Stefania Ciocia takes a look at Little Men

Home and away: Stefania Ciocia takes a look at the genesis of Alcott’s Little Men (1871) and its place in the March family saga.

“I am afraid I shall not write till I get home, for all I do is scribble odds and ends as notes, and dawdle round without an idea in my head. Alice says no one does anything in Italy, so after another six months of idleness, I may get back and go to work,” predicted Louisa May Alcott in a letter to her family from Vevey, on Lake Geneva, on – do bear this date in mind – 20 September 1870. The acclaimed author of Little Women (1868) had been travelling through Europe for four months, on what she hoped would be a year-long vacation with a dual remit, encompassing both her creative life and her familial responsibilities.

On the latter front, Alcott achieved what she’d set out to do: help her youngest sister May make the most of her stay in Europe, where she had been invited to join her friend Alice Bartlett – she of the cheeky remark about Italy – on the Grand Tour. May had made a condition of her going that Louisa should also travel with them; while Alice paid for May’s expenses, Louisa was on hand as self-appointed duenna and provider of further financial support for her sister, a talented painter keen to take in the artistic riches of the old continent.

Louisa understood that yearning; equally, she appreciated the importance of congenial society, for that was what she had lacked on her first trip to Europe, in 1865, as a companion to the invalid Anna Weld and her half-brother George. Back then, when she couldn’t have afforded the journey on her own, attending to “the Weld incumbrances” had been a disagreeable necessity.[1] Four years later, she would mine her memories of this experience abroad as inspiration for Amy March’s voyage through Europe in Good Wives (1869), Part Two of Little Women.

This second volume had confirmed the extraordinary popularity of the adventures of the March sisters, further catapulting its author into the literary stratosphere, notwithstanding her own reservations about the quality of her work. Alcott would continue to hold ambivalent feelings about writing for the audience who had decreed her success, noting in her diary – nearly a decade since her commercial triumph – that she was “tired of providing moral pap for the young.”[2]

She had an even more conflictual relationship with fame; besides the constant pressure to produce new material came the invasive demands of her adoring public. As early as 1869, she had to contend with encroachments on her privacy and the other pitfalls of celebrity culture: “People begin to come and stare at the Alcotts. Reporters haunt the place to look at the authoress, who dodges into the woods […] and won’t be even a very small lion.”[3]

Alcott thus seized on May’s entreaty that they should travel to Europe together as a chance for a break from prying eyes, as well as from “the [publishing] treadmill”, even though “requests from editors to write for their papers or magazines” followed her across the Atlantic. [4] She declined these offers but, in spite of her prediction to the contrary, she did pick up the pen before her return to the United States, and she did so in Italy of all places. At the time of her letter from Vevey, Alcott had been chomping at the bit to leave for the next stage of the journey, which had been delayed by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870.

Bizarrely, especially since Alcott had cut her teeth with Hospital Sketches (1863), a semi-autobiographical volume inspired by her service as a nurse during the American Civil War, the political and human dimension of the Franco-Prussian conflict hardly gets a mention in her journal, barring a reference to the arrival of French refugees in town. In her letters too, the war features primarily as an impediment to her plans. Alcott found Switzerland dull, and had her heart set on reaching Rome, May’s most coveted destination. “Little Raphael” would not be alone in finding inspiration in the eternal city; it is there that Louisa started writing again, spurred by two very different tragic events.

In December 1870, the Tiber burst its banks causing a catastrophic inundation; this natural disaster rounded off a very turbulent year for Rome. Only three months earlier, to be precise on – wait for it – 20 September, the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy had stormed the ancient Aurelian walls, conquering the city and freeing it from papal rule, thus completing the unification of the Kingdom of Italy. As we know, Alcott missed the “breach of Porta Pia”, which is memorialized in Italian toponomy in the presence of Via XX Settembre in every major city. She did, however, witness the flood, as well as the King’s fleeting, unofficial visit to bring relief to the population; she wrote about these historic events in a letter to an undisclosed recipient, most likely the editor of the Boston Evening Transcript, where it was published on 3 February 1871.

At the end of 1870 Alcott had other, more personal misfortunes on her mind: a matter of days before the river had brought destruction to Rome, she had read in a newspaper of the death of John Pratt, her brother-in-law and the model for John Brooke, Meg’s husband in Little Women. She had just hit her stride with the composition of Little Men when a letter from home confirmed that Pratt had died suddenly on 27 November.[5] She intensified her work on the manuscript, so “that John’s death may not leave A. [her eldest sister Anna] and the dear little boys in want.” True to character, Louisa stepped into the role of the absent pater familias, turning to the creative effort as a source both of financial security and of emotional solace: “In writing and thinking of the little lads, to whom I must be father now, I found comfort for my sorrow.”[6]

Little Men pays tribute to Pratt in the account of his fictional counterpart’s legacy to the younger generation; the chapter devoted to his untimely demise ends with his ten-year-old son relinquishing his childhood nickname in order to embrace his adult identity as his father’s heir: “Don’t call me Demi anymore. I am John Brooke now.” In fact, the whole volume can be read as a homage to another paternal role model, the towering male figure in Alcott’s life: her father Bronson, whose progressive educational principles inform the boys’ school set up by Jo March and Professor Bhaer.

Little Men, or Life at Plumfield does what it says in the subtitle, in that it is essentially a school story. It is also – no two ways about it – the weakest instalment in the tetralogy. There is only so much that Mother Bhaer’s “wilderness of boys” can do both plot-wise and in terms of psychological development, not least because they are generally younger than Jo and her sisters were at the beginning of the March family saga – witness John Brooke Jr.’s maturation above, which is more of a promise of things to come than the thing itself. Unlike its predecessors, this is not a coming-of-age novel; it’s Plumfield’s ‘character arc’ we are following, and not quite its pupils’.

Reprising the metaphor of the harvest, which had brought Part 2 of Little Women to a close, the final chapter of Little Men focuses on whether the Bhaers’ pedagogical experiment has yielded any fruits. The signs are promising, but we’ll have to wait until Jo’s Boys, and How They Turned Out (1886) to have a full measure of the success of this enterprise. By comparison, the cyclical structure from Christmas of absence and want to Christmas of togetherness and plenitude had provided an overarching narrative tightness already in Part 1 of Little Women to counterbalance Alcott’s tendency to write in self-contained sketches. In Little Men, this signature episodic style remains unchecked, and is accentuated by the presence of a large cast of characters.

Jo’s extended household comprises no fewer than twelve boys, a sizeable proportion of whom are biological family members: her own children Rob and Teddy, Professor Bhaer’s nephews Franz and Emil, and the above-mentioned Demi Brooke, whose twin-sister Daisy gets the total for this initial crop up to a baker’s dozen. The arrival of orphaned street musician Nat Blake allows Alcott to (re)introduce the whole bunch to her readers, who are thus neatly positioned as newcomers in need of familiarizing themselves with the unorthodox pedagogical ways of Plumfield.

The opening also revisits the tried-and-tested trope of the outsider looking in and yearning to belong. In Little Women that role had been Laurie’s, who still thinks of himself as the first of Jo’s boys. It is fitting that the young Mr. Lawrence should be making the case, and footing the bill, for Nat’s enrolment at Plumfield. Nat’s musical talent is another trait that endears him to his sponsor. I trust it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the protégé will follow in Laurie’s footstep by marrying into the family, having outperformed his benefactor in the pursuit of an artistic career.

Mind you, Laurie never needed to earn an honest crust, musically or otherwise. In Little Men, he comes into his own as a munificent patron of the arts, and of Jo’s worthy schemes. Not that we see a lot of him, or of the adult Marches. The focus is on their charges, whose sheer number does not leave room for anybody else, nor – in some cases – for much depth either. Several chapters suffer from Alcott’s ‘completist instinct’ and read a bit like lists: in one we are told about what everyone grows in their small plot of land; in another everyone gets to tell a story. I’m not sure we need these meticulous accounts of twelve or more variations on each individual theme, usually an exemplification of the Bhaers’ educational methods, but there you go. This is Alcott’s narrative method. Take it or leave it.

In case we hadn’t noticed, she is very upfront about it: “As there is no particular plan to this story, except to describe a few scenes in the life at Plumfield for the amusement of certain little persons, we will gently ramble along in this chapter [VIII, ‘Pranks and Plays’] and tell some of the pastimes of Mrs. Jo’s boys.” It’s worth pausing here to remember how radical this attention to the ordinary and the quotidian was, particularly in writing for children. Alcott’s young readers could see themselves in the pages of her books. And so the passage goes on to explain: “I beg leave to assure my honored readers that most of the incidents are taken from real life, and that the oddest are the truest; for no person, no matter how vivid an imagination he may have, can invent anything half so droll as the freaks and fancies that originate in the lively brains of little people.”

The one catalogue that is quite handy comes in Chapter II, where we get a brief description, one by one, of all the children at Plumfield at the time of Nat’s arrival, including the seven pupils not hailing from the extended March clan. Some of these characters are mono-dimensional and clearly there to make up the numbers. Alcott needs them – and needs the variety they represent in ages, abilities and aptitudes – to show that everybody deserves a chance and can flourish, if only they identify the right vocation and cultivate their talent. The wonderfully named Tommy Bangs stands out head-and-shoulder from this lot, as “the scapegrace of the school, and the most trying scapegrace who ever lived.” As for the rest, I challenge you to read the chapter for yourself and guess who makes the cut and who instead will be dispatched in Jo’s Boys.

Still, there is much to enjoy in Little Men. Loveable rogues like Tommy Bangs provide the richer narrative material, of course. Another five years, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will perfect the type in its eponymous protagonist and his companion Huck Finn. Like Alcott, Mark Twain is at pains to point out that the incidents in Tom Sawyer are drawn from life.[7] Children fight, get lost, get into scrapes. But while Twain portrays an almost exclusively masculine domain, Alcott mixes things up by exploring the potential of a co-educational approach, and by showing that traditionally feminine qualities do not always match the gender they are ascribed to: for example, Franz is “domestic”, Demi is not “a manly boy” (much to his father’s – and nobody else’s – chagrin), whereas Nat is “as docile and affectionate as a girl”, so that Professor Bhaer refers to him lovingly as “his ‘daughter’”.

Conversely, the girls’ games are full of violence and mayhem, as “poor Teddy” finds out at his expense, “for the excited ladies were apt to forget that he was not of the same stuff as their long-suffering dolls. Once he was shut into the closet for a dungeon, and forgotten by the girls, who ran off to some out-of-door game. Another time he was half-drowned in the bath-tub, playing be [sic] a ‘cunning little whale.’ And, worst of all, he was cut down just in time after being hung up for a robber.” None of the imagined scenarios pertain to the domestic sphere, contradicting the notion – entertained by Jo – that the girls would have a refining influence on the boys.[8]

In concocting a whole range of different personalities, Alcott doesn’t forget to nod to family resemblances; take the youngest female additions to the brood: Bess (a.k.a. Goldilocks or the Princess), Laurie and Amy’s daughter, is angelic and precious, while Josie, the Pratts’ new baby, promises to be unconventional as the aunt she’s named after. Or, to put it bluntly, Bess is an absolute bore in her nauseating perfection, a distillation of her parents’ graces without any of their redeeming qualities, and Josie one to keep an eye on. All will be revealed in Jo’s Boys. Sneak preview: while her sister Daisy has inherited Meg’s home-making streak, Josie takes after her mother in her passion for acting. Theatrical shenanigans are bound to ensue.

If you’re already familiar with Little Men, you’ll know that I’ve left out from the roll call the two characters with the greatest narrative impact: Dan and – the name itself’s a promise – Naughty Nan. With each of them, Alcott could have easily developed enough material for two separate spin-off series, and more’s the pity that she didn’t do so. Somebody ought to. It won’t be me (there’s a thought, though!). What I can offer instead is a spin-off blog post. Meanwhile, I hope the present one has done enough to pique your curiosity about the new generation of little men and women, and what they did next.

Quotations from Alcott’s letters and journals are from the following two volumes respectively:

The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987).

The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989).

[1] Letter to Abigail May Alcott, Geneva, June 29 1870, Selected Letters, p.139.

[2] ‘January, February 1877’, Journals, p. 204.

[3] ‘April 1869’, Journals, p. 171.

[4] Letter to Mr. Thomas Niles, Bex [Switzerland] August 7 1870, Selected Letters, p. 144. Alcott had written part one of Little Women in about two and a half months, between May and July 1868, only to gain speed (!) when Thomas Niles had asked for a sequel, which she started in November 1868 and dispatched to the publishers on 1 January 1869. This punishing schedule had left Alcott feeling “used up”, and in two minds about the wisdom of carrying on in this fashion: “Roberts wants a new book, but am afraid to get into a vortex lest I fall ill” (‘April 1869’, Journals, p. 171).

[5] Alcott’s already mentioned letter to an unknown recipient, containing sketches of the flood of Rome and the King’s visit, closes with this brief, personal section: “I hope the New Year opens well and prosperously with you. I was just getting well into my work on ‘L.M.,’ when sad news of dear ‘John Brooke’s’ death came to darken our Christmas and unsettle my mind. But I now have a motive for work stronger than before, and if the book can be written, it shall be, for the good of the two dear little men now left to my care, for long ago I promised to try and fill John’s place if they were left fatherless”, ‘Rome, December 29 1870, Selected Letters, p.158.

[6] ‘1871 – Rome’, Journals, p.177. The new novel opens with the following inscription: “To Freddy and Johnny, the Little Men to whom she owes some of the best and happiest hours of her life, this book is gratefully dedicated by their loving ‘Aunt Weedy’”.

[7] From the ‘Preface’ of Tom Sawyer: “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine.”

[8] The quoted paragraph begins: “No pen can describe the adventures of these ladies, for in one short afternoon their family was the scene of births, marriages, deaths, floods, earthquakes, tea-parties and balloon ascensions. […] Fits and fires were the pet afflictions, with a general massacre now and then by way of change.”

Image: Orchard House, Concord, Massachusetts, home of the Alcott family from 1858 to 1877. Credit: Brian Jannsen / Alamy Stock Photo