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A. BRONSON ALCOTT'S WORKS.*
WHEN criticism best attains its end, it is an adjunct to authorship of no trifling pertinency. The true author, the really original writer, the first discoverer, essentially stands above his age. His value to the world consists in his superiority to it. By as much as he more nobly speaks out of the new, is he the instrument for the reanimation and progression of the old. To the same, extent also is he liable to be misunderstood, misrepresented, slighted, or rejected.
At this juncture the interpreter's function legitimately commences. It is the true critic's endeavor to bridge the waters which separate the prophet from the people, to compass the distance which divides the understanding in the auditor from the intuition in the utterer. The inspired oracle never indulges in a vain expression.
All the sayings of Genius are oracular; all the actions of Originality are inspired. The destiny of the genuinely inspired soul is always to be doubted, or despised, or persecuted in its own day and nation. Not born for years or localities only, but for all times and places, it must await as wide a welcome. We see that this skepticism, or unfriendliness, is necessarily manifested by the very law of
* Conversations with Children on the Gospels; conducted and edited by A. Bronson Alcott. 2 vols. Boston: James Munroe & Co. 1836-7. Record of a School; Exemplifying the General Principles of Spiritual Culture. pp. 208. Boston: James Munroe & Co. 1835. Second Edition, 1836.
Spiritual Culture; or Thoughts for the Consideration of Parents and Teachers. Boston: J. Dowe. 1841.
originality itself; and just in a degree coequal to the extent or depth of the originality. The greatest, the divinest genius is persecuted to death, even unto ignominious death; a moderate degree of inspiration is merely hunted through the world; a lighter share of originality is allowed to waste itself in neglected poverty and soul-chilling solitude. For it is not, we surmise, always true that the measure of the world's acceptance of genius is the index to the profundity of that generic love. Had it been so, the world ere now would have been in a more loveful position than self-confessedly it is. Loveful utterances in the deepest tone, loveful actions in the gentlest manner, have been spoken and enacted in the world's theatre, and the records of them still remain, kindly appealing to humanity for a response. Yet it comes not. Or, at the utmost, as in the mimic theatre, the spectators vehemently applaud each virtuous representation as it passes before their eyes, but as instantly forget it. Influences pass over humanity as the wind over the young trees; but the evanescent air is not the abiding sap. Manifestations of genius have not generally induced men to seek a closer union with the genetic power. We lack even imitative amendment.
Scarcely, therefore, can it be granted that the want of success, which so frequently characterizes the career of genius, is attributable either to any deficiency of love or want of exponential ability on its side. Something, nay much, depends on the construction of the receptive vessel. The finest wine must be inevitably spilt, if poured upon a solid marble sphere; not even nectar itself could be retained in a seive; and let us recollect that genius is ever too ready to pour forth its offerings, to consider critically the state or nature of the receiving mind. The mind supposed to be recipient will be found not seldom to be repellant, and even when frankly disposed to receive, often finds the task too difficult at once to comprehend that which emanates from the progressed being. The sun steadily shines on, though by its beams the swamp exhales miasma as the peach deliciously ripens.
Undoubtedly the self-complacent auditor may construct a fensive axiom, or what is familiarly designated a truism, and pronounce that if genius had love enough, it never could appeal to us in vain; with love enough, the most
strong-hearted must be moved. This is of course a tenable position. With two such excellent diplomatic "peacemaking" words in one sentence as "if" and "enough," no doubt can be raised against the veracity of the aphorism. But in our estimation that code of morals does not rank very high, which would establish a divine origin by proof drawn from the results of the action. It is needful to act, to act morally, genetically, generatively, before results can be, and all the results can never be known to the individual. Confirmation may possibly, in some points, be gathered from observance of consequences, but it is rare that anything beyond matter for useful and modificative reflection can be gleaned from that field.
No; it is sadly, sorrowfully true, that there are rocks so adamantine, brutes so untamable, that not even Orpheus himself, in his most celestial mood, can subdue them by the softest notes from his enchanting lyre. Our reproaches, therefore, shall not fall upon the love-inspired teacher because the taught are not more highly adtempered than we find them. Indeed, we will reproach none, not even ourselves; for the interpreter, albeit his position is more temporary and local, has his proper time and place.
There is a converse notion, however, rather too com monly adopted by active minds, wishful enough of good in their respective ways, but not yet sufficiently stable to be replenished with the needful talent; and our duty leads us to declare its idiotism. The bustling interloper, the mechanical rhymester, or the verbal handicraftsman, finding no reception in the world corresponding to his self-approbative desires, is wont to assume the position of neglected or persecuted genius, because men of genius have, as we also affirm, time out of mind, been public victims. A playwright is not a Shakspeare, merely because in common with the gifted bard he knows "a little Latin, and less Greek." A religious zealot, even respectable as he may be in morals, and we say it with genuine, heartfelt respect for all zeal, has not always the inspired right to assume the crown of martyrdom, merely because he is opposed in the world. Not all are Christ's who fall under man's disapprobation. Oddity is not a sure certificate of worth, though the worthy must of course be singular where ills abound. The unauthorized authors, the uninspired teachers, are in
fact themselves the persecutors; and to their ears let the truth be whispered, that while the false prophet endeavors to raise a public clamor concerning his supposed oppressions, true genius silently suffers.
When with honesty, integrity, and clearness, the critical interpreter's work is performed, the public are not a little assisted to a just appreciation of generic ideas of a really novel character, that is to say, coming out of the new spirit. In every department of literature and art, there is much debris to be turned over to discover the solitary jewel; much dusty winnowing is needful for the separation of the true germinative grains. No extent of labor is however too great, if the above named conditions are complied with.
These observations appear to be called for, as introductory and explanatory of our present purpose. In some degree appropriate to any mental production, they are peculiarly applicable to the case before us. The fate of nations, as of individuals, is ever to look abroad for that which they might find at home. Articles of food, dress, ornament; new cloth, new patterns, new ideas, are to be imported by ship, instead of being wrought from our native soil or soul. That, which is brought from a distance by great labor, is, for no better reason, highly esteemed, while the spontaneous home product is unused. By the same law, the native prophet is unhonored; the domestic author is neglected.
Goethe, in his father land, after many industrious years of exposition, earns a moderate respect, while in England his mystic profundity is appreciated, and in America he is placed on the pinnacle of renown.
Carlyle, in his native England coldly and slowly admitted to the ranks of genius, in America is kindly regarded as one of the brightest stars in the literary horizon.
And, not to mention others, Alcott, almost utterly neglected by contemporaries, must seek his truer appreciation beyond the great waters; and in the quietest nook in Old England behold the first substantial admission of his claim to be considered the exponent of a divinely inspired idea. New England, failing in honor to her children, and having no newer and more youthful country to accept and reflect their merits, may receive the award of the old land.
The first really spontaneous, vital, and actual welcome,
which Bronson Alcott's mission has enjoyed in its full meaning and intent, appears to have been in the bosoms of those friends, who established the School called after his name at Ham in the county of Surrey, a few miles only from the huge metropolis of England. At Ham, "umbrageous Ham," as the poets truly designate it, which lies between the heights of classic Richmond with its extensive stately park, and the gentle silvery Thames, these sincere projectors carried out a living example of Alcott's idea of human culture, in some practical particulars exceeding the experience of the original, but in intrinsic merit confessedly falling short of those permanent moral and intellectual results, which singularize this recorded effort at the Boston Masonic Temple. This choice of a beautiful locality we mention, because it may be received as an emblem of the fidelity and unmercenary purpose of these earnest promoters of human welfare. But the heart to appreciate, the head to perceive the means, and the hands to execute a new and noble sentiment are not commonly united in one individual. There is, moreover, that useful quality of perseverance not always present, that day by day, hour by hour steadiness and care, meeting each event as it occurs, without which no abiding work of art can be produced. Heartfelt admiration is too ready to conclude that the highly finished statue, whose beauty is perceived at a glance, was as momentarily produced. So smoothly do the thoughts and versification of the poet glide on through his argument, that the encharmed reader questions not that it was as briefly written as it is read. It is so easy, who could not do it? This is the perfection of executive art. The pencils, the colors, the easel are removed. The blurred manuscripts, over which the author toiled so many days and nights, in polishing the Carrara marble of his verse into smooth turns and agreeable attitudes, are withdrawn from sight, and the pleasing result unclouded remains. This is the difference between genius and the generator; between God and man. The idea is unquestionably impregnated by the divine mind on the human soul at a flash; at an instant of time whose duration is too short to be capable of measurement; and it may therefore be more truly said to be conceived in eternity than in time. But the outworking of the idea is a temporal work;