Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Centennial Contributions

The Alcott Centennial

Read at the Second Church, Copley Square, Boston, Wednesday, November 29, 1899

A hundred years ago A. Bronson Alcott was born, and thirty-three years later his daughter Louisa was born, happily on the same day of the year, as if for this very purpose,—that you might testify your appreciation of the good work they did in this world, at one and the same moment. It was a fortunate coincidence, which we like to think of to-day, as it undoubtedly gave pleasure to Bronson Alcott and his wife sixty-seven years ago.

How genuine were Mr. Alcott and his daughter, Louisa! “All else,” says the sage, “is superficial and perishable, save love and truth only.” It is through the love and truth that was in these two that we still feel their influence as if they were living to-day. How well I recollect Mr. Alcott’s first visit to my father’s house at Medford, when I was a boy! I had the same impression of him then that the consideration of his life makes on me now,—as an exceptional person, but one greatly to be trusted. I could see that he was a man who wished well to me, and to all mankind; who had no intention of encroaching on my rights as an individual in any way whatever; and who, furthermore, had no suspicion of me as a person alien to himself. The criticism made of him by my young brother held good of him then and always,—that “he looked like one of Christ’s disciples.” His aspect was intelligently mild and gentle, unmixed with the slightest taint of worldly self-interest.

He heard that Goethe had said, “We begin to sin as soon as we act;” but he did not agree to this, and was determined that one man at least should live in this world without sinning. He carried this plan out so consistently that, as he once confessed to me, it brought him to the verge of starvation. Then he realized that in order to play our part in the general order of things,—in order to obviate the perpetual tendency in human affairs to chaos,—we are continually obliged to compromise. However, to the last he would never touch animal food. Others might murder sheep and oxen, but he, Bronson Alcott, would not be a partaker in what he considered a serious transgression of moral law. This brought him into antagonism with the current of modern opinion, which considers man the natural ruler of this earth, and that it is both his right and his duty to remodel it according to his ideas of usefulness and beauty.

It brought him into a life-long conflict with society, but how gallantly, how amiably he carried this on you all know. It cannot be said that he was defeated, for his spirit was unconquerable. His purity of intention always received its true recognition; and wherever Bronson Alcott went he collected the most earnest, high-minded people about him, and made them more earnest, more high-minded by his conversation.

How different was his daughter, Louisa,—the keen observer of life and manners; the witty story-teller with the pictorial mind; always sympathetic, practical, helpful—the mainstay of her family, a pillar of support to her friends; forgetting the care of her own soul in her interest for the general welfare; heedless of her own advantage, and thereby obtaining for herself as a gift from heaven, the highest of all advantages, and the greatest of all rewards!

And yet, with so wide a difference in the practical application of their lives, the well-spring of Louisa’s thought and the main-spring of her action were identical with those of her father, and may be considered an inheritance from him. For the well-spring of her thought was truth, and the main-spring of her action was love. There can be no fine art, no great art, no art which is of service to mankind, which does not originate on this twofold basis. We are told that when she was a young girl, on a voyage from Philadelphia to Boston, her face suddenly lighted up with the true brightness of genius, as she said, “I love everybody in this whole world!” If, afterwards, a vein of satire came to be mingled with this genial flow of human kindness, it was not Louisa’s fault.

In like manner, Bronson Alcott rested his argument for immortality on the ground of the family affections. “Such strong ties,” he reasoned, “could not have been made merely to be broken.” Let us share his faith, and believe that they have not been broken.


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

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