Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Transcendentalist Quote

Louisa May Alcott wasn't a Transcendentalist, but her father, Bronson Alcott, was. Her story "Eli's Education" is the way she imagined her father developed from farm boy to educated man. It was originally published in St Nicholas: a monthly magazine for boys and girls, which has been scanned by Google books.

The story begins with his self-education:

Many years ago, a boy of sixteen sat in a little room in an old farm-house up among the Connecticut hills, writing busily in a book made of odd bits of paper stitched together, with a cover formed of two thin boards. The lid of a blue chest was his desk, the end of a tallow candle stuck into a potato was his lamp, a mixture of soot and vinegar his ink, and a quill from the gray goose his pen. A Webster's Spelling-book, Dilivorth's New Guide to the English Tongue, Daboll's Arithmetic, and the American Preceptor, stood on the chimneypiece over his head, with the Assembly Catechism and New Testament in the place of honor. This was his library ; and now and then a borrowed Pilgrim's Progress, Fox's Book of Martyrs, or some stray volume, gladdened his heart; for he passionately loved books, and scoured the neighborhood for miles around to feed this steadily increasing hunger.

Young Eli goes through many trials and tribulations, but all ends well:

There his youth ends ; but after the years of teaching he began to preach at last, not in one pulpit, but in many all over the land, diffusing good thoughts now as he had peddled small wares when a boy ; still learning as he went, still loving books and studying mankind, still patient, pious, dutiful, and tender, a wise and beautiful old man, till at eighty, Eli's education ended.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Transcendentalist Quote

Have you seen the American Masters program about Louisa May Alcott on PBS? I was fascinated by the experience she had as a child at Fruitlands, a commune built on Transcendentalist ideals founded by her father, Bronson Alcott, and his friend, Charles Lane. Utopian communities are easy to make fun of, and this one is probably funnier than most. The only person who lived at Fruitlands and wrote extensively about the experience was Louisa. Her piece, written many years later as an adult, was a parody called Transcendental Wild Oats.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote in his journal after a visit to Fruitlands, "I will not prejudge them successful. They look well in July. We shall see them in December." In fact, that statement proved prescient as the community broke up in January, unable to feed themselves, in part because the two founders spent the growing season traveling and lecturing rather than working the farm.

Another source of contention was a belief by Charles Lane that their community should be celibate like the Shakers. Mrs. Alcott did not share this vision and one assumes that she had intellectual and other means to persuade her husband to see her side of things.

However, in spite of all the fun to be had at the expense of Fruitlands, many of the ideals were admirable and some seem quite modern. I was startled at how much the following passage, from a published letter written by the Fruitlands founders, echoes things I have read in the last couple of years about eating locally, the inefficiency of cattle as a provider of meat or milk, and the merits of veganism.

Debauchery of both the earthly soil and the human body is the result of this cattle keeping. The land is scourged for crops to feed the animals, whose filthy ordures are used under the erroneous supposition of restoring lost fertility; disease is thus infused into the human body; stimulants and medicines are resorted to for relief, which end in a precipitation of the original evil to a more disastrous depth. These misfortunes which affect not only the body, but by reaction rise to the sphere of the soul would be avoided, at least in part, by the disuse of animal food. Our diet is therefore strictly of the pure and bloodless kind. No animal substances, neither flesh, butter, cheese, eggs nor milk, pollute our tables or corrupt our bodies, neither tea, coffee, molasses, nor rice, tempts us beyond the bounds of indigenous productions. Our sole beverage is pure fountain water. The native grains, fruits, herbs and roots, dressed with the utmost cleanliness, and regard to their purpose of edifying a healthful body, furnish the pleasantest refections and in the greatest variety requisite to the supply of the various organs. The field, the orchard, the garden, in their bounteous products of wheat, rye, barley, maize, oats, buckwheat; apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries, currants, berries; potatoes, peas, beans, beets, carrots, melons, and other vines, yield an ample store for human nutrition, without dependence on foreign climes, or the degradations of shipping and trade. The almost inexhaustible variety which the several stages and sorts of vegetable growth, and the several modes of preparation afford, are a full answer to the question which is often put by those who have never ventured into the region of a pure and chaste diet: "If you give up flesh meat, upon what then can you live?"

Originally, this quote was from a letter published in the Herald of Freedom, September 8, 1843. I transcribed it from an appendix of Transcendental Wild Oats and Excerpts from the Fruitlands Diary by Louisa May Alcott, a 1981 printing by The Harvard Common Press.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday Transcendentalist Quote

Students of Transcendentalism despair at arriving at a satisfactory definition of the movement, but I quite like this one by Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894), educator, bookstore owner, and publisher.
Transcendentalism belongs to no sect of religion, and no social party. It is the common ground to which all sects may rise, and be purified of their narrowness; for it consists in seeking the spiritual ground of all manifestations.

As quoted in A Journey into the Transcendentalists' New England by R. Todd Felton, pp. 5, 7.