Recently, a poll on Twitter asked which book first inspired in you a love for reading. I thought immediately of Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This and other childhood books were my friends, their words my teachers, and their settings my travels. Even today, I see the connections between these books and my …
“…many people think boys are a nuisance, but that is because they don’t understand them. I do; and I never saw a boy yet whom I could not get on capitally with after I had once found the soft spot in his heart.” -Jo (March) Bhaer, Little Men, published 1870
Boys. Louisa May Alcott expressed over and over in her writing that boys held a special place in her heart and that she understood their restless, loud, active ways better than she understood the proper, quiet ways of girls.
When I was about seven or eight years old, my parents gave me an illustrated copy of Little Men (1965 Golden Press Classics). I didn’t know who Louisa May Alcott was or that the book had been written over 100 years ago or that it had been the sequel to another book.
A few years later, a friend placed my first copy of Little Women in my hands as a birthday present, and I was introduced to the younger Jo. Somewhere along the way, I connected the two books and realized that Josephine March was Mrs. Bhaer, the mother to the boys who lived at Plumfield. Jo March’s moody, restless, “topsy-turvy” weaknesses that she tried so hard to tame and manage, became strengths to boys who needed understanding, fun, and space to be a little wild now and then.
Original illustration by May Alcott 1869
I know, for I am now in my fifteenth year working at a home for boys. Somehow, I have come to live out my own version of Jo March’s life. We are technically a “residential facility for at-risk youth,” but that just sounds cold and institutional. In reality, we are a temporary home for boys needing discipline, guidance, training, and counseling.
Our boys are placed with us for various reasons, as described at the end of Little Women and the beginning of Little Men. Our founders even started the program with a nephew, just as Friedrich Bhaer took in his German nephews Franz and Emil. We have had boys who struggle with learning disabilities (like Nat), who are full of energy and live to be outdoors (like Tommy), and who long for complete independence (like Dan).
Just as at Plumfield, our residents are all unique and are encouraged to learn a trade or develop their talents, especially those they naturally possess, a basic Transcendentalist tenet the Alcotts embraced. Jo and Friedrich Bhaer could be real-life staff at our “school,” for we, too, grow gardens, teach our boys basic farming, and offer trade skills such as woodshop, welding, mechanics, and cooking. We feel the boys’ hurts, from sore throats to broken hearts.
As the English teacher, I have included Little Men in my curriculum for Middle School English. Every year I teach this book, my students each identify with a character. Once I had a student who proclaimed, “I am Tommy. I understand why he gets into so much trouble even though he doesn’t mean to!”
via Wikimedia Commons by The City of Boston Archives
Above is a school in Boston created in honor of Louisa May Alcott, apparently around 1910 or 1920, after her death. Hmmm….This plain structure with no flower gardens or spaces to roam or inspiration seems very far from the fictional Plumfield.
LMA may have had, in a loose sense of the term, a sort of day home for boys. They likely came to her often for a listening ear, a bit of nursing of cuts or bruises, advice about girls and future careers, and the many “projects” boys always seem to be planning. We know of a few of these boys from her journals and can only speculate how many are inserted in her stories as fictional characters.
It seems to have begun with Alcott’s mother Abigail Bronson Alcott. Anne Brown Adams (daughter of John Brown) came to live in Concord for a time after her father’s execution and boarded at the Alcotts’ home at Orchard House. She remembered that Mrs. Alcott thought it “the duty of every mother in the land to invite a few men to spend their evenings at their home and so fill them with rational amusements, that it would draw the young men away from bad places” (Shealy 8).
The family (the real-life Alcotts) with perhaps the fewest monetary resources in town became the hub of social life, promoting and leading activities such as plays, clubs, long skates on the river, and discussions about art and literature and God and life. Afterward, their guests might have shared in baskets of fresh, popped corn and crisp apples.
The real Louisa May Alcott
We see the March girls offering a refuge such as this for young Theodore Lawrence in Little Women, including the lonely boy next door in harmless, but creative, entertainments. He later acknowledges that they have, in a way, saved his life and put him on the right track in life: “You have all done more for me than I can ever thank you for, except by doing my best not to disappoint you” (349).
Many years earlier, Frederick Llewellyn Willis, who first became acquainted with the Alcott family in 1944, also boarded with the Alcotts (at Hillside). Having a more intimate knowledge of them, as he was a distant cousin by marriage, he hints that he was let into the close-knit family circle and allowed to see them as they were. This was before the family was famous. He recalls that Louisa was exactly as she described herself in the opening chapters of Little Women and “always lamented she was not born a boy” and “preferred boys’ games” (Alcott Memoirs 38).
A popular book of the late 1800s via Flickr
A decade later, in 1856, Alcott mentions being teased by “the boys…about being an authoress” (Life, Letters, and Journals 88). Still in her early twenties, the writer was clearly comfortable around males who were younger than she, probably only by eight or ten years. Surely many of these had crushes on the older girl with the dark expressive eyes.
During the Civil War, Alcott bravely nursed wounded men, dispensing medications, feeding, bathing, dressing wounds, and watching over the critically ill. I find this astonishing for a time period in which an unmarried woman would have felt too innocent or shy or proper to do such things. She also provided for the other, emotional, needs of the men, writing their letters to home, reading, listening to their struggles, plumping pillows, comforting amputees, and amusing all with her wit and sense of humor, as described in Hospital Sketches.
Civil War soldiers wait for meds in this drawing via Flickr
From that time on, it seems she thought of herself as a sort of mother or older sister to these and others (her journals are fraught with references to herself as the older matron), including Ladislas Wisniewski, the young man she met on her travels to Europe and whom she later marked as “Laurie” in her journals (179). In researching, it is quite telling just how many of those who knew her as young men believed themselves to be the true “Laurie.” They must have recognized episodes from their own lives in her fiction, but all felt special to her in some way or another.
It is ironic that the woman who so loved and understood boys is best known for her story of four young women. Yet, Laurie is central to the story, as each girl takes him under her wing and influences him in her own way. Is it not as much the story of a motherless boy who finds solace in a home, and are we not taken into that home just as he is?
Jo finds her life’s work in doing this sort of thing and, with Fritz, creates a “happy, home-like place for boys who need teaching, care, and kindness” (Little Women 351). She sees this first group of boys grow up, marry, and create homes of their own. She learns that not every single one will be famous or wealthy, but each one has been touched by his time at Plumfield.
Now and then I get a phone call and a thank you from a now-grown “boy” who is married and has children. I have one biological son, but many, many others I will never forget. Recently, I received the most touching message I have ever received from one of my own boys who has gone on to the next phase of his life. He is the “Nat” of my career, the one who is truly a selfless example to others. He wrote from his heart, ending with the words: “I am so grateful for the work that you put into what God has put in front of you.”
I believe I am doing what I do, in part, because Josephine March was such a strong influence upon me. The fictional home of Plumfield was likely a metaphor for Louisa May Alcott’s own homes (one need not think too long nor hard to see a connection between Plumfield and Orchard House) and the many lives that were touched by those who visited them. Although girls were her greatest fans, it was, no doubt, boys who knew the real Lou.
Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: James Redpath, 1863. Retrieved January 17, 2018 from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3837.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888. Print.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women: Part Second. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869. Print.
Cheney, Ednah D., ed. Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1898. Print.
Forbes, Edith Willis Linn. Alcott Memoirs: From the Journals of Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915. Print.
Shealy, Daniel, ed. Alcott in Her Own Time. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005. Print.