ALCOTT, AMOS BRONSON (1799-1888), American educationalist and writer, born on Spindle Hill, in the town of Wolcott, New Haven county, Connecticut, on the 29th of November 1799. His father, Joseph Chatfield Alcox, was a farmer and mechanic whose ancestors, then bearing the name of Alcocke, had settled in eastern Massachusetts in colonial days. The son adopted the spelling “Alcott” in his early youth. Self-educated and early thrown upon his own resources, he began in 1814 to earn his living by working in a clock factory in Plymouth, Conn., and for many years after 1815 he peddled books and merchandise, chiefly in the southern states. He began teaching in Bristol, Conn., in 1823, and subsequently conducted schools in Cheshire, Conn., in 1825-1827, again in Bristol in 1827-1828, in Boston in 1828-1830, in Germantown, now part of Philadelphia, in 1831-1833, and in Philadelphia in 1833. In 1830 he had married Abby May, the sister of Samuel J. May (1797-1871), the reformer and abolitionist. In 1834 he opened in Boston a school which became famous because of his original methods; his plan being to develop self-instruction on the basis of self-analysis, with an ever-present desire on his own part to stimulate the child’s personality.
The feature of his school which attracted most attention, perhaps, was his scheme for the teacher’s receiving punishment, in certain circumstances, at the hands of an offending pupil, whereby the sense of shame might be quickened in the mind of the errant child. The school was denounced in the press, was not pecuniarily successful, and in 1839 was given up, although Alcott had won the affection of his pupils, and his educational experiments had challenged the attention of students of pedagogy. The school is perhaps best described in Miss E. P. Peabody’s A Record of Mr. Alcott’s School (1835). In 1840 Alcott removed to Concord, Massachusetts. After a visit to England, in 1842, he started with two English associates, Charles Lane and Henry C. Wright, at “Fruitlands,” in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, a communistic experiment at farm-living and nature-meditation as tending to develop the best powers of body and soul. This speedily came to naught, and Alcott returned (1844) to his home near that of Emerson in Concord, removing to Boston four years later, and again living in Concord after 1857.
He spoke, as opportunity offered, before the “lyceums” then common in various parts of the United States, or addressed groups of hearers as they invited him. These “conversations,” as he called them, were more or less informal talks on a great range of topics, spiritual, aesthetic and practical, in which he emphasized the ideas of the school of American Transcendentalists led by Emerson, who was always his supporter and discreet admirer. He dwelt upon the illumination of the mind and soul by direct communion with the Creative Spirit; upon the spiritual and poetic monitions of external nature; and upon the benefit to man of a serene mood and a simple way of life. As regards the trend and results of Alcott’s philosophic teaching, it must be said that, like Emerson, he was sometimes inconsistent, hazy or abrupt. But though he formulated no system of philosophy, and seemed to show the influence now of Plato, now of Kant, or of German thought as filtered through the brain of Coleridge, he was, like his American master, associate and friend, steadily optimistic, idealistic, individualistic. The teachings of William Ellery Channing a little before, as to the sacred inviolability of the human conscience—anticipating the later conclusions of Martineau—really lay at the basis of the work of most of the Concord transcendentalists and contributors to The Dial, of whom Alcott was one. In his last years, living in a serene and beautiful old age in his Concord home, the Orchard House, where every comfort was provided by his daughter Louisa (q.v.), Alcott was gratified at being able to become the nominal, and at times the actual, head of a Concord “Summer School of Philosophy and Literature,” which had its first session in 1879, and in which—in a rudely fashioned building next his house—thoughtful listeners were addressed during a part of several successive summer seasons on many themes in philosophy, religion and letters. Of Alcott’s published works the most important is Tablets (1868); next in order of merit is Concord Days (1872). His Sonnets and Canzonets (1882) are chiefly interesting as an old man’s experiments in verse. He left a large collection of personal jottings and memorabilia, most of which remain unpublished. He died in Boston on the 4th of March 1888. Alcott was a Garrisonian abolitionist.
See A. Bronson Alcott, His Life and Philosophy (2 vols., Boston, 1893), by F. B. Sanborn and William T. Harris; New Connecticut: an Autobiographical Poem (Boston, 1887), edited by F. B. Sanborn; and Lowell’s criticism in his Fable for Critics.
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