Saturday, October 3, 2009

Killing the Father

Poor Bronson Alcott. All but forgotten today, eclipsed by his much more famous daughter, Louisa May, he nevertheless practically invented the modern educational system and introduced veganism to American culture for the first time. And yet we know him, for the most part, secondhand, whether it’s from Mr. March in his daughter’s Little Women or from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s brutal portrait of “Hollingsworth” in The Blithedale Romance. He’s a pathetic or sinister footnote to much more substantial texts.

But it’s not for lack of trying on his fault. Alcott desperately wanted to do something important, whether it was his two unconventional schools (the Temple School in Boston and the Concord School of Philosophy and Literature), his utopian community, Fruitlands, or his Transcendental philosophy, never formulated particularly cohesively and eclipsed in a major way by that of his friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Even Margaret Fuller, a name known mostly only to students of the American Renaissance, has a better reputation than Alcott.

Alcott lived a long life, however, long enough to see his daughter become a popular success. (In fact, he died only two days before her, and she never learned of his death.) I am not aware of his reaction to her books, although we’re given a clue in Good Wives, the second volume of Little Women, in which Mr. March, upon seeing Jo’s literary success, tells her that “You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do your best and grow as happy as we are in your success.” But if Bronson Alcott said something similar to his own daughter, it must have been through clenched teeth.

Little Women
is famously autobiographical, telling the story of the Alcott sisters (Anna, Louisa May, Elizabeth, and May) without changing very many details at all. Other than Jo’s popular opinion-forced marriage at the end of the second volume, the only major change from life to novel comes in the person of Mr. March. The Alcotts were as poor as the Marches, by all accounts, but Louisa was too ashamed or proud to present the reader of Little Women with the real reason for their poverty. Bronson Alcott, unlike Mr. March, never served in the Civil War, and the family was destitute because of his utter failure at everything he tried.

So Mr. March figures in the first volume of the novel only as an absence, whereas Bronson Alcott was apparently there in his family’s life the entire time, presumably playing a role in his daughters’ various adventures. Louisa’s sending Mr. March off to war strikes her father from her published memory, simultaneously making him unimportant to literary history; it’s cruel, from a certain perspective, even if it’s probably more interesting for the narrative.

Mr. March returns from the front at the end of the first novel and is thus present in the second. But he is only present in the most technical of senses and in fact has less influence in the second volume than he did in absentia in the first. In the writing of her most famous novel, Alcott emasculates her father; instead of being a noble failure, Mr. March is a pleasant inconsequentiality. Some critics, it is true, would argue that this move had to be made, since the March household is a feminine bower, a seat of female power against the harshness of the masculine world outside. This may be true, but it’s also true that the novel is based very directly on real people, and so there can be no purely artful decision for Alcott—changing Mr. March changes forever the public’s perception of her father.

(On the other hand, it may be better for Bronson Alcott that his daughter mostly left him out of the novel; when Elizabeth Alcott died in 1858, it may have been because her father’s strict vegan diet left her malnourished and weak. As things stand, if the reader of Little Women wishes to cast blame on anyone for Beth’s death, it likely falls on Mrs. March, for insisting she take care of the baby from whom she catches scarlet fever.)

These sins of omission are enough to make one feel sorry for Bronson Alcott; however, they are not the only violence his daughter perpetrates on him. The entire structure and focus of Little Women can easily be read as a rebellion against her father’s concerns and methods. As Nina Auerbach points out, whereas the Platonist Bronson cared mostly for the invisible and eternal world, Louisa “stubbornly clings throughout her novels to the primary reality of physical things.” There is almost no Transcendentalism to be found in Little Women; the novel’s style belongs much more clearly to the burgeoning Realism movement, and its philosophy is decidedly pragmatic: Here is how a young lady should act.

In fact, when Transcendentalism finally does briefly enter the novel, it does so only so Alcott can dismiss it. Jo finds herself at a dinner party of illuminati, no doubt similar to the meetings of the Transcendentalist Club that Louisa May Alcott must have witnessed:

The conversation was miles beyond Jo’s comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms; and the only thing “evolved from her inner consciousness” was a bad headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually that the world was being picked to pieces, and put together on new and, according to the talkers, on infinitely better principles than before; that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God.
Jo ends up rejecting this philosophy, and part of the reason, one suspects, she marries Professor Bhaer is that “Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo; the old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new; God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact.” Alcott creates the character of Professor Bhaer so that she may marry her alter-ego off to him, leaving her father’s oppressive house for good. The invention, it is true, was dictated by popular opinion, but it has the unintended consequence of breaking her from her father’s failures and philosophies once and for all.

With this in mind, perhaps it’s time for a rediscovery of Bronson Alcott’s work. I’ve not read him myself (what a hypocrite!), but apparently his work has much to say to the modern age, with its emphasis on animal rights, sustainability in agriculture, and a humane diet. Perhaps it’s time we released Alcott from the grip of the venomous and unfair fictional representations of him that have colored our understandings for more than a century now.


Joel said...

Thanks for this interesting piece, Michial. Have you happened upon other references to Louisa May's rejection of her father's ideals? Did she ever write about it more directly?

Michial said...

She wrote a book on her father's failed utopian experience, where I'm sure she goes into much greater detail--but I haven't read that.