Posted by: Robin | November 18, 2009

The Limits of Biography

As a writer I am motivated by my love of the story and the lives of the people they reveal. While I understand all too well that communicating through words has limitations, if I am honest, I feel quite the opposite. That is why Amos Bronson Alcott has thrown me for such a loop. Amos Bronson Alcott was the father of Louisa May Alcott, and one of the leading lights of America’s 19th-century Transcendental movement, despite a life of repeated haplessness and failure by any measurable standard. After reading the novel March by Geraldine Brooks I embarked on an Alcott biography binge, puzzled by how close and yet so far the main character was from his semi-biographical inspiration Bronson Alcott. After reading biographies and excerpts of his letters and journals I just don’t get it. How did he keep the loyalty and friendship of Emerson and Thoreau? Why did person after person bail him out financially when he repeatedly proved inept at being realistic in anything he tried? Why did he retain the loyalty and affection of his wife and daughters after a lifetime of criticism and extreme poverty because of his choices and inability to learn from his mistakes?

In his fifties, while his wife and daughters have to work to support the family he embarks on a career as a conversationalist, and travels the East and Midwest for years to gather interested parties to discuss various social justice and spiritual topics (though apparently it was not particularly interactive). Newspaper critics of these ‘perfprmances’ are quoted as saying one may not remember the content of what Alcott says, but one feels elevated. These trips made him money occasionally, but more often he broke even at best. He was in demand again.

Even those who loved and knew him best acknowledged the man was constitutionally incapable of any view but his own, and his own was divinely inspired in his view. He was an exalted ego, and at times those same loyalists admit, off his rocker, and at best, a man of embarrassing contradictions. He was an abolitionist of the first order. Alcott was willing to close his school rather than to close his doors to a free black girl, though that meant his family had no income. His home was a station on the Underground Railroad, and he deliberately tried to martyr himself in a Boston standoff over the trial of an escaped slave who was to be returned to his master. This same man believed that a person’s coloring was a metaphor for his/her capability of spiritual enlightenment (he was blond and blue-eyed). That being so, he proposed all black males be neutered. He thought of his olive-skinned dark-haired wife and second daughter Louisa as agents of darkness.

Words on a page can never explain the appeal of this man. He did some amazingly admirable things, but why he did them and the negligence of thought about anything or anyone but his principles makes these acts of courage and/or generosity questionable. So I am left like a detective with OCD and a puzzle that nothing but a time-machine and meeting the man in the flesh can solve. The even greater frustration is that it brings into question the research I have done on the life of other authors, possibly less inexplicable, but certainly not less complex. Is there something so intangible in a person’s presence and essence that ties all the facts and narrative of their lives together in a way that is always more than the sum of the parts? Can we only know the narrative but not the human being?


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