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VIII: Emerson's “foot-note person,” --Alcott

The phrase “foot-note person” was first introduced into our literature by one of the most acute and original of the anonymous writers in the Atlantic Monthly (July, 1906), one by whose consent I am permitted to borrow it for my present purpose. Its originator himself suggests, as an illustration of what he means, the close relation which existed through life between Ralph Waldo Emerson and his less famous Concord neighbor, Amos Bronson Alcott. The latter was doubtless regarded by the world at large as a mere “foot-note” to his famous friend, while he yet was doubtless the only literary contemporary to whom Emerson invariably and candidly deferred, regarding him, indeed, as unequivocally the leading philosophic or inspirational mind of his day. Let this “foot-note,” then, be employed as the text for frank discussion of what was, perhaps, the most unique and picturesque personality developed during the Transcendental period of our American literature. Let us consider the career of one who was born with as little that seemed advantageous [78] in his surroundings as was the case with Abraham Lincoln, or John Brown of Ossawatomie, and who yet developed in the end an individuality as marked as that of Poe or Walt Whitman.

In looking back on the intellectual group of New England, eighty years ago, nothing is more noticeable than its birth in a circle already cultivated, at least according to the standard of its period. Emerson, Channing, Bryant, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Holmes, Lowell, even Whittier, were born into what were, for the time and after their own standard, cultivated families. They grew up with the protection and stimulus of parents and teachers; their early biographies offer nothing startling. Among them appeared, one day, this student and teacher, more serene, more absolutely individual, than any one of them. He had indeed, like every boy born in New England, some drop of academic blood within his traditions, but he was born in the house of his grandfather, a poor farmer in Wolcott, Connecticut, on November 29, 1799. He went to the most primitive of wayside schools, and was placed at fourteen as apprentice in a clock factory; was for a few years a traveling peddler, selling almanacs and trinkets; then wandered as far as North Carolina and Virginia in a similar traffic; then became [79] a half-proselyte among Quakers in North Carolina; then a school-teacher in Connecticut; always poor, but always thoughtful, ever gravitating towards refined society, and finally coming under the influence of that rare and high-minded man, the Rev. Samuel J. May, and placing himself at last in the still more favored position of Emerson's foot-note. When that took place, it suddenly made itself clear to the whole Concord circle that there was not one among them so serene, so equable, so dreamy, yet so constitutionally a leader, as this wandering child of the desert. Of all the men known in New England, he seemed the one least likely to have been a country peddler.

Mr. Alcott first visited Concord, as Mr. Cabot's memoir of Emerson tells us, in 1835, and in 1840 came there to live. But it was as early as May 19, 1837, that Emerson wrote to Margaret Fuller: “Mr. Alcott is the great man His book [Conversations on the Gospels] does him no justice, and I do not like to see it. . . But he has more of the Godlike than any man I have ever seen and his presence rebukes and threatens and raises. He is a teacher. . .. If he cannot make intelligent men feel the presence of a superior nature, the worse for them; I can never doubt him.” 1 It is suggested by [80] Dr. W. T. Harris, one of the two joint biographers of Alcott, that the description in the last chapter of Emerson's book styled “Nature,” finished in August, 1836, was derived from a study of Mr. Alcott, and it is certain that there was no man among Emerson's contemporaries of whom thenceforward he spoke with such habitual deference. Courteous to all, it was to Alcott alone that he seemed to look up. Not merely Alcott's abstract statements, but his personal judgments, made an absolutely unique impression upon his more famous fellow townsman. It is interesting to notice that Alcott, while staying first in Concord, “complained of lack of simplicity in A--, B--, C--, and D--(late visitors from the city).” Emerson said approvingly to his son : “Alcott is right touchstone to test them, litmus to detect the acid.” 2 We cannot doubt that such a man's own judgment was absolutely simple; and such was clearly the opinion held by Emerson, who, indeed, always felt somewhat easier when he could keep Alcott at his elbow in Concord. Their mutual confidence reminds one of what was said long since by Dr. Samuel Johnson, that poetry was like brown bread: those who made it in their own houses never quite liked the taste of what they got elsewhere. [81]

And from the very beginning, this attitude was reciprocated. At another time during that same early period (1837), Alcott, after criticising Emerson a little for “the picture of vulgar life that he draws with a Shakespearian boldness,” closes with this fine tribute to the intrinsic qualities of his newly won friend: “Observe his style; it is full of genuine phrases from the Saxon. He loves the simple, the natural; the thing is sharply presented, yet graced by beauty and elegance. Our language is a fit organ, as used by him; and we hear classic English once more from northern lips. Shakespeare, Sidney, Browne, speak again to us, and we recognize our affinity with the fathers of English diction. Emerson is the only instance of original style among Americans. Who writes like him? Who can? None of his imitators, surely. The day shall come when this man's genius shall shine beyond the circle of his own city and nation. Emerson's is destined to be the high literary name of this age.” 3

No one up to that time, probably, had uttered an opinion of Emerson quite so prophetic as this; it was not until four years later, in 1841, that even Carlyle received the first volume of Emerson's “Essays” and said, “It is once more the voice of a man.” Yet from that [82] moment Alcott and Emerson became united, however inadequate their twinship might have seemed to others. Literature sometimes, doubtless, makes strange friendships. There is a tradition that when Browning was once introduced to a new Chinese ambassador in London, the interpreter called attention to the fact that they were both poets. Upon Browning's courteously asking how much poetry His Excellency had thus far written, he replied, “Four volumes,” and when asked what style of poetic art he cultivated, the answer was, “Chiefly the enigmatical.” It is reported that Browning afterwards charitably or modestly added, “We felt doubly brothers after that.” It may have been in a similar spirit that Emerson and his foot-note might seem at first to have united their destinies.

Emerson at that early period saw many defects in Alcott's style, even so far as to say that it often reminded him of that vulgar saying, “All stir and no go” ; but twenty years later, in 1855, he magnificently vindicated the same style, then grown more cultivated and powerful, and, indeed, wrote thus of it:

I have been struck with the late superiority Alcott showed. His interlocutors were all better than he: he seemed childish and helpless, not apprehending or answering their remarks aright, and they masters of their [83] weapons. But by and by, when he got upon a thought, like an Indian seizing by the mane and mounting a wild horse of the desert, he overrode them all, and showed such mastery, and took up Time and Nature like a boy's marble in his hand, as to vindicate himself. Sanborn and Harris's Alcott, i, 262.

A severe test of a man's depth of observation lies always in the analysis he gives of his neighbor's temperament; even granting this appreciation to be, as is sometimes fairly claimed, a woman's especial gift. It is a quality which certainly marked Alcott, who once said, for instance, of Emerson's combination of a clear voice with a slender chest, that “some of his organs were free, some fated.” Indeed, his power in the graphic personal delineations of those about him was almost always visible, as where he called Garrison “a phrenological head illuminated,” or said of Wendell Phillips, “Many are the friends of his golden tongue.” This quality I never felt more, perhaps, than when he once said, when dining with me at the house of James T. Fields, in 1862, and speaking of a writer whom I thought I had reason to know pretty well: “He has a love of wholeness; in this respect far surpassing Emerson.”

It is scarcely possible, for any one who recalls from his youth the antagonism and satire called [84] forth by Alcott's “sayings” in the early “Dial,” to avoid astonishment at their more than contemptuous reception. Take, for example, in the very first number the fine saying on “Enthusiasm,” thus:--

Believe, youth, that your heart is an oracle; trust her instinctive auguries; obey her divine leadings; nor listen too fondly to the uncertain echoes of your head. The heart is the prophet of your soul, and ever fulfils her prophecies; reason is her historian; but for the prophecy, the history would not be.

... Enthusiasm is the glory and hope of the world. It is the life of sanctity and genius; it has wrought all miracles since the beginning of time.

Or turn to the following (entitled: “IV. Immortality” ) :--

The grander my conception of being, the nobler my future. There can be no sublimity of life without faith in the soul's eternity. Let me live superior to sense and custom, vigilant alway, and I shall experience my divinity; my hope will be infinite, nor shall the universe contain, or content me.

Or read this ( “XII. Temptation” ):--

Greater is he who is above temptation, than he who, being tempted, overcomes. The latter but regains the state from which the former has not fallen. He who is tempted has sinned. Temptation is impossible to the holy.

[85] Or this ( “LXXXVIII. Renunciation” ) :--

Renounce the world, yourself; and you shall possess the world, yourself, and God.

These are but fragments, here and there. For myself, I would gladly see these “Orphic sayings” reprinted to-morrow, and watch the astonishment of men and women who vaguely recall the derision with which they were first greeted more than sixty years ago.

When it came to putting into action these high qualities, the stories relating to Mr. Alcott which seem most improbable are those which are unquestionably true, as is that of his way of dealing with a man in distress who came to beg of him the loan of five dollars. To this Alcott replied, after searching his pockets, that he had no such bank-note about him, but could lend him ten dollars. This offer was accepted, and Alcott did not even ask the borrower's name, and could merely endure the reproach or ridicule of his friends for six months; after which the same man appeared and paid back the money, offering interest, which was refused. The-debtor turned out to be a well-known swindler, to whom this trusting generosity had made a novel and manly appeal.

Truth and honesty are apt to be classed in men's minds together, but the power of making money, or even of returning it when loaned, is [86] sometimes developed imperfectly among those who are in other respects wise and good. A curious illustration of this may be found in the published memoirs of Mr. Alcott (1.349), but it is quite surpassed by the following narrative, hitherto unpublished, of a subsequent interview, even more picturesque, and apparently with the self-same creditor. I take it from his Ms. Diary, where it appears with the formality of arrangement and beauty of handwriting which mark that extraordinary work.


April 18th, 1839. Thursday.-
Things seem strange to me out there in Time and Space. I am not familiar with the order and usages of this realm. I am at home in the kingdom of the Soul alone.

This day, I passed along our great thoroughfare, gliding with Emerson's check in my pocket, into State Street; and stepped into one of Mammon's temples, for some of the world's coin, wherewith to supply bread for this body of mine, and those who depend upon me. But I felt dishonored by resorting to these haunts of Idolaters. I went not among them to dig in the mines of Lucre, nor to beg at the doors of the God. It was the hour for business on 'Change, which was swarming with worshippers. Bevies of devotees were consulting on appropriate rites whereby to honor their divinity. [87]

One of these devotees (cousin-german of my wife) accosted me, as I was returning, and asked me to bring my oblation with the others. Now I owed the publican a round thousand, which he proffered me in days when his God prospered his wits; but I had nothing for him. That small pittance which I had just got snugly into my fob (thanks to my friend E--) was not for him, but for my wife's nurse, and came just in time to save my wife from distrusting utterly the succors of Providence. I told my man, that I had no money; but he might have me, if he wanted me. No: I was bad stock in the market; and so he bid me good-day. I left the buzz and hum of these devotees, who represent old Nature's relation to the Appetites and Senses, and returned, with a sense of grateful relief, from this sally into the Kingdom of Mammon, back to my domicile in the Soul.

There was, however, strangely developed in Alcott's later life an epoch of positively earning money. His first efforts at Western lectures began in the winter of 1853-54, and he returned in February, 1854. He was to give a series of talks on the representative minds of New England, with the circle of followers surrounding each; the subjects of his discourse being Webster, Greeley, Garrison, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Greenough, and Emerson; the separate themes being thus stated as seven, and the number of conversations as only six. Terms for the course [88] were three dollars. By his daughter Louisa's testimony he returned late at night with a single dollar in his pocket, this fact being thus explained in his own language : “Many promises were not kept and travelling is costly; but I have opened the way, and another year shall do better.” 4 At any rate, his daughter thus pathetically described his appearance at this interview, as her mother wrote to a friend: “He looked as cold and thin as an icicle; but as serene as God.” 5

There is an almost dramatic interest in transferring our imaginations to the later visit he made westward, when he was eighty-one years old, between October, 1880, and May, 1881. He then traveled more than five thousand miles, lectured or held conversations at the rate of more than one a day, Sundays included, and came back with a thousand dollars, although more than half of his addresses had been gratuitous. For seven years after this he was the nominal dean of the so-called School of Philosophy in Concord, and for four years took an active part in its lectures and discussions. His last written works were most appropriately two sonnets on “Immortality,” this being the only theme remaining inexhaustibly open.

Perhaps no two persons in the world were in [89] their intellectual method more antipodal — to use one of Alcott's favorite phrases — than himself and Parker, though each stood near to Emerson and ostensibly belonged to the same body of thinkers. In debate, the mere presence of Parker made Alcott seem uneasy, as if yielding just cause for Emerson's searching inquiry, “Of what use is genius, if its focus be a little too short or too long?” No doubt, Mr. Alcott might well be one of those to whom such criticism could fitly be applied, just as it has been used to discourage the printing of Thoreau's whole journal. Is it not possible that Alcott's fame may yet be brought up gradually and securely, like Thoreau's, from those ample and beautifully written volumes which Alcott left behind him?

Alcott doubtless often erred, at first, in the direction of inflation in language. When the Town and Country Club was organized in Boston, and had been, indeed, established “largely to afford a dignified occupation for Alcott,” as Emerson said, Alcott wished to have it christened either the Olympian Club or the Pan Club. Lowell, always quick at a joke, suggested the substitution of “Club of Hercules” instead of “Olympian” ; or else that, inasmuch as the question of admitting women was yet undecided, “The Patty-Pan” would be a better name. But [90] if Alcott's words were large, he acted up to them. When the small assaulting party was driven back at the last moment from the Court House doors in Boston, during the Anthony Burns excitement, and the steps were left bare, the crowd standing back, it was Alcott who came forward and placidly said to the ring-leader, “Why are we not within?” On being told that the mob would not follow, he walked calmly up the steps, alone, cane in hand. When a revolver was fired from within, just as he had reached the highest step, and he discovered himself to be still unsupported, he as calmly turned and walked down without hastening a footstep. It was hard to see how Plato or Pythagoras could have done the thing better. Again, at the outbreak of the Civil War, when a project was formed for securing the defense of Washington by a sudden foray into Virginia, it appears from his Diary that he had been at the point of joining it, when it was superseded by the swift progress of events, and so abandoned.

The power of early sectarian training is apt to tell upon the later years even of an independent thinker, and so it was with Alcott. In his case a life-long ideal attitude passed back into something hard to distinguish from old-fashioned Calvinism. This was especially noticeable [91] at the evening receptions of the Rev. Joseph Cook, who flattered Alcott to the highest degree and was met at least halfway by the seer himself. Having been present at one or two of these receptions, I can testify to the disappointment inspired in Alcott's early friends at his seeming willingness to be made a hero in an attitude quite alien to that of his former self. The “New international,” for instance, recognizes that “in later years his manner became more formal and his always nebulous teaching apparently more orthodox.” Be this as it may, the man whom Emerson called “the most extraordinary man and highest genius of the time,” and of whom he says, “As pure intellect I have never seen his equal,” such a man needed only the fact of his unprotected footsteps under fire up the stairs of the Boston Court House to establish him in history as a truly all-round man,--unsurpassed among those of his own generation even in physical pluck. [92]

1 Sanborn and Harris's Alcott, II, 66.

2 Emerson in Concord, 120.

3 Sanborn and Harris's Alcott, i, 264.

4 Sanborn and Harris's Alcott, 2.477.

5 Memoirs, II, 473.

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