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.”
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.
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.
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