As a 19th century woman from a well-connected family, nineteen-year-old Abba Alcott was decidedly unconventional. She resisted the idea of marriage, preferring instead to study while nurturing dreams of opening her own school. Abba dreaded the pairing that had been arranged for her with cousin Samuel May Frothingham; his unexpected death freed her from that commitment. Thereafter she refused to make social calls or to be introduced to eligible young men, much to the puzzlement of her father, Colonel Joseph May.
Although ambitious, Abba lacked the confidence to step out on her own to open a school; she needed a partner. Her sister Louisa shared in that dream until Louisa met her future husband, Samuel Greele.
Other family duties precluded Abba’s ambition. After the untimely death of her sister Eliza, Abba, now the family spinster, took over the care of Eliza’s two young children. Admitting that she found her duties “burdensome,” it makes me wonder if she truly had the temperament to be a teacher. Here were two children she could have educated.
It was during this time that Abba was exposed to the grim reality of slavery. Brother Samuel Joseph, who had traveled down south with Louisa before her marriage, sent letters home to Abba describing black men and women in chains waiting to be sold. Although slavery had been outlawed in Massachusetts, it was still practiced in Connecticut where Samuel made his home. Never before had he or any member of the family witnessed slavery’s true nature. It would plant the seed of abolitionism in the both Samuel and Abba, a passion they would share throughout their lives.
That fervor for reform would stem not from Colonel May, although he dedicated his life to duty. It would come instead from Abba’s mother, Dorothy Sewall May. Abba and her mother drew close to one another, sharing not only ideas about reform, but Abba’s personal dreams of teaching and writing. When Dorothy died in 1825, 25-year-old Abba was devastated
.Less than a year after the death of his wife, Colonel May at 65, married 39-year-old Mary Ann Atkinson Cary. The new Mrs. May was only fourteen years older than her new stepdaughter.
Abba’s world was shrinking around her. Unmarried with no prospects, and feeling unwelcome in her father’s home, she was ripe for the taking by Amos Bronson Alcott, the visionary educator. As with Dorothy, Abba could share her passion for reform and education with Bronson. Further, she saw him as a means of bettering herself by following his lead. She would have to apply her unconventional forward manner to draw him out and she succeeded; they were finally married in May of 1830.
Questions to consider:
- Did Bronson, in fact, help Abba’s dreams to come true? Why or why not?
- Did she succeed in becoming a better person by marrying him? Why or why not?
- Is it possible the hopes she had shared with her mother came to fruition in another way? How?
- If you were Abba, looking back on your life, how would you assess it?