Bronson Alcott Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111205019-Alcott_B.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Contributions: Alcott was a teacher and a prominent member of New England’s Transcendental community. His educational methods focused on moral, spiritual, and imaginative development and encouraged independent thought. He also founded a short-lived utopian community called Fruitlands. He is perhaps most famous as the father of author Louisa May Alcott.

Early Life

Amos Bronson Alcott, the eldest of eight children, was born into a farming family near Wolcott, Connecticut. He attended the local district school, and displayed, from the start, a fondness for literature and elegant rhetoric. His father sent him at the age of thirteen to study with his mother’s brother, the Reverend Tillotson Bronson, who was principle of the Cheshire Academy. It was hoped that Alcott might enter the academy and eventually become a clergyman, but, overcome by homesickness, he returned home within a month.

The following year, Alcott was sent to nearby Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn clock making. Again he was unhappy, this time depressed by the monotony of the work, and again he returned home. A few months’ study with the local pastor completed his formal education, but his trade was still unsettled. The idea of teaching appealed to him, and he received a license to teach. However, he was not hired by any of the local schools, so he became a peddler. Alcott enjoyed the life of an itinerant salesman, which allowed him to set his own hours. Furthermore, the changing landscapes and the people he met both stimulated and educated him. Alcott stated years later that peddling had been his university.

After initially working the New England countryside, Alcott embarked on a southerly trek. In Virginia, the planters who gave him lodging were charmed by his good looks and civilized speech. Alcott was likewise taken by the southerners’ elegance and easygoing warmth, which was a far cry from the austerity of New England. They opened their homes and libraries to the intellectual young peddler, and it was from them that Alcott (who, around this time, began going by the name Bronson Alcott) acquired one of his most remarked-upon characteristics: an elegant, royal manner that some would later refer to as his princely air. On a more substantial level, he also gained the vision of a way of life that valued ideas and pleasures as much as pious hard work.

Further south, in North Carolina, Alcott found himself trading among Quakers. These people were certainly less pleasure-loving and flashy than the Virginia planters, but their ideas—at least as contrasted with New England Calvinism—were radical. The Quakers emphasized the essential goodness of the human soul and the primacy of a personal relationship to God. Their libraries yielded William Penn, Robert Barclay, and George Fox, whose ideas would form the basis of Alcott’s budding Transcendentalism. The Quakers also gave Alcott his first brief taste of school teaching. At the age of twenty-four, Alcott returned out of this “university” to Connecticut. He was transformed not only in name but also in philosophy and was determined to be a teacher.

Life’s Work

Over the next five years, Alcott taught in the areas around his native Wolcott. His cousin William was already an established teacher in the region and served as a mentor to the younger Alcott. William was intelligent and hardworking and was known for the absolute discipline he maintained in his classrooms. Alcott also insisted on complete silence and attention in his classroom (this was by no means the norm in rural nineteenth century schools), but the two young men, while congenial, had very different emphases. While William had a reputation as a “smart” teacher, Alcott was emerging as a visionary—and a heretic.

Alcott’s aims were lofty: an education that addressed not only the intellectual but also the physical, emotional, and moral aspects of each child. Believing that a child learned better in a beautiful environment than in a plain one, he decorated his classrooms with fine art and busts of great thinkers and philosophers. His curriculums incorporated organized games and calisthenics, singing, and group discussions; they were contrived to make learning fun, not arduous. He rarely resorted to corporal punishment, as he did not want any of his students to associate learning with pain. His classes operated largely on an honor system. Such radical...

(The entire section is 1833 words.)