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Alcott was the elder, and older even than Emerson. Born in 1799, the son of an every-day Connecticut farmer, he began life as a peddler, in which character he sometimes strayed a good way southward. A thoroughly honest man of unusually active mind, his chief emotional trait appears to have been a self-esteem which he never found reason to abate. In the midst of peddling, then, he felt himself divinely commissioned to reform mankind. He soon decided that his reform ought to begin with education. As early as 1823, having succeeded in educating himself in a manner which he found satisfactory, he opened a school at his native town, Wolcott, Connecticut. Five years later he removed to Boston, where he announced that if people would send him their children, he would educate them as children had never been educated before.
At that time, in 1828, the spirit of reform was so fresh in the air of New England as to affect many heads which ought to have been too strong for just that intoxication. Among Mr. Alcott's pupils at different times were children and grandchildren of eminently conservative Bostonians. Dissatisfied with the mechanical lifelessness of the regular schools, they eagerly accepted Mr. Alcott's novel theories. His method of teaching, as reported by himself in a volume or two of conversations with his pupils, appears to have been Socratic. In the midst of his disciples, Mr. Alcott posed as a purified and beautified Greek philosopher, whose interlocutors were Boston children, ranging between the ages of three and ten. He would ask them questions about the soul and the eternities, and occasionally about matters of scientific and other fact. He would try to set their infant minds constructively working; and incidentally he would always be on the watch for any accents of perfected praise which might by chance issue from the mouths of these Yankee babes and sucklings. Apart from abstract wisdom, indeed, and its incidental humour, the most obvious trait which distinguishes Mr. Alcott from Plato's Socrates was his honest disposition to learn, if so might be, from the lips which he was persuading to babble. Very nonsensical, no doubt, this must seem nowadays; but there is an aspect in which it is touchingly characteristic of our renascent New England, which hoped that freedom from shackling tradition might open an illimitably excellent future.
Mr. Alcott's pristine innocence of good sense appeared most pleasantly in his notions of discipline. He had remarked that when people misbehave, the suffering which ensues is apt to fall on others than the sinners. If I hit you, for example, it is you who get a black eye. Now, if human nature is naturally good, men must instinctively shrink from consciously injuring others; the strongest deterrent force from misconduct, it follows, must arise from the normal philanthropy of human beings. In order to impress this wisdom on children four or five years old, Mr. Alcott hit on an ingenious device. Some children, he noticed, were disposed to be worse than others. When these bad ones were naughty, he reasoned, they should be made to feel that others suffered, and that the better the others were, the greater were their sufferings. Accordingly, when a bad child made a noise, he would regularly shake a good one in the offender's presence. It is said, furthermore, that he did not shrink from extreme conclusions. Discerning in his relation to his pupils an analogy to that which exists between a benevolent Creator and mankind, and holding that when man misbehaves, God is troubled, he is believed on occasions of unusual gravity unflinchingly to have inflicted corporal punishment on himself, in the presence of his assembled pupils.
Extreme as this example of Transcendental doctrine applied to life may seem, it is very characteristic of Bronson Alcott, who all his life maintained the gospel of Transcendental individualism. Before many years his school came to an end. Mr.
. Alcott developed into a professional philosopher, lecturing, writing, and failing to support his family in decent comfort. When the “ Dial” was started, he contributed to it his “ Orphic Sayings.” The fountain of these was inexhaustible; and even Margaret Fuller had practical sense enough to inform him with regret that she could not afford to fill the “Dial” with matter, however valuable, from a single contributor. His reply was characteristic; he loftily regretted that the “ Dial” was no longer an organ of free speech. In 1842 he visited England, where certain people of a radical turn received him with a seriousness which he found gratifying. Returning to America, he endeavoured to establish at Harvard, Massachusetts, a community called Fruitlands, something like the contemporary Brook Farm, but free from the errors which he detected in the more famous community, founded under other auspices than his own. Before long Fruitlands naturally collapsed. For most of his ensuing life, which lasted until 1888, he lived in Concord, supporting himself, so far as he at all contributed to his support, by writing and lecturing in a manner which satisfied his self-esteem and very slightly appealed to the public. Toward the end of his life he was the chief founder of the Concord School of Philosophy, and he had a senile relapse into something like orthodox Christianity.
There is an aspect, no doubt, in which such a life seems the acme of perverse selfishness; but this is far from the whole story. The man's weakness, as well as his strength, lay in a self-esteem so inordinate that it crowded out of his possibilities any approach either to good sense or to the saving grace of humour. On the other hand, he was honest, he was sincere, he was devoted to idealism, and he attached to his perceptions, opinions, and utterances an importance which those who found him sympathetic were occasionally inclined to share. When his religious views were affected by that touch of senile orthodoxy, sundry good people seemed disposed to think that there might be unusual rejoicing in Heaven. Most likely he thought so himself. His diary, which consisted largely of philosophical speculations, he labelled “Scriptures” for each year. He seems to have held these utterances in as high respect as ever churchman felt for Scripture of old. He saw no reason why his inspiration should not be as sacred as Isaiah's or Jeremiah's or Paul's. Of his published writings none was remembered, unless by his immediate friends, a year after he died. In life the man was a friend of Emerson's, holding in the town of Concord a position which he probably believed as eminent as Emerson's own. In death he is the extreme type of what Yankee idealism could come to when unhampered by humour or common-sense.
If Alcott is rapidly being forgotten, the case is different with Thoreau. For whatever the quality of Thoreau's philosophy, the man was in his own way a literary artist of unusual merit. He was born in 1817, of a Connecticut family, not long emigrated from France. On his mother's side he had Yankee blood, but not of the socially distinguished kind. What little record remains of his kin would seem to show that, like many New England folks of the farming class, they had a kind of doggedly self-assertive temper which inclined them to habits of personal isolation. Thoreau graduated at Harvard College in 1837. While a student he gained some little distinction as a writer of English; his themes, as undergraduate compositions are still called at Harvard, though commonplace in substance, are sensitively good in technical form. After graduation, he lived mostly at Concord. Though not of pure Yankee descent, he had true Yankee versatility; he was a tolerable farmer, a good surveyor, and a skilful maker of lead-pencils. In one way or another, then, he was able by the work of comparatively few weeks in the year to provide the simple necessities of his vegetarian life. So he early determined to work no more than was needful for self-support, and to spend the rest of his time in high thinking.
In the general course which his thinking and conduct took, one feels a trace of his French origin. Human beings, the French philosophy of the eighteenth century had strenuously held, are born good; evil, then, must obviously spring from the distorting influences of society. Accepted by the earlier Transcendentalists, this line of thought had led to such experimental communities as Brook Farm and the still more fleeting Fruitlands. Thoreau was Frenchman enough to reason out individualism to its logical extreme.
The reform of society must be accomplished, if at all, by the reform of the individuals who compose it. Communities, after all, are only microcosmic societies, wherein must lurk all the germs of social evil. Let individuals look to themselves, then ; under no other circumstances can human nature unobstructedly develop its inherent excellence. So for twenty-five years Thoreau, living at Concord, steadily tried to keep himself free from complications with other people. Incidentally he had the good sense not to marry; and as nobody was dependent on him for support, his method of life could do no harm.
His best-known experiment was his residence for about two years in the woods near Concord, where he built himself a little cabin, supported himself by cultivating land enough to provide for his immediate wants, and devoted his considerable leisure to philosophic thought. The fruit of this experiment was his well-known book, “Walden;” published in 1854, it remains a vital bit of literature for any one who loves to read about Nature.
Of course Thoreau was eccentric, but his eccentricity was not misanthropic. Inclined by temperament and philosophy alike to this life of protestant solitude, he seems to have regarded his course as an experimental example. He was not disposed to quarrel with people who disagreed with him. All he asked was to be let alone. If his life turned out well, others would ultimately imitate him; if it turned out ill, nobody else would be the worse. Though his philosophising often seems unpractically individual, then, it never exhales such unwholesomeness as underlay Alcott's self-esteem. What is more, there can be no question that his speculations have appealed to some very sensible minds. All the same, if he had confined himself to ruminating on the eternities and