Louisa May Alcott, the germanophile
Poet Ezra Pound said that literature does not exist in a vacuum, and semi biographical novels are exactly that, semi biographical. A work of fiction strongly influence by events in an author's life.
Writer Janet Manley describes Fritz Bhaer as a perfect mystery, a perfect crush, he is the perfect text, a space offering up multiple interpretations. In the spirit, I explore Frederic's historical and cinematic evolution through gender studies, his and Jo's relationship, and the development of their romance, and how it correlated with Louisa May Alcott's own life, Louisa's adoration towards Germany and German culture.
I will touch the fan culture as well and how certain themes that have been repeated in the movies again and again affect the way people see Jo and Friedrich. The key ingredient in understanding Friedrich's character lies within Louisa May Alcott's love for Germany, German people, German language, German philosophy, and most importantly German literature. We might even refer Louisa May Alcott as a Germanophile, a person who has a great deal of interest towards German culture. Make sure to give a like to this video and subscribe to my channel, Small Umbrella In The Rain, for in-depth Little Women content.
There are multiple references to Germany in Little Women. On the very first chapter of Little Women, Jo receives a copy of Undine and Sintram as a Christmas present. Undine and Sintram is a collection of Scandinavian and Germanic fables written by a French-German author, Friedrich de la Motte Foque.
Beth catches the scarlet fever, which is terrible, but the Marches never blame the Hummels. Epidemic disease were rather common back then, and Louisa always writes about the Hummels with a great sympathy.
In the chapter Camp Lawrence, John Brooke translates a German song for Meg, and reads her parts from Mary Stuart, which is a play that was written by German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. On Meg's and John's wedding, Laurie suggests that they dance like the Germans do.
When Jo stays in New York, her hostess in the boarding house, Mrs. Kirk. Kirk is an anglicized last name for German word Kirche, meaning church. When it comes to 19th century German culture and the influences of German immigration into American culture, Little Women saga is consistently favorable towards it.
Friedrich as Goethe
One of Louisa's favorite authors was the German poet Goethe. Goethe was one of the models for Friedrich's character. In Little Women, on her grand tour in Europe with Aunt March, Amy visits Goethe's house and writes home and tells about it.
On her first trip to Europe, Louisa herself made a pilgrimage to Goethe's house. Went to Wiesbaden first, a pleasant, gay place full of people. Saw the gambling hall and people playing, the fine grounds and drives. And then went to Frankfurt. Here I saw and enjoyed a good deal. The statues of Goethe, Schiller, Faust, Gutenberg, and Schaeffer, are in the squares. Goethe's house is a tall, plain building with each story projecting over the lower, and a Dutch roof. A marble slab over the front door recording the date of Goethe's birth. I took a look at it and wanted to go in, as it was empty. But there was no time.
The most obvious and most important German influence in Little Women is, of course, the love of Jo's life, Friedrich Bhaer. Little Women takes place in the feminine sphere, which is one of the biggest reasons why I and millions of other readers love it.
When it comes to main three male character, Laurie, Fritz, and John, Louisa did not write explicit backgrounds stories to any of them. To explore Friedrich's character and to get better understanding of him, we need to explore Louisa. Her personal life, philosophy, values, and of course her love for Germany.
Friedrich is introduced quite early on in the second novel, and Jo is curious about him from the moment she sees him. And she finds him to be a kindred spirit.
As I went downstairs soon after, I saw something I liked. The flights are very long in this tall house and as I stood waiting at the head of the third one, for a little servant girl to lumber up, I saw a gentleman come along behind her, take her heavy load of coal out of her hand, carry it all the way up, put it down at a door nearby, and walk away. Saying with a kind note and a foreign accent, "It goes better so. The little back is too young to have such heaviness."
Wasn't it good of him? I like such things. For as Father says, trifles show character. When I mentioned it to Mrs. K that evening, she laughed and said, "That must have been Professor Bhaer. He is always doing things of that sort."
Mrs. K told me he was from Berlin, very learned and good. But poor as a church mouse and gives lessons to support himself, and two little orphan nephews who he is educating here. According to the wishes of his sister, who married an American.
A Man from Berlin
Not a very romantic story, but it interested me, and I was glad to hear that Mrs. lends him her parlor for some of this scholars. There's a glass door between it and the nursery, and I meant to peep at him and then I'll tell you how he looks. He's almost 40, so it's no harm, Marmee.
Fritz is about 16 years older than Jo, which would mean that Friedrich is somewhere between 37 and 39 when they meet. There is a reason why Fritz is 16 years older than Jo. Louisa had a professor of her own and we'll get into that later on. In Little Women musical, Fritz is slightly younger. When he goes to court Jo, we find out that he has just had his 35th birthday. In the book, Friedrich returns to Jo's life during the springtime, some months after Beth's passing.
If we compare the two, we can make an assumption that Fritz was born in the spring. If Fritz is almost 40 after the American Civil War, this means that he was born some time between 1825 and 1827.
Fritz is very extroverted. He enjoys lively conversations, makes friends easily, sees beyond cultural boundaries. He's deeply religious, honest, cultured, but also quite a romantic. It is not a coincidence that Friedrich is from Berlin.
By the time Alcott wrote Little Women, Berlin was gaining more importance and would become the capital of the new German Empire in 1871. While being born and living Berlin, Fritz would have absorbed all that the city had to offer. Architecture, literature, churches, philosophy circles, symposiums, markets, and Biergartens.
It is mentioned in the book that Fritz speaks several languages, and in the books he speaks French a few times. Berlin was one of the most multicultural German cities in the 19th century, and there was a large French speaking immigrant population.
The fact that Fritz speaks several languages indicates that he has done some traveling, and is in that sense as much of a cosmopolitan as Amy and Laurie are.
We learn that Friedrich used to be a respected professor in Berlin and this only increases Jo's interest towards him.
Jo valued goodness highly but she also possessed a most feminine respect for intellect and a little discovery which she made about the professor added much to her regard for him. He never spoke of himself and no one ever knew that in his native city, he had been a man much honored for learning and integrity, till a countryman came to see him.
He never spoke of himself and in a conversation with Miss Norton divulged the pleasing fact. From her, Jo learned it and liked it all the better because Mr. Bhaer had never told it. She felt proud to know that he was an honored professor in Berlin, though only a poor language-master in America, and his homely, hardworking life was much beautified by the spice of romance which this discovery gave it.
Friedrich´s Journey to America
It is very likely that Louisa had Humboldt University in her mind. During the time when Louisa did her first visit to Germany, it was known as the University of Berlin. University was established in 1809, which makes it only fitting that Friedrich would have studied and worked as a professor there. University is known for producing some of the most well known German thinkers and philosophers.
We are not told a lot about Friedrich's family. We find out that he had a sister, Minna, who married an American and on her deathbed, she asked Fritz to take care of his nephews and raise them in America. It is not part of the canon, but I have read a couple fan fics where Minna's husband was an American journalists who abandoned his family and Minna was also quite possibly a journalist. This would explain why Friedrich does his best to look after the boys, wants to be a good role model, and someone who never abandons them. Book does imply that Friedrich and Minna were very close. This is a common narrative pattern in Louisa May Alcott's novels. In Work Story of Experience, the protagonist's love interest, David, has lost a connection with his sister. In Moods, the character of Jeffrey Moore takes care of his ill sister until she passes away. Of course, the loss of a sister is something that also bonds Jo and Fritz.
In the 19th century, German immigrants were the second biggest group of immigrants in the US, only surpassed by Irish immigrants. March family and the Alcotts in real life were descendants of Irish immigrants.
Between 1847 and 1855, German immigrants came to US in large numbers. Many came in the hopes of better way of life, others because of individual curiosity, economic hardships, political struggles, or religious persecutions. Many escaped the crop failure and famine.
When we first meet Friedrich, we find out that he has been living in New York for five years, which means that he arrived in 1860. In the early 1860s, many transportation across the Atlantic was made with sails and the trip could last one to three months. This would mean that Fritz would have arrived with a sailing ship that was designed for a cargo carriage. These ships were quite hazardous and accommodation were small and dark. The second wave of German immigrants arrived in the end of the 1860s, escaping the German wars. Friedrich's reasons for leaving his home country are family related. There are a couple occasions in Little Women that do give an impression that Fritz has faced oppression and discrimination, and Jo does make a note to herself that he must have had a hard life.
It is not a coincidence that Jo and Friedrich meet in New York, of all places. Many of the German immigrants moved into the cities in north, like New York, which already had established German communities. These communities were tight, and Friedrich comes to visit Jo in Concord, the reader finds out that he has German friends there. Louisa very intentionally included messages of social justice to her works. A lot of the details of Friedrich's backstory are not included in the movies and TV adaptations because of the screenwriters personal biases, xenophobia, and ignorance over the source material. Yes, this is going to be a video about Louisa May Alcott's inter-sectional feminism.
Louisa May Alcott was born into New England's transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism was very much an American movement, but its roots were within German philosophy and romanticism. Especially in the transnational ideas of Immanuel Kant and his new ethic of universal hospitality. There are a couple basic principles within transcendentalist philosophy. Human beings are inherently good and pure. Nature was the ultimate mediator and expression of God was present all around. Self-reflection and being true to one's self was encouraged.
From a very early age, Louisa practice self-reflection and observance. And from her novels, Little Women and Old-Fashioned Girl, have biggest transcendentalist influences. Little Women film from 1994 is one of the rare adaptations with clear references to transcendentalism. When Jo meets Fritz, they talk about German philosophy. Jo mentions that her parents were part of a rather unusual circle in Concord, and she mentions that she adores Goethe. Friedrich quotes a poem from another transcendentalist, Walt Whitman, and Jo joins him.
Transcendentalists believe that it was through the observation and appreciation of nature that the human soul was enlightened. The idea of being true, authentic self becomes part of their conversation. Transcendentalist love for nature can be seen in the movie in the presence of flowers and plants in the outdoors and indoors. Proposal scene in the movie movie and in the book takes place in nature and it correlates the way in the book Friedrich has kept Jo's poem. Be worthy of love and love will come in the falling of summer rain. Louisa May Alcott was surrounded by the greatest thinkers of her time. Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Father Bronson Alcott showed her an idealistic and ultimately unworkable version of the movement.
Throughout Louisa's childhood, Bronson pursued philosophical ideas by establishing The Temple School, where he sought to teach children according to his transcendental ideas. Some of Bronson's ideas were too radical for the parents and eventually he was forced to resign when he took a black child as a student. Soon after the closing of The Temple School, the family moved to farmstead to establish a utopian society called Fruitlands. There they attempted to live off the land, follow a strict vegetarian diet, and more fully implement the ideas that Bronson deemed important.Fruitlands was a terrible failure. The Alcotts were subjected to backbreaking work, but barely survived the winter. After a little less than a year on the homestead, they left. Although Louisa had seen her father's transcendentalist projects fail, she still believed in the philosophy as much as he did, and blamed the setbacks on poor planning and execution.It was after this that they moved to Concord, where the transcendentalist movement started to take shape. Emerson was good friend of Bronson and Louisa frequently borrowed books from Emerson's library and learned about nature from Henry David Thoreau.
Margaret Fuller made an everlasting impression on Louisa with her philosophy and feminist ideas. It was unusual for the time for mother to work outside the home, but Abba Alcott did. Bronson had determination to give his daughters proper education, also unusual for the time. Abba had less interest towards the ideological side of transcendentalism, but more in what practical tools transcendentalism offered. Louisa had mixed emotions about transcendentalism. Intrigued and inspired by the ideal of self-reliance, she still knew from firsthand experience that self-reliance really meant reliance on others and required the self-sacrifice of family members. Louisa wanted to tie the two opposite knots of her parents ideas. This drew her to Ralph Waldo Emerson's theories and ideas, as the represented a more complete way of living out of the transcendental philosophy. Her journals illustrate her love for his philosophies, calling him the man who has helped me most by his life, his books, his society. Emerson's philosophy on how good deeds bring happiness and satisfaction to one's life deeply affected Louisa and her written works. Louisa was as well heavily affected by Goethe's ideas of self-reliance. Topic of self-reliance is a constant theme in Little Women and is essentially important when getting to know the characters.
Blogger Katie Rhone points out "As a German immigrant, Professor Bhaer understands and experiences hard work and struggle. He bears in mind the responsibility he has in caring for a woman, if he is to marry. He is more grounded and stable than Laurie, whose idealized hopes of marriage remind me of Louisa's own description of her imprudent father." Quote, "He was a man in a balloon, with his family holding the ropes trying to hold him down to earth."
Here's a quote from Little Women.
"In a minute, a hand came down over the page so that she could not draw, and Laurie's voice said, with a droll imitation of a penitent child, "I will be good. Oh I will be good."
"But Amy did not laugh, for she was in earnest and tapping on the opposite hand with her pencil, said soberly, "Aren't you ashamed of a hand like that? It's as soft and white as a woman's and looks as if it never did anything but wear Jouvin's best gloves and pick flowers for ladies."
Amy, being a working class girl, she doesn't have any problems reminding Laurie that he has not worked a day in his life.
Many Alcott scholars believe that the poor nutrition in Fruitlands might have affected on Louisa's hormonal balance. Same as Jo, Louisa was a tomboy. Louisa was very protective of her mother, who she adored, and her love for her family was fierce. From very early on, she took the role of the provider, or the way Jo describes herself as the man of the house.
Anna Alcott was 11 years older than her little counterpart, Meg March, when she married. Same way as Jo grieved Meg marrying, so did Louisa. Not because John, the real and the fictional one, was a bad person, but because it meant the change in the family dynamics.
In the book, Jo says that she'd rather marry Meg herself, which has led many to believe that Jo is a lesbian. But with Jo there is no context for her fear because Jo's childhood was quite safe and idyllic, whereas Louisa's was more unstable and turbulent. Family went through a lot together.
Louisa was upset when Anna announced that she was getting married. Anna was 28 at the time and Louisa was 27. It happened only three weeks after they had lost their sister Lizzie. Louisa wished to keep the family together and fear of losing it is understandable. If you do research on transcendentalist, you will soon find out that there was a great deal of gender fluidity. I would highly recommend Susan Bailey's article on the 19th century female relationship in Little Women. I'll add the link to the description.
We live in a culture in which it is common not to try and understand what the other says and means. In this case, the author. But to assume it is some preconceived idea or trope we have in our heads, we love something, that we hate, we love, or we want to think that we are. It is a pity that it is so, because when we erase the fragility and faults of characters, we deprive ourselves from seeing the reflection of our own in them, and learn and grow. Masculinity and femininity are social structures made of biological and culture factors. Jo struggles to find a balance between the two, during the time that the world between man and woman was separated. There's a stereotype that Jo is quite adventurous. Is she? She's quite adventurous inside her head and she's good at making up stories and likes acting. Writing is a safe escape to live vicariously, because she can do that from a safe place. With Laurie, she can live on boy's world through his masculine energy.
Jo likes to speak about sports and such, but because of her gender she's prevented to join any teams. In the first book, after Laurie pretended to be John Brooke and catfished Meg with letters and deeply hurt her, which is not never included in any movie adaptations, he asks Jo to go to Washington with him and surprise Mr. Brooke. Jo is tempted by the idea, but she sees that such a trip is Laurie's way of getting away from his grandfather.
Jo likes to dream but she knows that reality will be completely different, and Laurie never grows if he doesn't learn from his mistakes. Louisa's attempt, however, is not to make certain habits in a person clearly masculine or feminine, but to blur the lines. Jo is good at sewing and in fact she's a good dressmaker, likes to knit and mend clothes. Louisa herself liked sewing. We see all the girls sewing together in the beginning of the 1933 film, and the 1949 film Jo sews and knits. In the book, Jo sees that Mr. Bhaer is mending his own socks and she's both surprised and impressed about it. She's impressed how self-reliant he is.
Some readers have found it odd how Jo wants to start a school for boys. When Jo sees the hungry look in Laurie's eyes when he looks at her family, she practically adopts him. Louisa in her personal life was devoted to charity work and she worked as a nurse. Taking care of others was something that came naturally to her.
Gender fluidity continues in the sequels. Character of Nat is very sensitive, musical, and a lot like Laurie. Dan is almost too masculine and doesn't want to show his vulnerability. In Little Men, Jo's niece Daisy complains how boys won't include her into their games, and Jo privately thinks that in the house that is filled with boys the only girl is the most difficult to please.
She gets Daisy a small toy stove and teaches her to cook, while turning it into a play. This is not the 15 year old Jo who thinks that everyone should be like her. Instead, she supports Daisy's individuality. Daisy's femininity is balanced by Nan, who is another tomboy. Even her name is a mixture between Nan and Dan.Jo doesn't like to go to parties or social events, like Meg and Amy do. She'd rather stays at home and writes. Jo doesn't fit well to Concord or the traditional female role. She's allowed to be herself in her home. She does compare herself to Meg and the way she's treated differently for being traditionally feminine.
Same happens with Amy in the second book. Jealousy Jo sometimes feels is caused by the fact that her sisters are better accepted than she is because of her nonconformity, and this causes Jo feelings of isolation. In chapter Calls, she rather speaks to pets and plays with the children of the house then talks with the adults. Jo makes the assumption that the aunts take her to Europe, even after when she has blurted to Aunt Carol that she hates French. Neither she seemed to have put much effort to study languages, which would be quite important if she would have seriously wanted to go to Europe with the aunts.
Jo dreams about the foreign, but if she was abroad, especially with people like Aunt March who she had difficult relationship with, Jo would be rather homesick.
In New York, Jo hesitates in the door of the newspaper quite a while when she tries to sell her first story. She rather spends time with Friedrich than goes to see new acquaintances. And in her letters to Marmee and Beth, she writes that she feels shy among strangers.
Friedrich is based on several people in Louisa's life, and I have traced Friedrich to five different men and I intend to talk about all of them in these essays. I agree with many Alcott scholars that philosopher Henry David Thoreau was the real life Friedrich. I have made an entire video about his and Louisa's relationship. Check it out after you have finished this one.
I am now going to read you some passages from Little Women and Walter Harding's Thoreau biography.
Thoreau invited the Alcotts in for the Sunday dinner. Thoreau quickly realized that Alcott provided a very different intellectual fare than did even the most stimulating Concord farmer. The two found much in common to talk about and Alcott often read to Thoreau from his correspondence with his English disciples on theories of education. While the rest of the world was denouncing Bronson Alcott as an impractical dreamer, Thoreau was able to overlook his faults and foibles, of which there were unquestionably meany.
Little Women, chapter Surprises. Mr. Bhaer's face had lost the absentminded expression and looked all alive with interest in the present moment. Actually young and handsome, she thought, forgetting to compare him with Laurie as she usually did with strange men.
Then he seemed quite inspired, though the burial customs of the ancients, to which the conversation had strayed, might not be considered an exhilarating topic. Jo quite glowed with the triumph when Teddy got quenched in an argument, and thought to herself as she watched her father's absorbed face, how he would enjoy such a man as my professor to talk with every day.
This part reminded me the way Jo notices how Friedrich is helping the servant girl.
Even the household maids were delighted, for Thoreau was already ready and willing to mend what was broken, even before they would call them to his attention.
Henry appears in multiple disguises in Louisa's novels. He's Friedrich in Little Women, Dan Kean in Little Men and Jo's Boys, Adam Warwick in Moods, David in Work Story of Experience, and Mack in Rose In Bloom, just to name a few.
Many of Louisa's diary markings about Henry are censored. Still, 160 years ago people had right to their privacy.
Thank you for watching, guys. Next video is going to be all about the umbrella and the way Jo wishes that she would have someone to help her with her writings, much before she travels to New York. Make sure to tune back for it.
You can find my full Friedrich Bhaer research here.
sMALL UMBRELLA IN THE RAIN
Small Umbrella In The Rain is an on-going series of video essays, articles and podcast episodes that examines the different intersections in Louisa May Alcott´s Little Women.