Last Wednesday I attended the first of three lectures on Bronson Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA, presented by Helen Batchelder, a local scholar.
Fruitlands in the dark
I have never been to Fruitlands before in the dark and it was disconcerting to see the lights over the mountains, reminding me it was 2017 and not 1843. Gazing down the road however, I could not make out the red farmhouse in the dark and for a moment, I could feel the intense loneliness and isolation of living there. The Fruitlands experiment was, if anything, high drama for two families and it was to impact them for the rest of their lives. To get a sense of the tragedy of Fruitlands, I highly suggest reading John Matteson’s account in Eden’s Outcasts.
Genius, deadbeat, visionary or crackpot?
But back to the present. Part one of this lecture series focused on Bronson Alcott, the man. She opened with comments from contemporaries (and one current writer), demonstrating the conundrum that is Bronson Alcott:
- In 1837, lifelong friend Ralph Waldo Emerson called Alcott the “highest genius of all time,” always seeking the truth
- Another dear friend, Henry David Thoreau called Alcott the sanest man he ever knew, the only friend of human progress.
- On the flip side, Joseph Tinker Buckingham, editor of the Boston Courier thought Alcott insane after the publication of the controversial Conversations with Children on the Gospels, the fruit of his labor at the Temple School.
Next door neighbor Julian Hawthorne called Alcott a bore and a boar!
- Shortly after Bronson’s death The New York Post in 1889 praised Alcott for his educational theories.
- William Torrey Harris, an educational reformer who advocated for high schools to have libraries, considered his encounter with Alcott in the 1850s lifechanging, learning of the inner life of the soul. He would later pair with Frank B. Sanborn to write the first biography on Alcott.
- And then we have our modern-day writer, Sarah Paine Stuart, author of Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate who writes: “Ralph Waldo Emerson … had urged his crackpot friend, Bronson Alcott, to move there … Forget teaching, Emerson told Bronson — you are here to produce great literature. But this was before Emerson had actually read anything Bronson had written. Soon he was fondly calling him “a man of no talent,” if you can call that fond. Emerson had been totally taken in by Bronson who moved seraphically in worn robes like the prophet he claimed to be. Emerson — with three manic-dpressive brothers in and out of the bin — should have known better.” (pgs. 43-44)
- His famous daughter Louisa May wrote, “I know you were a serene & placid baby … looking philosophically out of your cradle at the big world around you …”
Before beginning her lecture, Ms. Batchelder engaged us in a sample conversation, posing a typical Alcottian question of what makes identity. She then outlined his life, beginning at his birthplace in Wolcott, CT, Spindle Hill. She and a collegue visited the homestead and was actually invited inside — I invited her to guest post, describing her experience and sharing rare photographs.
Sign of the times
Ms. Batchelder’s presentation wove in the mood of the times Bronson Alcott lived in, just after the American Revolution. The nineteenth century was a time of rapid change and expansion of the country and Alcott one of the first original American thinkers who, as an unofficial ambassador, took those ideas to Ham, England and Alcott House. While the Fruitlands utopian community which grew out of that visit only lasted 7 months, its impact is still felt today through its ideas.
Here are some of the slides she shared during her lecture:
Was Bronson Alcott a genius or a crackpot? A little bit of both? You decide. But don’t do it until you learn more about this fascinating man and his life (and then you still may not be able to decide!).
Part two of the series will focus on Bronson Alcott the educator and will conclude with a lecture on Transcendentalism and its impact.
You are asked to pre-register by calling 978-456-3924, ext. 291. Cost is $12 for members, $20 for non-members.
I will be posting Ms. Batchelder’s account of her visit to Spindle Hill in the next couple of days.
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