An evening with John Matteson: Bronson Alcott as educator, the family’s relevance, and the author’s personal journey

new north church
The New North Church in downtown Hingham, MA

Hingham, Massachusetts’ New North Church has been running a three-part series on “The Alcotts” featuring Eve LaPlante (Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother), John Matteson (Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father) and Jan Turnquist (executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House and noted portrayer of Louisa May Alcott).

Setting the stage:
Hingham’s relationship to the Alcott family

Yes, that is Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House - maybe she is sitting in Abba's pew ...
Yes, that is Jan Turnquist (2nd row, L), executive director of Orchard House – maybe she is sitting in Abba’s pew …

New North Church set the stage perfectly. Built in 1807, it contains the original box pews and a magnificent mahogany altar. In his introduction Pastor Bill Turpie shared connections that the church and the town had with the Alcotts, including a tantalizing tidbit regarding Abba, who attended services while visiting friends in Hingham just before she married Bronson. One of us could have been sitting in the very pew where she sat!

Hingham hosted other family members as well. Abba’s brother, the Rev. Samuel May, an early abolitionist, studied under Hingham preachers while Bronson Alcott lectured at the Loring Hall shortly after the closing of the Temple School in Boston in 1841.

Bronson Alcott, educator

John Matteson delivers a lecture on Bronson Alcott.
John Matteson delivers a lecture on Bronson Alcott.

John Matteson was the presenter that night and his topic was Bronson Alcott. He is an engaging lecturer mixing infectious passion with bits of dry humor. From the pulpit that towers over the congregation he spoke of Bronson’s educational techniques which consisted of drawing knowledge out of children through the art of conversation. Bronson believed that children were divine celestial beings possessing insight that is long forgotten by adults. Record of a School, compiled by then teaching assistant Elizabeth Peabody and his own Conversations with Children on the Gospels reveal that insight.

School and family

The Temple School
The Temple School

School to Bronson was akin to the home and he sought to create a family atmosphere (one reason why he insisted on having female teaching assistants, to mimic a father and a mother). Under the influence of German philosopher Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s pamphlet “Hints to Parents,” Bronson’s Temple School embodied the comfortable atmosphere of home.

Success and failure

For a time the Temple School flourished until the publication of Conversations with Children on the Gospels. The provocative nature of those conversations proved too much for provincial Boston; that along with the admittance of an African American girl closed the school.

Father and daughter

sample of a letter from Bronson Alcott to Louisa when she was seven.
Sample page of a letter from Bronson Alcott to Louisa on her 7th birthday, from “Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott”

Matteson admires Bronson Alcott but is quick to point out Alcott’s autocratic, manipulative and overbearing style, especially when it came to his own children. Matteson shared a letter written to Louisa for her tenth birthday where Bronson begins by pleading with Louisa to let him into her life (employing guilt) and then pointing out a long list of his daughter’s faults.

The model for Plumfield

little menMatteson then provided an interesting comparison between the Temple School and the fictional Plumfield of Little Men. He concluded that in actuality, Plumfield imitated Fruitlands because of its melding together of family life and school; in essence daily living within a family unit (whether it be a biological or consociate family) constituted education. Temple School presented academics in a more formal setting. The difference, of course is that Plumfield was a rousing success, influencing generations of readers while Fruitlands was a failure.

The state of education today

Matteson concluded his lecture with a lament about education today and the total lack of community that Bronson had advocated. As a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he pointed out that education happens in the classroom alone with little else going between students and teachers in the halls and common areas of the school.

(Click here for related posts on John Matteson’s take on Bronson from Eden’s Outcasts).

Q & A

John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.
John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.

Coming down from the pulpit, Matteson then came to his favorite portion of the program, the question and answer segment. Members of the audience asked terrific questions including these: Did Matteson know of any alumnae from the Temple School that could testify to its efficacy? Why the title of Eden’s Outcasts? Why the focus on Bronson Alcott? Is the Alcott family relevant to today’s world?

A personal journey

Matteson shared that Eden’s Outcasts was in fact, an intensely personal work. At the time of the writing of the book, he was very involved in the raising of his daughter Rebecca, now nineteen and a freshman at Wellesley College. He was able to relate to Bronson as one father to another.

Great relevance

The only known portrait of the Alcott family from www.louisamayalcott.org
The only known portrait of the Alcott family from http://www.louisamayalcott.org

He vigorously affirmed the questioner who asked about the relevance of the Alcotts, pointing to their long and winding road to happiness. With character and talents purified by trial and consistent hard work, most members of the family achieved a form of happiness and success even if it was late in the game. Bronson himself did not start to experience success until after the publication of Little Women in 1868 and he was able to revel in that success for years to come. Louisa toiled in obscurity for some twenty years before hitting the jackpot with Little Women. Younger sister May was on the threshold of success as a professional artist before death took her prematurely.

A definition of happiness that endures

little women with marmeeMatteson believes the Alcotts are relevant because of the values they lived so well: generosity, hard work and a commitment to reform and to each other. Despite all the hardship, the family remained a strong, loving unit. A running theme in Louisa’s novels is that happiness is not necessarily getting what you think you want. In Little Women, none of the sisters got exactly what they wished for when mapping out their “castles in the air.” Yet what they got made them truly happy (and that even accounts for Beth who undoubtedly took the fast track to Heaven.)

A tease …

Having long wanted to ask Matteson a particular question, I got my chance. That question sparked an electric exchange and a watershed moment for me as a writer.

And you’ll have to wait until the next post to find out about that moment!

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3 Replies to “An evening with John Matteson: Bronson Alcott as educator, the family’s relevance, and the author’s personal journey”

  1. Thank you for this description. I thought Matteson’s book was outstanding and it led me Alcott’s Conversations with Chidren about the Gospels. That, in turn, helped me to see Bronson in a whole new light.

    I am looking forward to the next post/

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