I never thought I’d be saying this, especially when it comes to Bronson Alcott but Pedlar’s Progress, a biography on the life of Alcott by Odell Shepherd, is turning out to be an epic read. It may rank among the top ten books on my lifetime list.
A satisfying tactile experience
Could it be because I have an antique copy, dating back to 1937? Could it be the gorgeous cover, carefully repaired and kept on the book as I read so I can enjoy it? Maybe it’s because the pages are browning and the paper soft to the touch. I love that the type is easy to read and the margins wide so I can write in them. The fact that the spine of the book causes it to stay open by itself is definitely a factor.
Getting into Bronson Alcott
A satisfying tactile experience certainly adds to the pleasure but what does it for me is the beautiful writing. Odell Shepherd gets into the mind and essence of Bronson Alcott like no other (he actually read all of Bronson’s journals, an amazing feat, and compiled excerpts into The Journals of Bronson Alcott, published in 1938.). He uncovers the brilliance and beauty, the hunger for knowledge, the heart and the spiritual insight that in particular, shaped Alcott’s extraordinary gifts as a teacher and conversationalist. Shepherd also exposes the inconsistencies, sloppy scholarship and the poor writing skills. He admits to the lack of care of practical matters, and a singular obsession bordering on arrogance and narcissism which oftentimes placed his family in abject poverty despite his deep love for them.
When I first started writing for Louisa May Alcott is My Passion, I found Bronson to be difficult at best. It was hard to forgive the plight he forced upon his wife Abba. He certainly left permanent scars on daughter Louisa due to an insistence on shaping her into his own image. She grew up becoming a workaholic, slavishly providing for the family long after it was necessary. While she achieved great success as a writer, she lamented her ability to grow artistically as a writer.
A change of heart
After reading Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson, I began to change my mind as I saw a new side to Bronson as a mystic. Shepherd’s book completes the story for me. Current biographers comment on his style being old-fashioned (while being totally authentic) but to me, that’s the charm of the book. It was written less than fifty years after Bronson’s death in an era where the values of Bronson’s time could still be understood and appreciated.
Where I’m at in the book
I am halfway through my read, where Conversations with Children on the Gospels has been published (can’t wait to read that one!) and the Temple School is coming apart at the seams. Shepherd cites a letter from Elizabeth Peabody begging to be taken out of Conversations because she senses it will ruin her reputation. Before reading this book, I sympathized totally with Peabody and blamed Bronson for poor judgment. Now I am not so sympathetic. I certainly understand how a woman in her position as an older spinster living in proper Boston had to protect her reputation but the fact is that she had pledge her loyalty to Bronson, offering no objection as she took careful notes of the conversations between him and the children. It was only after she heard whispers from “the parlors of the ‘best families’” that she became afraid for her reputation and backed out.
Not an objective take
It’s obvious that Shepherd is sympathetic with Bronson and does not reproach him for his lack of judgment in that debacle. But Shepherd certainly shows a different side to Peabody’s response demonstrating that there are always two sides to every story.
A different view of Emerson
One other note of interest is Shepherd’s view of Emerson as he discusses the budding friendship that saved Bronson from total despair after the Temple School collapsed. He describes the spirit of Emerson as “shy as a faun of the woods. It was cold as a snow-maiden. Emerson must never know that where he had given only his admiration, his strong and faithful help, his wise counsel, and the partnership of his deep poetic mind, Bronson Alcott had given no less than his whole heart.”
He goes on to accuse Emerson of loving a “fine phrase better than a brave deed.” He then compares the experiences of Alcott to Emerson and it becomes obvious whom he prefers:
“And yet Emerson did make too much of books, of writing, of mere paper and ink. If had gone to school on Spindle Hill instead of attending Harvard College, if he had loaded several tons of Connecticut boulders upon a stoneboat every day for months, or if he had walked ten thousand miles carrying tin trunks from house to house in the Carolinas and Virginia, he might have seen such matters somewhat differently. –But these were things that one said with the head. They had nothing to do with love.”
To take on the revered Emerson in that manner is bold indeed! Yet again, another side to the story.
I can hardly wait to see what Shepherd has to say about Fruitlands!
What are you reading for the challenge? Visit In the Bookcase to see what everyone else is reading.
NOTE: I wrote a separate piece on this book in my spiritual journal which you might like to read. Beautiful writing has a way of lifting the soul up and out of the darkness.
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