The rise, fall and redemption of Bronson Alcott, part 1 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson has to be one of the most elegant and thoughtful books I have ever read. Matteson is the first Alcott biographer who truly seems to understand the spiritual life and that insight produces a deeper and different view of Bronson Alcott.

I have read as far as the end of the Fruitlands experiment and have taken pages and pages of notes (and I must be a real geek because it has been so fun!). In the reading I’ve done so far, I have viewed through Matteson’s eyes, the rise, fall and redemption of Bronson Alcott. I have also come to appreciate this decidedly difficult and complex man in a whole new way.

Matteson taps into the soul of Bronson Alcott and actually makes him attractive.

The brilliance of this book

This paragraph from the prologue sums up for me why this book is brilliant:

“For Louisa well as for Bronson, life was a persistent but failed quest for perfection. First, she was to labor vainly to conquer her fierce temper and stubborn willfulness, trying to find the paradise that her father always swore lay within her. Then she would struggle to bring happiness and comfort to a family continually besieged by want. Later, she would go to war, doing all in her power, if not to make America a paradise, then at least to make it a place where all people would be free. Still later, as a novelist, she would strive to produce in fiction what she could not bring about in the world: a vision of humanity enriched by personal sacrifice and enlightened by unselfish love. Both Bronson and Louisa May had ambitions of altering the world through literature. In ways that neither anticipated and in widely varying degrees, they succeeded. Yet it was in the lives they lived, rather than in the words they wrote or spoke, that they fought hardest for redemption: both to redeem themselves from their perceived failures and to redeem the world at large from the wickedness that both father and daughter sought earnestly to reform. They wanted perfection. In their search for it, they inevitably discovered flaws both in the world and within themselves. Pursuing paradise, they continually confirmed themselves as Eden’s outcasts.”

A disclaimer

I plan on writing a series of posts about Bronson as interpreted by Matteson but I feel a need to offer a disclaimer first: I am a practicing Catholic and take my faith very seriously. I love the spiritual life and pursue it relentlessly, often with the kind of zeal with which Bronson pursued his.

I felt it important to express this because the thoughts that I will share in this and subsequent posts about Bronson Alcott are filtered through this lens.

It is understood that you, the reader, may see faith and the spiritual life differently, and I’m hoping these posts will spark good conversation.

Reading is in part about learning, and the reading I’ve undertaken since I began this blog has opened my mind up considerably. And rather than discounting my faith, it has enriched it.

The essence of
Bronson Alcott

Because of Matteson’s book, I found myself empathizing with Bronson because in essence, I want what he wanted: to be in communion with God, to emulate Him. Bronson, however, took it a step farther and wanted to be God – this was his conception of paradise, the road to perfection.

Bronson’s idea of redemption

While I share Bronson’s zeal, we certainly did not share the same approach!

I prefer to be submissive to God, acknowledging His omnipotence, his superiority over me. I work to release control of my life to Him and follow, trusting in His love that He will lead me to the best end, which is eventual perfection. As it states in Romans 8:38, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (New King James version)

Bronson, however, came at it from the opposite angle, taking a very activist approach and in essence, reinventing the wheel (with Transcendentalism) to achieve perfection. This theme I will explore in subsequent posts regarding his rise as an educator and philosopher, the triumph and eventual fall of the Temple School, and the debacle that was known as Fruitlands.

Different ways of looking at redemption

Bronson believed in redemption as I do. But while I believe I can only be redeemed by simply saying “yes” to God and following Him, Bronson believed he had to redeem himself and teach others how to do the same (beginning with small children). He had to invent a new method.

To be redeemed means submission to a Higher Being and this goes against the natural inclination of man to do for himself. God asks us to forget ourselves and consider ourselves as nothing so that He can transform us into everything, the original image He planned for us before the fall of man and woman in the Garden of Eden.

Bronson had a towering intellect and yet, he never considered submission a possibility. Perhaps the rigid and cold religious climate of his age made that impossible to consider. After all, why would one want to submit to vengeful God bent on punishment? Bronson’s intuition told him that fear of God was not the way. One has to wonder at the possibilities had Bronson been exposed to a more loving God from organized religion in the first place.

Methods and results

Matteson spells out the thoughts and methods Bronson employed to try and achieve both his redemption and the redemption of others. These efforts would end up nearly, literally destroying the man, and it certainly left his family destitute.

There was, in fact, eventual redemption. But it was not what Bronson had fashioned in his mind.

The transcendentalism of Bronson Alcott was a man’s effort to commune with and become Divine.  So much effort.

Maybe there’s less work involved with submission. It ultimately comes down to pride versus humility. There’s no doubt that, after the Temple School and Fruitlands, Bronson was very much “humbled” (subject to interpretation – more to come on that).

In the next post, I will get into just how a poor farm boy from a small and obscure town overcame his background to become that towering intellect. It’s an amazing story.

Your thoughts?


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13 Replies to “The rise, fall and redemption of Bronson Alcott, part 1 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)”

  1. I don’t have thoughts to share at this point because I know fairly nothing about Transcendentalism or Bronson Alcott. Just to say I’m following along with interest!

    I like how you filter your interpretation of Bronson’s approach through your faith. Your view of submission, vs. Bronson’s, is teaching me a lot about how he thought compared to how I think.

    Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

  2. Thanks! I kind of held my breath before publishing this one. This reading that I’ve done about Bronson has been some of the most meaningful of my literary journey. How did I ever go so long without reading??

    And who would have thought it would be Bronson?? Ah, Matteson is good . . . 🙂

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful comments about the Matteson book and Bronson Alcott. I too enjoyed the book and it changed my understanding of Bronson completely. Previously I considered him something of a non-performer. After all, he did not really support his family and left practical requirements to his wife and, later, Louisa. From Matteson’s presentation I came to see Bronson as sincere in his attempts to live his intuited faith, and that was more important to him than the pain that others might suffer as a result.

    You are right to interpret Bronson from the basis of your own spiritual beliefs. If you don’t think such things are important, you are unlikely to understand how much it meant to him. Since we are all seeking the truth that underlies reality, we cannot dismiss another person’s efforts to do so.

  4. Your comment is so asute, thank you for sharing that. I hope I can track down John Matteson and do an interview with him – he brings such a unique perspective to the quandary that is Bronson Alcott. I think he appeared at the Hingham Library recently and I couldn’t go to see him. 😦

  5. Thank you for so much food for thought. I look forward to your other posts, and each one may get me closer to reading the book: you make it enticing. Even if my eyebrows did go up a bit when you wrote that Bronson was humbled after Temple School and FruItlands. I’m not so sure of that, though sure I would like him more if I found that to be true. I am sure you’ll open my eyes a bit more, so thank you!

    1. “This is the first time Bronson Alcott has seemed admirable to me . . .” – this is exactly what I thought while reading Matteson’s book!

      I love fantasizing about Ashley and Bronson discussing high-minded things. 🙂 Didn’t Ashley, though, feel out of place with his own people because he loved to read and wanted to travel to Europe (in other words, live in the Old World rather than the New World)?

      1. (Did you mean to put this comment on your Part 2 post?)

        I’d have to reread to say precisely, but my feeling is no. I think Scarlett’s interpretation of Ashley had him feeling out of place. She hung out with all the vibrant young bucks who rode horses and cursed and failed school — and didn’t understand Ashley at all, which is why his marriage to Melanie (equally aware of books and inclined to talk about them) made no sense to her.

        Beyond Ashley, she wouldn’t likely notice anyone else who didn’t fit her mindset. So bookish people very likely hid in the folds of Scarlett’s interpretation of Atlanta. I suggest all this mainly because Margaret Mitchell was from Atlanta (very near Clayton County, where the book opens), and was born into an extremely bookish family only 35 years after the close of the Civil War.

        The Grand Tour (the travels around Europe) were common in the nineteenth century for men, in both the North and South I think, where their families could afford it. The desire to see Europe wasn’t particular to Ashley. (Look at Rhett, for example. I don’t think it’s ever mentioned that he went to Europe, and even liked Europe, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had.) The only reason Scarlett doesn’t swell on the Grand Tour is because it doesn’t interest her.

      2. Pardon my typos! That last sentence should read “dwell on Europe,” and my point in the opening paragraph is that Gone With the Wind and its characters (including Ashley and Melanie) are filtered through Scarlett’s interpretation of them. You’re not getting a true picture of Ashley. Scarlett believes he feels out of place because he doesn’t match the rest of the boys Scarlett hangs around with — not because he’s actually so different from other gentle-born Southerners. (I’m thinking Savannah.)

  6. Thanks for that clarification. Mitchell did her job very well because it never even occurred to me that it was filtered through the lens of Scarlett (although now when I think of it, duh, how obvious!) Makes me want to read the book again – it’s truly a whole world unto itself. 🙂

    Incidentally, for the rest of you, this last exchange between Jillian and myself actually should be under Part 2 of the series on Bronson, found at https://louisamayalcottismypassion.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/finding-his-mission-bronson-alcott-part-2-reflections-on-edens-outcasts/ – read that post and the subsequent comments, and the rest will make sense. 🙂

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