Ever since last July I have dreamed of the day I could return to the Houghton Library at Harvard and Saturday was that day. I had made a connection with one of the librarians who had supplied me with scans of three of Abba’s letters (see previous post). She told me that a collection of letters assembled in a book and labeled for Bronson might hold clues on Lizzie. It’s again a case of hidden in plain view. She is on a quiet crusade to properly catalogue each letter.
This librarian’s instinct was correct. A careful reading of Bronson’s letters did indeed present many clues and opened up a Pandora’s box of questions as well. But first, I want to share insights into Bronson that came to light by reading these letters.
The value of handwritten letters
It continues to amaze me how much of a difference it makes reading primary sources. A letter, penned by the hand of an iconic historical figure does much to make that figure a real flesh-and-blood person. In a sense they become smaller, in a good way, by becoming peers. Since the Alcotts lived during the time of my great-grandparents, it feels like I’m reading letters from them.
It disturbs me to think of what future historians will be missing out on by not having handwritten accounts. Our digital age of endless photos, videos and email create a barrier between the person we are studying and ourselves. A sterile email cannot compare with a letter written with the tip of a quill pen on textured paper, letters written in either beautiful broad strokes (Bronson), hapless scrawl (Abba) or picture-perfect script in totally straight lines (Lizzie). A rare letter by Lizzie, written when she was seventeen, revealed so much more by seeing the handwriting than by just revealing the words. This I will get into in the next post.
What first surprised me about the letters were the numerous ones addressed to Bronson from admirers. Often he is gently (or not so gently) mocked for his Conversations but in this collection there were not only letters but small printed flyers announcing his Conversations with the average price of a ticket being three dollars. In conversations he proposed from Walpole in August, 1856, the topic discussed was the Private Life (Descent, Home, Health, Pursuits,Victories). The flyer states, “The discussions, it will be perceived, are suited to select companies, and invite the protection of the parlour, and the presence of ladies particularly.” (Letterbooks of ABA Houghton MS Am 1130.9 (3)).
Flawed business plan
The letters from admirers spoke about the meaningful nature of his Conversations; many of these people extended invitations for him to come to their town to speak. There were informal expense sheets showing the costs of holding these Conversations which made it plain why Bronson never made any money. His audiences were of necessity, small and intimate. Thus, the ticket sales barely paid for the expenses since he did not command the level of fees of his friend Emerson.
I had a flash of understanding and felt great kinship with Bronson and his Conversations. Before I got into writing I was a musician, writing and singing Christian music. I too preferred the intimate settings and I too had a very niche audience (which pretty much guaranteed intimate settings!). The mainstream audience didn’t understand the kind of music I played which I presented more as prayer. But, like Bronson I had my small group of admirers who wrote nice letters and invited me to their towns to perform. Over a sixteen year period I performed live and recorded a series of self-published CD. I never turned a profit but did manage to pay for everything out of my earnings. The music I offer for sale on my website still brings in a little profit which I now use to indulge my Louisa passion.
I approached my music with the same level of commitment as did Bronson with his Conversations. The difference, of course, is that I was gainfully employed and did music on the side as a passionate hobby.
Disciples of Bronson
Bronson had his “disciples.” One young man wrote two long letters to Bronson demanding a reply despite the fact that it was early 1858 and Bronson’s daughter Elizabeth was dying. The man was either clueless, or just unaware of the turmoil in Bronson’s life. His letters were filled with mystical proclamations which he obviously felt were brilliant (but likely were not). Bronson did eventually reply.
Anxious about the home front
In 1857 and 1858 during Lizzie’s illness, Bronson was in the Midwest conducting his Conversations. His frequent letters to Abba detailed the people he met and the success or failure of his efforts. It was clear, however, that there was an underlying anxiety about all that was occurring at home. While Bronson felt compelled to conduct his Conversations (and many would question that compulsion, myself included), his letters also demonstrated deep concern (which included advice and admonitions to Lizzie). I saw his detailed discussions of business as a means of putting off the more difficult discussion of reality. Usually that took place at the end of the letters.
And business had to continue. I recall one letter from a man in April of 1858 who had received notice from Bronson that he would have to delay his coming (as Lizzie had died in March). After the brief, perfunctory mention of sympathy, the man launched into all the inconveniences he encountered in trying to reschedule. Complaining that he had to “notify each person individually,” he demonstrated an incredible smallness of mind and heart.
Mrs. R. and I sympathise (sic) deeply with Mrs. Alcott and yourself in the experience through which you have have been called to pass in the loss of your daughter Elizabeth. Her peculiar traits of mind and character impressed us very deeply with their indications of ample promise for a noble and generous development. Judging from our own experience, however, I think we can assure you that while such a loss leaves a deep felt sense of privation, the solid consolation will from year to year of life, be strengthening in the heart, that such of its treasures are imperishable. Many of your serenest and happiest hours will be those in which the Beloved returns, in the silence of the soul, to irradiate it with her presence. (Ibid)
He too had sick daughter (Mary), a son studying away from home and two additional daughters named coincidentally, Anna and Lizzie.
Moment of truth
One letter from Bronson dated March 2, 1857 made a particularly strong impression. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson had made reference to it. Bronson describes seeing the play, “Medea,” and the impression it made on him:
“The play is exciting, yet enjoyable with all its appalling accompanyments (sic). I wished Anna with me and my family, yet the Spectacle of the Sacrifice would have been too much for my wife, and the tenderhearted Elizabeth, suggesting events too vividly, perhaps, of home experiments and the courage of Principle. I had “Fruitlands” before me, and ideas there celebrated and played out to the applauding snows – the tragedy of ox-team and drifting Family wailing their woes to winding winds. You shall imagine the sequel and the rest.” (Ibid)
It is quite rare to see Bronson express regrets about his actions; the only other time I can recall was after Abba had died and he had a chance to read her journals. Knowing how blunt Abba could be, it is no wonder that Bronson felt compunction about his behavior during their marriage after reading them. The light of revelation that shines on the soul once truth is faced can be searing.
Shedding light on the mystery
In the next post I will get into the advice and admonitions that Bronson sent to Lizzie through his letters. I have a feeling that much can be learned about this mysterious Alcott daughter through a careful scrutiny of the writings of her beloved soul mate.
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