Did you know that Louisa May Alcott’s family moved 29 times before they settled down in Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts? Did you know that her philosopher father’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, lent the money to pay for the property, and that Louisa later paid him back with proceeds from her book, Little Women? Did you know that this book has never been out of print since first published in 1880? Finally, did you know that Louisa would WALK to Boston from Concord to meet with her editor, and then WALK home afterwards? That’s 20 miles each way, 40 miles in one day. No big deal. She loved the physical exercise and the opportunity to commune with nature.
Though Louisa set her famous story in the Orchard House, the four daughters, on whom the story was based, were all grown up by the time they moved there. That they had already moved 29 times speaks volumes. What was going on?
Her father Amos Bronson Alcott, was a Transcendentalist, a contemporary and friend of not only Emerson but Thoreau and others, and an educational experimentalist who had tried, and failed, to establish an experimental community, Fruitlands. According to our guide, the family moved up and down the east coast, from I think it was New Hampshire to South Carolina, landing in a place for just a short while before moving again before they finally settled in the Orchard House for 20 years. Kiera and I wondered about that nearly three decades’ long journey with their idealist father . . . four kids, and luckily, a very practical mom, on the road. How did they travel? Horseback? Carriage? How much did they carry with them from place to place?
We can thank this unusual and driven man for recess, field trips, and learning from nature as regular parts of school curriculum. And I, personally, thank him for being one of the few people who recognize the word “educare” in its Latin root, “to draw out” (of the student, what he or she already knows). In short, the Socratic method! And a very strong recognition of the process we call “intuition.” I had no idea that this was the person who sired Louisa May Alcott.. What an extraordinary childhood, to have had this man as a father. I’m going to read Little Women again, and look further into that whole era and the atmosphere that inspired it. This moment in time and space is one of the few aspects of the American story that I totally, unreservedly, appreciate.
At dinner afterwards in the Colonial Inn, Kiera said what she liked best was that Louisa’s Dad let May (the artist among the four girls) draw on the doors and window frames in her own room. (Kiera is constantly making art. Can’t seem to stop. Her fingers just go there, and in any medium.) And there they are, May’s pencil drawings, now covered by plexiglass. He said that she could do it because it would be good for her. That drawing and artistry were part of her nature which she should be encouraged to develop. Again, what a dad!
And thank God for Louisa, who apparently, paid the way for the entire family from then on once she became a famous author.
What particularly inspired me was not only Bronson Alcott’s philosophy of education, which I share, but the School of Philosophy which he built in back of the house (thanks to the generous donation from one of his students). Unfortunately, the sign is not legible in this photo:
Inside the School of Philosophy there is a raised platform at one end for lecturers, with busts of Emerson and Alcott gracing the sides. Many of the luminaries of that period taught there, in a curriculum that looks positively quaint today in an age which has sterilized and corporatized the educational process. Here’s Kiera and I with the bust of Emerson, who, by the way, has always been one of my favorite philosopher/thinkers of all time.
Just being there felt like a descent of grace and blessing. Just breathing into a place where people actually cared about ideas, and learning, and ethics and living in concert with the precious uniqueness of our own original natures inside the bounty and mystery of Nature felt like a tremendous gift to the spirit. And that I should have been given this unexpected gift while in the company of my beloved granddaughter!
“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it!” — Ralph Waldo Emerson