Skip to main content

The Philosopher’s Wife And The Wolf At The Door

July 2024
14min read

“Mr. Alcott,” wrote his patient, loving wife, “cannot bring himself to work for gain; but we have not yet learned to live without money.” And in earning it herself Mrs. Bronson Alcott helped invent modern social work

Wives of prominent men are often overlooked, Their contributions, however vital to the domestic circle, shrink in comparison with those of their husbands outside the home. So it was with Abba May Alcott. While the names of Bronson, her husband, and of Louisa May, their daughter, are well known, who today is familiar with the unsung woman who helped to bring their careers to fruition? For years she has remained a shadowy figure, perhaps recalled as the “Marmee” of Little Women . Actually she was a heroic woman, of whom her friend Lydia Maria Child has quite rightly written, “her fortitude, her energy, her conscientious discharge of duty, her daily and hourly self sacrifice can never be duly appreciated.” Her husband’s biographer, Franklin B. Sanborn, called her the most talented writer in the family.

Sixty-four years have passed since the last member of the family died, and yet even today the name of Bronson Alcott can stir up a lively discussion in Concord and elsewhere. The talk would probably center on him as a person and not as a philosopher, for many of his ideas remain as nebulous today as they seemed to his own generation. The books of Louisa, popular almost a hundred years ago with the young around the world, continue to attract the modern child.

Bronson Alcott, born in Wolcott, Connecticut, in 1799, grew up with a meager education which he supplemented by reading everything he could lay his hands on. He became a peddler in the South lor a tew years, returning to New England to teach. It was during this period of his life that he met Abigail May, the daughter of a prominent Boston merchant, at the home of her brother Samuel J. May, later to be a distinguished minister and abolitionist.

The May home on Federal Court, off Federal Street, was large and comfortable. Of the twelve children born to the family, only six were alive to welcome little Abigail in 1800. The cultivated and liberal atmosphere of this household had a profound effect upon her character, making it a bulwark against the adverse winds which blew tempestuously throughout much of her life. She learned how important one’s principles were when she saw her father stalk out of Old South Church, where her mother’s grandfather had preached for many years, to take a pew in the broader-minded King’s Chapel. When he lost his prosperous business through his partner’s speculations, she saw the frightening specter of debt hovering over the family. Possibly this experience accounted for some of her anguish when the shadow of debt appeared so often in her married life.

Books were valued possessions to be discussed and read over and over again. Her lather often quoted from Pope and Goldsmith. While only boys had a systematic education in these years, the elder May saw that Abigail received what was available to her. She attended schools conducted by neighborhood women and fortunately was able to live a year in the home of a minister in Duxbury, where she studied French, Latin, botany, and history. During the illness and death of her mother she took charge of the home. When her lather remarried, however, she felt uncomfortable there and spent many weeks visiting her brother Sam, whom she loved dearly. She was afi when she met Bronson Alcott. Although they were mutually attracted, several years elapsed before they married in 1830.

During their courtship Abba, as she was always called, wrote this definition of love, to which she never ceased to cling despite the harassments of wedded life: “When I speak of Love, I do not mean that flippant little God to whom the votaries of fashion address their prayers, whose wings they sometimes borrow and flutter through the bowers of ideal roses and lilies; not those more careless pursuers who kneel at every shrine, and lay their hearts on none. No,—I mean that clear though deep current of affection which, stealing silently, unobserved, into all the recesses of the heart, issues thence only in the pure healthy rills of kindness, tenderness, good will, devotion. This is what I feel for the only being whom I have ever loved as companionable, or with whom I could associate in the heavenly tie of matrimony.”

After their marriage they moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania, where Bronson taught in the Germantown Academy. Abba’s letters to her father detailed their happy life. Unfortunately the school fell upon bad times, causing the family to return to Boston. Here, in 1834, Alcott opened an unusual school which appealed to the imagination of important Bostonians until his teaching of religion and the mysteries of childbirth scandali/ed them. When he enrolled a Negro child, parents speedily withdrew their offspring. The school closed in 1839, its failure inflicting a scar upon both Bronson and Abba that the years could never efface.

At the suggestion of their friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, they moved to Concord the next year with their family, consisting of Anna, Louisa, and Elizabeth. For the rest of their lives they shuttled back and forth between Boston and Concord except for several years in Walpole, New Hampshire, Abba wrote in her diary in 1856, “This is the twenty-fourth time of moving. We have been married twenty-six years.” Bronson, walking with his head in the clouds, lived on manna from heaven, untroubled by the cold and hungry path which in real life his family had to tread.

If many of Alcott’s theories are accepted principles of education today, they were too radical for the majority of his own generation. People in Concord viewed his residence among them with consternation. Franklin B. Sanborn wrote that “he was the target for much cheap wit and for some censure, as a person who might have many kinds of sense but had not common-sense” and that “it was not unusual for Mr. Alcott’s friends to view him at that time [1852] with a certain humorous fancy, so much had he been laughed at in the newspapers.” Referring to these early days he observed that, “Although misunderstood and unappreciated by the general society of the village, the family had warm and admiring friends in the Fmersons, the Thoreaus, Channings and Hawthornes and the children mingled on equal terms with those of other families to whom the opinions and habits of the Alcotts were puzzling.” Affection and respect for each other bound them closely together, softening the harshness which financial need imposed upon them. Each kept a diary, often reading like a confessional, and undoubtedly relieving the tensions of their daily existence.

It must have required strong ties of love to bring the Alcotts through their famous, ill-fated experiment in communal living at “Fruitlands” from June, 1844, to January, 1845. On a farm near Harvard, Massachusetts, the Alcotts joined with an Englishman, Charles Lane, his son, and a few others in this undertaking. “Alcott and Lane,” Emerson remarked, “are always feeling their shoulders, to find if their wings are sprouting.” Their theories included clothing as well as diet. Clad in ugly brown linen tunics and trousers thoroughly unsuitable to the climate, they refused to exploit nature, eliminating meat, butter, cheese, milk, and tea from their meals. They preferred “aspiring vegetables” that grew upward to roots burrowing in the ground. Abba wrote in her diary on November 29, 1843, when plans for the venture were being discussed, that she hoped “the experiment will not bereave me of my mind. … Give me one day of practical philosophy. It is worth a century of speculation and discussion.” A visit to Fruitlands today and a reading of Louisa’s amusing account, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” may give some idea of this strange adventure, but only Abba’s diary can reveal the depth of the ordeal. The family was near starvation when on a cold and snowy day they abandoned Fruitlands for a house nearby at Still River.

The next few years were grim. The burden of caring for the family fell on Mrs. Alcott, who kept the wolf at bay and somehow found food for the cupboard. “Mr. Alcott,” his wife confided to her diary, “cannot bring himself to work for gain; but we have not yet learned to live without money or means.” She noted that she “received this week from brother S. J. M. ten dollars.” Also, “Mrs. Whiting paid me twelve dollars for a cloak and Cousin M. D. M. sent ten for the silver pot, which 1 regret parting with … but several calls for money without any visible means to answer them impelled me to part with it.” She longed to see her husband “a little more interested in this matter of support,” and while she appreciated “his quiet reliance on Divine Providence,” she believed “a little more activity and industry would place us beyond most of these disagreeable dependencies on friends. They have to labor. Why should not he? It is a difficult question to answer. I leave it for time to settle. His unwillingness to be employed in the usual way produces great doubt in the minds of his friends, as to the righteousness of his life, because he partakes of the wages of others occupied in the same way. It is certainly not right to incur debts and be indifferent or inactive in the payment of the same.”

A cousin, commenting on a visit to the Alcotts about this time, wrote, “I did not dare to go to Concord without carrying tea and coffee and cayenne pepper—and a small piece of cooked meat, in case my wayward stomach should crave it. …” She had arrived in the evening and found the family “seated around their bread and water.” During her stay she saw “no meat, nor butter, nor cheese, and only coarse brown sugar, bread, potatoes, apples, squash and simple puddings. …” She brought some clothing for the children, and Mr. Alcott remarked to his wife, “I told you that you need not be anxious about clothing for the children; you see it has come as I said.” Mrs. Alcott, she soon perceived, “wanted comfort and counsel; lor, though cheerful and uncomplaining, things had got pretty low.”

This was the predicament of the family when a group of philanthropic Boston women in 1848 asked Mrs. Alcott to be their City Missionary—a forerunner of the modern social worker. Charity, hitherto unorganized, depended largely on Lady Bountifuls. A new plan had recently divided the city into districts, with churches and volunteer groups assuming the responsibility of caring for the poor. It was the South End Friendly Society which employed Mrs. Alcott. The fragmentary reports of her activities in the Houghton Library at Harvard and in the Alcott Collection in the Concord Public Library illuminate the otherwise shadowy character of a heroic woman.

Despite the fact that she had never worked outside her home, Abba at 49 slipped into her new job with ease. The family, then consisting of a husband and their four children ranging in age from nine to eighteen, relied almost entirely upon her efforts. As she told the members of the Friendly Society “the only sad feature of my present position is the necessity I am under of accepting compensation. But years have multiplied upon me. My family, though not numerous are somewhat dependent. I am a Wife, Mother and native citizen of Boston. My services shall be conscienciously performed—your wages shall be fully earned. Make me no substitute for your own private charities, but give me the honor of being your Pioneer to die worthy sufferer, to the destitute, the despairing and hopeless.”

A leaflet, inserted in Mr. Alcott’s diary for 1849, describes the nature of her work: “The Subscriber earnestly solicits your aid to her Mission, by sending to this room, contributions however small of Clothing, Shoes, Sacks, Bonnets, Hoods, Hats, Old Flannels and Linens. Also Patches of any Material and Linings; Orders for Groceries, small parcels of Soap and other Family necessaries.” Connected with the office was an employment agency and a hand drawn at the bottom of the sheet called attention to “Best German, American and well recommended Irish help procured at the shortest notice.” It was signed “Abby Alcott, Missionary, No. 12 Groton Street.”

Her first suggestion to her employers was to establish a Relief Room where a basket filled with clothes and a purse with money, constantly replenished by the members, would assist the “paupers.” As to her “Compensation,” she wrote the chairman, “I cannot support my family in the city for less than $500 per annum and to be free from care and anxiety … I ought to have $600. …” She closed by asking, “Shall our Relief Ship ride the winter ocean swift and joyous, or shall we take in our sail, moor our hulk in some haven of Selfish Safety , wrap our mantle of Comfort about our bosoms and close eye and ear to the stark Misery which everywhere assails us?”

The waves of the Irish famine then washing the Atlantic coast deposited thousands of its victims upon the shores of Massachusetts. As Mrs. Alcott viewed the situation, “The Irish should be encouraged by the assurance if they are only steady and careful of their wages, they will have fine opportunities in this country for educating their children, and laying by a little for sickness or old age; opportunities which they could not have in Ireland with its ‘land-monopoly’ and ‘priestcraft.’”

As ever larger numbers huddled in loathsome tenements with primitive sanitation, Mrs. Alcott soon perceived that Boston was rapidly changing from a healthy law-abiding community to one plagued with disease and crime.

She warned that it would take half a century to make the newcomers healthy, and she doubted that they could ever be Americanized. Accordingly she urged “that different and more hospitable arrangements should be made not only for them but as a protection for ourselves, our institutions.” She proposed that immigration societies supported by labor and capital as well as those administered by philanthropists should send the Irish to the interior, facilitating their passage, and that labor and industrial associations be organized to give the newcomer land, tools, and money and to educate, civilize, and “Christianize” him.

In addition to reciting her detailed activities, her reports incorporated her philosophy of the broader issues and problems of society. She criticized the customary attitude toward charity: “We should beware of that sophistry which leads us all to believe we have satisfied all the demands of charity, when we have made an inventory of the external necessities, so easily relieved by a garment, a loaf or an asylum. There is a necessity still more touching and far more difficult to relieve, penetrate the secret of that anxious heart, communicate hope and energy to do and to bear, displace brooding by working, despair by hope and comfort.” In her view “it is more frequent that despair paralyzes the heart than hunger starves the body.”

She thought deeply about the underlying reasons for poverty, talked with many people, and concluded that “incompetent wages for labor is the cause of much of the destitution and despair I find among one class. Want of employment, and enormous rents for comfortless places another cause, and the third and by far the largest part is a shiftless, hopeless poverty; which needs better habits, more occupations, more light thrown into its dark cabin, more love in its cold prospect. Incompetent wages for labor performed, is the cruel tyranny of capitalist power over the laborer’s necessities.” Doubting the competence of the government in this field, she contended that “Politicians in their wisest economy fail to solve the mighty problem of Pauperism” and held that “We may legislate in wisdom, we may multiply our charity schemes but never until society looks upon poverty as an incident of man’s condition, not as a crime of his nature, shall we have any permanent or beautiful results from our laws or our almsgiving.”

The Relief Room for Ward 11 moved the next year, 1850, to Washington Street where Mrs. Alcott announced that from three until six o’clock she would there dispense help and find employment for those in need. In addition she proposed a sewing group and started an evening class where Negro adults could learn to read and write and make out their washing bills. These citizens, she reminded her committee, had been neglected by society. “To me,” she admitted, “they are far more interesting than the God-invoking Irish . … Our coloured People, their very skin a Cross , bear quietly the oppression which Prejudice heaps upon them. Occasionally you hear of them through the notoriety of a Quincy or a Sumner , who dares to plead their rights in a court of Justice. Yes! Law must decide if they may sit on a bench under the same roof with our children, to learn their Primer or their Bible . Our religion has turned them from our Altars, but we dare not defy the Laws of Man, though we disobey the commands of God.”

One may well wonder what Bronson Alcott did in Boston while his wife was working. His diary reveals his daily schedule: “I have my early morning walk and into breakfast and manuscripts till the afternoon when comes Miss Littlehale, and we walk Commonward and in the Mall for a good while.” He enjoyed the society of women and in his diary for January, 1850, he wrote, “The best of Emerson’s intellect comes out in its feminine traits and were he not as stimulating to me as a woman and as racy, I should not care to see him and to know him intimately nor often.” He spent much time in helping to organize the Town and Country Club, preparing for his “Conversations,” thinking, writing, and talking to his disciples. He infrequently mentions his family and their dire financial straits. In April, however, he noted, “Paid four bills from monies received from ‘South Friendly Society’ which has given my wife fifty dollars the month for her services during the autumn and winter.” And again, the next year in February, he noted that Samuel May has “sent my wife a cheque for twenty-five dollars with pledge of the like sum quarterly. … It takes very little to feed and clothe and shelter us. We have learned to live on less than most families, and eke out the scanty subsistence that we get from alms that never come amiss with us. What with my wife’s and Anna’s earnings, my own tithe and charities from a few friends, we survive as a family, and fall but little into debt.”

Occasional twinges of conscience, however, appear in his diary. On May 6, 1850, he mused over the fact “that time and purpose overtake and avail themselves of the so-called visionary thinker’s ideas at last, to compensate him for long neglect. … But to the thinker’s family, if he has one, it is no small matter, but a serious one; and for the wrongs it suffers there is nor can be, no recompense.” Friends and relatives discussed the plight of the Alcotts and often the talk reached Abba’s ears. Bronson admitted that his wife told him of the “gossip about my permitting her to delve for the family, and my implied indifference to its welfare … no explanation can take the place of deeds in their eyes, and I must stand, for the time, as a thriftless, if not a heartless and insufferable fellow. So let it seem; but let it not be so.”

He blamed the state of civilization for the “discomforts which fall to the philosopher’s lot. … The wrongs of society fall heaviest on women, and they of all others feel them the deepest and describe them the most eloquently,” he scribbled on. “Men can dodge and in some ways escape, but women can only bear and forbear, protest and submit with what courage and fortitude.” Quite smug about the importance of his thoughts, he was satisfied that while they “feed not my own family,” they will serve as “an exchequer from whose drafts coming generations are to be fed and nourished.”

Mrs. Alcott’s patience often gave way, her temper frayed. Bronson’s diary records that she quarreled with him “as a noble wife and proud mother may with a husband and father in her exasperated and wounded Spirit, because the gold I persisted in coining day by day, shaping and making bright, brought neither food nor shelter nor raiment, nor schooling for the children.…”

Her work as a City Missionary ended about 1850. The Alcott fortunes were still low and soon afterward the family moved to Walpole, New Hampshire, where a relative lent them a house. Mr. Alcott was lecturing in the West, an agreeable work which he continued intermittently from 1853 until the end of his life. Letters from the lonesome family are touching. In one, Abba wrote on October 8, 1856, “My dear Husband: Lying before me are your three precious letters, precious on matters of history, precious as affectionate demonstrations of sympathy in our welfare and domestic conditions.” Another time, April 6, 1857, she said, “I suppose you are collecting facts to help us to a new spring-life of hope and progress. Well, come on my brave! I can wait, and learn to believe in the unseen as well as the tangible. Indeed I am thinking that the unseen gives us the least pain, the most hope.” In January, 1857, her diary reveals the pleasure at his return, which “increases the desire to have all things comfortable and cosy. We must have warmer fires, meals more punctual, his presence seems to annihilate the selfishness and increase and intensify all winter comforts, The bread is lighter, the muffins warmer; there is a rainbow of simple joy flicking about our meanest occupations.”

The Alcotts left Walpole for Concord in 1858. Although the way was still dark and rough, Louisa’s writings and Bronson’s “Conversations” were beginning to ease the path. Two revealing passages from Mr. Alcott’s diary are footnotes to these years. One in January, 1864, reads, “My wife over-burthened with household cares, and little to do with. Alas I wish, for her sake and my children’s I could have had a pair of profitable hands and marketable wits.” The other, in the year after Mrs. Alcott’s death in 1878 he wrote with sadness after glancing through her diary: “These papers admit me as daily intimacy hardly did, into the very soul of my companion, and my heart bleeds afresh with the memories of those days, and even long years, of cheerless anxiety and hopeless dependence. Yet here are strokes of joy intermingled, pictures of happy domesticity, and the dear children are always within her maternal embrace. … I copy with tearful admiration these pages, and almost repent my seeming incompetency, my utter inability to relieve the burdens laid upon her and my children during the years of my helplessness. Nor can I, with every mitigating apology for this seeming shiftlessness quite excuse myself for not adventuring upon some impossible feat to extricate us from these straits of circumstance.…”

Strong-minded, courageous, self-reliant, Abba May Alcott was indispensable to her family of rugged individualists whose “beliefs, tastes and aims,” as Edward Emerson has said, differed so widely as seemingly “to make domestic harmony impossible.” It was Abba’s determination coupled with deep-abiding love and respect for each other that kept them united, “if with suffering also with happiness.” She ranks high among the Alcotts. Louisa lives in her books not as the neurotic personality she actually was. Bronson lives because of his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau, not because of the intrinsic merit of his philosophy. But Abba, although now nearly forgotten, lives anew in her diary as a gallant wife and devoted mother and in her reports as a pioneer social worker. As a City Missionary she was able at a critical time to preserve her home. That she succeeded was her reward.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.