Louisa May Alcott and Charles Follen, Transnationalism in Little Women

Niina Pekantytär

columbia pictures

Louisa May Alcott was born into New England´s transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism was an American religious-philosophical movement that was largely based on the transnational philosophy of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Transnational philosophy is based on the idea of a universal family and that all nations can learn and embrace one another. Transnational themes are very common in Louisa May Alcott´s works. For example in Little Women Amy, who is American marries Laurie, who is Italian-American, Meg is American she marries John, who originates from England, Jo marries Friedrich and he is from Germany. Little Women is not the only novel with transnational marriages, In Rose in Bloom, but a Chinese character also marries an American.

In Louisa May Alcott´s cosmopolitan circles the response to the global changes was not to privilege the near and familiar by excluding or demonizing the “other” but value “the other” and work towards connection. Louisa bypassed her own English-puritan inheritance entirely. Jo falls in love with a poor German philosopher, from an Anglo-American perspective such a choice has seemed bizarre but from a transnational perspective, it makes perfect sense (Walls).

public domain

The expedition of American scholars to Germany in 1815 eventually resulted in Harvard’s efforts to acquire a collection of German literature and to hire its first instructor of German, Charles Follen, in 1825. Historian Laura Dassow Walls has made extensive research on Charles Follen´s influences on Friedrich´s character. Charles was a good friend of Louisa´s uncle Samuel May. Everyone in Louisa´s circles knew the remarkable story of Charles (Karl) Follen. As a young man in Germany, he was the leader of Giessen Blacks — a radical student group and became an axe of revolution. He was hounded out from Germany to Switzerland where he became an honoured professor of law and philosophy. From there he fled to Paris and finally immigrated to America in 1824. Charles was known for his deep learning and unbending integrity, very much like Friedrich Bhaer. Same way as Fritz, Charles also spoke multiple languages (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian and German). Charles was drawn to ministry. Maybe this is why Jo´s and Friedrich´s youngest son Ted becomes a priest?

His full name was Karl Theodore Christian Friedrich Follen
(I rest my case)

Charles was a very liked man. He shared similar religious and educational ideas with unitarian preacher William Elley Channing and this was the birth of transcendentalism. Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, consulted him about German schools before founding his own school in Boston. Louisa met Charles when she was 8-years old. He was in fact, the first person who introduced the German Christmas tree tradition to Americans. As all Little Women fans know, Louisa loved Christmas, Little Women begins with Christmas. Charles had a gentle, sweet presence and self-deprecating humour. Same way as fellow transcendentalists, Charles was an abolitionist, and because of his views, he lost his professorship at Harvard and eventually his principles cost him his life.

Louisa´s knowledge about Charles most likely came from her uncle and biography that his wife Eliza wrote and published after her husband´s death. Friedrich´s speech at the symposium nearly reprises his speaking presence as reported by his contemporaries. Eliza describes the courtship and marriage of her and Charles. Louisa seems to have been impressed by both Eliza and Charles as people and their egalitarian relationship. Follen´s open up their homes to all, very much the same way as Marches and Jo and Friedrich.

If the German immigrants represented a generally stable, hardworking, religious addition to America, and the German writers suggested a glorious, independent, imaginative, if the somewhat dangerous element, the combination of the two strains in her work allows her to blend the practical and the romantic — to create characters who embody some of the best of both aspects of what “German” represented to her (Doyle)

Love and Romance in Little Women Video Essay

Comments / 0

Published by

Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN

More from Niina Pekantytär

Comments / 0