The Journals of Bronson Alcott

selected and edited by Odell Shepard
[Little, Brown, $5.00]
OF the execution of this immense project there will certainly be no competent review in the present decade, and very likely none in the present century. We are told that the extant manuscript journals of Alcott, covering the period 1826-1882 less half a dozen years for which the volumes are missing, run to some 5,000,000 words. At least half of them have not been competently studied by any living person except Mr. Shepard, who testifies that merely to read the whole ’fills at least a month of early downsitting and of late and weary uprising.’
His task has been to reduce half a hundred volumes by selection to a single portable one of considerably under 200,000 words. His responsibility is, then, to make a fiftieth part of the whole supply the full chronicle of Alcott’s outward life, furnish a rounded disclosure of the inner man, retrace the central and fructifying part he played in the history of New England transcendentalism, do justice to the intimacy and the vast range of his relationships with personages of his time, and faithfully represent his judgments on every matter of great literary, historical, biographical, or philosophic interest.
No one is in a position to appraise the discharge of this responsibility, for the man who has undertaken it is not only the highest, but the only, authority on how it is best to be performed. The most and the least that can be said without impudence is that Mr. Shepard’s selection gives an astonishing illusion of completeness and that his editorial attitude from the first sentence of his introduction to his last helpful note is such as to create the fullest trust, in his critical discretion, his sense of proportionate importance. What he gives constitutes, per se, a historical library of New England intellectual life throughout its richest and most influential half-century. Most of his readers will instinctively share his own quiet confidence that no search henceforth need comb the still unpublished portions of Alcott’s journals except for specialized information on minor topics.
It is, however, permissible to doubt that even Mr. Shepard’s cogent and resourceful defense of Alcott will make much headway against the detestation in which his subject is widely held. Those who have patronized Alcott as unimportant or merely self-important have done so out of pure ignorance, and this is now demolished. But those who have found his personality, however important, ridiculous or pitiful or both, on the basis of little knowledge, are rather supported than confuted by the much knowledge at length made available.
The truth is, I think, that in Bronson Alcott we ridicule and pity all that in our youthful, outgrown selves was callow, naïve, sentimental, visionary, bathetic. He luxuriated to the end of a long life in the characteristic immaturities of the undergraduate idealist that most of us blush to have been — particularly in the delusion of loving abstract Truth and dedicating his life to the pursuit of it, when what he really pursued was the drug habit of talking and writing himself into exaltation. Adult men and women learn to be amusedly tolerant of faults and follies that they have never detected in themselves, but toward their own former shortcomings they remain implacable. Here, it seems to me, is the reason why persons ordinarily of broad sympathies and lenient judgments look with a coldly satirical eye upon the man who could describe his permanent occupation, without consciousness of absurdity, as ‘worshiping in the holy temple of Self.'