I am reading books by and about Louisa May Alcott in preparation for a course next year. This joint biography, subtitled “The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father,” gave me a new appreciation of Bronson Alcott. His daughter, the author of Little Women, I already admired, but I previously had a different view of Bronson. I saw him as a light-weight, a failed philosopher who ducked out of the responsibilities of life.
Bronson was a true original, a self-taught educator and idealist who pursued the development of his own character above all other demands.
More often than not, Bronson Alcott tended to live more in his ideas than in his skin. At many of the moments when others are likely to feel most alive to the world of sense, Bronson seems to have been only contingently present, like an accidental, gossamer visitor to a ponderously material world.
The aesthetic and sometimes irresponsible Bronson set high ideals for his children, but put no bread on the table. He didn’t think it was important. Louisa admired her father, but did not emulate him. She was very much alive to the world’s possibilities and determined to make her mark in it, as well as to provide her family with a stable income. As a young girl,
Louisa’s life was already assuming the contours that were to characterize it for the next twenty-five years or more: an almost impossible dissonant combination of superior intellectual opportunities and frightful worldly deprivation.
Her response to childhood poverty and family debt was years of determined hard work, but that is not the entire story of the relationship as Matteson develops it. As they aged and Louisa succeeded as a popular author, Bronson admired her accomplishments and even had some modest success himself with his late books, his conversations tours, and Concord School of Philosophy. He outlived Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and represented them to a world that was rapidly moving on to other concepts, different goals.