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The Alcotts: ever in exile

How Bronson Alcott led his loving wife and trusting daughters on a weary search for utopia.

By / August 21, 2007



George Bernard Shaw wrote that, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

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Shaw never had the chance to meet Bronson Alcott, but it's safe to say – by almost anyone's definition – that Alcott was an unreasonable man. What's harder to know is whether Shaw would have been admiring or appalled.

Many who knew Alcott were both. In Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, professor John Matteson tells the tale of a most unusual American life. And despite the top billing given to Louisa, this remains largely a book about Bronson.

In addition to being Louisa's father, Alcott was a self-taught farm- boy-turned-philosopher-and-idealist who, as a thinker, was accepted as an equal by some of the literary giants of his age.

Yet the affection and respect Alcott inspired were mixed with everything from bemusement to outright horror. His concerns about human and animal rights were far in advance of his time. His sense of principle was almost heroic.

Yet he lived so untethered from practical considerations that for the most part he barely made a living. "I have [as] yet no clear call to any work beyond myself," he pronounced even as his family descended into poverty. Ralph Waldo Emerson considered Alcott a beloved friend and named him "a noble genius" yet went on to say, "I do not want any more such persons to exist."

Both the best and the worst of Alcott were on display in his domestic life. An attentive and adoring father, he took 2,500 pages of notes on his daughters.

A born teacher, he briefly turned many of these observations into a successful progressive school – an enterprise soon destroyed, in part because he defied societal norms and accepted a black student.

Later, some wealthy European industrialists offered to fund a commune where Alcott could put his ideas into practice. Thus, on 90 acres of Massachusetts farmland, Fruitlands was born.

Matteson's description of Fruitlands reads like the old joke about a breakfast cereal named California: a healthy mix of fruits, nuts, and flakes.

Fruitlands abounded in all three. Alcott hoped that high-minded folk would be drawn to his experiment but instead the Alcotts ended up living with a cast of characters that included a man who once for a year ate nothing but crackers, another whose family had conspired to commit him to an insane asylum, and a nudist who had to be persuaded to drape himself with a sheet when out walking.

No money was used at Fruitlands and no meat was to be eaten. No one wore cotton (produced by slave labor) or wool (stolen from sheep).

And no one learned much about farming, either. After accidentally sowing together three different kinds of seeds, the Fruitlanders decided to "see what would come of it."

The whole experiment was a colossal failure, over within months. Its collapse nearly destroyed Alcott and almost ripped his family apart.

But Alcott's greatest strength and success was – and remained – his family. His wife, Abigail ("Abba"), did not always love his principles but she did love him. His four girls adored him and forgave him all. (Louisa later called him an "innocent.")

Alcott did eventually achieve a surprising measure of success as a lecturer and writer, partly due to Louisa – who blended her father's idealism with a toughness born of growing up poor – was by then a celebrity.

None of the Alcotts had an easy life and reading about them can feel exhausting, particularly when it comes to the longsuffering Abba.

But particularly for those unfamiliar with the Alcott story, this is a journey of much interest. In the end, as Matteson suggests, Bronson's search for the miraculous may have paid off. Those who doubt it need only look again at "Little Women."

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