American Literature and the Dream

By Frederic I. Carpenter | Go to book overview

5. BRONSON ALCOTT: GENTEEL TRANSCENDENTALIST

I

IN THE autumn of 1847, Emerson commissioned Alcott to build a rustic summer-house, and persuaded Thoreau to care for his Concord household during the coming winter. Having thus provided for his two best friends, he departed on a lecture tour of Europe. It is recorded that Thoreau performed his duties cheerfully, gave Emerson's children hilarious pick-a-back rides, and wrote homely letters to their father telling of the fun. But it was Alcott who enjoyed his new work to the utmost.

Emerson's rustic summer-house was to be Alcott's supreme artistic creation. It was to be a labor of love, devoted to the master, and a symbol of all their ideal aspirations. More than any other task which he ever undertook, it absorbed him.1 By day he worked on it and by night he dreamed of it. When a skeptical neighbor called it "the strangest thing I ever saw," Alcott merely compared it with "the finest work of M. Angelo."2 In visible and tangible form it expressed his inmost ideas.

Unfortunately, this summer-house also expressed the confusion of Alcott's ideas. Describing the building in his Journal, he suggested the symbolism of it. "The edifice seems to be upheld by the broad cornice, the rafters aspiring in handsome curves to their apex and uniting at the ridge-pole, with broad weather-boards and the bending brackets depending therefrom, as if to find the ground and take root therein."3 Indeed, the description might also apply to Alcott himself. Did not his own nature aspire in "handsome curves" toward the ethereal ideal? And did not his own intellectual roots "depend" from the upper atmosphere, "as if to find the ground and take root therein?" Alcott's description may suggest to the modern reader the image of a tree on stilts. And these stilts, or "upright joists," as he called them, were nine, "to form the corners for the nine Muses to this poet's bower."

Alcott's symbolic summer-house was important, and the confusion of it significant, because it gave expression to a state of mind common to many American idealists. Seeking to divorce his high aspirations from the base element of earth, Alcott set them on the stilts of

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American Literature and the Dream
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Part I 3
  • 1 - Introduction 3
  • 2 - The American Dream 5
  • Part II 11
  • 3 - The Transcendental Dream 11
  • 4 - Emerson 19
  • 5 - Bronson Alcott:Genteel Transcendentalist 30
  • 6 - Walt Whitman''s Eidolon 40
  • Part III 51
  • 7 - The Genteel Tradition:A Re-Interpretation 51
  • 8 - Scarlet a Minus 63
  • 9 - Melville and the Men-Of-War 73
  • Part IV 83
  • 10 - The Pragmatic Realization 83
  • 11 - Charles Sanders Peirce:Pragmatic Transcendentalist 94
  • 12 - William James and Emerson 105
  • 13 - Sinclair Lewis and the Fortress of Reality 116
  • Part V 126
  • 14 - The Romantic Confusion- The Devil in America 126
  • 15 - The Romantic Tragedy of Eugene O''Neill 133
  • 16 - Death Comes for Robinson Jeffers 144
  • Part VI 155
  • 17 - Thomas Wolfe- The Autobiography of an Idea 155
  • 18 - John Steinbeck- The Philosophical Joads 167
  • 19 - The Time of William Saroyan''s Life 176
  • 20 - Hemingway Achieves the Fifth Dimension 185
  • Part VII 194
  • 21 - The Good and the Bad 194
  • 22 - The Logic of American Literature 199
  • Notes 208
  • Index 217
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