A day at Houghton: Getting to know the inner Bronson through his own hand

houghtonEver 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.

from smallnotes.library.virginia.edu - (MSS 7052-c, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)
from smallnotes.library.virginia.edu – (MSS 7052-c, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

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.

Many admirers

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

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402The 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.

Similar experience

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.

Difficult patrons

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.

Gracious sympathy

lizzieThere were others, however, who were magnanimous. A certain William Russell from Lancaster, MA was also informed of a delay in meeting Bronson and his response was as follows:

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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11 Replies to “A day at Houghton: Getting to know the inner Bronson through his own hand”

  1. .
    June 11, 2013 at 6:48 pm
    Does anyone know for sure if John Pratt married or adopted a son?
    Can anyone also elaborate on the trouble caused by Lulu’s father when Lulu returned to him and he made her write offensive letters to Anna Pratt regarding Louisa;s will as he wanted his daughter Lulu to get a bigger share of the will.
    Lulu stated (in an interview to an author) that she was forced to rite these nasty letters that she believed could have contributed to Anna’s death.
    Thanks,

    Anna.

    1. The only source I know of for your questions is Harriet Reisen’s biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women (in particular, the epilogue, “How They Turned Out.”) I was hoping that her notes would better show where she got her information; I am assuming a lot of it came from the late Madelon Bedell’s notes. Bedell does indeed quote Lulu as saying that the nasty affairs with Ernst Nieriker may have hastened Anna’s death but that’s all speculation on Lulu’s part since she was separated from Anna. Ernst Nieriker wanted half of Louisa’s estate for Lulu (rather than the quarter that was bequeathed) and fought bitterly for it. Lulu felt the whole affair was entirely unjust. As it was, when she married Rasim, her father disapproved because when she married, she took the inheritance money with her. This is all found in Reisen’s book.

      As far as I can tell, John Pratt Alcott did not marry nor have any adopted children (source Concord Library http://www.concordlibrary.org/scollect/fin_aids/ANP_family.html)

  2. Thank you for giving us Bronson in his own words. Like you, I did not find him to be a person with regrets after his actions had caused pain to others. Finding an example makes him more human to me.

    1. I’m currently combing his letters for references to Lizzie because he makes some interesting ones. The problem is that the letters are quite tedious with so much focus on his work. I find myself wishing that someone would put together a book of correspondences between the family members. You have a book with Bronson’s letters, another with Abba’s letters (but none to Bronson, a serious flaw I think) and then just smatterings of letters from the girls. A volume with the best of the family letters, showing the back and forth of conversation through them, would make wonderful reading. I was actually able to find a reply from Bronson to a letter that Abba had written about Lizzie’s bout of depression in 1853 – that was cool. 🙂

  3. I’m always struck by the beautiful handwriting of our forebears. Fast forward a few decades and, as you said, so little examples of handwriting will be left in letters…digital communication won’t compare. But will people even realize that, or care? Will there someday be a pendulum swing with a return to more “personal” communication?

    1. Me too. I think it may have something to do with the pens they used. I’m sure it took a lot more effort to write with those pens. My great-grandmother has an autograph book and it is filled with such beautiful handwriting. She lived during the time of Louisa in the Lynn, MA area and I was hoping she’d have an autograph but she didn’t. 😦

      The way people write reveals a lot about their personality. I have a letter written by Lizzie when she was seventeen and in one glance I got a major snapshot of her personality. The words alone would never have revealed what her handwriting revealed. I’ll be posting about that soon.

      1. Now that I look forward to – I have always been particularly interested in Lizzie.

  4. My handwriting always starts out pretty tidy but quickly escalates into a scrawl, where I mix script with printed letters and upper and lower case. What’s that mean? 🙂

    1. Sounds like you’re in a hurry to get your thoughts down on paper! I do the same thing (except my once neat handwriting is always looking like scrawl) – with me, I don’t write that much because I type all the time so my hand cramps up rather quickly.

      1. Oh, me too. (Typing/hand-cramping.) Yes, I’m pretty much always in a hurry. I wonder if mixing capitals vs. lowercase and script vs. print means anything? That’s not about hurry — I just switch sporadically. Indecisive? LOL. (Not expecting an answer — ha! I know you’re busy!)

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