All photos courtesy of Denise Trull
By Denise Trull
On a trip to Massachusetts last spring, I found my way to Orchard House, a wonderful and quirky New England home nestled among some ancient, gnarly trees in the middle of the charming town of Concord. I was particularly fond of this house as I have poured over it in photos and drawings for most of my life. It is the dwelling place of a fascinating woman named Louisa May Alcott, and I was hushed into shyness as I walked the rooms of this heroine of my girlhood. I have read everything Louisa has written and far more than once. She was my heroine in so many ways, she in her attic writing stories and plays with ink stained fingers. And here I was at last roaming the house, her bedroom, her chairs, and finally her writing desk lovingly designed by her father, Bronson Alcott, a token of his blessing upon her writing career -- as in those days women were not usually allowed a desk of their own.
As I meandered through the house, I began to notice drawings painted willy nilly on the walls here and there. Greek mythological characters cleverly hiding behind doors, a garden scene, and some charming little owls perched jauntily on the fireplace in Louisa’s bedroom because Louisa loved owls. Who was the artist of this impromptu, charming graffiti? It was none other than Louisa’s little sister May, who had been given full access to the walls by her father Bronson who himself reveled in the immediacy of inspiration and allowed May to splash her creations all over the rooms of Orchard House. I found that delightful.
As I was leaving, I passed through the gift shop and chanced upon a memoir of May with an unassuming little blue cover, written by one Caroline Ticknor. It was an interesting and thought provoking read for me. It filled in the gaps of an already fascinating life. Louisa came more alive within its pages for I found her in true context -- the context of a family with genuine triumphs, character, and suffering. The one person who kept floating to the surface demanding my attention was Bronson. This man who built desks for one daughter and allowed the other to paint all over his walls as the muse struck her. Who was he, really? He began to steal my heart just a bit. It was an odd feeling because for many years he was not in my good graces at all. I possessed a hard judgement towards him -- the judgement of one who has perhaps not suffered too terribly from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” quite yet.
I had spent some time with the Alcotts one winter, long before I entered Orchard House. I was the mother of five children then with all the stresses and busyness and fatigue that entailed. I had found among my shelves of books, perhaps fortuitously in hind site, a wonderful biography called We Alcotts, by Aileen Fisher. It was written in the perspective of Abba Alcott -- Louisa's mother. To my utter surprise, I discovered a much darker, suffering side of their lives written there. Reality truly is stranger than fiction.
Abba Alcott was a woman blessed with boundless energy and a keen intellect both for the practical and the theoretical aspects of life. She is clearly the muse for Louisa's stories of independent women: An Old Fashioned Girl, Rose In Bloom, and of course, Little Women. But Abba fell head over heals in love with a tall, intelligent, personable, albeit dreamily impractical man named Bronson Alcott, despite the misgivings of her father, and for the very reasons and ideals that brought her future suffering. Oh, how often that is the case with love!
Bronson was a dreamer. He was also a gifted and patient educator who was perhaps ahead of his time. His ideas of equality and education for all children, coupled with his staunch support of the abolitionist’s ideals were far ahead of his time and were not well received. He started many small schools but each failed for one reason or another. He had a wonderful, conversational way with children and was convinced of the truth that these conversations were the path that children learned to know the world and themselves. He was very much like Charlotte Mason in this regard. But perhaps the practical New Englanders of his time were just not ready for any new fangled ideas in education. The old ways were good enough. Bronson’s schools failed one-by-one and left him and his growing family penniless.
He then had the bright idea of earning his living by traveling out west to hold philosophical conversations in different towns. How he thought this plan was going to work, I haven't a clue. He obliviously left his wife and daughters to fend for themselves and went off alone for months at a time holding these ‘conversations’ in town after town. People liked his affable lectures but no one was willing to pay for them. He would return home at last to a poor and struggling household having nothing to show but a dollar. This is the part of the book where I began to growl quite audibly as I read. My children still laugh out loud at the memory of me pronouncing anathema on Bronson Alcott. Dear reader, I confess I did. I was the harried mother of five children then, and knew how hard my own husband worked and sacrificed for us. I had no time for Bronson Alcott and his ‘whims’.
Each time he returned home, having to face once again his inability to provide, he would descend into paralyzing depressions and Abba would need to carry the family as best she could with odd jobs and sewing. Eventually, emotionally fragile Bronson would resurface from his darkness and gently hold conversations with his little girls, reading to them sometimes -- but he never seemed to feel guilty for letting Abba bear the financial burdens and worries of poverty added to the tasks of cooking and cleaning that faced her on his return. There was so much here for Abba to forgive, and Abba did forgive with a patience and charity that astounded me into silence. Love is strong as death. I understood this much better after living in Abba’s shoes for a while that winter.
Bronson was brimming with idyllic but impractical ideas. He impetuously tried pulling his family into commune experiments with other like-minded transcendentalists -- but they were all so clueless as to the practicalities of life. Against Abba’s advice and gentle warning, they started their communal 'farm' in the autumn -- in New England! There was no time to plant or grow food. There was no money. They almost starved and froze to death in the long Massachusetts winter. The other members of the commune had strange ideas about children not being seen or heard. It was a real suffering for the lively young girls of Abba and Bronson who up to that point were encouraged to run free and play and express themselves in conversation with their parents. It nearly broke Abba’s heart how cold and forbidding the atmosphere became in this commune, but she tried to make it work for a long time.
The project -- called Fruitlands -- was a miserable failure. Bronson stubbornly held on to this failed ideal for far too long and brought down his whole family into abject poverty, sickness, and emotional trauma. Abba almost left him then, but she rallied and saved them all by her common sense and boundless energy. They left Fruitlands behind.
Bronson descended into a deep depression that lasted for many months this time, lying in bed facing the wall. He had despaired. Abba did not abandon him, but went out and found work. She kept loving him for his ideals, his mind, his gentleness, and his genuine respect for her own fine mind and heart. He had never once treated her condescendingly as one inferior to himself in intellect or art. This was Abba’s small and costly treasure she clutched to her bosom in those dark days. Slowly she got him to turn his face from the wall and to hope again. This was after months and months of effort on her part.
He had no common sense, Bronson Alcott. But he had other gifts that were hard for me to see underneath his seeming inability to take care of his family. He was probably a bit (or more than a bit) self-centered. He was a person with tunnel vision for his own plans and dreams, who strangely ignored -- not so much out of malice but out of a kind of incomprehensible cluelessness -- the monetary needs of his family. He just could not provide. They lived through many hard, wearing years as a family. It was Abba who loved on with a persistence we would do well to imitate in our own lives with those we find so trying and incomprehensible. For that is real love.
Louisa and all the girls willingly took on this beautiful burden of Abba's love for Bronson -- he disappointed them each one over and over in the early years of family life, but they loved on and forgave much. I was continually surprised by their love for him, having to fight resentment at their burdens every day -- burdens caused by one who should have provided -- seeking understanding and full acceptance of Bronson’s foibles because of his gifts underneath. It was all Abba’s doing. And I eventually came to this conclusion as I read: forgiveness of one for another helps that other to one day grow into his or her future gifts.
As Louisa got older, she took up the burden of financially supporting the family with her writing, so her mother could at last rest easy. Once freed of that baffling responsibility, Bronson suddenly began to blossom. He built the family a home, drawing upon his own creative plans and enlisting the help of his kind friend Henry David Thoreau. Orchard House began to take shape. He taught all the girls how to write and read. He encouraged May to paint the walls and Louisa to write by the window at her one-of-a-kind desk. He conversed beautifully with them during the day. He showed them how to study plants, animals, and poetry. He walked with them in the woods, introduced them to his lovely neighbors and friends, Emerson and Hawthorne. He eventually was able to start the Concord School of Philosophy in the back yard barn and this became a great success and consolation for his heart and the hearts of all his intellectual friends.
Bronson introduced the girls to all the people he had met on his seemingly fruitless journeys -- people who had loved and respected his ideas. These wealthier friends generously helped the careers of Louisa and May when they traveled to Europe. Bronson invented gadgets for Abba to use about the house to ease her work. He created little alcoves in the walls so May had a place to put her sculptures. He became this gentle and dignified presence in Concord and everyone grew to love and revere him. He was a key player in the literary and artistic successes of his daughters and the cultured women they were to become.
This all came about because Abba forgave him his failures in the early years of their marriage. Her forgiveness allowed Bronson to grow into something beautiful. If she had left him -- and she had every right to do so -- he might have ended up a broken and homeless man wandering about in disgrace. Abba always and ever honored him. It must have been so very hard sometimes, but she succeeded. Bronson became who he was simply because he was forgiven over and over again by another human being who knew and believed in his worth.
There is a delightful little scene in my book on May’s life where, as a young girl, she is dictating a letter to her mother, away visiting a cousin in Boston. Bronson, smiling to himself, is writing down what she says to her mother. May keeps trying to end the letter because she is impatient and bored; she cheekily complains to her mother that father keeps asking her too many questions to answer so he can put them in the letter. She ends up with a very newsy missive to send because Bronson makes her think and settle into patience. She is annoyed, being high strung and energetic, and she dictates this annoyance to her father and demands that he write it down. He does. It is quite, quite funny and delightful. At the end of the letter Bronson puts a P.S. to tell Abba that their delightful daughter is sitting by the window with her feet up on the sill laughing merrily with him. It is the loveliest two-page glimpse into a treasured domestic scene so simple yet profound. The love between a father and his little daughter.
All this domestic beauty and comfort came about because of forgiveness. Bronson became the wonderful man he was at the end of things because Abba dared to love and forgive over and over again what he failed to do at the beginning of things, and she taught her daughters to do so as well.
When I think of the Proverbs woman, Abba wins the prize in my estimation. Abba and so many women like her. Intelligent. Hard working. And persistently forgiving. We all grow into our future worth through acts of forgiveness for our present follies. This is what Abba has taught me.
And thus, to Bronson Alcott, I extend my own olive branch of forgiveness. Now I understand.
Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri.