Bronson Alcott, Full-Time Dingaling

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If you’re familiar with Lousia May Alcott’s book “Little Women,” you know “Marmee,” the mother, whose energy and good cheer kept their little family housed and fed and clothed while the dad was off somewhere.

For part of the book the dad is off serving in the Civil War, which Alcott did not, being a pacifist, but the rest of the time he’s just away somewhere and it’s unclear why he isn’t helping out his family.

In the August 1957 issue of American Heritage (the same one with the story of Jane Honeyman and the story about the Battle of New Orleans and the picture of Robert E. Lee on Traveler) there’s an article by Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger called “The Philosopher’s Wife and the Wolf at the Door” about Abigail “Abba” May Alcott, who had to work like a drudge to support her family while her husband met with his philosopher friends in the apple orchard and talked about lofty matters.

“Mr. Alcott cannot bring himself to work for gain,” she wrote in her journal, “but we have not yet learned to live without money or means.”

She had to get money from her brother and accept gifts of clothing and food from neighbors and friends. For a time she made a living as a social worker in Boston, but the family moved twenty-four times in twenty-six years.

A cousin said when she visited the Alcott’s in Concord, “I did not dare to go to Concord without carrying tea and coffee and cayenne pepper and a small piece of cooked meat in case my wayward stomach should crave it.”

So then this cousin gives Abba some clothes for the children and old Bronson, the full-time dingaling, remarks to his wife, “I told you that you need not be anxious about clothing for the children; you see it has come as I said.”

If I’d’a been the cousin I might have had a few choice words.

Then there’s the whole matter of “Fruitlands,” the appropriately named commune Bronson started that Louisa May made fun of in “Transcendental Wild Oats.”

One of the great things about the commune, from Bronson’s point of view, was that the women did all the work! Everybody wore dumb looking brown tunics and ate only plants that grow “upward,” probably based on Bronson’s readings in the Greek philosopher Pythagoras who, besides discovering his famous theorem on right triangles, had a lot of nutty views about diet.

Pythagoras opined that beans contained the spirits of your ancestors and if you ate the beans, your ancestors would speak to you. Interesting idea.

Anyway at Fruitlands they ate only brown sugar, bread, potatoes (don’t they grow down?), apples and squash. They had the right idea about vegetarianism, but they didn’t know beans (ha-ha) about nutrition. Anyway the commune went bust and the family nearly starved to death.

Abba did a bit of venting in her diary when she suggested that while she appreciated her husband’s “quiet reliance on Divine Providence,” she thought, “A little more activity and industry would place us beyond most of these disagreeable dependencies on friends. They have to labor. Why should not he?

“It is certainly not right to incur debts and be indifferent or inactive in the payment of the same.”

Now Alcott’s admirers, and there are many, will point out that he was self-educated and developed many new ideas about education that were ahead of his time. Indeed a school he opened in Boston had to close because after he admitted black students, most of the other parents withdrew their children. This is mentioned in “Little Women” as a kind of explanation for the family’s straitened circumstances.

So what did Bronson Alcott do with his days? Well he liked to take an early morning walk, have breakfast and work on manuscripts all morning then walk and chat with friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. Emerson was seriously rich, so I don’t know why he didn’t help out. Thoreau had issues of his own about making a livelihood, but he didn’t have a family. Alcott also spend a lot of time helping to found The Town and Country Club.

Upon his wife’s death, Alcott read his wife’s diary. “My heart bleeds afresh,” he wrote, “with the memories of those days, and even long years, of cheerless anxiety and hopeless dependence.

“I copy with tearful admiration these pages, and ALMOST REPENT (emphasis mine) my seeming incompetency, my utter inability to relieve the burdens laid upon her and my children.”