in 1799 to an illiterate flax farmer in Wolcott, Connecticut,
Amos Bronson Alcott was singular among the Transcendentalists
in his unassailable optimism and the extent of his self-education.
With the encouragement of his spirited and resourceful mother,
he taught himself to read and write by forming letters in charcoal
on the kitchen floorboards. Profoundly influenced by John Bunyan's
book, Pilgrim's Progress, Bronson left home at the age of seventeen
to become a peddler in Virginia and the Carolinas.
the sheer force of his personality, he charmed prosperous Southern
families into opening their doors, and thus was introduced to
an aesthetic and elegance that inspired him for the rest of his
life. After five years, he returned to Connecticut, determined
to become an educator. Attracted to Pestalozzi's innovative child-centered
educational ideas, he soon began a long and varied career as a
1830, Bronson married Abigail May, the descendent of a prominent
Boston family. Abba was a reform-minded woman of remarkable intellect
and passionate temperament. Together, they had four daughters
and one son who died soon after he was born. His second daughter,
Louisa, became a world-famous writer, and his youngest daughter,
May, was a critically acclaimed artist.
Alcott was singular among the Transcendentalists in boldly embodying
his ideals. In his schools he introduced art, music, nature study,
field trips, and physical education into the curriculum, while
banishing corporal punishment. He encouraged children to ask questions
and taught through dialogue and example.
daughter, Louisa, wrote of his methods: "My father taught
in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child's nature,
as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strasbourg
goose, with more than it could digest." Because his ideas
were radically innovative, many parents did not understand the
value of Alcott's methods and his schools often failed. For this
reason, the Alcotts moved more than 20 times in the first thirty
years of their marriage.
that the key to social reform and spiritual growth lay in the
crucible of the family, Alcott instilled the values of self-reliance,
self-sacrifice, and charity in his children from an early age.
He promoted self-expression by nurturing his daughters' individual
talents and encouraging them to keep journals. These journals
were shared with other family members to foster openness of thought
Ralph Waldo Emerson met Alcott in Boston in the late 1830's, he
was so impressed with his intellect and innovative ideas that
he convinced him to move to Concord and join his circle of friends.
There, Alcott turned to farming, lecturing, and writing to support
his family, but his efforts were limited in their effectiveness.
A few years later, with his English Transcendental friend, Charles
Lane, Bronson founded the short-lived experimental Utopian community,
Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts.
community's attempt to establish a "consociate family"
and pursue an idealistic, agrarian lifestyle which would deprive
no animal or human of life, liberty, or property, was sabotaged
by ill-considered timing and a lack of established rules and procedures.
Following the failure of the Fruitlands endeavor, Alcott sank
briefly into the one interlude of despondency in his otherwise
confidently optimistic life.
ideas were instrumental in forming Emerson's thought as recorded
in the transcendental seminal work, Nature. Alcott was an early
admirer of Thoreau's reasoned philosophy of civil disobedience,
and acted upon those principles several years before Thoreau did.
He embraced a more broader conception of truth than his friends,
asserting that true genius encompassed intellect, nature, and
was an inveterate talker, and loved leading "Conversations,"
free-flowing discussions on selected topics. Because his conversations
lacked systematic thought or continuity, participants were sometimes
disappointed at the lack of direction. Yet Alcott was, typically,
undaunted. "All the beauty and advantages of Conversation,"
he wrote, "is in its bold contrasts, and swift surprises...
Prose and logic are out of place, where all is flowing, magical,
his later years, Alcott traveled throughout the Midwest on lecture
tours, where he finally achieved recognition for his ideas on
education and transcendentalism. During the Civil War, he served
as Superintendent of Schools in Concord, and in 1879, thanks to
the financial support of his admirers, he was able to achieve
a lifelong dream and founded the Concord School of Philosophy.
One of the first summer schools for adults, the School of Philosophy
continued for nine years and drew people from all over the United
outlived his closest transcendentalist friends, dying on March
4, 1888, two days before his famous daughter, Louisa, succumbed
to the long-term effects of mercury poisoning. The Concord School
of Philosophy closed in July of that year after holding a memorial
service honoring Alcott.