Niina is an Alcott researcher and the host of the Little Women Podcast.
Literary Inspirations From Goethe
Louisa May Alcott was a great American writer born in Pennsylvania in 1832. In the same year, the great German writer and poet Goethe passed.
Alcott was introduced to Goethe when she was a child. She was introduced to Goethe's writings by her father Bronson, who had Goethe's biography in his small but excellent library. By the end of her life, Alcott was able to collect all the American editions and some German editions of Goethe's works and sent notes to her friends asking them to inform her when new editions appeared.
By the time Alcott wrote Jo's Boys (which is the final book in the Little Women trilogy) 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).
Pennsylvania's Connections With Germans
Alcott was born in the first American town settled by German immigrants. It was Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was born at a time when Americans began consuming German literature and there was something of a "German craze" in New England. Many of New England's educational reformers were transcendentalists like the Alcotts.
"Although Irish immigrants were the most numerous (the 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," according to historian Russel Nye. This included food, art and support for education.
In areas like New England, which had a long history of German immigration, people were more open to accepting German immigrants, but in many other areas, they were not. Jo in the book points out that it is difficult for Friedrich to find a job because he speaks broken English. We can speculate that this is why the local university does not want to hire him, even though he was a philosophy teacher in Germany.
When Friedrich eventually proposes to Jo, he says he will move west to work there as a teacher, and the two agree to work together, for their shared future. This is probably a reference to Alcott's love for the poet and philosopher Henry Thoreau, who, for her, embodied the ideology of the west in popular imagination.
Nye sums up how 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).
Friedrich Bhaer and Goethe
Goethe is still a great figure in Germany today, and in German-speaking countries, you must read at least some of his work to get into the university of your choice. Much research has been done on the parallels between Goethe's writings and Alcott's Storm and Thunder novels, but not so much between Goethe's life and Little Women.
Friedrich as a character is very similar to Goethe, not just them both being German. When Jo writes to her home, she describes Friedrich for the first time.
"Mrs Kirk told me he was from Berlin. Very learned and good but poor as a church mouse".
Goethe was not as poor as the church mouse. He came from an aristocratic family, Friedrich on the other hand is from a working-class background. Friedrich shares Goethe's intellectualism, and the book suggests that Friedrich would have achieved great fame for his intellectualism had he remained in Germany. In Little Women she writes:
"In his native city, he had been a man much honoured and esteemed for learning and integrity. Jo felt proud to know that he was an honoured professor in Berlin, though only a poor language master in America and his homely, hard-working life, was much beautified by the spice of romance that this discovery gave it".
The Goethe scholar observes that Megan Armknecht, "By the time when Alcott wrote Little Women, Berlin was gaining more and more importance and would become the capital of the new German empire in 1871".
Great Characters to Portray and Adapt
There are similarities between the characters of Goethe and Friedrich. Both were family men and loved their children. Friedrich's characteristics include kindness and greatness of heart. When Jo meets Friedrich for the first time, he is helping a young servant carry cole. Jo mentions the incident in a letter she writes to her mother.
"Wasn´t it good of him? I like such things for as father says, trifles show character".
Friedrich loves children and treats them very well. After the death of his sister Minna, he adopted his nephews Franz and Emil and raises them as his own. The fact that Friedrich has children, especially boys, is actually something very appealing to Jo. Throughout the novel, Alcott mentions how much Jo loves boys and spends time around boys and boyish energy.
Jo's Desire to Start a Family
Jo loves seeing how Friedrich is with kids. While in New York, she spies on him and little Tina, the daughter of the French maid at his boarding house.
In the story, Jo writes:
"Tina has lost her heart to Mr Bhaer and follows him about the house, like a dog, whenever he is at home, which delights him, as he is very fond of children".
Goethe's biographer Herder also notes that Goethe was a great child throughout his life. He is eager to learn and willing to do anything to make others happy.
One of the things Jo finds fascinating about Friedrich's character is that he's always ready to take care of other people. This contradicts Laurie's behaviour. Because for most of the novel, Laurie doesn't know how to be a grown-up and can't even take care of himself and he expects that once married, Jo should become his caretaker rather than an equal partner. This is what Amy eventually becomes; sadly Laurie's arc is missing from most Little Women film adaptations.
- Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, 150 years Penguin edition,
- Sorrows of young Werter, Johann W. Goethe, 1787, Book Beat
- Singing Mignon´s Song, Christine Doyle, John Hopkin´s university press, Children literature volume 31, 2003
- "Jo marries Goethe, Dr Bhaer as the Goethean ideal in Louisa May Alcott´s Little Women", Megan Armknecht
- Goethe in our time, Sarah Colvin, BBC Radio 4
© 2022 Niina Pekantytar