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Bronson Alcott

Alcott, Bronson (ôlˈkət, ăl–, –kŏt) [key], 1799–1888, American educational and social reformer, b. near Wolcott, Conn., as Amos Bronson Alcox. His meager formal education was supplemented by omnivorous reading while he gained a living from farming, working in a clock factory, and as a peddler in the South. He was master of several schools before opening (1834) his Temple School in Boston. Strongly influenced by the ideas of Johann Pestalozzi, he advocated the development of each child's unique intellectual abilities and eschewed the corporal punishment generally favored at the time. Alcott's own records, as well as those made by his illustrious assistants, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Margaret Fuller, show his concern with the full and integrated mental, physical, and spiritual development of the child. Unfavorable reactions to his advanced and liberal theories forced him to close (1839) his school. However, his disappointment was lessened when he learned of the success of Alcott House, a school founded by his disciples in England.

A leading exponent of transcendentalism, as were his friends Emerson and Thoreau, Alcott wrote for the periodical Dial (the "Orphic Sayings" was his most famous contribution) and was a nonresident member of Brook Farm. He was one of the founders (1843) of a cooperative vegetarian community, "Fruitlands," near Harvard, Mass., but it proved unsuccessful and was abandoned in 1844. Poverty continually plagued the life of the Alcotts until the writings of his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, relieved the family of financial worry. He became (1859) superintendent of the Concord public schools, whose reformation he described in his Reports. From 1879 he was dean of the Concord School of Philosophy, which annually gathered disciples to hear him and many other speakers. Among his writings are Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction (1830), Conversations with Children on the Gospel (1836, repr. 1989), Record of a School (1835, repr. 1969), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1882, repr. 1968).

See his Journals, ed. by O. Shepard (1938, repr. 1966) and Letters, ed. by R. L. Herrinstadt (1969); K. W. Cameron, Transcendental Curriculum, or Bronson Alcott's Library (1984); biographies by F. B. Sanborn (1893, repr. 1965, 1974), O. Shepard (1937, repr. 1967), D. McCuskey (1940, repr. 1969), and F. C. Dahlstrand (1982); dual biography of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott by J. Matteson (2009); biography of his wife, Abigail May Alcott, by C. H. Barton (1996); studies by G. E. Haefner (1937, repr. 1970), and L. James (1994).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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