From Alcott Memoirs: Bronson from the point of view of a grateful student

In his book, Alcott Memoirs, Dr. Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis spends much time describing the special relationship he shared with Bronson Alcott, and the profound effect Bronson had on Dr. Willis’ life. As a teenage boy, Willis spent many hours in conversation with Bronson and recorded some of these in his journal. Thus we have a recorded conversation with Bronson from the point of view of one of his students.

In a previous post, I had written about John Matteson’s description of Bronson’s conversations (found in Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father). His delightful depiction made me long for some written account that captured the essence of these conversations. I have found such in Alcott Memoirs.

This is just a short example.


Even in my youth Mr. Alcott seemed to me always strangely out of place in the midst of the practical utilitarianism of the 19th century, and out of place, too, clad in modern broadcloth. He should have been of the days of Socrates or Seneca and worn the flowing robes of classic Greece or the toga of ancient Rome. He was possessed of a captivating yet almost childlike simplicity of manner and bore about with him an air of serene repose, contrasting sharply with the bustling, business-like manner of most of the literary men of those days.

In person he was tall and spare, his fine head crowned with silvery locks, his complexion remarkable for its clearness and purity, the flesh tints being as clearly white and red as those of an infant …

As a remarkable evidence of the sympathy between the poet and the philosopher another of the latter’s Orphic Sayings seems to me most appropriate, not only for similarity’s sake as an interesting example of a prose and poetical treatment of the same thought, but because the prose outlines the fundamental principles of Mrs. Eddy s Christian Science almost uncannily, despite its predating this doctrine very many years. “Evil has no positive existence. It has usurped a positive place and being in the popular imagination and by the imagination must be made to flee away into negative life. How shall this be done? By shadowing forth in vivid colors the absolute beauty and phenomena of good; by assuming evil not as positive but as negative; the dark back ground and blot in the picture by contrast. God alone is eternal good, eternal truth. Evil, like its prototype darkness, is not a thing at all but the absence of a thing.”

Mr. Alcott lived his philosophy. He believed in it so thoroughly that to his intimates his daily life exemplified this point far more than his teachings or writings. I have read everything his able pen has uttered. My most lasting impressions, however, are the memories of his simple Sunday afternoon talks. Upon these occasions he laid aside the language of his public utterances, substituting simple concise English expressed with such charm and direction that we elder children had no difficulty in fully comprehending him. I recall the general tenor and much of the phraseology of some of these delightful conversations; of one instance my journal records: “There are no limitations to ideas but there are certain principles from which must spring all true ideas and on the basis of which all principles must rest. A departure from these is an emergence at once into difficulties and doubts, into uncertainties and mischances.”

“But,” I asked, “how can one know these principles?”

“They are the light that lighteth every man that cometh in the world,” he replied; “they appeal to every consciousness. It is not because men mistake them that they build upon them errors of philosophy or religion, but because they seek to bend these simple truths to suit conditions that do not accord with them. That is, they endeavor to take these foundation stones out of the Temple of Truth and fit them into a structure of their own. I will give you two or three principles that will be sufficient for your guidance through life, but will be of no avail unless you strive to fit them to your life and make them the foundation stones upon which to build your character.

First: The Infinite Supreme, the creator of all life. God, our Father, and His inseparable co-relative man, our brother.

Second: The divine in the human. This is the undying force within every human soul and its means of growth. It is the destiny of this divine spark to glow and finally shine forth in splendor. There is no power nor circumstance here or here after, that can control the development of this force.

Third: The spirit and all its attributes in man are eternal.”

Mr. Alcott believed it was upon these principles, true in themselves, that false structures, false theological conceptions, among them total depravity, an endless hell of physical torture, immediate sanctification that permitted a murderer from a scaffold to enter the highest heaven, had been built. The result of all these he believed to be the shaping of the future into unnatural condition ; a dead future separated from a living present. As he spoke, he became wonderfully radiant, I well remember. He defined the soul as an entity that, after the body was dead, lived on subject to a higher strata of the same moral, social, and intellectual laws as governed the body ere dissolution. For Jesus the man, Mr. Alcott manifested a loving admiration and a tender regard. It was not worship.

One day I asked him if he thought Jesus held any vital relation to the living present. I cannot recall the details of his reply and my journal does not record it; but I remember that he believed Jesus held as real and significant a relation to humanity as He did when He died centuries before; and unfaltering faith in all the attributes, faculties, and power of the spirit of man compelled him to believe in the interpenetration of two spheres of being; that the law of sympathy alone was sufficiently possible to bring a man under the individual guidance and influence of Jesus Himself.

I remember this was to me an intensely interesting conversation. I was startled by his declaring any living man might truthfully assert, as did Jesus in substance, “I am the cause and producer of all things, for you can place no man outside of infinity.” I think more than any other one thing Mr. Alcott s philosophy influenced my life course. I look back over the hills and valleys of memory and, seeing this, I gratefully acknowledge. As I write the vividness of imprint he made upon my boy mind in many conversations comes back to me as fresh and green as the first leaves in an April wood. (pages 26-27, 53, 57-60, Alcott Memoirs Posthumously Compiled from Papers, Journals and Memoranda of the late Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis by E. W. L. & H. B.)

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