Culture of Eloquence: Oratory and Reform in Antebellum America

By James Perrin Warren | Go to book overview

4
Fuller, Peabody, and the Mother Tongue

1

Writing in November 1837, Bronson Alcott gives a tellingly utopian, communitarian description of the Language of Nature, which he associates with "a rural retreat of simple people." Like Emerson, Alcott asserts that "words are things with them," and like both Emerson and Thoreau, Alcott draws a verbal portrait of an eloquent, Adamic orator:

He reminds me of Shakespeare. He has retained his epithets. Language appears in its simpler, worthier forms. He deals with its staples. Its great words slip from his tongue. The needs of the soul shine in his speech. His vocabulary is not shorn of woods, winds, waters, sky, toil, humanity. It hath a soul in it. Its images are of God's shaping. It deals in the product of nature, and shames art -- save when she, like him, is faithful to the uses and ends of nature. I would rather study simple countryman amidst the scenes of nature, as dictionary of my native tongue, than commune with citizen amidst his conventions, or read with professor in college or hall, the tomes of a library. There is life and meaning in it. It is devoid of pretense. It is mother-tongue1

Alcott's figure of eloquence echoes Emerson's Nature ( 1836), just as it forecasts Thoreau's bookish reaction in Walden, where speech is "commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers" (101). More important than these reverberations is Alcott's concern with the study of language, for he was one of the most

____________________
1
Bronson Alcott, The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard ( Boston: Little, Brown, 1938), 95.

-85-

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