Wrapping up Little Men: Jo creates her own utopia

coverThe final chapter of Little Men, “Thanksgiving,” states the true nature of Plumfield in plain language. But the book, more a series of short stories under a common theme rather than a novel, already lays out the vision through the stories. Still, it is quite satisfying to hear Jo lay out her vision of a perfect world to her dearest friend Laurie. It is the one time in the book where we see them again as of old, devoted to each other as sister and brother with a tender filial love. It made me wish there had been more interaction between the original characters of Little Women but the little men were at the heart of the story.

Fruits of her labors

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Jo and Laurie from the 1880 version of Little Women from Roberts BrothersJo is able to show Laurie just how her vision works, pointing to “the happy group of lads and lassies dancing, singing, and chattering together with every sign of kindly good fellowship.” It is a prelude to a world where grown-up men and women will be equals, benefiting from the differences of each sex. She puts Laurie’s doubts to rest about mixing boys and girls together in school by demonstrating how they have influenced each other:

Womanly influences

little men patty pans“Daisy is the domestic element, and they all feel the charm of her quiet, womanly ways. Nan is the restless, energetic, strong-minded one; they admire her courage, and give her a fair chance to work out her will, seeing that she has sympathy as well as strength, and the power to do much in their small world. Your Bess is the lady, full of natural refinement, grace, and beauty. She polishes them unconsciously, and fills her place as any lovely woman may, using her gentle influence to lift and hold them above the coarse, rough things of life, and keep them gentlemen in the best sense of the fine old word.”

Gentlemen in the making

The boys have done their fair share as well:

littlemen03“Nat does much for Daisy with his music; Dan can manage Nan better than any of us; and Demi teaches your Goldilocks so easily and well that Fritz calls them Roger Ascham and Lady Jane Grey. Dear me! if men and women would only trust, understand, and help one another as my children do, what a capital place the world would be!” and Mrs. Jo’s eyes grew absent, as if she was looking at a new and charming state of society in which people lived as happily and innocently as her flock at Plumfield.”

Progress made?

What would Jo/Louisa think of men and women today?  Would she be pleased at the progress made over the last one hundred and fifty years? I believe she would say it was a good start but there was still much work to be done.

The power behind the vision

The guiding factor of Jo’s and Fritz’ success was love – unconditional and generous love. There were many trials for the boys in the story and at times it looked as if some might be lost. The love of the Bhaers saw these boys through their adversity with patience, kindness, forgiveness and wisdom. The sweet waif Nat grew in six short months into a confident boy able to hold his own and excel at his gift of music. Troubled Dan grew into manhood, learning to trust, finding his own niche in life, and making good use of his boundless energy. Jack was accepted back into the fold despite his sins aware of the work ahead needed for his redemption.

Pleasing to her father

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord's production of Little Women.

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord’s production of Little Women.

Jo’s perfect world is simple, naïve and sweet and could easily be dismissed were it not for the endless power of love. It was all her father could hope for: “ ‘You are doing your best to help on the good time, my dear. Continue to believe in it, to work for it, and to prove its possibility by the success of her small experiment,’ said Mr. March, pausing as he passed to say an encouraging word, for the good man never lost his faith in humanity, and still hoped to see peace, good-will, and happiness reign upon the earth.”

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Thanksgiving memories from one of Abba Alcott’s best friends, and an interesting parallel with Little Men

Lydia_Maria_Child

Lydia Maria Child

One of Abigail Alcott’s best friends was author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. A successful children’s author in the mid 1800s, Child is best known for a poem about Thanksgiving, part of which is set to music:

Here is an image from her three volume book called Flowers for Children, of the first few stanzas:

lydia marie child thanksgiving 1844

You can read the entire poem here.

Didactic tales for children by Lydia Maria Child

juvenile miscellanyUndoubtedly the Alcott children had to have read Child’s works since the families were so friendly with each other. Flowers for Children, a collection of Child’s favorite stories and best known articles from her successful juvenile magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany, contain moralistic stories for children. Didactic tales for youngsters were the norm for the day and Louisa was influenced by them in her own writing for children.

Could this story have influenced Little Men?

christ child and the poor childrenIn reading the first story, “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children,” I was struck by the many similarities between this story and Little Men. “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” is the story of a group of very poor and disadvantaged children, some of whom are turning to crime. Heinrich and his little sister Gertrude come from a dysfunctional family where the father is a mean drunk and the mother taken to fits of insanity. Wolfgang is the neighborhood bully. We encounter the Christ-Child at Christmastime when Heinrich and Gertrude receive a rare gift of money; they purchase apples, nuts and green boughs to create a Christmas tree. Gertrude offers thanks to the Christ-Child for providing the means. Unfortunately, Wolfgang spoils everything by stealing the apples and nuts from the children.

The gift of money had been provided by an older man who runs a home for orphans with his wife. Eventually the three children become a part of that home, working at trades to earn their keep and contributing to the family home. Heinrich and Gertrude’s parents eventually join them. Wolfgang struggles with trying to resist his formerly evil ways and falls from grace on numerous occasions, only to be forgiven and taken back by the community. Eventually he reforms his life.

Interesting parallels

littlemen03I’m sure already you can see the similarities between this story and Little Men. For me,

  • Heinrich reminded me of Nat. Both are sensitive boys.
  • Gertrude resembled Bess in appearance but reminded me more of Daisy because of her eternal optimism and innocence.
  • I instantly thought of both Dan and Jack when introduced to Wolfgang: Dan because of Wolfgang’s physical build and willfulness and Jack because of what he did (he stole Tommy’s money and let Dan lie about it to protect Nat) and because of his contrition.
  • “Father” and “Mother” in the story instantly brought to mind Professor Bhaer and Mrs. Jo. The god-like quality of “Father” made me think of Bronson. Plumfield was not unlike this home for orphans.
  • The camaraderie of the poor children smacked of all the boys at Plumfield along with Daisy and Nan.

Undoubtedly, stories like “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” were a common part of the reading diet of the Alcott children. It just struck me as amusing that the very first story I pick up mirrors Little Men in so many ways.

Many of you are far more knowledgeable than I am about the
didactic literature of Louisa’s time, and the influences on and origins
of Little Men –
What other stories might have influenced Louisa May Alcott in her writing of juvenile tales (besides her own)?

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Little Men: “The Naughty Kitty-mouse:” Goodness Gracious!

 “Daisy and Demi were full of these whims, and lived in a world of their own, peopled with lovely or grotesque creatures, to whom they gave the queerest names, and with whom they played the queerest games. One of these nursery inventions was an invisible sprite called “The Naughty Kitty-mouse,” whom the children had believed in, feared, and served for a long time. They seldom spoke of it to any one else, kept their rites as private as possible; and, as they never tried to describe it even to themselves, this being had a vague mysterious charm very agreeable to Demi, who delighted in elves and goblins. A most whimsical and tyrannical imp was the Naughty Kitty-mouse, and Daisy found a fearful pleasure in its service, blindly obeying its most absurd demands, which were usually proclaimed from the lips of Demi, whose powers of invention were great. Rob and Teddy sometimes joined in these ceremonies, and considered them excellent fun, although they did not understand half that went on.”

Children’s rituals

Me and my clubhouse

Me and my clubhouse

This has to be the most bizarre game I have ever heard of! Children do love rituals and secret societies (and so do many adults). As a kid I stole the idea of a secret password for my clubhouse (actually a log cabin) from a favorite book, Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary It began, “Fadada fadada fadada, beeboom baboom bah!” So I get it about rituals.

But my goodness, this was one sadistic game!

Enter Kitty-mouse

kitty-mouse with fireIn Chapter 8, “Pranks and Plays,” Demi solemnly proposes to the other children that Kitty-mouse is demanding a “sackerryfice” of something near and dear to each child. Each one would bring their favorite toy to the meeting, held secretly on the Plumfield grounds, to throw into a bonfire as a sacrifice.

A tough idea to swallow

I winced at the thought of Daisy sacrificing her precious paper dolls, hand painted by her Aunt Amy. This was no mere toy; it was a gift that was a labor of love. Yet she couldn’t even imagine denying Kitty-mouse anything he desired.

And yikes: Demi was going to sacrifice his boat, his best scrapbook and all his soldiers?

I have to admit, I really couldn’t understand what drove the children to do these things.

A peculiar power

SacrificeBull-lKitty-mouse (such an odd name as if to signify the master and the victim) allows Demi to lord over the other children with power he would not normally have. Having heard stories about the Greeks with their altars and sacrifices, he was intrigued and wanted to emulate them. Watching Daisy clutch her paper dollies especially the favorite blue one, before succumbing to the orders of Kitty-mouse, was a bit disturbing.

Blood and thunder

Louisa seemed to take a special delight in describing the demise of little Teddy’s favorite toys:

“The superb success of this last offering excited Teddy to such a degree, that he first threw his lamb into the conflagration, and before it had time even to roast, he planted poor Annabella on the funeral pyre. Of course she did not like it, and expressed her anguish and resentment in a way that terrified her infant destroyer. Being covered with kid, she did not blaze, but did what was worse, she squirmed. First one leg curled up, then the other, in a very awful and lifelike manner; next she flung her arms over her head as if in great agony; her head itself turned on her shoulders, her glass eyes fell out, and with one final writhe of her whole body, she sank down a blackened mass on the ruins of the town. This unexpected demonstration startled every one and frightened Teddy half out of his little wits. He looked, then screamed and fled toward the house, roaring “Marmar” at the top of his voice.”

ep.gho.intro.05It seems that her “blood and thunder” storytelling talents were on full display here. I remember reading somewhere that Louisa’s ghost stories were in great demand by her sisters and other children, especially baby sister baby sister Abby May, who although frightened out of her wits, knew they would make make her golden hair curl all the more.

Jo never forgets her childhood

When Jo found out about the sacrifices to Kitty-mouse, she found the whole affair quite amusing. It’s no wonder the children loved her so as she still possessed a child’s heart within her.

Ouch!

She then relayed a story from her childhood of putting pebbles in her nose after hearing a story about other children who had done it (this is an actual story from Louisa’s childhood). It was quite painful and required a visit from the doctor to extract the pebbles. Jo certainly understood where a child’s imagination combined with daring do could lead. It just makes her all the more endearing.

What did you think of Kitty-mouse and the children’s “sackerryfices?” What rituals and games did you play as a child and could they rival this one?

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Eight Cousins and Little Men: The art of domesticity

I am finally getting around to finishing Eight Cousins. I admit this book has not held my interest like I hoped it would but now that I’m getting closer to the end, I’m enjoying it more. Perhaps I know too much back story (such as the fact that Louisa didn’t really enjoy writing this type of book). Perhaps I needed to read it when I was a kid. The book has a “formula” feel about it but it has its charming moments.

One of those moments occurred in the reading of Chapter 16, “Bread and Buttonholes.”

Giving value to domesticity

As much as Louisa held to feminist ideals, she never dismissed the importance of the family, the home and its care. In this chapter (as she also did in Little Men, Chapter 4, “Patty Pans”), she raises domesticity to a higher level.

A surprising choice . . .

eight cousins bread and buttonholesAs Chapter 16 opens, Rose approaches Uncle Alec with regards to finding a trade to learn. She has no special talent in the arts so she is seeking guidance as to what to learn. When Uncle Alec recommends “housekeeping,” Rose is surprised, asking “Is that an accomplishment?” I appreciated Uncle Alec’s response:

 “Yes; it is one of the most beautiful as well as useful of all the arts a woman can learn. Not so romantic, perhaps, as singing, painting, writing, or teaching, even; but one that makes many happy and comfortable, and home the sweetest place in the world. Yes, you may open your big eyes; but it is a fact that I had rather see you a good housekeeper than the greatest belle in the city. It need not interfere with any talent you may possess, but it is a necessary part of your training, and I hope that you will set about it at once, now that you are well and strong.”

. . . and an unexpected teacher

When Uncle Alec announces that Aunt Plenty will be her teacher, Rose offers the common perception of housewives:

“Is she accomplished?” began Rose in a wondering tone, for this great-aunt of hers had seemed the least cultivated of them all.

It is here that Louisa, ironically through Uncle Alec, lifts domesticity to a higher plane:

“In the good old-fashioned way she is very accomplished, and has made this house a happy home to us all, ever since we can remember. She is not elegant, but genuinely good, and so beloved and respected that there will be universal mourning for her when her place is empty. No one can fill it, for the solid, homely virtues of the dear soul have gone out of fashion, as I say, and nothing new can be half so satisfactory, to me at least.”

Rose’s achievement

Rose goes on to learn how to cook from Aunt Plenty with her crowning achievement being a perfect loaf of homemade bread for her uncle, made with great care and presented with love.

Appreciating the art of domesticity

chapter 16Having no natural talent in all things domestic, I envy those who have that talent. Matters of the home are often dismissed today (as it was beginning to be back in Louisa’s time) as lowly, commonplace, even demeaning: definitely not a worthy pursuit for today’s liberated woman.

Louisa, however, brings out the intrinsic value of housekeeping, that of creating a welcoming environment where all family members feel loved and cared for. She equates good housekeeping with love.

Family example

I only began to understand that very recently with my sister-in-law. Cynthia is an accomplished gourmet cook (in the school of Julia Child, her idle; she has a recipe card with Julia’s autograph, framed on her stove) and is also talented in knitting and crocheting. She always creates a theme for the meal, complete with music, and at a birthday get-together back in March we were treated to an authentic French dinner. After stuffing ourselves with nine pounds of mussels smothered in butter and crème sauce and other goodies, we sat back, allowing the inevitable food coma to engulf us. I leaned back in my chair, too sleepy to talk, and began to observe, for the first time, how much love Cynthia put into the preparations and presentation. When dessert of delicious chocolate-coffee mousse was served, she declined eating hers, declaring that she’d rather watch everyone else enjoy theirs. It was at that moment that I had my epiphany, understanding my sister-in-law for the first time. She lavished her love generously through her cooking. In that moment, domesticity became art to me.

Eight Cousins shows this too. Rose is proud of her loaf, made with such love for her dear uncle after much trial and error. Uncle Alec receives the loaf with true appreciation of the care that went into its making.

Make homemaking fun

little men patty pansIn Little Men, Louisa shows a different side to domesticity, making it fun for the one little girl at Plumfield. Daisy was feeling left out because the boys would not allow her to join in their football game even though she and Demi would play on occasion. She begged Aunty Jo for a new game (or “play,” as she called it) and Jo, inspired by Daisy’s interest in making gingersnaps with Asia, the cook, outfitted her with a complete toy kitchen!

Playing cook

kenner easy-bake ovenReading the description of the child-sized stove and dishes, I thought back wistfully to the fun so many girls my age had with the Kenner Easy-Bake Oven. What a thrill it was to bake our own cupcakes, tiny as they were, in our own ovens. And then there were the Girl Scout cooking badges you could earn by learning how to prepare meals for your family. Never being good at cooking, I didn’t learn much but it was a lot of fun.

A balance of ideas

Eight Cousins in particular offers many different ideas about raising a girl to be a good woman that were considered peculiar or even radical in Louisa’s day. Rose, after all, was taught never to wear a corset as it was better for her health, was encouraged to run, jump and be active outdoors, and was shown how her body worked as seen in Chapters 18 and 19, “Fashion and Physiology” and “Brother Bones.” Her great aunts often grumbled about Uncle Alec’s strange ideas of raising a girl.

Yet Louisa, career woman and spinster, never turned her back on the value of the family and home life. Kitchen duty may not have been her favorite thing to do, but she understood how all the pieces of domesticity worked together for the whole – a happy, well-loved and well cared-for family. In later years she would welcome her sister’s child, Lulu, into her home as her own.

Louisa presented a balanced view of a woman’s life, understanding that the many pieces could work together in harmony so long as the men in her life allowed it. Uncle Alec was one of those men.

P.S. I have just started Little Men and will write more about it over the coming weeks and months. I realize that the posts I do about Louisa’s books don’t always come in a consistent manner. I have however, gathered up and organized all the posts I’ve done so far on the books covered in this blog so that you can find them. Visit the menu at the top of the page, select “Her Writing,” and from the drop-down menu, choose the book you’re interested in to see all the posts.

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