(soo frustrated about the fate of the dreaded novel...too many cast members don't know their lines and we open next week...tired of not being able to will myself not to wonder about things I shouldn't think about...would love to go somewhere, anywhere, sigh...)
People have often tried to create the ideal community, a utopia that is typically conceived as a place where everyone lives together, shares all the tasks, shares all the wealth, shares everything. Living this way is supposed to make people happy and society good and peaceful. Unfortunately, it never seems to work out that way. Is it because people haven’t quite nailed down the formula for communes or utopias? Or is it, well, maybe they really aren’t a great way to live?
Communes and group living is often considered a very 1960s thing, but they were also very much in vogue in the 19th century. Brook Farm, in Massachusetts, was probably the most famous of these, briefly attracting Nathaniel Hawthorne (who wrote a thinly veiled description of it in The Blithedale Romance) amongst others. The project lasted five years. Less known, and even less successful was another Massachusetts commune, Fruitlands, which was founded by Bronson Alcott.
Yes, Alcott as in Louisa May, Bronson’s daughter and author famous for Little Women, a book that for a long time seemed to be required reading for every little girl. I dutifully read it and didn’t think much of it; the only chapter I liked was the one where Meg went to a party at a rich family’s house. The lesson was supposed to be that Meg, in her simplicity and hand-me-down dress was a much better person (and prettier) than the rich fashionable girls, but my response was more like, “Thank god! At last someone in the family is out of the house and not doing some kind of good deed!” Because that’s the downer part of the book, the frustratingly insistent niceness of it. There are things to like in Little Women, of course. Anyone who has sisters can probably identify to some degree (I throw in ten thousand qualifiers in case my family was not as much like everyone else’s as I thought) with the way the girls read a lot, played imagination games and put on shows, using anything they could dig up around the house for props, sets, and costumes. The characters are clear, lively, and vividly drawn. But there is a relentless do-goodedness to the book that I found wearying—everyone is always giving up something for someone else; this is very nice and admirable and what we should all strive to do, but it can feel like homework. When any of the girls gives in to her real personality or reveals some flaw, she is punished and taught to subjugate it in some way. Of course this is part of 19th century children’s literature, which existed mostly to teach children how to behave, but I didn’t care about this when I was nine. And then there is the historic readers’ dissatisfaction with Jo’s ending up married to Professor Bhaer instead of Laurie. Personally, I always thought Laurie was a little overrated—he’s nice and fun as a boy and all that, but seemed a bit shallow and was probably not the sharpest knife in the drawer. So I wasn’t bothered so much by the fact that Jo didn’t end up with him as I was with her resulting choice of the dull professor. No offense to professors, just this one in particular. It was hard not to come away with the feeling that she only married him because she had to marry someone, not because she really loved him. I remain, I guess, against all odds and sense, a rather hopeless romantic.
Once I read the book, and a few other Alcott novels drifting around the house after a raid on the book section at a garage sale, I didn’t put much thought into Louisa May until I ran across a casual mention somewhere by someone stating that she had not wanted to write the book and was talked into it, and never really felt much for it. Now THAT interested me.
I found a book about not just Louisa May, but the Alcott family, and realized that her father was also a well-known figure in the nineteenth century. Bronson was a dreamer, idealist, and educational theorist. The story of the family’s adventures in the curious world of 19th century Massachusetts Transcendentalists stayed with me, so when I heard about Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, by John Matteson, I immediately put it on my list.
Bronson Alcott was born in 1799 to a Connecticut farming family that did just well enough to get by. He was a dreamy boy who self-educated himself as much as he could until he was old enough to make his way in the world, whereupon he set off for the south, where he had heard schoolmasters from the north were in great demand. They were not, so he became a peddler instead. In that time, being a peddler was kind of a fun life for an adventurous young man—it was a way to see the world, make a little money, and meet different people. The peddlers weren’t considered odd or dangerous, and were often invited into the houses of their wealthy prospective customers. This exposed Bronson to the more refined side of life; his exposure to southern aristocracy took the rough edge off his hardscrabble New England way of speaking, giving him a genteel manner that people noted throughout his life.
Eventually Alcott returned to Connecticut and his original plan of being a schoolmaster. He had definite ideas about education, disliking the rote learning and harsh rules of the typical classroom. He read the theories of a Swiss educator named Johann Pestalozzi, who advocated that education should be about bringing out a person’s innate intelligence rather than cramming a child full of information.
Doing something different that no one had ever seen before never goes over well in small towns, and when you involve people’s children, they get even more suspicious and anxious. Alcott’s early students loved the games he played with them and the way he encouraged them rather than threatened them. He didn’t use corporal punishment and instead instituted a classroom court, where a misbehaving student was judged by his or her peers. While his methods were acclaimed by some observers, parents didn’t like what they saw and Alcott’s school fell apart.
Word of Alcott’s school reached the ears of Samuel May, a minister who invited Alcott to meet him and talk about his ideas on education. The main result of this was that Alcott fell in love with Samuel’s sister, Abigail. She was refined, educated, and the family was well-regarded, decidedly higher-class than the Alcotts. The two married, though, and Abba, as she was known, became the fighter who held the family together for decades to come (in today’s jargon, you might say Bronson outkicked his coverage in his choice of a wife).
Bronson bounced around the next few years starting schools that inevitably shrank after a while. His theories were admired by other theorists, but they made parents nervous. No one likes their kids to be part of an experiment, no matter how great or how benign. Except, perhaps, Bronson Alcott.
Anna Alcott was born in 1831, and in his daughter, Alcott saw a blank slate to use as a test for all his ideas about children and their development. He kept detailed diaries tracking her every move, emotion, and reaction. He wanted to record as much of her life as possible, creating “the history of one human mind, commenced in infancy and faithfully narrated…through all the vicissitudes of life to its close.” Bronson was nothing if not committed to this task—his journals about his first three daughters reached 2500 pages. Handwritten, of course (at last, the man who makes Proust look like a slacker).
Anna was a good, sweet, pretty child, who while observed mightily, was often not given much guidance. Bronson wasn’t big on discipline, believing that children are inherently good and therefore should be left to self-correct. This wasn’t always a great plan, and Bronson had to rethink things a little when Anna, predictably began to be rather bossy and not quite the angel Bronson had envisioned.
Anna’s bouts of temper were nothing compared to what his second daughter had in store. From the beginning, Louisa May was physically energetic, demanding, curious, and decidedly not angelic. As soon as she could walk, she walked away from home and wandered off on her own. She loved running and developed a habit of going for runs in either the early morning or evening that lasted throughout her life (I wonder what it was like for a woman in Victorian dress to go running? She must have turned some heads). When she began to keep her own journal, she defied Bronson’s ideal that she write about others (as Anna did) not herself, stating that she never was allowed to speak about how she felt so therefore she should be allowed to write it. She was the type of child who while dutifully recounting a lesson she had supposedly learned, would put in a sly disclaimer showing she didn’t think much of the lesson’s value. While Bronson and Louisa actually shared a birthday, on the surface they didn’t seem much alike.
Louisa May Alcott in her late teens. Mid-nineteenth century women's hairstyles were amongst history's worst.
Bronson became famous with the establishment of his Temple School in Boston. His assistant, Elizabeth Peabody wrote an admiring account of the school, Record of a School, that won Bronson wide acclaim. The follow-up, Conversations with Children on the Gospels, was a disaster. Peabody warned Bronson about both including the children’s full names and about a section that seemed as if it was getting too close to a discussion about sex for mid-nineteenth century Americans (it actually wasn’t but coming within even miles of the subject was enough to set off alarms), but confident and not particularly worldly Bronson went ahead with it. The resulting scandal reduced the school to a minimum as all but a few parents withdrew their children. The death knell for the school came when an African-American child enrolled; that was too much for even the progressive, intellectual families that were left. (Bronson’s refusal to give in to pressure to keep out the little girl is admirable and he was a committed abolitionist, but he also was very clear that he thought all people with darker skin and hair—not just Africans—were of a lesser intellect than fair people. More 19th century peculiar theories).
Friends such as Emerson helped put enough money together for Alcott to visit England where he was still highly regarded and visit a school named after him. Alcott returned with Charles Lane, a committed utopian who banded together with Alcott to create a commune on a piece of property called Fruitlands in Harvard Massachusetts.
Alcott, his family, and Lane and his son settled in and tried to live what they thought was a perfect life. They ate a vegetarian diet (actually vegan we would call it now, no dairy products permitted) and wore clothes made of linen (since that wasn’t made of any animal products). Alcott and Lane were terrible farmers who made matters worse by choosing land that wasn’t great for farming and trying to start out at a time that was past planting.
Fruitlands constantly struggled. Abba had to do all the cooking and cleaning for everyone who lived there—the children (now four daughters—Anna, Louisa, Lizzie, and May) plus a rotating cast of members who tried the experiment and left after a while. Lane wasn’t particularly well-liked, especially by Louisa. This made sense, considering he didn’t care much for the children or Abba—Lane was taken by the Shaker community that separated the sexes and practiced celibacy. He thought that Abba and the children were inhibiting Bronson’s spiritual growth. Eventually his pressure to break up the family, along with the struggles of everyday living, led the Alcotts to leave Fruitlands. The commune was finished after only seven months (Lane returned to England to manage the Alcott school again, which finally dissolved when Lane became embroiled in a mysterious scandal).
Bronson struggled to find employment. Abba took on a job that could be described as social work. Anna and Louisa went to teach as soon as they were old enough.
Louisa hated teaching and tried to make money selling short stories and began working on a novel. As you might expect from someone who grew up in a family that never had anything, she was obsessed with making money. As she grew up, Louisa developed a somewhat rueful attitude towards her father—she loved him, but she came to grimly accept that he couldn’t provide for her or the family. He was a sort of benevolent presence who if you made the mistake of counting on him, would inevitably disappoint you. Louisa knew Abba was the one who kept the family together.
Louisa worked as hard as she could to turn out potboilers and thrillers by the dozens to sell to the various magazines of the day. She and Anna had dreamed of becoming actresses and while Louisa never tried to act professionally, she participated in amateur theater throughout her life (this is interesting because the family was not so respectable that being involved in theater was not considered out of the question, but just respectable enough to not quite take the step).
When the Civil War broke out, Louisa became a nurse in a hospital in Washington DC. She loved her work and found great meaning in it, but became ill with typhoid and had to return to her family. Her work in the hospital was important for two reasons—one was that it impressed her father, who had never quite known what to make of his tempestuous, passionate daughter. The other was that the book that came out of it, Hospital Sketches, was a huge hit that suddenly made Louisa a well-known name.
Louisa became even more famous when the first part of Little Women was published. As noted above (if you can remember back that far), she had not wanted to write it, but was persuaded by an editor who thought there was a market for a book for girls and Louisa might have a knack for writing for young people. Louisa was so reluctant to start the book that she almost missed her first deadline, and her editor actually didn’t like the first chapters she turned in—then he gave them to a young relative to read and she adored the beginning of the book. He knew he was onto something then, and let Louisa just go on with what she was doing.
The publication of the book resulted in fan mail, publicity (curious visitors stopping by to see where the authoress lived), and of course, money. Louisa was now much better known than her father, who had been both famous and infamous in the first part of the century. Louisa wanted to write “adult” books but spent most of her time trying to keep up with the enormous demand for more books like Little Women, books which would guarantee her the money and security she had never had while growing up (as I always say, if you’ve ever been poor, you will always be poor, no matter how much money you make). She had no serious romances aside from a mild shipboard flirtation with a Polish soldier, many years her junior.
Strangers would come to the Alcott home, Orchard House, just to meet Louisa in person.
Louisa and her father outlived all members of their immediate family except Anna and May’s baby daughter, who Louisa had taken care of after May’s death following the birth of her child. Louisa died about a day and a half after Bronson. He was 88 and she was 55 (her health was ruined when the Army hospital treated her typhoid with perilous doses of mercury).
So why write a book about these two together? Why should they be paired, other than the fact that they’re family? They were opposites in most ways. Bronson was the type of person who drifts happily through life, unconcerned with material things, but who others always take care of, and who always lands on his feet. He had a final brief bout with fame later in life, with the publication of a book of reminiscences of his friendships with Transcendentalist figures such as Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the longtime Alcott benefactor, Emerson, but is now just best-known for his daughter and the association with the other Transcendentalists. Louisa was grittily self-reliant, a fighter who was a lot more like her mother. If Bronson and Louisa had anything in common, it was an unflagging belief in what each of them believed—Bronson in his ideals about people and the world, and Louisa in her writing. Together they bookend different parts of a century—Bronson as the philosophical ponderer of the early 19th century, and Louisa as the working, business-like American of the latter part.
Matteson’s book doesn’t break any new ground if you’ve read anything else about the Alcotts. He writes well-enough, but proceeds mildly rather than at a roaring pace, though with an affection for the people involved that I always like to see. What I particularly appreciated about him, though, was his constant caution about trying not to overread Louisa’s work as biography. Yes, you can look at much of her writing and try to put it into the context of her family, and ascribe meaning to every little thing, but sometimes a story is just a story, and sometimes a memory is just that, not a judgment on someone else. Matteson is careful to point out that what we know from the letters, journals, and other writing is only part of the story. Too true.
Although I’m not a fan of Little Women, I do, I suppose, harbor some sympathy or feel a comradeship with Louisa May Alcott. There are the odd, obvious parallels, like all that running and our useless affinity for the theater. But most of all, I know what it’s like to spend far too much time writing things that you don’t want to write for money while the things you want to write languish, alone and unloved.