

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This an amazing post from one of our readers, a young educator who spoke for the first time at the Summer Conversational Series this summer. She certainly made me rethink “Dead Poet’s Society,” one of my favorite movies.

Originally posted on edreverie:

Orchard HouseI have spent the last week at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, attending their annual Summer Conversational Series. (As an aside, it is my second year attending the SCS, and it’s an amazing experience. If you haven’t been, and you area fan of the Alcott’s, transcendentalism, philosophy, or education, you really need to go!)

Anyway, there are SO many things I have taken from this week that I will probably be writing about for a long while. However, there is a certain phrase that stuck with me especially, and is where I will begin the first of many SCS 2015 reflections.

At Thursday’s SCS session, John Matteson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts, took questions and led discussion on “all things Alcott.” Bronson Alcott became a subject of conversation here, and he was subject to criticism (as Bronson Alcott seems to always be) for…

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Louisa Links of the Week (formerly known as Fun and Fascinating Links)

Lots of great links this week!

Through the month of May, the Concord Public Library is celebrating 160 years of Flower Fables, Louisa May Alcott’s first book. They will have displays (including the first edition of the book), children’s activities and a visit with “Louisa” herself in the form of Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. come and join in the fun!  Go to the Events page for more details.

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

On a wonderful site called “Stuff You Missed in History Class” is a podcast about Bronson Alcott and May Alcott Nieriker.

bronson and may

And here is a re-broadcast from the BBC about the life of Louisa. The program is called “Great Lives”, which asks a guest to choose their hero from history and then brings in an expert to talk about the person. Thanks to Hilary from England for this link.

Finally, two new episodes from The March Family Letters:

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Remember this painting of The Wayside where the Little Women actually grew up? Artist Joyce Pyka sends us an update

You may recall an artist’s rendition of The Wayside, originally named Hillside by Bronson Alcott after the home was purchased with Abba Alcott’s inheritance.

Although Orchard House is the physical setting for Little Women, artist Joyce Pyka, like many of us Alcott fans, knows that many of the childhood stories of the girls took place at Hillside.

Pyka has been revealing her envisioning of The Wayside with Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Laurie in various stages:

Little Women 10 26 2014 fixed by Joyce Pyka


detail laurie

Here’s the latest version:

640-wayside clearer 3 31 2015

Pyka reports that the painting should be done by summer and yes, prints will be available for sale. Sign me up!

Here are previous blog posts on the painting.

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Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women – Fiction, Fame and Romanticism 1868-1900

Continuing our discussion …

Looking at fiction

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenLittle Women was a subversive work in many ways, putting new ideas into the heads of children while managing not to upset their parents. One such idea was its endorsement of reading fiction. According to Beverly Lyon Clark, a leading authority on children’s literature, children were not encouraged to read fiction because of the way it absorbed the mind. Of Little Women‘s influence she writes, “its other oral would seem to endorse the pleasures of subverting adults’ strictures and of reveling in the glory of fiction.” She continues, “the text sets up two models for reading: readers have generally followed Jo’s enthusiastic example for their own reading even if they may endorse the moralizing model when they image how reading Little Women should affect others, especially those others are young.” (pg. 10)

If you read Little Women as a child, what was your reaction to Jo’s love of reading? Perhaps like me, you read it as an adult–did you find Jo’s enthusiasm infectious and if so, how?

Bronson’s influence

Louisa was compelled to write Little Women not only by her publisher but by her father, in part because he was promised publication of his book, Tablets, if she complied. But Bronson’s desire was genuine–he felt certain his daughter could write the perfect children’s book as he had shaped and molded Louisa and her sisters in his own image (or at least, attempted to). At any rate, he knew she would want to please him. While Bronson encouraged his daughters to read fiction, he deplored many of the books of his day. Little Women was to fulfill his desire for the perfect children’s book.

How much of Bronson’s influence do you see in Little Women despite the fact that Mr. March plays such a small role in the story?

I am currently going through my second reading of Little Women (listening, by the way, to a wonderful dramatic reading, available free on Librivox) and I see Bronson’s influence everywhere, from the use of Pilgrim’s Progress as the backdrop to the spiritual and moral lessons in the book. While Louisa could not seem to embody her father in a major character role, Mr. March is quite “present” despite his absence.

Why did Louisa May Alcott seem so approachable?

louisa readingLouisa deplored her fame even as she had wished for such as a child. Why did readers feel so bonded to her? And what was so onerous about it to Louisa?

Clark writes on page 20, “An early twentieth-century biographer declared that Alcott ‘felt the annoyances of glory more that most authors.’ But it seems likely that she was besieged more than most.” She goes on to cite sales of Little Women and writes, “Alcott was also a woman: she would have seemed more approachable than a ‘great man’ would, and … she had no wife or personal assistant to protect her. As an author whose works targeted children (as well as adults), she must have seemed more approachable still. Finally, given how autobiographical her Little Women series was, and given her willingness to call herself Aunt Jo, readers who felt intimate with the fictional Jo March seem to have felt intimate with Alcott. As an obituarist noted, ‘She wrote so much of her own life into books that she was nearer to the public than most writers.'”

Imagine yourself in Louisa’s time–would you have approached her? What would you have said to her? Do you think her fans were too intrusive?

I probably would have been too embarrassed myself to approach her and might have been disappointed in what I saw. I get the sense that Louisa could not always find it within herself to be gracious to fans. An inherently shy woman, the level of fame she experienced must have been excruciating at times. Still, that fame gave her entry into virtually any place where she could hob knob with other well accomplished and famous people. One of the things I most enjoyed about Madeleine B. Stern’s biography was how she described the pleasure Louisa sometimes took in her fame.

pickwick portfolioI think about the five Luken sisters who wrote to Louisa about the newspaper they published that was fashioned after the Pickwick Portfolio. How glorious it must have been to have the author of Little Women endorse your efforts! Louisa even made free contributions to the newspaper, impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the sisters.

Louisa the Romantic

jo writing (norman rockwell)As much as Louisa denied adopting the philosophy of her father, she could not prevent herself from living it. As Transcendentalism was influenced by the Romantic era in Europe, it makes perfect sense that drama queen Louisa (who I believe also had a martyr complex) would adopt such colorful images of herself as the artist possessed by her writing in the garret. She could not escape her upbringing no matter how hard she tried. She was excessively pragmatic in order to undo the damage of her father’s way of living that so deprived the family of material necessities and basic security. But at the same time her upbringing oozed through her writing and this is what attracted so many readers. It was so different, deep and inspiring to girls leading dull and limited lives. Jo March represented a breaking out of sorts, not only with seeking a career over marriage, but in her basic personality: her reading habits, the way she behaved, her use of the vernacular, and just the very fact that she lived her tomboy desires openly. Jo may not have always been the most likable character but she was real.

What is it about Jo March that attracts you? How has she inspired you?

I admit that Jo has not always been my favorite sister. I was first attracted to Beth as a child and always associated her name with beauty. As an adult I came to appreciate Amy as I learned more about her real counterpart, May. But now that I have become a writer, Jo is speaking to me. She hides out in the garret; I hide out in my cellar room decorated with posters of Norman Rockwell paintings of Jo. I love the whole romantic image of Jo as a writer and an artist. I relate to her bad temper, her unbridled enthusiasm and her desire to lead an uncompromising, authentic life.

There is much more in Chapter One but I will leave that for you to read in The Afterlife of Little Women. The next post will dive into Chapter Two: Waxing Nostaligic 1900-1930.

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The Alcotts at Fruitlands, seen through the eyes of a “regular child:” Book Review: Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass

little women next doorSome of the best books written about Louisa May Alcott are those geared for children.

One of my favorites is Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass. In a gentle yet poignant story Klass shows the Alcotts during their time Fruitlands through the eyes of a child from a typical family of the 1840s. That view does much to tone down Bronson’s reputation as a crackpot or lunatic. While he was probably his most extreme self during this period, Klass shows the valuable gifts he instilled in his children. Bronson may have been a lunatic at times, but he was also a gifted teacher who opened the world to his children.

About the main character

In this story, Louisa and her sisters help a girl deprived of her childhood to gain it back again by helping her to blossom from within. The main character, Susan, is a child who lost her mother at birth and whose father keeps his distance because he associates Susan with the loss of his wife. While her aunt is kind and caring, Susan is lonely with no friends her own age and no inner life of imagination. Furthermore she stutters which makes communication very difficult. Her father’s lack of patient with her affliction only makes it worse.

New friend

Sheila Solomon Klass www.bmcc.cuny.edu

Sheila Solomon Klass www.bmcc.cuny.edu

Susan and her family live next door to Fruitlands and soon meet the Alcotts after they move in. Here Klass shines a light on the Alcotts by comparing them to Susan and her family in terms of what they deem important. Those of us who immerse ourselves in all things Alcott forget how extraordinary this family was. Susan discerned immediately that Louisa was special.

Learning self expression

Susan takes lessons from Bronson along with the Alcott girls and William, the son of Charles Lane. Susan finds Bronson to be a very different kind of teacher, kind and patient as he works with her to overcome her stutter. Anna and Louisa help too. In addition Louisa gives Susan a journal and invites her to write down her thoughts.

Growth and reconciliation

Susan’s exposure to the freedom and imaginative games that the Alcott children enjoy transforms her. Growing in confidence and now able to communicate with her father through her writings, Susan and her father reconcile.

Bronson’s greatest gift

I really loved this book. It was a very different look at the Alcotts as seen through the eyes of a “regular” child who blossomed because of her friendship with Louisa and her lessons with Bronson. With all the talk about Bronson’s many flaws, he did give Louisa the key to the interior life, one full of adventure, and a place where she could retreat when the world around her was too hard to bear. It was that interior life that would eventually equip Louisa with the tools to take her family out of the perpetual poverty to which Bronson had subjected it.

You can find Little Women Next Door on Amazon.

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Summer Conversational Series 2014: Bronson Alcott as the father of modern child psychology

My thanks again to Kristi Martin for sharing her notes and her photos with this site.

kristina westKristina West’s presentation highlighted the educational work of Bronson Alcott and his role as arguably the father of modern child psychology. This is one workshop I wish I had not missed. West’s careful study of Bronson serves to redeem him as being the villain in the Alcott family to some. While Bronson surely caused his family much consternation and material poverty due to his feelings about working for money, there were many stellar and more esoteric gifts he gave to his family.

Bronson’s writings

West has done a close-reading of selected passages from Bronson’s “Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction,” “Observations on the Spiritual Nurture of my Children,” and “Preface to Conversations with Children on the Gospels.” These were studies of infant behavior and his methods of conversation and observation which were aimed at knowing the child, Bronson considered the development of the whole child: physical, mental, and spiritual. His lack of writing skill prevented publication of his works which is why he is often not given his due. His writing style was flowery and dense, a perfect example being Psyche (a study of third daughter Elizabeth’s soul rather than her day-to-day growth) which West found almost impenetrable; her opinion agrees with Emerson’s criticisms.

Bronson’s brilliance

West believes that “Observations on the Spiritual Nature of my Children” is absolute genius. West’s assessment reminds me a lot of Madelon Bedell’s brilliant work, The Alcotts Biography of a Family; she too felt that Bronson showed genius in the psychological study of children.

The better parent?

West maintained that Bronson believed he understood the children better than their mother, and criticized her parenting methods. From what I’ve read, seeing that Abba was almost constantly either pregnant or post-partum, it would be understandable if she was high strung. Bronson was able to take the time to read to his daughters and play with them; Bedell notes this in her book. This kind of care extended to Bronson’s students.

The use of conversation

The Temple School

The Temple School

West called attention to the problem of conversation as an analytic tool of observation because of the influence in leading the children. Bedell maintained that Bronson manipulated the children through the art of conversation, molding them into what he wanted them to be. But there is no doubt the children gained a great deal through his teaching.

Bronson as genius

West argued that Bronson was a genius for his exceptional originality of thought and Bedell agreed. West expressed the concern during the question and answer porition that Bronson is largely misunderstood because no one reads what he actually wrote. I agree with this having taken a turn at reading his journals as presented by Odell Shepard. While some of the metaphysical and esoteric writings went right over my head, much of his journals that Shepard chose to share were enlightening, especially his later somewhat prophetic writings on other writers around him such as Emerson and Thoreau.

Gaining perspective

West also believed that Bronson had trouble finding perspective on himself and lacked a sense of humor. It is unfortunate that it took so long for him to learn how to write so that others could understand what he meant. I believe that as he got older and experienced death and loss in his family, that he gained that perspective.

More to come!

My thanks again to Kristi for these notes. More to come as I discuss the presentations of Anne-laure François, John Matteson and Olivia Milch. Stay tuned!

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In search of Bronson Alcott’s birthplace

I am pleased to present this guest post by Laurel Langdon who has discovered the exact location of Bronson Alcott’s birthplace.

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Nagging question. Did anyone really know where Bronsons birthplace was? Numerous biographies vaguely mentioned Wolcott or Spindle Hill Connecticut.


I live in Darien CT and recently drove one hour north to visit the Wolcott Historical Society. I was greeted by a wonderful woman who informed me that she knew the exact location. Spindlehill is a portion of Wolcott and the family home had been at the corner where Spindlehill and Beach Roads meet. She said the address of 348 Beach Rd. would get me there directly. Although there is a modern farmhouse on the property, I was excited to see a plaque marking the spot.

plaqueThis area is now very urban surrounded by subdivision houses. It is extremely hilly and rocky. It is a steep drive up Beach Road. Louisa accompanied Bronson to this site in September 1882. I pity the poor horse that pulled that carriage.

There is a wonderful article about this place if you visit the home page of Wolcotthistory.org . Tap on “history” that leads to a series of articles. Tap on the Amos Bronson Alcott article and it will display an extensive history complete with an old postcard of the old farm.

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