Jo Marries Goethe, Louisa May Alcott´s Love For The German Poet

Podcast Transcript Part 1

Hello, Global community of Little Women fans.

Today´s comment shout out goes to @notafraidof-virginiawoolf who says the following:

Friedrich Bhaer is the only convincingly sexy man in literature I have decided.

That is some legitimate Fritz Bhaer appreciation. Friedrich is based on many men who Louisa May Alcott personally found attractive and one of them was Goethe.

From all the episodes I´ve done to this channel, the one about Louisa May Alcott´s love for Germany, it is probably the one I´v got the most feedback on. When people have contacted me and they've wanted to discuss with me about Little Women, a lot of people mention that particular episode or the articles I wrote about it and that it has helped them to understand Little Women and Friedrich´s and Jo´s relationship. It´s nice because I went through the same feelings when I was doing the research. Ever since I posted that episode and I mentioned the Goethe connections, I´v got people asking me if I could speak more about it and here we are.

Sources I have used to gather this information has mostly come from Meghan Armknecht´s excellent essay called “Jo marries Goethe, Professor Bhaer as the Goethean ideal in Louisa May Alcott´s Little Women” and Christine Doyle’s amazing essay “Singing Mignon´s song, German culture and literature in Little Women”. I have read lots of books and essays about Louisa May Alcott. Sometimes I feel that when the writer is talking about” Little Women” they are actually not speaking about the novel, but some of the movies. It can be very frustrating, and I think some of them don´t even realize they are doing that, but Christine Doyle, has read the books and knows them very well. I can recommend her Louisa May Alcott studies.

I have also used Goethe as one of my sources. I read Sorrows of Young Werther, whose story is very similar to Laurie and his over-compelling emotional turbulent and Wilhelm Meister, a book that has love stories that Louisa reprises in Little Women. These were Louisa´s favourite novels that she read multiple times during her life. She had the framework for the love stories build up years before she was asked to write Little Women. In her essay, Megan Armknecht said that there has been not a lot of research done between Little Women and Goethe´s novels. This is really unknown territory and it can completely change the way we think about Louisa May Alcott.

Louisa May Alcott and the transnational family

Louisa May Alcott, a great American writer was born in 1832. The same year great German writer and poet Goethe passed away.

Was that a sign?

Louisa became familiar with Goethe as a child. Thanks to her father Bronson, who had Goethe´s biography, in his small but selective library. By the end of her life, Louisa had managed to collect all American editions and some German editions of Goethe´s works and often send notes to her friends to let her know when new editions were available, so she could complete her Goethe collection.

This is what Alcott scholar Christine Doyle writes:

By the time Alcott wrote Jo´s Boys (which is the last Little Women book) in the 1880s. She had spent a lifetime reading Goethe, and he was still clearly and consciously important to her. In 1876 and again in 1883, she had made attempts to collect as much of his work as possible. She wrote to her publisher Thomas Niles “Thanks for the Goethe book. I want everything that comes out about him” (Signing Mignon´s song, Doyle).

Louisa was actually born into the first American town that was settled by German immigrants in 1683. This was Germantown in Pennsylvania. Louisa was born into a time when Americans started to consume German literature and there was somewhat a “German epidemic” in New England. This was also the time when American universities started to include German books into their collections and many of these educational reformers were transcendentalists, like the Alcott´s.

During those years German immigrants and German literature made a powerful impact on America. Quoting historian Russel Nye “Although Irish immigrants were the most numerous (Marches in Little Women and Alcott´s in real life were descendants of Irish immigrants) Germans were close behind, numbering 1,3 million in the 1860s, In addition to their Protestant heritage, which made the typical German immigrant far less suspect in America than the Irish Catholic, German immigrants were welcomed for their “socially sophisticated tradition” that included food, art and support for education.

The attitude towards immigrants varied depending on the location. In areas like New England where there was a long history of German immigration, people were naturally a lot more accepting, but this was not the case in many other places. In Little Women Jo points out the difficulties Friedrich has finding a job because he is an outsider and speaks in broken English. We can assume that this is why the local universities do not wish to hire him, despite the fact that he was a teacher of philosophy in Germany. When Friedrich proposes to Jo he says that he is going to move to the west and work as a teacher there and the two agree to wait and work for their shared future. This probably is a reference to Louisa´s love for philosopher Henry Thoreau, who Louisa embodied the ideology of the west. West in the popular imagination refers to the last frontier of American settlement.

Nye sums up; They (German immigrants) were “adaptable, ambitious and strongly patriotic”.

Just such an immigrant is Friedrich Bhaer, whose character allows Alcott to acknowledge many of the positive aspects of German culture that the new immigrants embodied. Though a renowned professor in Berlin, Bhaer endures anonymity and poverty in America to honour his promise to his sister, who had married an American and wanted her two German-American sons to be raised there (Doyle).

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Illustrator, writer and a folklorist. Likes cats, tea and period dramas. Currently writing a book about Finnish mythology. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

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Niina's Fairychamber

Niina's Fairychamber

Illustrator, writer and a folklorist. Likes cats, tea and period dramas. Currently writing a book about Finnish mythology. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

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