November 29, 2012
Amos Bronson Alcott, who became known as a prominent Transcendentalist, teacher, and education reformer in the 19th century, and remembered as author Louis May Alcott’s father, lived a life that intersected with some of America’s most interesting thinkers.
Alcott was born on Nov. 29, 1799 (his daughter, Louisa May, was born on Nov. 29, 1932), in Wolcott, Conn. He was not successful as at formal schools, and was educated by his mother. His uncle, a minister, tried his hand at preparing Alcott for college without success; Alcott was essentially self-educated, following his own discipline and path to learning.
When he was 15, he worked for a time at clockmaker Seth Thomas’ new shop in Plymouth Hollow, Conn. Alcott earned his teacher’s certificate when he was 17, but his age may have hindered his efforts to find a position. He turned trying his hand as a peddler; after six years trying to become a successful salesman, he returned to Connecticut in debt to his father, who had financed his last two sales trips. With the help of uncle, he got a teaching job.
His approach to teaching was modern, based on the philosophies of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator who emphasized a individualized approach to learning, versus rote drilling. Samuel Joseph May, a prominent leader in a variety of reform movements including education, women’s rights and abolition, was attracted to Alcott’s approach and introduced his sister, Abigail “Abby” May, who was attracted to the “intelligent, philosophic and modest” man. The local community was not as enamored of Alcott’s new fangled teaching methods and pulled their children from his classes. He moved on to teach in Bristol, where community concerns prompted his departure less than a year after he began teaching.
He moved to Boston, married Abby, and opened the Salem Street Infant School. While in Boston, he founded an anti-slavery society with William Lloyd Garrison, who later became famous as the editor of the Liberator. Alcott was recruited to Germantown, Pennsylvania, to open a school based on his progressive philosophy by a wealthy Quaker, Reuben Haines. Haines’ death, just before the birth of Louisa, ended the financial support for the school, and the Alcott’s moved to Philadelphia, where he ran a day school. Again his teaching methods were questioned; and the family moved back to Boston.
In 1834, Alcott opened the Temple School. His teaching assistants were, first, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who later became the manager of the Transcendentalist magazine “The Dial,” and opened the first kindergarten in America, and her brother-in-laws were Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann; and, second, Margaret Fuller, who became an internationally known journalist and author, writing what is considered the first major feminist work, “Women in the Nineteenth Century,” published in 1843.
Prominent members of the Boston press, including Nathan Hale and Joseph Buckingham, called Alcott a “charlatan.”
But Alcott’s Transcendentalist friends, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, remained supportive, and encouraged Alcott to move to Concord. He became acquainted with Henry David Thoreau there.
In 1843, Alcott and Charles Lane founded the utopian commune, Fruitlands, in Harvard, Mass., on 90 acres that Lane had purchased. The commune was vegan, before the concept had that appellation, to the extent that honey and milk were not consumed; and the members refused to use animal labor to help in the fields. The utopian vision failed after just seven months, as they could not plant and harvest enough by hand to feed themselves. Louisa and her sisters lived with their parents at Fruitlands.
Alcott moved back and forth between Concord and Boston every few years, and then in 1860 was named superintendent of Concord Schools.
In 1864, along with Louis Agassiz, James Thomas Fields, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alcott served as pallbearer for Nathaniel Hawthorne
Though Alcott wrote, and was published, his writing received no better reviews than his teaching. He died on March 4, 1888.