The art of conversation, Bronson-style

Through his illustrious life, Bronson Alcott used many means to preach and teach his unique message of transcendentalism. In the early part of his career he used his gifts as a teacher to educate the young through the art of conversation (see previous post). As he believed the Divine resided in each child, he sought through Platonic questioning to draw out that spirit and assist the child in discovering that spirit within. He in essence sought to make that child aware of the knowledge that he believed already resided inside.

Closing a door . . .

When Bronson lost the Temple School to controversy (see previous post), he was denied employment as a teacher, both in Boston and in Concord where he and his family resided after the closing of the school.

Known for his strong (or stubborn, depending on your point of view) conviction and principles, Bronson chose to subject himself and his family to abject poverty rather than take on work that would bring in a living wage. He has come under heavy criticism from many for that decision.

. . . and opening a window

Yet there were people who appreciated what Bronson had to offer. After being denied the chance to teach, Bronson took his special art of conversation to adults. Since helacked the ability to write (Emerson wrote, “When he [Bronson] sits down to write all his genius leaves him; he gives you the shell and throws away the kernel of his thought.” (p. 101, The Alcotts as I Knew Them by Clara Gowing , e-book edition)) he employed secretaries to take down what transpired during his conversations – they are recorded in a volume called Notes of Conversations, 1848-1875: Amos Bronson Alcott, edited by Karen English.

Conversation like music

There is also an anonymous account of one such a conversation by a newspaper reporter, the account being known as “An Evening with Alcott.” In Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, John Matteson uses this account to describe Bronson’s art of conversation employing the analogy of music. (Note – all page numbers come from the e-book edition).

A jazz solo

Matteson writes, “Almost by design, an Alcott conversation was evanescent. Like an improvised musical solo, it was produced in order to fill the air with a momentary pulsation, imparting a flash of insight before moving on to the next equally ephemeral spark.” (p. 230). In essence, Matteson is equating Bronson’s conversations to jazz.

from Tablets by Amos Bronson Alcott

Where is it going?

Anyone who has listened to jazz improvisation knows that even though it appears the solo is going nowhere and everywhere, it actually ends up somewhere – at the ear and heart of the listener. You aren’t always sure what you have heard (if you are not a musician yourself), but you know you just experienced something sublime. The skill of the instrumentalist has just led you on a unique journey never to be repeated.

The anonymous newspaper reporter writes of a similar type of experience:
“”Do you remember what he says? Most likely not, or only certain isolated but splendid phrases which shock you as especially out of the common orbit of thought-or, in the strict, not conventional sense of the word, eccentric. But you do not regret that no tangible opinions remain in your memory, like a mellow autumn day, or, like a soft, tender melody, you recall his conversation only as an ethereal and delicate influence.” (pg. 230)

Waiting for people to converse with, and tempting them with apples . . .

Oratory vs. conversation

There is a difference between being a great orator, where you most likely are addressing a large crowd, to conducting a small group conversation. Bronson was not known as a great orator, but in some inexplicable way, he created an atmosphere of intimacy. Graced with great charisma, it is likely Bronson had that special gift for making each individual feel like he (or she, but mostly likely he) was the only one in the room; Bronson was speaking only to him. (p. 230)

Debate or the insertion of partisan views was not permitted:
“When Bronson spoke to an uninitiated audience, he explained to them, that, in his definition, conversation was an endeavor to find points on which a company could sympathize in feeling. He thought it inappropriate for anyone to present his own individual views for the sake of argument or debate.” (p. 231)

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

How much actual “conversing”
was there?

Since most participants found it hard to keep their own point of view out of the conversation and still contribute, there was little actual back and forth: “The author of ‘An Evening with Alcott’ observed that the conversation he witnessed was not a conversation in any ordinary sense, for no one had conversed.” (p. 231)

In many respects, Bronson was on a different plane from his participants, making a two-way dialog nearly impossible.
Still, our friend the reporter was deeply inspired: “He aspired to ‘touching those fine chords in every heart which will inspire them to respond to one’s own experience.’ ”
(p. 230)

What must it have been like to listen to a speaker improvise like the finest jazz musician? Has anyone since been able to duplicate that experience?


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3 Replies to “The art of conversation, Bronson-style”

  1. Thoeau said of Alcott in Walden:

    “I should not forget that during my last winter at the pond there was another welcome visitor, who at one time came through the village, through snow and rain and darkness, till he saw my lamp through the trees, and shared with me some long winter evenings. One of the last of the philosophers — Connecticut gave him to the world — he peddled first her wares, afterwards, as he declares, his brains. These he peddles still, prompting God and disgracing man, bearing for fruit his brain only, like the nut its kernel. I think that he must be the man of the most faith of any alive. His words and attitude always suppose a better state of things than other men are acquainted with, and he will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve. He has no venture in the present. But though comparatively disregarded now, when his day comes, laws unsuspected by most will take effect, and masters of families and rulers will come to him for advice.”

    I’m not sure if you’ve ever read Walden, but if not — you SHOULD. 🙂

    1. What a beautiful passage. Would that we could have been flies on wall, listening to those conversations …. and knowing them both, even flies would have been welcome guests!

      I read Walden in school but obviously need to read it again and I want to, badly. I also want to read Cape Cod … so many books, so little time!

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