12 February 2015

Bronson Alcott & Abigail May - A Love Story

The courtship between Bronson Alcott and Abigail May is one of my favorite stories to tell as an Orchard House guide, especially around Valentine's Day.  Sometimes--usually upstairs in Mr. and Mrs. Alcott's bed chamber, when I am introducing Mrs. Alcott's family--a visitor on the tour asks, "If Marmee was from such a wealthy, prominent family, and Bronson was so poor, how did they even meet each other?  What brought them together in the first place?"

My face lights up, and I clasp my hands together. "I'm so glad you asked," I say, "It's such a nice story!"

And the story goes something like this:

Young Bronson Alcott
Bronson Alcott's first attempt at opening his own school--like the others that followed-- did not last long.  It was not a complete failure, because his students learned exceptionally well, admired him, and other educators found his methods fascinating, but he could never learn to please those whose support he needed most: the parents of his students.  Learning well was not particularly valued by many, but rather keeping children in their place was of paramount importance.  Because Mr. Alcott refused to beat the students (which meant he was spoiling them), allowed questions in the classroom (considered permissive and not tolerated in other classrooms), encouraged reading books (thought to be a waste of time by practical farmers), brightly decorated his classroom, had real conversations with the students and valued their ideas, he was deemed incapable by the practical people of a small, rural town.  These were new ideas not seen in other classrooms and parents didn't know what to make of them.
But just as his school closed down, he received a letter from a respected minister in Brooklyn, Connecticut, who had called a state-wide conference on the deplorable condition of education in that state.  At the conference, he  had been inspired by what he heard about Mr. Alcott's new methods. This man was named Samuel May.  May was well-connected, a descendant of the prominent Boston families the Quincys and Sewalls, and he invited Bronson to meet with him.

Abigail May Alcott
When Bronson arrived at the May home, however, it was not Samuel that answered the door, but his visiting sister, Abigail. Bronson eventually enchanted both siblings with tales from his classroom and his beliefs about education.

After meeting Abigail for the first time, Bronson Alcott did what he always did--he wrote in his journal:

"an interesting woman we had often portrayed in our imagination.  In her we thought we saw its reality . . . In refined and elevated conversation with a lady thus estimated by our reason and thus offering herself to our imagination, we could not but be pleased, interested, captivated."

After that first meeting, Bronson returned to Connecticut to open one more school there. The endeavor lasted only about eight months, during which time, he kept in contact with the May family.
Eventually, Samuel helped Bronson secure a new position at a school in Boston. Abigail wrote to him, offering her help as an assistant in his school.  Afraid that the people of Boston would accuse him of favoritism, Samuel (with help from Bronson) discouraged Abigail from becoming Bronson's assistant.  Luckily for Bronson this allowed him to continue to pursue a personal relationship with Abigail.

In his journal, Bronson wrestled with revealing his growing feelings for Abigail.  He could not be sure of her feelings towards him, so he continued to write. Sometimes, when visiting with her he would even reveal mysterious passages from his personal writings as a way to hint at his true feelings for her.

In The Alcotts: Biography of a Family, Madelon Bedell calls their courtship "a comedy of errors" (41) , where the lovers avoided revealing their true feelings for several months.  Finally, however, it was Abigail who could not hold back any longer. She confessed to Bronson that she loved him. Shy Bronson, still apprehensive, did not speak the words but rather showed Abigail the many passages from his journal where he had written about her.

They were quickly engaged to be married.

Abigail wrote to her brother:

       I never felt so happy in my life--I feel already an increase of moral energy--I have something to love--to live for.

And Bronson again turned to the pages of his journal:

I then commenced living, not only for society, but for an individual.
I identified a human soul with my own.

There's something significant for me that the future Mr. and Mrs. Alcott solidified their love with writing, a prophecy of just how important writing would be to all of the Alcott's lives.  Somehow, it seems like a happy ending to a story that was only just beginning.

Bedell, Madelon. The Alcotts: the Biography of a Family. New York: Potter, 1980.
Matteson, John. Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. New York: Norton, 2007.


  1. Wonderful post! I love this story! I researched the Alcotts quite a bit when I was in grad school and one of the things I loved learning about most was how Bronson and Abigail spoke of and to each other in their journals and letters. Thank you for keeping the Alcott spirit alive and for all of the wonderful work at Orchard House!

  2. I wonder if LMA modeled Rose and Mac's letter-writing in Rose in Bloom on her parents' story?