Bronson Alcott on the Meaning of Family and How Our Friendships Humanize Us: His Ecstatic Diary Entry Upon His Daughter Louisa May’s Birth

“The human being isolates itself from the supplies of Providence for the happiness and renovation of life, unless those ties which connect it with others are formed.”

Making a family, having a family — these are different things, and different things to different people. But whatever family means to us, in its haven we are in some primal sense making — and remaking — ourselves. It bears remembering that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”

Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799–March 4, 1888) — abolitionist, education reformer, women’s rights advocate, early proponent of vegetarianism, philosophical gardener — refined his political and humanistic ideas on the whetstone of fatherhood. As he observed his daughters play and ask questions, he filled each notebook with insightful, loving observations. The title of these notebooks — The Dial — became the title of the epoch-making Transcendentalist journal, on the pages of which America took its infant steps toward original cultural contribution as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller worked out their confused mutual magnetism while sharing the editorship.

Bronson alcott

The birth of his second daughter — who would later turn her formative family experience into one of the most beloved novels of all time — brought a renaissance in Alcott’s entire intellectual, emotional, and spiritual universe. He had just discovered the poetry of Coleridge, in which he found “wisdom not of this earth.” He felt it had done him more good than any writing he had encountered before. He felt it augured a “new era” in his “mental and psychological life” — one in which he was to contemplate ever more deeply the meaning and purpose of our existence.

That era dawned on the 29th of November — his own thirty-third birthday — when Louisa May was born. His journal contained the following:

It is an interesting experience. The great domestic experience has given me much pleasure. I found in these ties the connections that allowed me to connect with a sympathetic existence. Family, although it focuses the mind on the concrete and practical, provides fresh stimuli for the spiritual principle and the social element. The family brings the soul those elements from which it is able to progress its own development and creates the best affection and the purest purpose.

Art by Loren Long from Love by Matt de la Peña — an illustrated celebration of the many meanings of family.

In a passage that sings to those of us who favor a constellation of chosen closenesses over the nuclear family model, Alcott steps beyond the domestic sphere to consider the vivifying rewards of our friendships — those nurturing havens of love in which we best grow and which form, in his lovely phrase, “the Nursery of the Soul”:

If it is not formed, the human being will become isolated from Providence and its resources for happiness or the renovation of his/her life. All the truths and primal desires of the Soul are distorted and made less important. The earth becomes the encrustation of Nature, and it is surrounded with monotony and ennui. The Nursery of the Soul is a place where few people can feel content.

Complement with Kahlil Gibran’s poignant advice on parenting and Willa Cather on how our formative family dynamics imprint us, then revisit Alcott on gardening and genius.

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