How the Women Became Little

January 22, 2020 | 4 books mentioned 9 min read

In 1834, Amos Bronson Alcott—most famous now for being the father of the author of Little Women, but then a 34-year-old self-taught intellectual determined to become famous himself—founded the Temple School for children in Boston. One of his visions (he was the kind of man who had many) was of space: He wanted his school to be a kind of cathedral, and he found a fitting setting for it on the second floor of the recently built Masonic Temple on Boston Common. The classroom spanned 60 feet. Its ceilings were so high that in winter the cavernous space they enclosed was always cold. Its enormous arched window bathed everything in sacred-looking light. Alcott arranged the desks in a semicircle, since his would be a classroom of conversation, in which every soul was valued, every voice listened to. He would be these voices’ conductor. He put busts of Plato, Walter Scott, Shakespeare, and Socrates around the classroom’s periphery, and a bas relief of Christ behind his own desk, right above his own head.

covercoverAlcott’s school quickly found a different kind of space, too, thanks to his assistant, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody; not long after the Temple School opened, she started writing a book about it, called Record of a School: Exemplifying the General Principles of Spiritual Culture. In 1835, a full year before Emerson’s Nature appeared, it would become the first published book to emerge from the Transcendentalist movement. Peabody was 30 years old when she worked at the Temple School, and surely one of the most overqualified teaching assistants to have ever assisted a teacher. She had a formidable mind and education—she would eventually know 10 languages, was a prolific writer, and would later be publisher of the famous Transcendentalist journal The Dial—and had opened her own school at the age of 17. Peabody was the one who taught Alcott’s students mathematics and Latin, because Alcott himself wasn’t qualified to teach either. She was also the one who found him his first crop of students amongst the children of the Boston intellectual elite who knew her but not him.

Record of a School is actually a record of many things. First: It records Peabody’s admiration (at least partly warranted) for Alcott’s skill and vision as an educator. Alcott worked via Socratic method, and out of his students, some of them as young as 5, he drew astonishments. He read to them, stopping to paraphrase and respond and asking them to do the same—requiring active reading of them in a way that would look familiar to modern teachers but was at the time radical, assuming as it did that children had something of value to say. Rapturously, Peabody writes, “Mr. Alcott thinks that every book read, should be an event to a child.” All aspects of Alcott’s teaching were events. Alcott’s “spelling” lessons became cascading moral sermons on all the meanings that could expand out of a single word as if out of a clown car:

Lone was the first word defined. Did you ever feel lone, lonely? said Mr. Alcott. Yes. Always, when there was no person present?—No. Ever when there were people present?—Yes. This led to the conclusion that loneliness was in the mind, a feeling independent of circumstances…but that the feeling could not exist when the soul was conscious of the omnipresent friendship of its Father…

In evidence here are far loftier ambitions than teaching children to spell “lone” correctly. Alcott believed too that students must be allowed a time of free exploration in their own writing before their teachers tried to inflict “petty criticism” upon it, subscribing to the view that, as Peabody writes, “Children have a great deal to contend with, in the attempt to express their thoughts.” There’s a valuing and empathy and treasuring of individual children in Record of a School that makes us understand that Alcott’s schoolroom was in many ways a lucky place to be.

But that’s of course in part Peabody’s valuing and empathy and treasuring, because that’s Peabody’s voice, telling us about Alcott’s beliefs, making him beautiful. The second thing recorded in Peabody’s Record, if a person looks for it, is her own subjugated place in the Temple School. Peabody’s daily Latin and arithmetic lessons figure in the text mostly as stage directions: “After recess I took my class into the other room to attend to Latin.” We almost never get anything substantive about this “attending,” and never whole scenes, as we get so often in accounts of Alcott’s teaching. When I picture those scenes—children talking, Alcott himself talking and talking—I see Elizabeth Peabody sitting apart and taking her notes, perhaps at the rear of the classroom, or along one of its edges. Only very occasionally interfering, and then mostly internally. When Alcott is explicating the opening of the book of John, for instance, Peabody tells us, “I was sorry he did not take the time to observe to them, that word, in that passage was probably used in a still more general sense than Language, meaning the expression of Truth in all ways…” We might wonder if time was really the limiting factor in Alcott’s failure to say this to his students; we might wonder also what would have had to change in that room, and in Peabody’s placement within that room, for Peabody herself to have been able to say it.

It isn’t news about women and their history, of course, that they’ve often been excluded from certain arenas. Lately, though, I’ve been noticing a recurrence in the shape that women assumed within those arenas, when they did manage, against all odds, to make their way in and become thinkers and artists. In the Rodin Museum in Paris, there’s one room devoted to the work of the female sculptor Camille Claudel, a room that exists because Rodin himself stipulated its existence. Claudel was a gifted artist in her own right, but she was also for a time Rodin’s protégé, and his much, much younger lover; eventually Rodin ended the relationship because of his continued attachment to the woman of around his own age, Rose Beuret, who was his mistress for decades and whom he eventually married. Claudel’s most famous sculpture, “The Mature Age,” which has pride of place in the Claudel room, is of a man being led away from a young, imploring, kneeling woman by an old woman who whispers intimately in his ear. The younger woman’s arm, her face, strain. She herself isn’t moving, but her wanting is an active force. Claudel’s most famous sculpture is many things, and one of them is an image of Rodin leaving her. Of herself, being left.

This shape is everywhere in the history of women scholars and writers and artists once you’re attuned to it: the embodying of this active/passive contradiction. Mary Lamb, sister of the 19th-century English writer Charles Lamb, had a hand in the books that bore his name (sometimes along with hers) and played a part in his salons, and ended her life—like Camille Claudel, who died in an institution—in poor mental health. At one point she wrote to her brother, “I am much fonder of receiving letters, than of writing them.” Frida Kahlo said of the patterns of her pain, “Perhaps it is expected that I should lament about how I have suffered living with a man like Diego. But I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow…”

This is how these brilliant, ambitious women see their places. The self kneels and reaches after, the self receives, the self makes a bank for the river, which passes it by.

In Record of a School, Peabody’s shape is mostly the shape of a margin, or a hem. When I read Peabody’s book, I’m looking for the places where I can actually see her. Here, for instance, where she recounts a story she told the students: “I here asked permission to tell the first tale that I remembered Life to have told me…” The tale is of women in white robes crossing a dark, stormy sea; disembarking, two by two, into a new wilderness; kneeling to pray; going into the underbrush to make little huts to live in. “The story of the Pilgrim fathers! exclaimed several, interrupting me; but what made you think the Pilgrims were women? said one. It was the misunderstanding of a single word, said I.” Misunderstanding, perhaps—or revision, conscious or unconscious. A widening of the story into a more spacious version of itself, so that there was room for a woman, too, to set out voyaging and forefathering.

We have to wait until near the end of Record of a School for Peabody’s most extended coming off the wall. Now that she’s recorded the goings-on of Alcott’s classroom, she wishes to frame what she’s observed for the reader, laying out some “General Principles of Education.” To steel herself she requires paragraphs of preamble and performative humility. “I am well aware that the foregoing record is an entirely inadequate representation of the interesting communications between Mr. Alcott and his pupils; but if I have not failed utterly, some interest has been excited…” The essay that follows is thoughtful and groundbreaking, and crammed to overflowing with her learning. It has Lycurgus and Ignatius de Loyola and “Asiatic religious polity” and Anaxagoras at its fingertips. But it also keeps putting those fingertips on the cradle. “There is nothing in true education which has not its germ in the maternal sentiment; and every mother would find more of the spiritual philosophy in her own affections, if her mind would but read her heart, than could be obtained by years of study in books,” Peabody writes—this woman who has spent years and years of such book-study. “What is the soul? is the question; and, will not every mother, who has watched the infant from its cradle, respond to the following propositions…” she writes—this woman who was not and never would be a mother. Her analysis, she seems to feel, must be couched in womanly terms. To ensure the best reception for her ideas, she clothes them in comparisons to motherly feelings. I know I am a woman, but I can know things. Look at me, knowing them, showing them to you.

Alcott lived his life surrounded by women, and his daughters surface occasionally in Record of a School. He makes them into cases in his point, as he illustrates various moral or educational principles. Peabody records a story he told about how, when one daughter told him that her sister, “a boisterous child who inflicted pain thoughtlessly,” had pinched her and pulled her hair, Alcott then pinched and pulled the hair of the offending daughter in turn. He asks his class, wasn’t he right not to “let her mind go uncultivated because I was afraid of hurting her body? The result of the conversation seemed to be a universal agreement with Mr. Alcott.” Alcott wanted such agreement even from his daughters themselves. He wanted their inner lives to harmonize so completely with his own that they would welcome his harshest penalties: “His own little girl is led to tell him of all the naughty things she does, and the telling does not save her from punishment, but often only ensures it.”

And this is the little girl who would grow up to write Little Women. We first encounter that novel’s father figure in the letter he sends to his wife from the war, in which he lectures his daughters from afar in very Bronson-Alcottian fashion: “I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.” This father means his daughters to be students of self-conquering; their success, in his estimation, hinges on how well they have fought their “bosom enemies,” and I have wondered if it’s possible those are just their disagreements with him.

Elizabeth Peabody’s disagreements with the real-life Bronson Alcott take the form of wonderings, additions, or, on one occasion, a lengthy bracketed aside: “[N.B. I generally agree with the views that Mr. Alcott brings out from his pupils; but in this instance I disagreed; and I am inclined to think that he unconsciously led them into his own views; by contradistinguishing mercy and justice…].” Here is the set-apart space in Peabody’s own book where she permits herself to think her own thoughts. Here and only here can she express her worry about the way Alcott is reaching inside his students’ heads and shaping their thoughts to mirror his own.

I wonder if she thought to question whether, in the non-bracketed text of her book, he was doing the same to her.

coverDespite its promise, the Temple School soon collapsed into failure. After Elizabeth Peabody published her Record of a School, Alcott decided to write a second volume himself. He called it Conversations with Children on the Gospels and included inflammatory passages that Peabody had warned him their social circles weren’t ready for. In response, too many of the students’ parents pulled them from the school for it to remain open. Alcott and Peabody also had a personal falling out: Peabody had been living with Alcott and his family, and he and his wife discovered and read her private correspondence with her sister Mary, which contained worries that sometimes Alcott’s teaching was more about himself than about the children. The Alcotts were enraged. Peabody had not sufficiently conquered herself, it seemed.

Yet the amount of self-conquering on display in Record of a School staggers me. On every page, this book demonstrates its author’s belief that someone else’s words, opinions, insights, verdicts, and judgment matter more than her own. It’s not that Peabody measured Alcott against herself and found him larger—it’s that she assumed he was larger from the beginning and so never really measured at all. She assumed he was entitled to what he was asking of her.

Time has passed; things have changed, of course. But somehow I think many of us still find ourselves, more often than men do, in this place of the expected why yes. Why yes, person (often man) to whom I have no real personal or professional obligation, I will read your manuscript four times/let you pick my brain/refer you to my contact/reassure you repeatedly/listen listen listen listen listen.

There’s not much room in this place for the demands of the self, but that doesn’t mean those demands stop pulling, even if the woman in question can’t move in response. Even if she remains folded into the space that’s left to her.

is the author of the forthcoming novel The Illness Lesson and the story collection We Show What We Have Learned, which won the Bard Prize and was a Kirkus Best Debut of 2016, as well as a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. With her husband and two daughters, she lives in Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative writing, most recently at Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

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