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.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

map

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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“I Will Remember You:” a video and musical tribute to Louisa May Alcott and her sister Lizzie

louisa and lizzieI created this video in tribute to these two special ladies in our lives. In a previous post I had mentioned how Louisa and Lizzie had changed my life; thus I put together this song and video in tribute.

Enjoy and spread it around!

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Abigail May Alcott’s love was her strength

Following up on my last post on Abigail Alcott, I finished transcribing yet another letter from her to Bronson dated January 4, 1858.

Looking for a reply

abbaLizzie is clearly getting worse, her days winding down until her death on March 14. Abba was her primary caregiver, a crushing responsibility in and of itself. But she was also responsible for keeping the family afloat paying the bills, running the household and paying proper attention to her daughters. One of her lifelines was Bronson and his letters to her; when they didn’t come in a timely fashion she grew frantic:

“It is more than a week since your last and I hardly know were to to direct – but I shall feel safer to send to Cincinnati where you will find our last letter – which I am quite sure you will not think worth the stamp on the face of it – but last week was one of my anxious nervous weeks …” The Houghton Library, Abba to Bronson, letter dated January 4, 1858, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

Her concern was certainly understandable considering Lizzie’s declining health.

A lifeline?

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402I used to be put off by the content of Bronson’s letters in his replies to Abba; so much focused upon his conversations, the people he met and his various successes So little focused on his family. That still offends me but I can see how Abba might have found his stories to be a relief, taking her out of her troubled world for a short time of respite. She certainly seemed interested in what he was telling her (not just because they might translate into much-needed income).

Advice born of experience

In Bronson’s defense, he did often write about Lizzie’s condition, giving his daughter urgent advice on keeping her spirits up while admonishing her to eat, advising her not to take cold baths, and reminding her to get outside for fresh air. Bronson spoke from personal experience about the importance of attending to one’s emotional needs as he sank into emotional turmoil and flirted with insanity a couple of times in his life (most notably after Fruitlands and after the move to Boston after living at Hillside).

The true source of Abba’s strength

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersMuch is made of Abba’s intelligence, knowledge and curiosity. There is no doubt that there would be no Louisa May Alcott the author without Marmee. But while Abba’s vibrant mind was a vital parts of her essence, I believe her true strength came from her selfless love of her family as evidenced in these lines:

“How much trouble there is in the world – and the question is constantly before me ‘Who will show us any good.’ You have letters in Buffalo – on all I put ‘Please forward’ at each place. You cannot write too often for comfort – I try to be hopeful for your sake – cheerful for dear Lizzy’s sake and active for the dear girls who alternate between dramatic and the real condition of things …” (Ibid)

A woman’s power

It was love that gave Abba the capacity to stay afloat. Love that prevented her from succumbing to self-absorption which leads to despair (which can be deadly). Love that gave her the courage to step outside of herself and her dreadful situation, granting her the strength to be hopeful for her husband, cheerful for her dying daughter, active and engaged with her other healthy daughters.

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

Intelligence, curiosity, being well-read and well-informed gave Abba purpose, this is true. But it was her love that gave her that heroic strength she needed to last through those many difficult years. Abba’s love molded and shaped her daughters, all of whom went on live productive, purpose-filled, even happy lives. Even Lizzie who died too soon was infused with a sense of purpose right up to her last days.

Grateful daughter, a story for the ages

It is no wonder that grateful daughter Louisa devoted her life to her Marmee and immortalized her in Little Women. Abba deserved every accolade.

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Revealing the real Abigail Alcott to the world must include Bronson

bronson-abba

Slowly but surely I am getting through Abba’s letters in relation to my research on Lizzie Alcott. These letters cover a period from 1953 to 1958. Abba’s handwriting is difficult; it appears she often wrote in haste. Her eyesight was poor so it’s amazing she could write letters at all considering she was writing either by daylight or candlelight. The funny thing is, the more time you spend reading someone’s handwriting, the easier it is to read. I started by only being able to make out less than half of the words and the task seemed overwhelming. Now, depending on the nature of her scrawl, I can make out eighty to ninety percent as I have figured out her patterns and the quirks of the era with regards to handwriting (such as in the case of words ending in “ss” – the first “s” looks more like an “f.” Figuring that out opened up a lot of words!).

Creating a two-way conversation

bronson letters and journalOne of the things I plan on doing once I complete these transcriptions is to group the letters together in such a way as to create a two-way conversation; in other words, match up the correspondences. All of Bronson’s letters have been gathered into Richard L. Herrnstadt’s fine volume The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott so it’s just a matter of matching up the dates so that you get the reply back to the letter. I believe this conversation is essential to understanding Abigail Alcott fully.

Just the beginning

marmee and louisaEve LaPlante’s ground-breaking Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother was excellent but there appeared to me to be a bias against Bronson (understandable). I don’t believe LaPlante is necessarily hostile towards Bronson (she was actually asked that question at a forum at Fruitlands when the book first came out and she denied she was hostile towards him but rather felt sorry for him). But Bronson is nearly left out of the correspondences in My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother; after going through each page of the book I found only two letters from him. Considering the number of letters they exchanged, this is a real gap.

Bringing a private life to the forefront

my heart is boundlessDon’t get me wrong, I am not faulting Eve LaPlante. One must have a certain focus when writing a book of this nature; there is just no way to include everything. LaPlante desired and succeeded in showing the world the brilliant fire of Abigail Alcott and the suffering that women of her ilk endured in a male-dominated world. What I am saying is that more needs to be done.

Setting forth the challenge

If I could clone myself or if I was twenty years younger, I would take on the task of gathering together all of Abba’s letters to Bronson, coupling them with his replies and releasing them to the world. But my work on Lizzie must come first (and I have another book on a different subject I am also writing).

I will throw out this challenge however. If someone did desire to put together such a book, I would happily share all the letters I will have transcribed by the time my Lizzie book is done. Consider it and don’t be shy about asking.

A letter from Abba to Bronson

I transcribed a letter today from Abba to Bronson dated December 22, 1857. I’d like to share some of it with you:

“I am pinching all I can to meet up the demands on the 1st – Mr. Davis asks me constantly what you are going to do with his note – I told him you would do the best thing you were able to do what I could do nothing but take care of my family this winter – you would be here early in the spring – and if successful would pay him – Now go and doing the best you can – Money is needed in a heap to get all things …”

“Should this prove dear Lizzy’s last winter with us – they will be glad they did not leave her – I try to believe all will go well with the dear child and that father will return to greater joy than we have yet known.”

“Your letters are a great comfort to us – at times I feel too sad to live – then I think of you and how with Spartan intensity you have stood by your life-test – and that my girls are hopefully striving with circumstances – And their mother ought to be a staff of protection – if she cannot be a vehicle of progress for them so I cheer up and say from my heart “Lead thou me on”

“God help you friend – be careful of cold.”

All from Houghton Library, letter dated December 22, 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

A glimpse into a heroine

abbaWhat do these fragments tell us? They tell me that first of all, Abba was under tremendous pressure keeping the home front together while her husband was out on the road. She not only had to take care of a dying daughter but she also had to take care of the financials while at the same time, trying to keep a brave face for her other daughters so as to be a good example. Certainly a heroic effort and one that ultimately succeeded. But what I am constantly struck by, both in this letter and the many others, is her loyalty and devotion to Bronson. It almost never wavers. As much as we look back and shake our heads wondering how she could have stayed with him, put up with him, loved him, she did. She loved him. She encouraged him to do what he was doing because she felt it was right for him to do so. And she admired his adherence to his principles.

Bronson’s awareness of his wife’s worth

amos bronson alcottThese letters are an important part of Abigail’s history and legacy. Bronson obviously thought so as he chose to read through them and her journals after he died. We know that many were destroyed, perhaps at her request, perhaps to protect his reputation, it likely was both. But LaPlante writes on page 264 of Marmee and Louisa that “Bronson found the experience unexpectedly painful. Abigail’s accounts of him and their marriage filled him with shame.”

Troubled marriage, great love

Abigail and Bronson’s marriage was troubled but despite that trouble she was devoted to him. He may have had an eye for younger women when he was older (such as Ednah Dow Cheney to whom he wrote intimate letters and took long walks) but he did love Abba as much as he was capable. The problem of course was that she was far more capable of selfless love than he was. Likely they were a product of their time: women were trained to be self-sacrificing and live in a private sphere whereas men were trained to go out and conquer the world.

bronson-abba

Completing her legacy

I hope that a by-product of my research on Lizzie will be a book someday by someone that will include a two-way conversation between Abigail and her husband. Her legacy is not complete without him.

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Lizzie’s favorite hymn, perhaps the one sung at her funeral

abbaIn my continuing research on Elizabeth Alcott, I find that letters by her mother offer the most poignant moments. I am already obsessed with Lizzie and Abba’s comments act as gasoline on an already roaring fire. I’m told that obsession with a character will produce a good story; I sure hope so!

I believe in using primary sources and since the Alcott family papers are so voluminous, it will be a long time (perhaps years) before I get through everything I want to read. I made the mistake (!) of venturing into the handwritten pages of Bronson Alcott’s journals only to find many more references to Elizabeth than I had thought existed. And we know what a prolific journal writer Bronson was!

I have amassed already a large photographic collection of letters and journal entries which I am slowly going through and transcribing (as the handwriting will allow – some of it is pretty hard to read). I came across this letter from Abba to her brother Samuel Joseph May which brought tears to my eyes:

invalid… Dr. Geist pronounces Lizzy’s care hopeless – “atrophy consumption of the nerves – with wasting of the flesh.” She has failed rapidly lately – sees that dissolution is near – is calmly quiet cheerful waits the great change which shall relieve her misery – I can lay no … of finery on the altar of the Lord than this gentle spirit – I have struggled to save her for the past year; but sometimes before our greatest peace, comes out of hardest strife – and I now feel that my darling will be in safer hands than her mother’s – she wrote in my journal that beautiful hymn of aspiration by Mrs. Flower –

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee
E’en though it be the Cross that raiseth me,
Yet nearer to thee
Nearer to thee

She writes notes to Mary Sewall, Cousin Louisa and persons who are attentive to her – and everybody has been very kind – Mr. Emerson’s carriage and Mrs. Wheeler always at her service. The weather is very fine and exercise has been very important to her but she fails so perceptibly that we try nothing now but comforts – bed and chair, couch, raw beef, milk toast, cocoa, a wood fire day and night, and … looks to greet her beautiful expectant eyes …

Source: Abba to Sam, January 21, 1858; the letter comes from the Amos Bronson Alcott Family Letters collection, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (27).

The idea of Lizzie in her weakened state writing those lyrics in her mother’s journal touched me deeply. I am hopeful the actual page of that journal exists – another treasure to look for at the Houghton Library.

I had read several accounts of Lizzie’s funeral and the singing of her “favorite hymn” and always wondered what it was. “Nearer, My God, to Thee” could possibly be the one (it’s also the hymn played by the band on the sinking Titanic). There’s nothing like music to make a connection.

Here’s a rendition by the Morman Tabernacle Choir.

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Text: Sarah Flower Adams, 1805-1848
Music: Lowell Mason, 1792-1872

1.    Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

2.    Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
yet in my dreams I’d be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

3.    There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
all that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
angels to beckon me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

4.    Then, with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise,
out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
so by my woes to be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

5.    Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

Click to Tweet & ShareLizzie’s favorite hymn, perhaps the one sung at her funeral http://wp.me/p125Rp-1CM

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Into the head and heart of Bronson Alcott: a most surprising and satisfying journey

bronson alcott drawingThe Journals of Bronson Alcott by Odell Shepard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished reading The Journals of Bronson Alcott, edited by Odell Shepard. I was fascinated, stimulated and deeply moved. Let no one judge Bronson Alcott until they have done a thorough study of his life (which I have not yet done but I’ve been reading). This man is far more complex and cannot be summed up in a soundbite. He was a brilliant, original thinker, a lover of life and Spirit and a deeply flawed man. It’s impossible to do a blog post on this book, there’s just too much to ponder. I can only urge you to read for yourself and see what it offers. I can tell you it is the extraordinary evolution of a long and fruitful life with much penetrating commentary and insight on some of the most brilliant people of 19th century America.

View all my Goodread reviews

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Happy birthday! Bronson Alcott at 214, Louisa at 181

Louisa May Alcott had remarked in her journal that memories of her November 29th birthday were not always happy ones.

The gift of self-denial

The Temple School

The Temple School

There’s the famous story of birthday number 3, celebrated at her father’s Temple School where, in the end, she had to deny herself her own birthday treat and give it to a student because there were not enough. Her “gift” was praise and a kiss from her mother for her self-denial. Bitter sweet.

Letter from her father

Then there is this story which I recently discovered in my re-read of Madelon Bedell’s The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. On her tenth birthday, she received this letter from her father:

“The good Spirit comes into the Breasts of the meek and loveful to abide long; anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill-speakings, idelnesses, heedlessness, rude behavior, and all such as these drive it away, o grieve it so that it leaves the poor misguided soul to live in its own obstainate, perverse, proud, discomfort; which is the very Pain of Sin and is in the Bible called the worm that never dies, the gnawing worm, the sting of Conscience.” (The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 244)

Good grief!

bronson to louisa on her 7th birthday

from Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian DeForest

Favortism

Bedell maintains that Bronson and Louisa may have been uncomfortable with the implied intimacy of sharing the same birthday, given their tempestuous relationship. In an effort to downplay the meaning, Bronson made sure every member of the family got a gift on their respective 43rd and 10th birthdays: Abba received a new rocking chair, Anna a silver pencil case and gold pen and inkstand, Lizzie two books. The birthday girl received the same gift as her baby sister Abbie: “little stories,” hers being titled “Flora’s Dial.” (Ibid) So only did every family get a gift on their birthdays, but some members got better gifts. How it must have stung Louisa’s heart to see the obvious favoritism Bronson showed towards her older sister (and where the money came from for such extravagance is a mystery).

Gradual reconciliation

512 louisa says goodbye to bronson

illustration by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Yet, over the years, Louisa and Bronson came to appreciate one another as one matured and the other mellowed out. Her sacrifice of health during her Civil War nursing stint showed Bronson that his daughter was of extraordinary character. He was proud of her, and that pride continued through her literary success. It is said that he lived off of Louisa’s success in his subsequent conversation tours but could he have not also just been a proud father?

In the end they would share the closest of intimacies, dying within three days of each other, he inviting her to come “up” with him, pointing heavenward.

Happy birthday Bronson and Louisa!

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The reality of the one-room schoolhouse makes Bronson Alcott look pretty good …

Ever long to go to school as a child in a one-room schoolhouse? Sound romantic?

old-brick-one-room-school-house-c-wayne-hennebertThe school of Bronson Alcott’s childhood

Madelon Bedell in The Alcotts: Biography of a Family described the nature of school in the days of Bronson’s childhood (early 1800s in Connecticut). If you were a child, would you want to be where:

  • The unshaded and unprotected house was isolated and “poor in appearance,” measuring only seven feet high and twenty-two by twenty feet in area and furnished with hard benches
  • The house was “particularly exposed to the bleak winds of winter” and the “scorching rays of summers sun” (according to Bronson’s cousin William)
  • Students were crowded around the fireplace to keep warm; green wood sent up “furious fumes of smoke:
  • Students could barely breathe in the summertime because of poor ventilation and heat in the small room
  • “No matter what the season, the air was always dank with noxious fumes.” (Bedell’s words)

one room schoolhouseNot an inviting place

Bedell said it best: “Such was the famous one-room schoolhouse of early America, a place where children were considered, in Jonathan Edwards’ favorite phrase, to be ‘young vipers,’ and in the words of a satire of the times, were taught ‘not to read, but fear and tremble …” (The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 10).

The object of school was to cram facts into the minds of the young. Everything was about memorizing, not about understanding.

Maybe Bronson’s idea of the one-room schoolhouse would intrigue you:

  • books and slateA library of over one hundred volumes
  • The schoolroom decorated with flowers and pine boughs
  • Your own slate and desk
  • Learning geography not from maps of the world but by making a map of the schoolyard
  • Learning arithmetic by assembling beans and blocks of wood rather than writing figures on a blackboard
  • Learning how to read by associating pictures with words
  • Recess! Gymnastics!

(Ibid, pg. 17)

Ahead of his time

This was Bronson’s first classroom in Cheshire, CT. Even though educators came from all over to see it (and one proclaimed it “the best common school in the state—probably in the United States”) local parents did not understand and eventually switched their children to other, more typical schools. Bronson was seen as having too much influence over their children because he took the time to relate to them as cherished human beings.

Good things to come

The Temple School

The Temple School

The herald of greater things to come (the Temple School) and a most opportune meeting (Abba Alcott because of an invitation by brother Samuel Joseph May).

Many of Bronson’s “crazy” educational ideas were eventually incorporated into reforms enacted in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Sometimes I wish I could have experienced Bronson Alcott as a teacher. He must have been amazing.

Click to Tweet & ShareThe reality of the one-room schoolhouse makes Bronson Alcott look pretty good … http://wp.me/p125Rp-1AM

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Reading is a love affair. Just ask Bronson Alcott.

pilgrim's progressBronson Alcott’s favorite book of a lifetime was John Bunyon’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. He discovered it when he and his cousin William had begun to search through the homes of their neighbors for discarded books in order to create their own library. As a small child, tracing his letters in the sand on the floor,  his mind became “fired with the love of letters.” Visiting his uncle Tilly, Bronson saw his first wall full of books. The lifelong love affair had begun.

He found his true love while assembling his library with  William. He wrote the following about it when he was nearly forty:

christian from pilgrim's progress“O charming story! dear delightful book! This book is one of that few that gave me to myself … It is associated with reality. It unites me with childhood and seems to chronicle my Identity, How I was rapt in it How gladly did I seat myself, after the days labours on the farm, in the chimney niche, with the tallow candle in my hand, and pore over its enchanting pages until late in the night! That book was incorporated into the very substance of my youthful being, I thought and spoke through it.” (from The Alcotts: Biography of a Family by Madelon Bedell, pg. 11)

How well Bronson expressed the love story with books that we as readers experience. My little “chimney niche” is the corner of the couch where I have a reading lamp and a stack of pillows to lean on as I read. I also have a special reading chair in my son’s old room in the basement, an overstuffed Laz-e-boy recliner, when I really want to retreat from the world.

Bronson passed down his love to his children, helping to form one of the world’s most beloved writers of children’s books. If that is his only legacy (and it’s not), that’s a fine one indeed.

Where is your “chimney niche?” What book(s) did you read as a child that became your true love?

Have you read The Pilgrim’s Progress? What did you think of it?

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