March 4, 2010

Death of Bronson Alcott

If Brook Farm has a specific beginning of the end (the destruction by fire of the Phalanstery), another Massachusetts Utopian community never had a chance. Fruitlands was founded about 40 miles to the northwest by Amos Bronson Alcott, who died on March 4, 1888.

Alcott was an idealist, a bit of a radical even among fellow radicals the Transcendentalists. Fruitlands members (of which there were few, other than the Alcott family) had to follow very strict rules: a vegan diet (even some vegetables were forbidden, including "dirty" ground-dwellers like potatoes and carrots), a ban (for a time) on the use of animal labor or animal products like wool, and the rigid work schedule of a farmer on land not good for crops.

The vision was to avoid the evils of the American economy — something Alcott worked against throughout his life. After Fruitlands failed, the Alcotts moved to Concord. When the family purchased a home they named The Hillside in Concord, Massachusetts in 1845, the patriarch of the family played no part in the purchase; as his wife said, he was "dissatisfied with the whole property arrangement" (i.e. he didn't believe people could really own land).

Bronson Alcott continued his idealism, finding several ways throughout his life to challenge systems of education, philosophy, religion, and economy. As a writer himself, his most well-known works were published in The Dial, a series called Orphic Sayings; most were considered incoherent at worst, a series of one-liners at best.

Possibly organization is no necessary function or mode of spiritual being.  The time may come, in the endless career of the soul, when the facts of incarnation, birth, death, descent into matter and ascension from it, shall comprise no part of her history; when she herself shall survey this human life with emotions akin to those of the naturalist, on examining the relics of extinct races of beings; when mounds, sepulchres, monuments, epitaphs, shall serve but as memoirs of a past state of existence; a reminiscence of one metempsychosis of her life in time.

He lectured frequently to the end of his life. He died at the age of 88. His daughter Louisa May Alcott, by then a famous novelist, died two days later at the age of 55. Both were buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.


  1. Do we have idealists like this anymore? Maybe it's not possible with globalization. Alcott's strength is something to be admired.


  2. Hey, Rob,

    I beg to differ re that Alcott "played no part" in the caretaking of The Hillside. I know that Bronson had issues with the concept of property and "owning" land--and he was a pretty pathetic breadwinner for his family--but wasn't he a decent, even enthusiastic, steward of The Hillside? There are records of his spending large parts of days landscaping the property, gardening, and building structures. Daughter Beth even refers to this in several journal entries.

  3. Differ all you like (no begging required) but I don't see where I said Alcott played no part in taking care of The Hillside.

    You might be noting where I said he played no part in the monetary transaction of purchasing The Hillside. That information comes from Martha Saxton's biography of Louisa May Alcott.

  4. Fair enough--and I'd rather differ than beg, anyway. (It's less demeaning.) Alcott had an "interesting" relationship with money (mostly other people's); there are accounts of his borrowing $75 to buy three additional acres for an apple orchard at The Hillside. Bet the loaner never saw THAT back--although maybe the Hawthornes eventually got the benefit of the apples. Thanks for the clarification--and the "almost-daily" blog.

  5. I remember reading a YA biography of Louisa May and her family. It was so interesting. I remember one story where she found a little runaway slave boy in the cabinet or something. Her father had been hiding him in there to keep him safe. I love reading about the Transcendental movement, and although it seems now like it was so extreme, I personally believe that certain aspects of it could be so beneficial if added to our own lives today. Not so sure about the downward facing vegetables though….I do enjoy the occasional potato or carrot. ;)

  6. I happen to love potatoes and carrots!
    Your YA bio of Louisa May Alcott was offering a fiction. The slaves that the Alcott family housed were never really hiding - they were right out in the open, even helping Bronson with the yard work at one point as I recall.