This question needs your input . . .

I got a fantastic question from Jillian, a good friend of this blog regarding Bronson and Louisa. I’d love your input:

If Bronson Alcott was a follower of Transcendentalism (self-reliance), why does he scold Louisa May for filling her journal with thoughts of self?


I have my theory but I’d like to hear yours first. Go for it!

UPDATE: Great answers so far – just had to post this picture in lieu of Julie’s quoting of Emerson.
(picture credit: Christopher Pearse Cranch, Transparent Eyeball (from Emerson’s “Nature”), from Cranch’s “Scraps” book, ink on paper – c. 1839)

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16 Replies to “This question needs your input . . .”

  1. Bronson was a Transcendentalist but he was also a 19th century father of a daughter. We see a double standard here. If a son’s diary is concerned with self, he is developing his self-understanding as a necessary step to transcending self to find greater truths. If a daughter is self-concerned, then there is a danger she will turn away from her duties as a woman to be concerned principally with others. After all, Bronson was quite willing to let Abba be the doer while he contemplated his own soul.

    I understand that self-reliance meant relying on yourself for the transcendental experience — it was not something that could be given to you by someone else. It meant taking care of yourself, but that did not cancel the social convention that women also took care of others.

  2. Hi Susan,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking question. I agree with Nancy that Bronson and Abby were somewhat confined to 19th century views of proper female behaviors and attitudes, but I also think that part of the apparent conflict is due to a frequent misunderstanding about transcendentalism.

    A primary goal of transcendentalism was to transcend the self, to escape egoism to accept and revel in your place in the universe. The advocacy of self-reliance was about being responsible for finding your relationship with God, nature, and humanity, not relying on others for your spiritual, physical, or personal happiness.

    Here’s a passage from Emerson’s “Nature,” the essay early in his career that is probably most responsible for attracting Thoreau to transcendentalism and reveals Emerson’s belief that humans can and should transcend self:

    In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintences, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

    1. Check out the post again – I inserted the infamous “Transparent Eye” drawing 🙂

      Both your comment and Nancy’s are fueling my theory which ironically makes Bronson such a hypocrite and someone who, at least in his younger years, might be seen as an utter failure as a follower (and early “father” so to speak) of Transcendentalism.

  3. I’m in accord with what Nancy says. But also think there’s self and Self. And the capitalized stuff was where Bronson seemed to go, beyond the ordinary. I think that was partly why LMA didn’t see the value in Little Women that the rest of us did: sadly, she saw it through his eyes, and it just wasn’t Mighty enough.

    Thanks for the transparent eyeball drawing, which I hadn’t seen. And in this Thanksgiving week, I’m grateful for Mrs. Owen, my 11th grade English teacher so many years ago, who introduced us to that concept!

    1. Very interesting re: Louisa seeing Little Women through Bronson’s eyes rather than her own, thus missing the intrinsic value of the book. It’s really rather tragic.

      You hit upon what I’ve been thinking, that Bronson was so narcissistic that he ultimately failed at being a Transcendentalist. The latter part of the Temple School experiment plus Fruitlands showed that Bronson had a distorted view of Transcendentalism (for him, spiritual perfection). It wasn’t enough that he become spiritually perfected, but he had to create a society of people just like himself with him as the supreme head, or, to put it in familial terms, so that he could be the Father.

      Therefore, his criticism of Louisa writing about herself, in part, is because she was the antithesis of him. He was frustrated that he couldn’t rubber stamp her like her he did Anna and Lizzie (May seems to have escaped all this). And I fully agree with Nancy too about the way men and women were viewed back then.

      But the whole thing is so totally ironic! Isn’t Transcendentalism about an individual’s road to perfection? Why did Bronson claim the right to mold and shape others into his own image? He really did seem to have a God complex (with him as God). His narcissism really distorted his point of view which is a shame because he had tremendous potential to make a lasting impression (even more than he made).

      He helped begin the Transcendental movement and yet early on, utterly failed at it because of his egoism.

      I’m writing a lot more about all this stuff in upcoming posts on Bronson – Matteson has some great insight!

  4. Wow! I love several of the comments here, especially about Transcendentalism and the self and Self. Susan, you have put your finger on what has continued to disturb me about Bronson. He claimed for himself the right to be preoccupied with the purity of his soul and his search for perfection: his particular concept of perfection. He was less generous with the other members of the family who may have been seeking their own concepts of perfection — or maybe perfection was not even their goal in life.

    1. “or maybe perfection was not even their goal in life.” Zing! Good one.

      Believe it or not though, there were endearing things about Bronson despite his obsession with himself. I love the description that Rev. Llewellyn Willis wrote in his memoirs about his time with the Alcotts (he boarded with them for several seasons and became like a son) – his description of Bronson is quite something. I only have the book as an e-book so at some point I’ll have to copy that passage.

  5. I continue to be confused by this, though what I’m grasping from above is that Bronson didn’t actually act as a true Transcendentalist, as Emerson saw Transcendentalism, so that’s why the conflict. I really, really identify with the double-standard Nancy mentioned — between what was expected of a man in that era, and what was expected of a woman. That revelation immediately clicked for me: “Oh, of course Bronson wouldn’t want Louisa focusing on herself; that would take away from her duties.”

    I honestly haven’t read enough on Transcendentalism yet to understand what is meant by the distinction between “self” and “Self,” or how Bronson may have allowed his ego to overtake his Transcendental experience. But this begins to clear things up for me! I’m not sure why, but I find Bronson pretty fascinating – for all his conflicts. Thanks all – and especially Susan, for posting this!! Awesome conversation. I love the passage quoted from Emerson’s Nature.

    1. My gut feeling (and I have no reading to back this up) is that “self” refers to healthy introspection whereas “Self” is a gross distortion (turning into Narcissism) and this latter fact is something that Bronson definitely exhibited, often to the extreme. On the website, Narcissism is described as a personality disorder and when I read this, I think it suits Bronson to a “T”: “Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism. Narcissistic personality disorder is one of several types of personality disorders. Personality disorders are conditions in which people have traits that cause them to feel and behave in socially distressing ways, limiting their ability to function in relationships and in other areas of their life, such as work or school.”

    2. I was just reading chapter 9 of Eden’s Outcasts and I saw your question! 🙂 The chapter is talking about when the family moved to Boston after living at Hillside – Louisa would be entering her 20s. The paragraph leading up to the one I’m about to quote described Louisa’s depressing situation in the basement apartment keeping house and how she couldn’t get her inner life in order. Sounds like she needed to keep a journal again just to remain sane! Here’s what Matteson wrote on page 198:

      “For the first time in a few years, Louisa started keeping a journal. Bronson criticized her entries, observing that Anna’s diary was principally about others, whereas Louisa wrote mostly about herself. It was an ironic critique, coming as it did from a man whose own journals were often indefatigably solipsistic [meaning that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified, or that it is the only reality].”

      He goes on to say that Louisa defends her inner focus as it was the only way to get a hold of her willful and moody ways (and she never actually spoke about herself).

      Imagine having to defend something like that! I kept journals for years through high school and college mainly for therapeutic purposes and I can’t even read them now, they are so embarrassing! I can’t possibly imagine subjecting myself to having them read by my parents!

      Sometimes Louisa must have felt so hemmed in. The strength she had to fight her way out amazes me. Too bad she was never able to totally escape the way May did (no wonder she envied May so).

      1. Yeah — it’s interesting May escaped. But notable that she had to go to another country to do it. 😉

        Thanks for sharing this, Susan!! As well as the passage above about narcissitic personality disorders. That actually makes a lot of sense. B. Alcott must have felt mighty conflicted, as a follower of the Transcendentalist movement. I read that someone (Hawthorne, I think) refused to even come out of his house when Bronson would plant himself on a bench outside to give lectures to passers-by. He must have been pretty annoying at times! 😆

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