Most people have heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a writer who’s often called America’s greatest philosopher. But they may never heard of Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), a close friend and (according to Emerson) a better philosopher.
So why is Emerson still remembered while Alcott is forgotten? I’m going to let you answer that question yourself. Here’s an excerpt from Alcott’s book Concord Days. Alcott is musing about his lifelong habit of keeping a journal:
Was it the accident of being shown, when a boy, in the old oaken cabinet, my mother’s little journal, that set me out in this chase of myself, continued almost uninterruptedly, and now fixed by habit as a part of the day, like the rising and setting of the sun? Yet it has educated me Into whatever skill I possess with the pen. I know not to how much besides; has made me emulous of attaining the art of portraying my thoughts, occupations, surroundings, friendships; and could I succeed in sketching to the life a single day’s doings, should esteem myself as having accomplished the chiefest feat in literature. Yet the nobler the life and the busier, the less, perhaps, gets written, and that which in, the less rewards perusal.
You see the problem: despite his brilliance, Alcott couldn’t write worth a damn. If you’ve heard of him at all, you probably know he was the father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. (She somehow developed the writing skills that always eluded her father.)
What Alcott could do – engagingly and brilliantly – was talk. He made several tours around the United States conducting “conversations.” Huge numbers of people bought tickets to hear Alcott talk to them from a platform – a popular form of entertainment in those pre-TV days. Alcott was also an advocate of progressive education long before John Dewey and Maria Montessori came on the scene.
So the gifts were there, in abundance – all except the ability to write. Bronson’s problem was that his family didn’t have the money to send him to college. (If you read and loved Little Women when you were growing up, you probably remember that college was an unattainable dream for the ambitious Jo March, who also grew up in a family of modest means.)
Of course you can be a great writer without college. (Louisa did it!) But clearly Bronson needed help. If he could have attended a community college back then and taken a few writing courses, who knows what direction American philosophy and education might have taken?
No matter. I taught writing at a community college for 30 years. So today I’m going to pretend that Bronson is a student in one of my classes, and I’m going to offer him some feedback. You’re welcome to eavesdrop to see if some of my tips might help with your own writing.
Hi, Bronson. I’m intrigued that you’ve traced your enthusiasm for journaling to a childhood memory about an oaken cabinet and your mother’s journal. Another point that interests me is your conviction that “sketching to the life a single day’s doings” is equivalent to the “having accomplished the chiefest feat in literature.”
The problem is that I don’t quite get what you’re trying to tell me. How is a journal entry about one day similar to great literature? I’m hooked – tell me more about what you’re thinking!
I have the same problem with the journal you found in that “oaken cabinet.” I’m not connecting with that little boy and the thoughts and feelings he had at that moment.
I can tell that you’re brilliant. And I know from hearing you talk that you have a real ability to touch people through your words and ideas. What you want to work on is making that connection when you’re writing.
Here are some tips:
– Put down your pen and talk to someone who cares about you. Tell them the story of that oaken cabinet and what you saw inside. See if you can coax that little boy from long ago to talk about that experience. Then you’ll be ready to write.
– Use short sentences. (I was worn out by a couple of your long, long sentences!)
– Use everyday words. (I had to look up “emulous.” If a college professor with a doctorate doesn’t understand your vocabulary, what chance does the average reader have?)
What’s most important, Bronson, is to picture one of your readers while you’re writing. Talk to him (or her) in a human, personal way. Stop trying to sound wise and profound. Connect!
I’m looking forward to reading your next paper and learning more about how that boyhood experience shaped you.
Sincerely, Prof. Reynolds