How did a remote and poor farm boy evolve into a visionary educator? This is one of the great questions regarding Bronson Alcott for which I wanted answers. John Matteson in Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father provides some interesting insight.
In the beginning
In the first chapter Matteson traces Bronson Alcott’s beginnings. On page 14 we find that Bronson’s family is directly descended from the two Alcotts (aka Alcock) who crossed over on the Arbella in 1630 with Governor John Winthrop who coined the phrase, “a city upon a hill” (rumor has it that my mother’s ancestor, Allen Breed (aka Bread) also came over on that ship). Bronson’s family settled on Spindle Hill in Connecticut where they became farmers.
Bronson described his father Joseph in this way: “He gave himself to life with earnestness & simplicity of a child. He was the most diffident person I have ever known.”
Bronson’s mother Anna came from a family of some stature and he described her as kind-hearted, gracious, gentle, and affectionate. She proved to be enormously supportive of Bronson’s pursuit of learning.
Learning from his cousin
Bronson was born with a deep desire to learn but educational prospects were meager. Fortunately he found a kindred spirit in his second cousin William Alcott: “The two boys shared books, exchanged ideas, and started a small library together. ” Odell Shepard author of Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott, wrote that “Indeed there is a sense in which nearly everything Alcott wrote and did is attributable to William.” (taken from Wikipedia).
Matteson writes, “Apart from his mother, Bronson’s only ally in this search for broader horizons was his cousin William, about sixteen months his senior. As teenagers, they exchanged stories and hand-delivered weekly letters to each other, discoursing as best they could on the books they read and their newfound ideas. They read each other’s journals and discussed their dreams. They both thought that teaching might make a good profession, and they even aspired to authorship.” (page 17)
as an educator
William was successful as a teacher, pushing for more practical reforms: (from Wikipedia) “He observed that the benches used by students were often painful and, at his own expense built backs onto the benches; these became the ancestors of the later school desks. He campaigned for better heating and ventilation in schools. He labored to improve the intellectual content of classrooms.”
Bronson was a sensitive soul who was deeply affected by cruelty. The harsh treatment of prisoners coupled with witnessing a hanging made him absolutely averse to it (pg. 22).
Selling leads to learning
Bronson’s experiences as a Yankee peddler greatly shaped his life. Initially he took to it well, finding the business “instantly absorbing.” (p. 23) His work often took him deep in the South where he was influenced by the manners of southern gentlemen, absorbing the “graces and good manners” of gentility.
Selling gave him the chance to hone his power of persuasion.
Being a peddler gave Bronson a chance to indulge in his love of reading and learning, taking full advantage of intellectual opportunities along the way by partaking of the libraries of his customers. That love of reading was often to the detriment of his business as he spent too much time at it.
The dark side of being learned
Bronson was known throughout his life for his arrogance and the first whiff of it showed up in an early letter home where he “performs” using the new words he’s learned through his reading, and association with southern gentility – “He wanted to sound like anything but the son of a subsistence farmer.” (pg. 24)
Despite a propensity for spiritual thoughts and reflection, Bronson did have a taste for the finer things of life as well.
As his peddling business began to wane, an allegory from his favorite book, The Pilgrim’s Progress (the book that would shape his life) caused Bronson to rethink mercenary work. He wrote to his cousin William, ” ‘ Peddling is a hard place to serve God, but a capital one to serve Mammon.’ Bronson now wished to amend his ways.” (pg. 25)
Thinking for oneself
Bronson was utterly impatient with orthodoxy: “To dare to think, to think for oneself, is denominated pride and arrogance. And millions of minds are in this state of slavery and tyranny.” (pg. 28) This is an ironic statement coming from someone whose eventual downfall would come exactly from such pride and arrogance. Perhaps there is some wisdom in orthodoxy.
Turning to his life’s mission
With peddling behind him, Bronson turned to teaching and found that it immediately resonated with him. He became headmaster of a school in Cheshire, CT and began to see teaching as his mission in life. With the fervor of a minister, he sought to “imbue the youthful heart and mind with a reverence for goodness.” (pg. 26)
In the next part of this series, I will explore Bronson’s early success and growing passion for teaching, revealing how he came to become such a visionary.
If you missed Part One, you can read it here.
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