None of the American Transcendentalists was so ridiculed as Amos Bronson Alcott. Throughout his life, Alcott was a thoroughgoing religious radical whose pronouncements often were too much even for Transcendentalists like Emerson, although they themselves had abandoned Unitarian liberalism as too conservative. Although many critics have noted and lampooned Alcott's eccentric modes of “prophetic” expression from his “Orphic Sayings” in The Dial onward—some considering him deluded and even insane—much in Alcott's work becomes far more comprehensible when one considers a central hidden source of his inspiration: German mysticism exemplified in the work of seventeenth-century Protestant mystic Jacob Böhme.
This is not to defend Alcott completely from the charge of unfortunate expression, of course. It is no accident that Alcott, with his often incoherent “Orphic Sayings, ” inspired more derision of the early Transcendentalist peridical The Dial than anyone else. Even Alcott's friend Emerson criticized the “Sayings, ” published in the Wrst issue of The Dial in 1840, as containing Alcott's “inveterate faults:” verbosity, imprecise expression, extreme abstractness, and incoherence. Emerson suspected that his friend would never write so well as he talked, but Emerson still encouraged Margaret Fuller—who shared his assessment of Alcott—to publish “Orphic Sayings” because they would distinguish The Dial from other publications. 1
Distinguish it they did. Newspaper writers ridiculed The Dial as “the ravings of Alcott and his fellow zanies, ” even though Alcott's was the only genuinely eccentric writing in the new magazine. The Knickerbocker, in its issue of November 1840, parodied Alcott's contribution to The Dial with its “Gastric Sayings, ” and such pronouncements as “The popular cookery is dietetical. … Appetite is dual. Satiety is derivative. Simplicity halts in compounds. Masti
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Publication information: Book title: The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance. Contributors: Arthur Versluis - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2001. Page number: 115.
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