Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Alcott, Amos Bronson (1799-1888)
Author:
Mason, Julian
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Bronson Alcott, educator and philosopher, was born at Spindle Hill, Connecticut, on 29 November 1799. His formal schooling ended when he was thirteen, and he became a peddler. After being impressed by Quaker beliefs in 1822, he adapted many of them to his use as a teacher and thinker, particularly the belief that there is something of God in each person. This informed the teaching he did (beginning in 1824) in a series of schools, primarily in New England, over much of the rest of his life. In 1830 he married Abigail May, and they eventually had four daughters, including Louisa May (1832), the writer. His liberal ideas about education were often controversial and misunderstood, and his difficult-to-read writings were not very helpful. He was a participant in the transcendental movement and moved to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1840, where he lived most of the rest of his life. His family was often in financial uncertainty until the authorial success of Louisa. He was paralyzed by a stroke in 1882 and died in Boston on 4 March 1888. 

Walt Whitman and Alcott shared various general beliefs, including those related to transcendentalism and those growing out of the interest of each in Quaker ideas and practice. In the fall of 1856 Alcott went to New York for several months. During the preceding winter he had been introduced to Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass and found himself enthusiastic about it, so on 4 October 1856 he went to Brooklyn to visit Whitman. Alcott visited with Whitman a number of times over the ensuing weeks and was given a copy of the 1856 Leaves of Grass. Although they were different in temperament and demeanor, they came to admire each other and to consider themselves friends, a friendship which lasted the rest of their lives. They not only explored each other's ideas, but Whitman was also glad to be able to discuss Ralph Waldo Emerson with someone who knew Emerson. Over the years, they occasionally corresponded and exchanged things they had published. Their last meeting came on 17 September 1881 when Whitman visited New England. As time passed, Alcott's admiration for Whitman as both man and writer had steadily grown, and he had come to think of Whitman as a wise representative of America and its potential. Whitman thought Alcott's best trait to be his upholding of the supremacy of the spiritual aspects of humanity and life. Alcott wrote to Whitman on 28 April 1868, "I am interested in all you choose to communicate" (Letters 435), and on 10 October 1856 he wrote to Abigail Alcott, "I am well rewarded for finding this extraordinary man" (Letters 200). In 1888, after Alcott's death, Whitman said, "Alcott was always my friend" (With Walt Whitman 1:333) and called him one of "the wise wondering seers . . . quite exceptional" (With Walt Whitman 3:267).  

Bibliography

Alcott, A. Bronson. The Journals of Bronson Alcott. Ed. Odell Shepard. Boston: Little, Brown, 1938. 

____. The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott. Ed. Richard L. Herrnstadt. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1969. 

Dahlstrand, Frederick C. Amos Bronson Alcott: An Intellectual Biography. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1982. 

Shepard, Odell. Pedlar's Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott. Boston: Little, Brown, 1937. 

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. New York: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.


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