Louisa May Alcott often drew from the deep well of memories to craft her stories. Little Men is full of such detail and it’s fun to pick out these autobiographical elements.
Highlighting her father
For example, Louisa gives us a revealing portrait of her father’s unique ideas about disciplining children in Chapter Four, “Stepping-Stones,” where the new boy, Nat is struggling with telling the truth. On one occasion when he was caught in a lie, Professor Bhaer punished him in a most unique way, using the exact technique Bronson Alcott used at the Temple School as documented in Elizabeth Peabody’s Record of a School.
Professor Bhaer had warned Nat, “See now, when you tell a lie, I will not punish you, but you shall punish me.” Nat was horrified at the prospect, seeing that he would have to strike the Professor on his hand with a long ruler. He began with feeble blows but Professor Bhaer urged him to strike with all his might. Nat complied and suffered great penitence as a result:
Nat took the rule, for when Mr. Bhaer spoke in that tone everyone obeyed him, and, looking as scared and guilty as if about to stab his master, he gave two feeble blows on the broad hand held out to him. Then he stopped and looked up half-blind with tears, but Mr. Bhaer said steadily:
“Go on, and strike harder.”
As if seeing that it must be done, and eager to have the hard task soon over, Nat drew his sleeve across his eyes and gave two more quick hard strokes that reddened the hand, yet hurt the giver more.
“Isn’t that enough?” he asked in a breathless sort of tone.
“Two more,” was all the answer, and he gave them, hardly seeing where they fell, then threw the rule all across the room, and hugging the kind hand in both his own, laid his face down on it sobbing out in a passion of love, and shame, and penitence:
“I will remember! Oh! I will!”
Then Mr. Bhaer put an arm about him, and said in a tone as compassionate as it had just now been firm:
“I think you will. Ask the dear God to help you, and try to spare us both another scene like this.”
Louisa’s alter ego
In Chapter Seven, “Naughty Nan,” we meet Annie Harding, also known as Nan, a rambunctious tomboy just like the author in her youth. Louisa makes use of the nickname of her sister Anna for the girl’s nickname. Chapter Eleven, “Uncle Teddy,” features a scene straight out of Louisa’s memoir, “Recollections of My Childhood:”
Here Mrs. Jo’s remarks were cut short by the appearance of Nan tearing round the corner at a break-neck pace, driving a mettlesome team of four boys, and followed by Daisy trundling Bess in a wheelbarrow. Hat off, hair flying, whip cracking, and barrow bumping, up they came in a cloud of dust, looking as wild a set of little hoydens as one would wish to see.
“So, these are the model children, are they? It’s lucky I didn’t bring Mrs. Curtis out to see your school for the cultivation of morals and manners; she would never have recovered from the shock of this spectacle,” said Mr. Laurie, laughing at Mrs. Jo’s premature rejoicing over Nan’s improvement.
In real life, Louisa had been Nan, pretending to be a horse, racing around with a wheelbarrow carrying her sisters. One of Bronson’s distinguished friends, Margaret Fuller, had stopped by to see his “model children.”
Reigning in the tomboy
In Chapter Twelve, “Huckleberries,” Nan and Jo’s little son Rob become lost while picking huckleberries. Nan had boldly taken off from the group without telling the grownups where she and Rob were going. After a long search into the night they are finally found by Jo and Professor Bhaer. As punishment for running off, Jo ties Nan to a chair for the day. Louisa herself had run off in Boston, eager to show off her new green shoes. She was four at the time. In “Recollections of My Childhood,” she mentions how she was found:
On one occasion the town-crier found me fast asleep at nine o`clock at night, on a doorstop in Bedford Street, with my head pillowed on the curly breast of a big Newfoundland, who was with difficulty persuaded to release the weary little wanderer who had sobbed herself to sleep there.
Curing the wanderlust
Like Jo, her mother tied her to a chair to teach her not to run off again (Rob, upon seeing this, asked to be tied there with her). Louisa draws on memories to describe Nan’s reaction to that punishment:
For an hour they were very good, then they grew tired of one room, and longed to get out. Never had the hall seemed so inviting; even the little bedroom acquired a sudden interest, and they would gladly have gone in and played tent with the curtains of the best bed. The open windows drove them wild because they could not reach them; and the outer world seemed so beautiful, they wondered how they ever found the heart to say it was dull. Nan pined for a race round the lawn, and Rob remembered with dismay that he had not fed his dog that morning, and wondered what poor Pollux would do. They watched the clock, and Nan did some nice calculations in minutes and seconds, while Rob learned to tell all the hours between eight and one so well that he never forgot them. It was maddening to smell the dinner, to know that there was to be succotash and huckleberry pudding, and to feel that they would not be on the spot to secure good helps of both. When Mary Ann began to set the table, they nearly cut themselves in two trying to see what meat there was to be; and Nan offered to help her make the beds, if she would only see that she had “lots of sauce on her pudding.”
Jo had told Nan that such a punishment had “cured” her so undoubtedly it cured Louisa too.
Or did it? 🙂
Have you seen elements of Louisa’s life in Little Men? Tell us about it!
Part of the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge
This challenge is sponsored by Tarissa of the In the Bookcase blog.
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